Vietnam-era flak vests did not weigh 25 pounds

In an earlier post today on the recent body armor debate, I used the oft-quoted figure of “25 pounds” for the Vietnam-era flak vests. A commenter on the post points out that Vietnam-era flak vests did not weigh anywhere close to that.

Some quick Googling reveals that the body armor used in Vietnam weighed in at 9 or 10 pounds. According to Olive-Drab:

  • The M-1952 Fragmentation Protective Body Armor, developed during the Korean War, was the most common body armor issued to US Army troops and weighed in at about 10 pounds.
  • The M-1955 USMC Armored Vest, used by the Corps in Vietnam, also weighed about 10 pounds.
  • The M-1969 Fragmentation Protective Body Armor, the Army’s replacement for the M-1952, weighed about 8.5 pounds.

As you can see, none of these approach the 25 pound figure usually included in stories on body armor. Somehow this figure has become ingrained in the minds of many, and while researching this post I came across a 2003 Washington Post story on MSNBC.com that used it. The article, Body armor saves U.S. lives in Iraq, was about the great performance and the acute shortage of the Interceptor Body Vest and ceramic plate inserts during the first year of the campaign in Iraq.


To make the matter even more curious, it was made again today in a release by the American Forces Press Service, Army Continues Changing, Improving Body Armor. The release quotes an Air Force Museum as the source of the figure.

Where did this number come from? Well, while looking around I noticed these figures:

  • Ranger Body Armor (RBA) weighs about 8 pounds. With the ceramic upgrade plate, it weighs about 16 pounds.
  • The Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops Vest (PASGT-V) weighs about 9 pounds, and when combined with the Interim Small Arms Protective Overvest (ISAPO), the weight is about 25 pounds.

Both of these systems were introduced in the 1990s. So it appears that it isn’t the Vietnam-era armor, but the 1990-era armor that the current “Interceptor” Outer Tactical Vest (OTV) and Small Arms Protective Insert (SAPI) are comparable to.

One last note about the Vietnam-era armor. It’s nearly legendary how often the armor was left behind due to its weight. One has to wonder what, despite the greatly enhanced protection, those soldiers would have thought of the 25 pound armor of the 1990s and 2000s.

–cross-posted at Defense Tech

Comments

  1. The 25 lbs weight sounds about right for a flak suite. People are just referring to the wrong war. WWII flak suit weights M-1 18 lb 2 oz vest protecting front & back of torso M-2 9 lb vest covering the chest M-3 4 lb 12 oz added to other armor to protect lower body M-4 7 lb 8 oz protecting all frontal areas

  2. It’s not just the weight – it’s the heat. Kevlar (fiberglass) is a great insulator and does not breathe at all. It is the equivalent of wearing many layers of your warmest winter clothing as a vest. It wouldn’t be so bad during a winter campaign in Siberia. In Vietnam and Iraq, it was/is nearly unbearable. Vietnam was more of a Light Infantry war than Iraq. A foot patrol in the mountains on hot humid days would make it tough to wear the armor. The problem is that you would need to carry a lot more water due to heat build-up, adding even more weight. On a long patrol, you would also need to carry more food for all that extra exertion. I read Colin Powell’s book. He patrolled with native troops and convinced them to have the point man wear a vest. They would switch off being on point to not tire out one soldier wearing that vest. It did save several of their lives. The 1st Gulf War was intentionally fought in January and February to take advantage of the mild winter weather there. The chemical warfare suits we had to wear at times are even worse. MOPP level 4 can save a soldier from chemical attacks and kill him with heat stroke if he’s not careful. Future body armor development needs to concentrate on reducing weight and improving ventilation as well as ballistic protection. We will need some weight reduction to make up for the heavier rifles we’ll need to penetrate the opposition’s body armor.

  3. Thats why the roman armor was as well liked by the troops that wore it. Underneath they wore a shirt to keep the armor from chafing and leave airspace for airflow. The segmented plates allowed more airflow which in turn allowed the soldiers to wear thier armor almost all the time. From some of the history I recall, they only times they took it off was to bathe.

  4. During Infantry School – July and August in North Carolina – we wore the armor the same way. Taking it off only to bathe and during the rare nights we actually slept indoors.

  5. Murdoc, Your point about body armor often being left behind by troops in Vietnam is not only legendary, but documentable. Ewell and Hunt make the point explicitly in their DoA Vietnam Studies book, Sharpening the Combat Edge, (available in full text at http://www.army.mil/cmh/books/Vietnam/Sharpen/). On p. 90, under ‘Load of the Soldier,’ they write: ‘It was apparent that an infantryman in the delta mud and heat suffered terribly from both heat and fatigue. The flak jacket was a primary cause. After analyzing wound data and flak jacket saves, we determined we were not saving many casualties by their use and, as a result, made the wearing of flak jackets optional. Some experts felt that the gain in mobility paid off in better results with few consequent casualties although this was never clearly established. Even in heavily booby-trapped areas, one could get by with using jackets on lead men only. By rotating lead men, the fatigue element could be held down. We did not direct the abandonment of flak jackets, however, as some people derived considerable psychological assurance from them.’ This book, by the way, is worth close attention for more reasons than I have space to list here.

  6. All the previous commentators are right about the heat problem with wearing body armor. After only 15 days at Fort Polk, LA, my entire company, who had to wear the PASGT jacket 24/7 developed fungal skin problems from having sweaty, sodden, filthy clothing always next to our skin. The heat from wearing the flak jackets and kevlar helmet was nearly unbearable. We moved slowly, and were constanly miserable from the equipment that was designed to protect us. I can see why soldiers in Vietnam took turns wearing the flak vest–they’re awful, and don’t breathe. It’s like wearing a 10 pound plastic bag on your torso!