Could a soldier in WWI or WWII be given effective body armor with the technology of the time?

Something I idly thought about. I know practical bullet proof vests are a relatively recent invention, at least in terms of something that you could issue to entire militaries, and even the ones soldiers use are limited in various ways, but if you had the resources, could you give a single soldier a bullet proof vest that would protect him from most infantry weapons of the war (so figure .30 calibre rifles of various flavors)? Ballistic nylon might not have been available back then (I dunno), but could they make ceramic or possibly concrete plates that would stop a bullet without stopping the soldier by being too heavy?

For purposes of bullet proof, let’s say the vest will stop at least a bullet. Repeated shots are a bonus, but let’s say stopping one bullet is still far better than what his old gear would have done.

I recall reading that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand wore a silk bulletproof vest (but the bullet slipped past an unarmored portion of him). Would such a vest have done anything against a rifle round if Franz were leading the troops on the battlefield?

Nylon was unavailable, as was a general staff officer leading troops on to the front.
Trench raiders, of all nations, but particularly the German stormtroops and the Italians, had an extensive range of positively mediaeval helmetry and body armour ( and even pikes ) both given and home-made.

As always with armour, the drawback is decreased mobility and fatigue. In trench warfare, conditions were even more wet and mud-filled than a mediaeval field after 40 days and 40 nights of rain: since soldiers in both world wars were prone to taking off regulation helmets against orders on the easy gamble that the next billet wouldn’t blow their heads off, any official mandatory wearing of an iron vest would have been useless.

I believe that kevlar was invented during WWII, so there’s that.

Proof against a battle rifle? Nope. We can’t even do that today. Kevlar is great against pistol ammo, but .303, .30-06 and 8mm rounds will plow through it like it wasn’t there. Even practical ceramic plates can’t stop a straight-on shot from a rifle.

During WWII, the RAF & then the US Army Air Force & Navy had flak jackets.

But “ultimately they proved to be less effective than hoped.”

There is this one case of a medic, shot by an Iraqui sniper at less than 100 yds and his vest stopped the bullet.

I’m pretty sure the vest has ceramic plates so not pure Kevlar but still pretty impressive.

AFAICT, that wasn’t a straight-on shot at all. Armor is vastly more effective against angled shots.

It’s a cool story, though.

I have no doubt we could have made an armor that protected against pistol and SMG fire, but it would not be effective against rifles and machine guns.

There were these. Not exactly great for running in.


The ceramic SAPI-type plates, used within a personal armor system like the Interceptor vest, are specified to stop three (3) 7.62 NATO bullets. The vest, by itself, won’t stop large rifle rounds like 7.62 or 5.56 NATO at all. I do not know if the plates are specified to stop armor-piercing bullets with steel cores, or just generic FMJ. Other plates may not be as effective. The always entertaining Box O’ Truth penetrated at least one plate with 5.56 when experimenting with 3 stacked plates & vests. The bullet did not make it through all three, however.

My suspicion is that the vests are wildly effective and are responsible for the very low casualty rate from bullets among U.S. forces, especially considering their heavy operational tempo. I am curious whether casualty rates would have been much less in Vietnam if U.S. troops had these types of personal armor available; I suspect, given the hazards of that particular war, they would’ve been. I have read—no warranties on accuracy—that the vests are so good that current CQB doctrine dictates presenting the front of the chest to receive fire if need be, rather than blading away from the threat. Of course, getting behind cover is best of all, but sometimes that’s just not possible.

IIRC, WW1 snipers or observers were sometimes given very large, heavy suits of armor, that were somewhat bullet resistant, as seen in this exhibit at the Illinois National Guard’s Museum. I’ve no idea of its effectiveness. The following digitized book from 1920,Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare, will probably be of interest.

SAPI-type ceramics are a very recent invention, however. Not something you could cobble up back in the day, no matter how much money you spent. So they don’t help the OP much. They do extend my bank of knowledge on the subject, however. I wasn’t aware of the change in doctrine, if that is indeed the case.