10 Innovations on the Battlefield Which Changed Warfare

10 Innovations on the Battlefield Which Changed Warfare

Larry Holzwarth - May 23, 2018

Wars throughout history have been notable for the development of new methods of killing the enemy more efficiently. Humanity has not managed to evolve to the point where war becomes unnecessary, instead it has evolved the manner in which it is fought. Weapons have been developed, used and discarded when other weapons superseded them. Stronger defenses led to the development of more offensive power. Near instantaneous communications via satellite are in place, though infantry still have to rely on hand signals in tactical situations. Nearly every war has been marked with the first use of some new technology, or a new adaptation of old technology.

The American Civil War is often cited as the first in which the telegraph, railroads, and observation balloons were used. It was not, though their use was extensive, and in some ways revolutionary. Not all innovations from the battlefield were for destruction of the enemy either, the use of ambulances to transport injured and wounded to hospitals is a wartime invention which later entered civilian life. Many innovations lasted for centuries. No one can say for certain when the horse first appeared on the battlefield, for example, but they were still being used by European armies during World War II.

10 Innovations on the Battlefield Which Changed Warfare
Railroad guns and the rails on which they operated were Union innovations during the Civil War. Wikimedia

There are ten examples of the first use of weapons and equipment in war, and how they evolved .

10 Innovations on the Battlefield Which Changed Warfare
The French Army deployed observation balloons during the Revolutionary wars in Europe in the late 1790s. Wikimedia

Aerial Observation Balloons.

The Montgolfier brothers of France were the first to successfully fly a hot air balloon, an event witnessed by Benjamin Franklin. The Montgolfier brothers didn’t understand the science involved, believing that it was the smoke which provided the lifting power, but it worked despite their error. Its military value was quickly recognized by the French Army, which formed the Aerostatic Corps in 1794, tasked with using hot air balloons to observe the actions of enemy forces and to create accurate maps of the battlefield for the use of the commanders on the ground. It was the first Army Air Corps.

On June 2 1794 a hot air balloon was used for military purposes for the first time, observing the disposition of the Austrian forces near Fleurus. Officers ascended in the balloon for three days, making observations and preparing maps. On June 26 the French Revolutionary Army fought the Austrians in the Battle of Fleurus. The balloon remained aloft throughout the fighting, communicating with troops on the ground through the use of semaphore signals. Some messages were written and simply tossed to the troops waiting below. In this manner the French commanders received updates of the movements of Austrian troops otherwise out of their sight.

After the battle, which was a significant victory for the French, participants in the fighting thought the balloon had been effective, but bureaucrats in Paris were doubtful. Nonetheless a second company of the Aerostatic Corps was formed to work with the Army of the North, and that company made ascents prior to and during the battle of Mainz. That battle was a French defeat from a surprise Austrian assault, but French leaders on the field managed to extricate their army skillfully, preventing a rout, and the balloon observations were again credited with helping them assess the situation on the battlefield. Further observations were made as the French advanced through what is now Germany.

A company of the Aerostatic Corps accompanied Napoleon, then known as General Bonaparte, on his expedition to Egypt, but was destroyed while still aboard ship during the Battle of the Nile. Later in 1799 Bonaparte disbanded the remnants of the corps. Napoleon III activated balloon companies against the Austrians in 1859, and they contributed to the French victory over the armies of Emperor Franz Josef in a war which helped speed the unification of Italy. The French deployed balloons against the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, including during the siege of Paris, which ended in another French defeat.

During the American Civil War observation balloons were used in the early years of the war by both sides, but by 1863 the Union balloon corps was dismissed. The Confederates never officially disbanded their balloon operations, but the lack of supplies caused by the Union blockade hampered their efforts. By the time Lee invaded Pennsylvania in 1863 the use of balloons on both sides was over, neither side deployed balloons for the remainder of the war. Both sides launched tethered observation balloons from the decks of ships, making the American Civil War the first in which a vessel used as an aircraft carrier was deployed.

10 Innovations on the Battlefield Which Changed Warfare
Gatling gun crew aboard the training vessel Enterprise circa 1895. Wikimedia

The Gatling Gun

The Gatling gun was not a true automatic weapon, though it was capable of maintaining a high rate of continuous fire while being cranked by its operator. It was viewed by the army hierarchy as a piece of artillery, and it resembled a small cannon in that it was mounted in a gun carriage when it was first deployed in combat, and it was about as heavy as a field cannon. The US Army did not officially deploy the Gatling gun during the Civil War. Several of the guns saw service when they were purchased privately by Union officers, a practice officially frowned on but tolerated by the War Department.

The US Department of the Navy was the first federal department to officially purchase the Gatling, installing eight of the weapons on river gunboats. The guns, purchased privately, were used by the Union Army in the trenches around Petersburg and Richmond at the end of the Overland Campaign in 1864. They then advanced with the Union army as it moved to cut off Lee’s retreat at Appomattox in Virginia. The army was impressed with the performance of the weapon and in 1866 authorized its purchase for use on the western plains. The Seventh Cavalry and other units were equipped with Gatling guns, though cavalry commanders such as Custer and Sheridan disdained using them as they slowed movement.

Custer’s failure to take Gatling guns with him to the Little Big Horn is often cited as contributing to his decisive defeat and death, but it is unlikely that they would have made much difference as far as his part of the attack. Gatling’s of the day were mounted similarly to artillery, and the rate of fire created a large cloud of smoke, impeding the vision of the operators, who were in an exposed position. In an assault, which was Custer’s plan of attack at the Little Big Horn, the guns would have been out of range, though they could have supported a defensive posture.

The Gatling was used to support the charge up Kettle Hill at the Battle of San Juan during the Spanish-American War. A little known fact of the battle is that three Gatling guns mounted on swivels were used to sweep the Spanish positions on the ridge, both suppressing return fire and knocking out several defensive positions. The Gatling guns managed a rate of fire on the hilltop of 700 rounds per minute per gun for over eight minutes while the Rough Riders climbed the hill, on foot despite their famous moniker. Despite this achievement, the Gatling gun was already in the process of being replaced as an infantry weapon.

The Gatling used multiple rotating barrels operated by a crank mechanism, which fell out of favor when the development of gas operated automatic weapons led to their introduction to the battlefield. In 1911 the US Army designated all of its arsenal of Gatling guns to be obsolete and removed them from service. The principle of the design later regained favor as airborne and shipboard weapons and several versions are in use today, including systems designed as defenses against cruise missile and unmanned aerial vehicles.

10 Innovations on the Battlefield Which Changed Warfare
A Kettering Bug undergoing evaluation and testing. Its technology was simple, but ingenious. USAF Museum

The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

Today they are called drones in the vernacular, and most people believe them to be a late twentieth century weapon. In fact the unmanned aerial vehicle designed to fly by itself to strike a target was first developed in World War I, and though it was not used in combat it demonstrated its ability to strike pre-selected targets accurately in several tests by its developers and the US Army. The weapon was built by the Dayton-Wright Aeronautical Company, designed by Charles F. Kettering, and used a guidance system developed by Elmer Sperry. Henry Ford produced the engines, guaranteeing the Army that they could be mass produced at a cost of $40, and Orville Wright worked on the project designing the wings.

The aircraft was called the Kettering Bug. Rather than a pilot it was designed to carry a bomb, which would detonate on impact. A revolution counter was installed that counted the engine rpms, which when a preset count was reached would initiate a fuel cut off switch, shutting down the motor. It also triggered a cam which retracted the bolt holding the wings to the fuselage, which simply dropped away and the Bug would plummet to the ground. A gyroscope based guidance system ensured the Bug remained on course until it reached its target, and the operators calculated wind speed as part of the proper revolutions computation.

The Bug was designed to be launched from a sled-like system using a dolley and pulley arrangement, which the Wright brothers had used in the development of the Wright Flyer. Once airborne, an altimeter steadied the aircraft at a preset altitude and the vehicle could reach speeds of up to fifty miles an hour while carrying a bomb of up to 180 pounds. The entire cost of the airplane was just over $400. Officially known as the Kettering Aerial Torpedo, the first version built used a pilot rather than carrying a bomb, and flew near Dayton, Ohio in October 1918

Many of the Army veterans of World War I were leery of the idea of unmanned bombs flying over their heads in any war of the future, unimpressed with the technology of the device. Bombing from aircraft manned by pilots was to them a much more reliable and for the ground troops safer means of delivering bombs to the enemy. Though more than forty Bugs were delivered to the Army before the war ended none were deployed, and the Army continued development following the war, with the entire program being kept highly classified. The Army finally canceled the program when depleted budgets led to cutbacks in spending in the 1920s.

The Bug remained classified until the 1940s, though no further work was done on its development, at least not officially. But the concept of the unmanned aerial vehicle remained, and is present today in remote controlled and preprogrammed drones and cruise missiles. They are of course far advanced from the papier-mache and cardboard technology of the Kettering Bug, but it nonetheless was the first attempt by a military to create a self-guided flying bomb. The next would be the V-1 flying bomb developed by the Germans during World War II.

10 Innovations on the Battlefield Which Changed Warfare
CSS Manassas was the first ironclad to see action in the Civil War, many months before the famous duel between Monitor and Virginia. British Library

The Armored Ship

The Civil War ironclad CSS Virginia, formerly the USS Merrimack was not the first ironclad warship as is so often and wrongly believed. Nor was its nemesis USS Monitor. The first ironclad warship in the world was the French battleship Gloire, launched in 1859. That action prompted the British to begin building ironclad ships, and in early 1861 the British Admiralty decided to become an all iron hulled and steam driven Navy, which would make all wooden hulled navies in the world obsolete. The United States Navy was also in the planning stages for ironclads when the Confederates captured the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

Virginia was not even the first ironclad in the Confederate Navy, nor the first to see combat. Those distinctions belong to CSS Manassas. Manassas was a former steam powered ice breaker captured by a Confederate privateer and converted to an ironclad ram in Algiers, Louisiana. The ship had a rounded superstructure, giving it an appearance resembling a turtle, which helped deflect shots which struck its iron plates. In October 1861 Manassas became the first ironclad warship in the world to engage in combat when it rammed USS Richmond. damaging both vessels, neither fatally. Manassas later was involved in the actions at Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip.

When CSS Virginia appeared the US Navy was not surprised by the Confederate ironclad, as some believe, its construction from the hull of USS Merrimack had been monitored by Union spies. USS Monitor was known to be on its way from Brooklyn, where it was built. In fact, had it not been for Monitor’s commanding officer’s mishandling of the ship in heavy seas on its voyage from Brooklyn, the ship would have arrived in Hampton Roads before Virginia’s initial sortie from its lair in the Elizabeth River, and the famous first battle between ironclad warships would have occurred a day earlier. As it was, Monitor arrived in the evening after Virginia had wreaked havoc on the Union blockade on March 8, 1862.

When Virginia returned to Hampton Roads the following day, it was the Confederates who were surprised, for there had never been seen before on a naval vessel what Monitor presented – a steam powered rotating turret (though the British had experimented with a prototype). Monitor could present its guns in any direction, without having to change the direction of the ship’s heading, a first in naval warfare. As Virginia approached the two ships pounded each other in what was undoubtedly a loud engagement, but a mostly ineffective one. Neither ship could do much damage to the other. After Monitor was forced to retire for repairs Virginia withdrew up the Elizabeth River.

Twice more, on April 11 and on May 8, 1862, CSS Virginia and USS Monitor exchanged shots at each other from long range, but neither ship forced another lengthy engagement. Monitor’s main purpose was the defense of the wooden hulled blockading squadron, not the destruction of the more heavily armed Confederate ironclad. The battle between them changed naval design and strategy, not because of their iron sides, but because of Monitor’s turret. The US Navy built another sixty ships along the general design of USS Monitor, which was lost at sea on the night of December 31, 1862.

10 Innovations on the Battlefield Which Changed Warfare
The British built a railroad to support their siege of Sevastopol, which lasted more than eleven months. Wikimedia


The first time railroads were used as a weapon of war was in the Crimean War. Before the Crimean War the Russians had less than 700 miles of rail roads throughout the country. After the war Russia embarked on an extensive rail building plan, having learned the lessons taught by the British Army and engineers. It was a lesson learned the hard way. During the war the main target of the British and their French and Ottoman allies was the capture of the Russian naval base on the Black Sea at Sevastopol. After several bloody battles including at Balaclava and Alma the attack on Sevastopol settled into a lengthy siege.

The British need to supply their guns and men on the plateau outside the city from their main base at Balaclava and there were no railroads in the area. So they built one. In three weeks. After receiving the necessary equipment the British built a railroad of about eight miles to provide supplies to the men besieging the city. These supplies included heavy siege guns and ammunition, food for men, fodder for horses, medical supplies, and replacements for wounded men who were evacuated by train. Meanwhile the Russians defending the city were forced to rely on a single supply road which ran north where it connected with main roads in Ukraine.

The Russian dependence on the supply road led to the Battle of Inkerman, which was a bloody stalemate, and the besieged Russians continued to have difficulties resupplying their troops in the embattled city. Ironically, the materials to build a supply railroad had been delivered to Sevastopol prior to the conflict but the Russian military leaders had taken no action to construct a military rail road because they didn’t know how. There were no engineers with the Russians who had any experience in laying track. In the early days of the war some of the iron rails were seized by the Russian Navy.

The Russians used the rails and other iron plate to cover the wooden sides of their ships to protect them from exploding shells. Soon British and French vessels followed suit. This led some to claim that the Crimean War was the first in which ironclad ships engaged in battle, but the ships were simply wooden sided ships covered with a temporary iron plate. The iron was too heavy for the ships to move with sails alone. Ships which were not equipped with steam engines needed to shed the protective iron in order to move. Reliable explosive shells could destroy any wooden ship with a single hit, which would click engulf the vessel with flames.

The rapid movement of troops in response to a fluid tactical situation, or to create one, was not a feature of the railroads during the Crimean War, largely because there weren’t any in most of the regions where the major fighting occurred. But it was the first time railroads were used to support troops in combat. After the war major efforts to expand Russia’s rail network were undertaken, so that by the beginning of the 1880s there were more than 14,000 miles of track in use in the Russian Empire. Sixty years later, when the Germans invaded Russia in Operation Barbarossa, there were more than 100,000 miles of track in Russia.

10 Innovations on the Battlefield Which Changed Warfare
The telegraph gave Lincoln near instantaneous communication with his generals in the field, much to the chagrin of many of them. Library of Congress

The Telegraph

The telegraph was first used in the Crimean War, but its use as a means of command and control was truly born in the American Civil War. Reports of battles and the movements of the increasingly large armies of the Union were monitored by Abraham Lincoln, who frequently visited the War Department to read the messages as they came in, and directed many of the responses. Cavalry from both sides often targeted telegraph lines to disrupt communications, and to listen to the messages being sent to and from enemy commanders. The telegraph communication systems were built as the war went on, when it began most communications were still via messengers.

When the South seceded there was no telegraph in the War Department. Nor were there telegraphs for the most part in the headquarters in the field. As Union and Confederate Armies concentrated in Northern Virginia, Andrew Carnegie – yes that Andrew Carnegie – built a rail and telegraph line from the War Department towards the front, but it was still ten miles short of the Union lines when the first battle of Manassas was fought in 1861. Messengers from the front carried information to the end of the line where it was transmitted to the War Department and into the hands of the President.

The telegraph allowed Lincoln to monitor the positioning and movements of the troops through the reports, and he in many instances sent orders directly to his commanders. When it became evident that Lee was invading the North in 1863, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Joseph Hooker, telegraphed that the movement of Lee’s troops offered an opportunity to take Richmond, the Confederate capital. Lincoln responded that Hooker’s goal should be the destruction of Lee’s army, rather than the capture of the Confederate city. When Hooker subsequently followed Lee’s army too slowly for Lincoln, the President fired him and replaced him with George Meade just before Gettysburg.

The telegraph also changed the way the war was reported by the correspondents from the newspapers and periodicals that traveled with the armies and wired back stories of the battles, in many instances as they were taking place. Readers in New York or Philadelphia could follow the Union Army as it battered its way towards Richmond, and telegraphed reports of the trench warfare around Petersburg and Richmond were daily occurrences in the newspapers. Many reporters were granted access to the US Military Telegraph Corps facilities in order to file stories early in the war, a practice discouraged by both Lincoln and Grant.

The US Military Telegraph Corps built the lines which followed the troops as they advanced. The subsidiary Telegraph Construction Corps built over 15,000 miles of wires over land, buried, and submerged across rivers and streams. Cipher codes were developed and implemented as the war went on, and codes were often changed. It was the US Military Telegraph Corps – who were civilians other than the most senior leaders – that rebuilt the telegraph system in the South, which was almost completely destroyed by the end of the war. After the war the system built by the Military Telegraph Corps was sold to private telegraph companies in the North and South, one of which was Western Union.

10 Innovations on the Battlefield Which Changed Warfare
French surgeon Dominique Jean Larrey developed the modern sequence of recovering, treating, and evacuated wounded troops during the Napoleonic wars. Wikimedia

Medics on the Battlefield.

It is often claimed that the practice of sending medics and battlefield ambulances forward with the troops was an innovation of the American Civil War. This is untrue, though there were innovations in the field of caring for the wounded during that war. An organized medical unit was an innovation of the French Army during the wars of the Revolution, developed by a French surgeon named Dominique Jean Larrey. Larrey was a classically trained surgeon who accompanied the French armies during the War of the First Coalition. During the Battle of Mainz he observed the speed with which French artillery caissons and carriages could be moved around the battlefield, and suggested that they be used for the purpose of transporting wounded men from the battlefield to field hospitals to be set up behind the lines, but as near to the fighting as was reasonably safe.

Larrey established a standard crew for what he called his flying ambulances including trained emergency medical specialists and stretcher bearers. His plans were demonstrated at the battle of Metz in 1793, and they proved to be so successful that the French government called for new ambulances to be built, designed specifically for the purpose. At his field hospitals he established written rules of triage, which determined the order in which casualties were treated based on need, rather than rank. He insisted that the field hospitals be as mobile as possible, and that the arriving wounded be triaged by trained medical personnel.

Larrey eventually became Chief Surgeon of Napoleon’s armies, and his medical units were a distinct part of each of the Corps’ of the French Armies. He was wounded in Egypt at the Battle of Acre, sent back to France, and continued his work. A favorite of the Emperor, he took part in the disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. He was present at the Battle of Waterloo, where Wellington took note of his work with approval, but the Prussians who captured him wanted to summarily execute him. Spared through the intervention of Marshal Blucher, he returned to France, and after the end of the Napoleonic Wars concentrated on medical writing.

Larrey also insisted that the wounded men of the enemy be given the same quality of care as those of France and its allies, and that they be considered during triage as if they were members of the French Army. Army life being as it was and is, how often these admonitions were followed in actual battle conditions is impossible to determine. The likelihood of a wounded French Colonel waiting while an injured Austrian or Russian soldier was treated was probably slim. Other nation’s adopted some or all of Larrey’s innovations as time went on, depending on their own resources and national attitudes towards caring for the wounded.

In the American Civil War Surgeon and Major Jonathan Letterman created a similar system in the early years of the conflict. It was first used following the Battle of Antietam in 1862 where Letterman established forward aid stations connected by ambulances to field hospitals. The actual ability to treat many wounds had not changed much since the time of Napoleon, and one of the most common treatments for wounds involving shatteres bones was amputation. Confederate wounded encountered on the battlefield were also treated. After the battle of Gettysburg more than 6,000 Confederate wounded were treated by Union medics and surgeons.

10 Innovations on the Battlefield Which Changed Warfare
Lt. Col. George S. Patton poses before his French Renault FT in the summer of 1918. US Army


The mechanized armored weapons platform now known as a tank made its first appearance on a battlefield during the Battle of the Somme on September 15, 1916. Several British infantrymen who witnessed their attack reported the Germans were terrified by the huge machines. Probably some were, but the machines were likely equally frightening to the men crewing them. They could advance at a speed about equal to walking. Their interiors, in which eight men were required to operate the vehicle and the guns, were filled with the toxic fumes from the engines and the huge amount of fuel that they carried.

The crews wore metal masks with louvered goggles and chain mail to protect them from splinters. They also carried gas masks as did all troops on the front at the time. Of the 32 tanks which launched the attack only 9 made it to their assigned positions following the assault. It was an inauspicious beginning for a weapon which later became a feared part of ground warfare. The British ordered more of the weapons and suggested improvements based on the attack at the Somme. Meanwhile the French continued in the development of their own designs, while complaining that the British attack had been premature.

Although the tank is a thoroughly Army vehicle, its development in England was championed by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Churchill called the vehicles “landships” and their development was funded by Admiralty money after the Army expressed little interest. The tank was an example of a weapon being developed to overcome a specific defense, the trench warfare supported by automatic weapons and barbed wired dictated the need to create a means of breaking through. The fact that the tank could only move at about a walking pace was not considered a fault since it was meant to advance with supporting infantry.

The first French tanks were poorly designed for crossing trenches, a short caterpillar track base combined with much of the vehicle protruding ahead of the tracks. This led to many of the French tanks becoming stuck in the trenches they had tried to cross. Another design, from the French automaker Renault, was the first to resemble the modern tank, with a turret above the body of the vehicle. The Renault FT was the most produced tank of the First World War, over 3,700 were built, and it was the tank assigned to the American units when they arrived in 1917. George Patton used one of the Renault tanks on the Western Front once the AEF was in the fight.

The Germans deployed few tanks in the war, Allied tanks were mostly used to clear barriers and support advancing infantry. One tank the Germans did deploy was the A7V, a monster that carried a crew of 18, eight machine guns, and a cannon. The Germans only managed to complete 20 of the machines before the war ended. There were few tank-to-tank battles during war, due to the paucity of enemy tanks to attack. After the war many British generals considered the tank to have been a temporary expedient based on the situation in the trenches, and that they would have little future in warfare. The French and the Germans though continued to develop tanks, and tank tactics, between the wars.

10 Innovations on the Battlefield Which Changed Warfare
The British Army discontinued the use of the Ferguson Rifle many months before the death of its inventor, Major Patrick Ferguson, at the Battle of King’s Mountain. National Park Service

Breech loading rifles

Although breech loading firearms of several types were known as far back as the fourteenth century, the first known use on a battlefield by troops armed with rifles loaded through the breech was at the battle of Brandywine, during the American Revolutionary war. A British regiment deployed about 200 of the expensive and somewhat unreliable Ferguson Rifle, designed by British Major Patrick Ferguson, who was wounded in the battle. The rifle’s presence on the battlefield was short lived, at least as far as the British Army was concerned, due to its rapid fouling from gunpowder residue clogging the breech,

Ferguson’s unit at Brandywine was an experimental rifle corps which he formed by selecting light infantrymen from other units of the British Army under Sir William Howe. After Ferguson was wounded in the battle the unit was dispersed and the Ferguson rifle was withdrawn from service. Although the rifle had performed well enough in combat, it was complicated, difficult to clean, and if not maintained properly it quickly became unserviceable. None of these attributes boded well for its success in the rank and file of the British Army of the day. After recovering Ferguson returned to action and was later killed leading loyalist troops at the Battle of King’s Mountain.

It took the development of cleaner burning propellants and a modern style cartridge to make the breech loading rifle a true battlefield weapon. Many of these improvements in cartridge design and manufacture were the result of research by French gunsmiths. During the American Civil War at least 19 different types of breech loading weapons were used on both sides. The Henry rifle of the Civil War used a tube magazine beneath the barrel to feed cartridges into the chamber. The Spencer rifle was fed via a detachable tube loaded magazine, with a lever operated bolt. All of the breech loaders of the Civil War improved fire power and rate of fire, and the American Civil War was the last to be fought primarily with muzzle loading weapons.

Rifles on the battlefield changed the way war was fought, though it took some time before the generals commanding the troops realized they needed to change tactics. The massive casualties suffered by all sides in the early days of the First World War, with men marching straight ahead into fire from automatic weapons and repeating rifles, was the result of 1914 generals trying to use 1814 tactics. Much of the trench warfare which marked World War I was based on the generals’ inability to come to terms with the need to change the manner in which troops were sent forward, as they learned to do by using cover, supported by mechanized vehicles and eventually air power.

The rifle remains the primary weapon of the infantryman and marines in all of the world’s armed services today, and the infantry remains the primary fighting force. They are the “boots on the ground” ultimately tasked with taking and retaining control of real estate in war. For the foreseeable future the rifle is likely to remain in their hands, though now fully automatic and possessing rates of fire which rival the machine guns of earlier wars. The most produced rifle in history, if all of its variants are considered in the count, is the Kalashnikov AK-47, one of the widest distributed firearms of all time.

10 Innovations on the Battlefield Which Changed Warfare
Helmets and protective clothing, an idea as old as warfare itself, is part of the modern battlefield. US Army

Body Armor

Body armor for soldiers in the battlefield originated in ancient times. It is described in the wars of the Israelites in the Old Testament. It was worn by Goliath and by Saul. The Greek’s and Macedonians wore body armor, as did the ancient Romans, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Aztecs, and Chinese. Armor was made of metal alloys, chains, leather, reeds, and wood. It was often supplemented with shields. The Romans developed a tactic whereby several soldiers moved forward protected from the front by the raised shields of the front ranks, and from above by the upraised shields of the other ranks. It was called a phalanx.

The crusaders advanced dressed in armor and their opposing enemies protected themselves accordingly. It was during the Middle Ages when peasant soldiers began to be mustered with no armor at all, and gradually the practice of shielding a soldier with personal armor came to an end. By the time of the French and Indian War in North America, a small shield of throat armor was part of the formal address of an officer, George Washington’s portrait from that time features him wearing one. Even the heavy cavalry of the armies of Napoleon and the vaunted Hussars of later wars wore body armor, though it was largely symbolic.

Then the use of armor vanished. Bullets fired from increasingly high muzzle velocity weapons rendered it useless. Armor increased in vehicles and vanished from soldiers. During the American Civil War the use of a helmet was non-existent, they were replaced by slouch hats, kepi caps, or nothing at all. The same was true in the armies of Europe, although many cavalry units retained helmets as a part of their full dress uniform, but not for use in combat. By 1914 the helmet had returned, but the use of body armor was non-existent.

Beginning around the time of the Vietnam War it returned. Body armor in the form of flak jackets were issued for the use of combat infantry. Flak jackets were originally developed by England’s Wilkinson Sword Company to protect RAF pilots from German anti-aircraft fire which was called flak. Over the years since, improvements in materials such as Kevlar and others led to improvements in the protection of infantrymen from shrapnel, and from bullets fired from a moderate distance by the enemy. Helmet’s became more efficient and offered greater protection despite weighing less than the steel pot helmets of earlier generations.

Today body armor has returned for troops placed in harm’s way, lighter and cooler than that worn by ancient soldiers, but immeasurably more effective in saving lives and reducing casualties. The body armor is backed up with clothing designed not to burn. The manner of protecting soldiers from wounds to the head and torso continues to be studied and improved. Just as the battlefield itself as evolved, so has the warrior which appears upon it, his or her weapons and protection the results of the experiences of millions of soldiers on battlefields of the past.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Les Savants de Bonaparte” by Robert Sole, 1998 (in French)

“The Great Industries of the United States”, by Horace Greeley and Leon Case, 1872

“Ford’s Forgotten Aviation Legacy”, by C. V. Glines, Aviation History Magazine, May 2008

“The Black Battlefleet”, by Admiral G. A. Ballard, 1980

“Lincoln in the Telegraph Office: Recollections of the United States Telegraph Office during the Civil War”, by David H. Bates, 1907

“Baron Dominique Jean Larrey, Napoleon’s Surgeon”, by C. W. Bodemer, Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons, July 1982

“World War One: The tank’s secret origins”, by Greig Watson, BBC News, February 24, 2014

“A History of Firearms”, by W.Y. Carman, 2004

“Body Armor History: A history of soft body armor from medieval times to modern times”, by John E. Pike, Global Security, July 2011, online