Although the two World Wars of the Twentieth Century are viewed as modern wars, it is stunning to consider that many of the soldiers who fought in these conflicts went into battle wearing armor plating that resembled the chest plates that had been worn centuries earlier by medieval knights.
During World War 1, elite German, Russian and British combatants, such as sappers or “trench-raiders,” were provided with specially designed armor that was fitted over the torso to provide an enhanced measure of protection against shrapnel and bullets. The armor also edged an advantage in hand-to-hand combat, when knives or clubs were used. Although it was not very effective against firearms encountered at close range, the plating offered a greater level of protection and had a positive influence on the morale of the troops to whom they were issued.
During World War II, the idea of body armor seemed obsolete and impractical, given the advanced nature of firearms. Nevertheless, the Red Army developed a limited number of steel bibs (Stalnoi Nagrudnik) which consisted of two pressed steel plates that covered the torso and groin areas. The plates were 2mm thick and weighed about 3.5 kg. They were issued primarily to the Red Army’s assault engineers, whose members were nicknamed “Armored Infantry.” Soviet brigades that defused land mines also wore the armor. Soldiers found the armor to be very restrictive in the field, noting that it was very difficult to crawl while wearing the cumbersome plating.
This example of a World War II-issued Russian breastplate was recovered from an Eastern Front battlefield. The armor exhibits distinct evidence of severe shrapnel damage. It is likely that the resultant wounds would have proved fatal to the wearer.
The steel breastplates were first issued in 1942. The steel bibs were designed to protect against bayonet attacks, small fragments of shrapnel, and 9mm pistol bullets with lead cores. The platting even provided protection against fire from a German MP-38/40 submachine gun from distances of 100–150m, and a single shot rounds from a 7.92×57mm Mauser rifle, on the condition that the bullet struck on a tangent rather than a direct strike. Following the adoption of enhanced 9mm bullets by the German Army, the thickness of the breastplates was increased to 2.6 mm for the chest plate late in the war.
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