Body Armour

I'm a big fan of science fiction. I love it. However, there are a few little things that often bug me that for most people, are irrelevant.

Here I will discuss one of the oft-overlooked aspects of sci-fi combat: body armour.

To start with, let's have a look at an easily recognizable sample: the Storm Trooper from Star Wars (referred to as SW from here on).

Stormtroopers on parade

I don't know when or where George Lucas came up with the idea of the body armour, but there are a few things to keep in mind. First, it's for a movie, so there are certain cinematic aspects that will be more important than the science. Second, there's a script involved, so the armour needs to behave in a manner as dictated by the story. And third, it's a prop. Nobody is going to wear it into actual combat nor will the actors and extras need to be running over obstacle courses with it.

Having said that, there are some very basic functions that body armour should perform:

Obviously there are some limitations in just what can be achieved on-screen, especially if one is considering the first film. However, there is a key scene in SW:ANH which serves to illustrate just how effective the armour is.

When Han, Chewie and Luke go to rescue Princess Leia from the prison section of the Death Star they first must go through the administrative section of the prison. Here we see both officers in regular, cloth uniforms and Storm Troopers in their armour.

The three heroes come in carrying basic hand weapons, attempt to bluff their way in and when that fails, open fire. What happens? Both the officers and Storm Troopers die with one shot. In other words, if the Imperial troops have the choice of wearing normal clothes or wearing their top-of-the-line body armour, they may as well wear the clothes since the armour increases their combat effectiveness by zero.

One could argue that the armour is primarily designed for crowd control, were the armour would protect the trooper from unarmed, rowdy civilians; except for two things.

First: this is armour for front-line troops as clearly shown by their use in almost every SW film. Most clearly this is demonstrated in SW:AOTC with the invasion of Geonosis. Although not battle-hardened, there is no standing army or even a militia, meaning these guys get the short end of the stick.

Second: in SW:ROTJ the Storm Troopers get their asses handed to them by the Ewoks. Some little, cuddly teddy bears half their size throwing sticks and rocks at them. Hardly the best type of armour for your front line troops.

Combat Effectiveness: a 0 in 1 chance of survival. You get shot, you die.

So what other types of armour are out there?

I like the armour used by the Colonial Marines in the Aliens movie.

Colonial Marines in Aliens

It's fairly light, provides a modicum of protection and is fairly effective against the expected opponents. Keep in mind that in the film, the Marines were not expecting to be going up against Geiger's nightmare creatures from hell.

What I like about this armour is not so much it's on-screen effectiveness, but it's on-set effectiveness. James Cameron mentions in the extras on the DVD [2] that there was an earlier version of their armour and he asked Bill Paxton (who plays Pvt. Hudson), when he put on the armour for the first time during rehearsal (or costume tryouts) to throw himself against the wall. Which Bill did so with gusto and promptly broke the armour. Cameron then asked the prop / wardrobe department to re-design the armour so that it would hold up during the somewhat strenuous scenes that would be filmed later.

That's what armour should be like on a movie set. Tough. If you had done the same thing in the original plastic Storm Trooper armour, it would shatter, or at least be damaged.

Well, let's move genres and have a look at Warhammer 40K, from those good folks at Games Workshop.

Imperial Guard from Warhammer 40K

For humans, the majority of troops (in the Imperium) wear flack armour, or if they are lucky they might get Carapace armour [3]. This is essentially the same as today's bulletproof vests that SWAT and Special Ops would use, only made from newer, harder to pronounce materials.

This stuff isn't great, but it does have a 1 in 6 chance of surviving a given shot, depending on what is shooting at them. If we are talking about opposing troops firing back at them with the same type of weapon that they are using, then the 20% chance holds true [4].

Since these are not that much different from today and don't represent any great foray into the realm of science fiction, let's go to the next step up: the Space Marine.

Space Marines

Space Marines wear the highly recognizable Power Armour. It has its distinctive giant shoulder pads (because the shoulders are the most vulnerable body part), the giant shin guards and shoes (for giving really nasty kicks) and a shiny, highly polished codpiece (for protecting your valuable equipment).

Power Armour gets it's name from the fact that it is, well, powered. The armour has built-in actuators and motors to boost the physical strength of the trooper. From my own experience of going up against these chaps in battle, I can tell you that they are fairly difficult to kill. These hard boys come with a 3+ save, which means that every shot at them has a worse than 50/50 chance of doing anything whatsoever!

Combat effectiveness: a 2 in 3 chance of survival, and some pretty funky equipment available.

Of course, the next step up from these guys in the WH40K universe is the ever-popular but highly expensive Terminator Tactical Dreadnought Armour.

Space Wolves Terminators

This is the stuff you want wrapped around you when you go into battle. It is also powered, comes with loads of optional extras and even lets you do your best Arnold "I'll be back" Schwarzenegger impression by running around with a mini-gun in one hand (far left in above image). These chaps are dead hard (as can be seen in the computer game Dawn of War) and in the table top version of the game give the lucky wearer 3+ save on two dice, not to mention being really intimidating.

Combat Effectiveness: 11 in 12 chance of survival, unless shot at by a really powerful weapon. [5]

Warhammer 40K Dreadnought

The next step up from that is internment in a Dreadnought, but that's more like using a walking tank for a coffin of an almost-mortally wounded trooper. That's not body armour, that's fitting a human brain into self-propelled killing machine.

But there is also a big drawback to solid external armour: the crush factor. What is the crush factor I hear you ask? Well, think about it this way. What happens if you put your arm in a solid tube? You can't bend it. But if you put two tubes over your arm, with a hinge at the elbow then you'll be able to bend it. However, the section where the two tubes meet on the inside of the bend (your inside elbow) will be most uncomfortable because of the edges of the tubes digging in.

Now, instead of an arm, put a tube on each leg. There's something kinda delicate hanging there which is in the way (every guy reading this just winced). That's the crush factor. And that's why you'll never see a Space Marine with his knees together. (Go ahead, scroll up and have a look if you haven't already. Go to Google and search for "Space Marine" or go to the Games Workshop site. Bet you can't find any marines with their knees together! Except this guy, and he's funny for all the wrong reasons...)

Schlock Mercenary in print

My personal favorite type of body armour is that worn by Tagon's Toughs in the online webcomic Schlock Mercenary written by Howard Tayler. (Which you can also buy in print version! Click on the image to have a look)

The Toughs use Fullerene Personal Combat Armour and it seems to make them nigh on indestructible. Not quite, but it comes pretty close. It gives protection from the elements, gas and other toxins, provides the ability to fly over short ranges and is basically a fabric.

That's right: fabric! It is flexible, light, comes in a variety of designer-friendly colours and best of all, can be worn under clothing. Perfect for those moments when you weren't expecting to need it. In the image on the left you can see two of the main characters wearing black pants and blue and orange tops respectively. A helmet also deploys automatically out of the collar.

Combat Effectiveness: difficult to assess. However, I would say that it would be on par with the Terminator Tactical Dreadnought Armour, around 11 in 12 survival.

Kevyn being regrown

However, it should be noted that 'survive' has a much wider range in Howard's comic than in real life. A person can pretty much loose everything from the neck down and still be considered 'alive'. Spending time as a head in a jar is not unheard of, and several members of the regular cast have spent time having their body totally re-grown.

In summary, I find that the body armour used needs to tread carefully between being actually useful and being plot convenient. You don't want your hero to find all their shots bouncing off the enemy; but you don't want to go to the other extreme and have them able to gun down everything in sight without taking a scratch.

Unless your name is George. Then it's okay apparently.


[1] A Storm Trooper's helmet has a whole suite of stuff to help the trooper see better, co-ordinate with other troops and ignore little problems like nerve gas. Source: Star Wars Visual Dictionary page 37, ISBN 0-7513-7081-9
[2] Aliens Quadrilogy Boxed set. Aliens Special Features DVD, "Making of" segment.
[3] WH40K Codex Army lists, originally supplied with game in 1993. Some upgrades have been done recently with new Army Books available. Information regards to Imperial Guard, front line troops.
[4] Within the game system. A save is decided by rolling a dice. A roll of '6' means they get to live, any of the other five numbers is a fail and the Commissar needs to write a letter to the widow.
[5] You need to take into account that the reason for such tough armour is because there are so many high-powered weapons and mobile combat platforms in the game. If you put a marine in Terminator armour up against, say, a Titan (imagine a building that can run faster than your car, has loads of guns and a trigger-happy crew) then the Titan won't even bother slowing down to wipe the Terminator off the bottom of its feet.

Storm Troopers copyright George Lucas and 20th Century Fox Studios
Colonial Marines from Aliens, copyight James Cameron and 20th Century Fox Studios
Imperial Guard, Space Marines, Terminators and Dreadnought all copyright Games Workshop
Schlock Mercenery and associated characters copyright The Tayler Corporation LLC

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