November 29, 2021

Silk Body Armor: Fact or Fiction?

Soft body armor has been made from all kinds of fibers both natural and man-made since it was first introduced way back when.

Our modern soft body armor, sometimes called bulletproof vests, are typically made from aramid family synthetic fibers, Twaron and Kevlar being two of the most popular.

Utra-high molecular weight polyethylene as popularized by Dyneema was also a fairly common choice until an improved version of that fiber was introduced in 2013, cementing it as the go-to material for high-end, lightweight body armor.

Synthetic fibers have been around for a while, but before the industrial revolution we had to make do with natural fibers of all kinds. The very earliest kinds of body armor were simply animal skins, leather, layered or woven together to provide a little bit of impact resistance, and also protection against slashing or piercing.

But there was another kind of fiber that might surprise you that has been used in body armor since before even the invention of proper firearms: silk.

It is hard to believe that something as soft and supple as silk is going to have any use in the manufacture of armor.

There are some people that actually propose that silk is a good material to keep on hand or to harvest since you can use it, they assert, to create your own DIY soft body armor.

Is this true? Is there any historical precedent for silk as a ballistically protective material? We will find out in today’s article!

Soft Armor History, Design and Function

Soft body armor has been around a long time, at least as long as the medieval era, and possibly in use as far back as ancient Rome when they still ruled much of Earth.

While it might seem counterintuitive to use something soft to protect your body from something hard and sharp, the science is sound, and was at least understood as a functional component of armor even way back then.

At its simplest, fabrics that are stacked up provide resistance to things that are trying to cut and penetrate them and protect the wearer by forcing the attacking weapon to penetrate more material until it reaches the flesh beneath.

Tougher fabrics do a better job of this. The more fabric that is stacked on top of itself and the denser the weave the harder a time something will have penetrating the armor and the more force it will spread out when something impacts it.

Soft body armor works against bullets by slowing and hopefully deforming the soft lead of the projectile, with the interlocked and interwoven fibers working together to spread out and slow the bullet.

This effect increases as the bullet deforms or mushrooms, and the net slowing effect is increased proportional to the increased frontal surface area of the bullet.

This principle was generally understood with some of the earliest bullet-resistant vests, first properly appearing in the United States in the late 19th century.

While body armor that could resist and defeat bullets was an item of interest to nations all around the world with the advent of firearms and their proliferation across all battlefields, bullet-resistant armor was still exclusively the domain of hard, plate armor until those first soft vests and jackets came along.

The United States Congress even started to pay serious attention to the development of soft armor after President William McKinley was assassinated in the year 1901.

At that time, there were prototype and limited production bullet-resistant vests that made extensive use of silk, even then recognized for its unique properties and strength, that could effectively stop low-velocity handgun projectiles, those that would travel under 450 feet per second, approximately.

Unfortunately, this innovation came a little too late.

Is Silk Effective Against Bullets?

Historically, yes, to a degree, so long as the garment made from silk was correctly constructed and had silk of a dense enough weave arranged correctly and thickly enough.

But as you are probably expecting there was a definite catch.

As history had already shown, gun technology and the armor to defeat the bullets it fired had been locked in an arms race for centuries already.

Even as those early bullet-resistant garments were being rolled out new ammunition was being introduced on to the market simultaneously that produced velocities in excess of 625 feet per second, a level of performance that would sail right through most early soft armor, or only be minimally impeded by it.

Armor of this type was not entirely unheard of, being in fairly common use among the wealthy who could afford it, as well as VIPs, heads of state and other important movers and shakers, but the relative fragility and great expense of silk meant that it never saw widespread use.

With the onset of World War I, the use of silk and body armor dropped off precipitously, and stayed that way: the arms race that both preceded and survived that mother of all conflicts meant that silk was in no way capable of defeating increasingly deadly and high-velocity bullets.

How About Knives and Spikes? Will Silk Stop Them?

No, not really and it never really would. Even early bullet-resistant vests and jackets made from silk and other fabrics that could be more or less reliably counted on to defeat the low velocity handgun projectiles of their day were still very little protection against a knife or a spike.

As a general rule, soft armor that is effective against bullets will not be effective against blades and spikes, although it is certainly better than facing them with your bare skin. Conversely, armor that is effective against knives and spikes is really effective against bullets.

Most modern stab- and shank-resistant vests are made of extremely dense synthetic fibers lined with hard plates or liners to defeat cutting implements, essentially a solid panel that is not particularly flexible.

Any hard armor package will provide at least sound protection against spikes and slashing weapons, but that is not the subject of this article.

So What About Making My Own Silk Armor?

Well, to answer that question I guess we’ll need to address the lore first. The notion that our modern synthetic fibers can be constructed and arranged in such a way that they are bullet resistant or even completely bulletproof against certain ballistic threats is no secret and is well understood by now.

The popular idea that silk can be used in a DIY capacity to produce armor of similar efficacy originates from these proven concepts. Unfortunately, they are woefully misguided, and liable to get you killed if you try.

Before I go any further, it is possible to craft homemade armor that can offer you at least a modicum of ballistic protection if you know what you are doing.

But it should go without saying that choosing to wear any homemade armor made from any material when you’re facing a ballistic threat is a very risky endeavor and should never be undertaken lightly, and only done in the gravest extreme.

There are two basic ideas about using silk to craft DIY soft body armor. The first is if you take enough high-quality silk panels, quilt them together over and over and over again, and you’ll eventually have a thick yet flexible panel of soft body armor.

The theoretical champions of this style of armor will often claim that is good against smaller caliber handguns, typically 9mm and under, or good against lead handgun bullets of all calibers so long as they aren’t jacketed or some such nonsense.

After you have your primary armor panel all that is necessary then is to stitch it inside a jacket or other garment in succession and you’ll have full wrap-around protection.

Ultimately some people craft simple straps and a cummerbund for this solution or wear it akin to a modern day plate carrier or vest.

The other solution you will commonly hear touted combines silk sheets with modern two-part resins to form a sort of composite panel. This idea, though scarcely better than the first one, at least has a grain of truth to it, since resins are commonly used in a variety of armor applications.

The idea is that one can create a sort of sandwiched matrix using the silk and resin, by first placing a sheet of silk flat inside a jig or a kind of mold before slathering it with the prepared resin and then adding another sheet of silk, repeating the procedure until the desired thickness is reached before clamping the whole thing together using a press or some other contraption.

Occasionally it is suggested that the resulting “sandwich” armor panel be baked at a low temperature for a prescribed period of time.

This will result in a panel that is at least nominally tougher than the one made from undoctored silk, but it is still not up to the task of defeating most projectiles except perhaps ones with very low mass and comparatively low velocity.

As one would expect this type of panel is now completely hard and rigid and will have to be fitted into a plate carrier type of arrangement in order to be worn.

The Straight Answer

Is DIY silk body armor a viable choice for ballistic protection? No. No, not in any way, shape, form or fashion. Don’t even try it.

There are too many variables to control, too much work to do and no way to effectively test such a garment against modern threats repeatedly to establish a baseline. Common silk is beyond obsolete for use in body armor.

I’m sure there will be someone out there who is all too eager to point out their sample-size-of-one, backyard workshop experiment they did that successfully stopped a shot from their “Glock 40” or whatever, but this is hardly data that anyone can use to bet their life on.

Modern guns and ammunition are extremely effective and body armor has had to come a long, long way to offer even modest but consistent protection across a handful of threat profiles. Even today, the most advanced personal body armor can be defeated by a handful of rounds and rendered useless.

This of course does not even address the preponderance of cartridges that are inherently capable of defeating all types of soft body armor and purpose-made armor-piercing projectiles.

In short, there is no rifle projectile that would have even a chance of being stopped by your homebrew silk body armor in either iteration.

Modern handgun projectiles will not have a much more difficult time either, though there is a non-zero chance that small and comparatively slow calibers like .22 LR, .25 ACP and .32 S&W could be significantly resisted or even defeated. I’m not going to be the one to find out.

The time you would spend tinkering with either of the commonly proposed DIY silk body armor solutions would be better spent picking up cans or bottles to turn in to fill up your piggy bank and save for a real set of body armor.

A Real Option for Home-Brew, Hasty Improvised Armor?

Believe it or not there is one option for constructing a set of armor that will at least significantly impede bullets that strike it, and depending on your hobbies you might have the materials you need in great abundance already in your own home.

I’m referring to composite armor made from dense ceramic tiles and good old-fashioned books.

This innovative recipe was popularized recently with the publication of Clint Emerson’s “100 Deadly Skills” book, but it has its roots going farther back than that publication, as interesting as it is, and is occasionally seen in active conflict zones around the world when people are desperate to do anything to improve their chances of surviving being shot.

The idea is simple as are the materials. You need to harvest ceramic tiles, books at least an inch thick and preferably hard cover, and duct tape. Lots and lots of duct tape.

All you’ll then do is take the books, making sure they are approximately uniform in thickness across the strike face, and build them up until they are at least an inch thick and preferably thicker.

Yes this is going to be grossly cumbersome, but you weren’t buying a top-of-the-line off-the-shelf body armor package here.

Next, all you will do is place the ceramic tile on the outer surface of the book and then wrap the whole shebang with tape so it is securely affixed. That is one armor package, and you can make more, layering or staggering them to create a complete panel.

Next all you have to do is create a carrier out of duct tape and a simple cummerbund that will hold this improvised armor package over your torso and your vital organs. That’s it!

Again, do not expect this armor to perform anywhere near modern, factory made body armor. While the principle of using a very hard strike face backed up with softer, dense fibers is sound and in line with modern body armor theory, ceramic bathroom tiles aren’t a state of the art ceramic strike face, and books sure as hell aren’t Dyneema.

But you should take heart from the fact the rounds near the middle of the pack, especially handgun rounds, that impact that hard ceramic tile will likely be deformed or deflected, and books are fairly infamous for their knack at stopping bullets all on their own, and a bookcase full of books makes a great cover point inside the home.

If I was going to take my chance with homemade armor, and I am not, I would be going with the ceramic tile and book composite package over any variation of silk armor.

But Wait! Silk is Making a Comeback!

As it turns out silk may get the last laugh when it comes to body armor. Talk about making a comeback, just not in the form you are probably anticipating!

We’ve been told for years just how strong spider silk is by mass and diameter compared to almost any other material. Only the best modern synthetic fibers can rival it.

Spider silk and derivative products have been subject of interest for textile manufacturers for a long time, and quite a bit of military funding has been diverted into researching its applications in body armor production.

Unfortunately, using spider silk on an industrial scale is something of a non-starter: most spiders that produce silk in abundance are territorial, and that means you cannot put a bunch of them together in the same place and farm their silk because they will turn on each other and fight to the death.

So much for that idea. But recent developments in bioengineering have seen scientists inject specific genes into common silkworms so they produce spider silk instead of silkworm silk. Genius, and definitely not how a horror movie starts…

The result of this trespass against nature means that spider silk may yet become a viable competitor to modern synthetic fibers like Kevlar. Spider silk is not quite all-that, however, as Kevlar is still stronger by around 33%.

But the big advantage spider silk has over Kevlar is that it is drastically more elastic; Kevlar barely is. This means that unique applications or enhancements of existing armor technology could be possible using spider silk.

We are certainly living in an era of tremendous scientific and technological advancement and refinement, so we will just have to wait and see what the future of soft body armor has in store for us with or without spider silk involved.

Conclusion

Silk has been used historically in body armor, but has long since been obsolete, rendered useless by the march of progress and arms and ammunition as well as the advent of synthetic fibers that completely blow silk out of the water in terms of protective capability.

The old prepper tale of using silk to create DIY body armor is mostly the stuff of fantasy, and you should not attempt it even if you’re completely desperate for ballistic protection. There are other, better options in such a scenario.

Silk may yet make a comeback in the body armor industry thanks to advancements in spider silk harvesting, but we are only now seeing the rise of that technology after more than a decade of constant research.

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