Army Funds Research to Develop Fish Scale Body Armor

Body-Armor-600x400A research team at MIT funded by the U.S. Army has developed a flexible armor using fish scales as inspiration, according to a study published by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Produced by a 3-D printer, the material is a scale design that offers both flexibility and protection. The finished product is still in development and much more complex, but put simply, the outer layers are rigid and the under layers are more flexible and adaptive to the body.

The U.S. Army Research Office is the agency funding work done by the MIT mechanical engineer Stephan Rudykh. The famous engineering university has the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies on campus.

Army leaders have pushed for advances in materials to protect soldier as the service looks to lighten the load of soldiers. The Army has made strides to make body armor more form fitting, but this scale design would yield a major breakthrough in terms of comfort and weight.

Researchers found that the material increased the penetration protection capability by a factor of 40 while reducing the flexibility factory by only 5.

It gets complicated, but check out the results of the study here.


  • Lance

    So we may return to medieval pattern style armor!

    • Jim P

      Scale armor was around long before the middle ages. Think Greeks and Romans.

      • Riceball

        That and scale armor was never really used during the middle ages, at least not by Europeans and most other areas used lamellar which is similar except that the scales were attached to each other without a backing.

    • Angel

      That would be one of the coolest things…. OLD SCHOOL

  • I guess what is old is new again. If memory serves, many of the medieval armor resembled fish scales. Things are coming full circle.

  • DangerMouse

    I seem to recall something like “Dragon Skin” or “Dragon Scales” or something like that which sounds extremely similar in concept but was an epic failure.

    • For those that don’t know/remember Dragonskin had multiple problems.
      -The smaller/thinner plates failed quicker than SAPI plates after repeated strikes.
      -Overlapping plates can allow from the right angle, a bullet to skip between plates and enter the soldier.
      -When Dragonskin’s plates shift or are struck the whole vest has to go to the manufacturer for repair while the general issue vest can be repaired and used by the soldier in less than a minute by inserting a new SAPI plate.

      Few Drangonskin promoters considered what the soldier wears while his armor is in for repair and the impact on the unit.
      -To confirm the initial findings above the Army requested more samples from Dragonskin which refused to comply but did engage in a spirited marketing campaign that was hugely successful in convincing the gullible and those that rely on sensational TV shows like “Futureweapons” to inform them that Dragonskin was superior..

      Dragonskin IS more comfortable than the average vest that relies on large plates for protection but Dragonskin provides less protection and is less resilient. It would be a fine solution for those that go into the combat zone infrequently and where comfort is a primary criteria (media & politicians).

      The proof in the pudding is that the most elite units don’t use Dragonskin and they can afford and use anything they want.

      It will be worth observing how the gov’t avoids the same issues.

      • guest

        Thanks, I was wondering aboutDragonskin.

      • Docsenko

        I thought that was the latest and greatest. They even had a dummy fall on a grenade and survived the blast. Thanks for the info Major, learned something today.

  • LIAM

    well beats the old kevlar vests the Raptor vests are better shit just got heavy and hot in the sand box! but hey…so glad I am out!

  • Justin

    Sounds like just another repeat of the dragon skin. It will probably be as big of a failure in the end also.

    • Marauder

      Always a possibility. Dragon Skin had the potential to be massively superior armor to what is currently used but was executed poorly and was several years ahead of what was technologically possibly at the time it was introduced. Scale-type armor done properly and with the right materials will be beneficial to the modern warfare fighter because it will allow superior mobility and flexibility over composite SAPI plates and the AR-500 steel plates that are flooding the market currently (Not a knock at AR-500 as I think they are a cost effective armor solution to people who need armor on a budget). It will be interesting to see how this develops but with the advent of 3D printing; newer, stronger composites; and carbon nanotubes I think the possibilities are promising.

      • How does “new” (10 years) fish scale armor overcome the challenges already described? I don’t see it. Technology has not moved that far in a decade to overcome the problems discovered a decade ago.

        As I mentioned above, the inability of the user to make repairs to body armor is a real and significant detriment to fielding this type of armor to the majority of forces that do not have the support or budget of the highest level of special operations teams. The same organizations that still haven’t adopted this type of approach. Being unable to fix body armor in the field means we send a soldier into the fight without body armor (just from a legal/PC standpoint that isn’t happening) or a soldier is taken out of the fight until new armor can be fixed or forwarded. That’s not going to happen either when operational requirements drive commanders to put every man in the field.

        Further, if there were revolutionary advantages in body armor technology we’d see them reflected in more traditional approaches to body armor (e.g. something like ultra XXESAPI plates that could stop .50 cal). This is very similar to the ill founded powered suit enthusiasm that new battery tech is hiding somewhere. If there was new tech, we’d see incredible advances in other areas like powering portable computers.

        I’m all for research but I wouldn’t get my hopes up.

        • Larry…former grunt


          I agree with your comments and insights/inside information. But, I do think that with the right design, based on learning from the past, that scale type armor could work. Two or more layers of scales might be one way to address the issue of a well placed shot getting between the scales. Designing the scale based armor in panels or sheets might be a solution for field repair issue; take off the panel that was hit and attach a new one in its place, just like your example of removing a damaged ESAPI plate with a new one. I think the design would work, we just need to learn from the past and figure out how to address the weaknesses.

          • The panels is a good idea.

            Two layers given today’s technology doesn’t sound flexible nor light.

            We do need to learn and we should experiment I just caution against unguarded optimism. The salesmen count on it.

        • Docsenko

          Whatever happened to spider steel. They gave a demonstration showing a thin fabric of spider silk stopping a 7.62 x 51 at 10 feet.

          • Is it this one?

            Quote from the article, “In the first clip, the bioengineered skin cushions a bullet fired at half speed. But its resistance has its limits: when shot at a full speed of 329 m/s, the bullet pierces the material and travels through it.”

            For comparisons sake and using rough numbers, at half speed that bullet is traveling about 25% faster than an airsoft BB. Even in the first clip the bullet traveled 2-4″ after striking the silk. That equals 2-4″ of something coming into your body.

  • Stefan S.

    Really? Seems MIT is 2000 years too late. Roman Centurions and Signifiers wore Lorica Squamata. Small steel plates sewn to a leather or linen backing as body armor. Glad to see those over educated students just found this out.

    • Stormcharger

      It always amazes me just how many people know a tiny bit of history but nothing of why something was used historically and yet cannot actually read an article beyond the title. Apparently, the Romans had access to carbon fiber, nanotubes, and 3D printing 2000 years ago. Not only that, but thin steel plates sewn to a leather backing could deform, absorb and maintain its integrity from the impact of a high velocity projectile. Obviously this new stuff from MIT is just the same old thing as the Romans used.

      I hate to break it to the armchair rocket scientists out there, but real Lorica Squamata will not even stop a .22LR let alone almost any other modern firearm. There is a lot of great information in the article and the testing of the materials, but it means nothing if no one actually reads it. Please refrain from attempting to make assertions about subjects without any relevant knowledge.

    • Riceball

      While that is how scale armor is normally made I’ve seen the assertion that Roman squamata was really just brass scales on top of mail or hamata so really more for decoration, I think, than anything else.

  • JohnD

    Wasn’t there a company that wanted to,sell the same product lately and they got,told no! Now we are spending scant funds to research fish scale,armor? Don’t you idiots in charge ever read the AARs or at least drag the staff from their 500 page power point briefs and read what’s out there! What is next? Let’s research the percussion cap?

    • Anonymous

      Not-invented-here! syndrome. Great if done in-house, but worthless if done outside. Just ask Dragon Skin.

  • IAC

    Fish scale armor was invented apx 2000 years ago, if not earlier !

  • Greg

    I have it on good sources that the Army is testing leather covered wooden shields at Aberdeen.

    • 1c3

      I heard the new FGM-148 Javelin MOD 1 is actually just a bronze spear.

    • straps

      Part of the post-war “Back to the Basics of Soldiering” movement…

  • SDS.45ACP

    Total body armor molded to the Soldier/Marine would seem the better alternative. With an endo/exoskeleton for support and enhanced performance.

    • bart ninja

      why not just produce a robot soldier drone controlled from an air conditioned bunker at Beale?

  • JohnD

    What ever happened to SPECTRA STEEL? Light takes multiple hits unlike SAPI ceramic plates which once cracked are like glass and weigh a ton. Spectra had high level of protection at less than a quarter of the weight! DRAGON needed more research and the big press push threatened the military’s established product. So it had to go!!

    • Michael

      Do you mean Honeywell’s Spectra Shield®? It doesn’t replace SAPI Ceramic plates; but it is used in conjunction with a lightweight armor package. Spectra® fiber is known as one of the world’s strongest and lightest manmade fibers that can be used in composites. It can be used to make a composite helmet for instance; or as a spall liner in a lightweight armor system. The ceramic plates that are in the strike-face though; are, to my knowledge, critical to defeating higher-caliber/velocity threats as “bullet dwell/projectile erosion” and shattering of the ceramic face dissipate the majority of the projectile energy.

  • guest

    And the cream of French armored Knighthood was almost wiped out by the nimble unarmored British archers. There is something to be said for rapid unencumbered movement.

    • Riceball

      You do realize that’s largely a myth don’t you? Plate armor is not nearly as heavy or cumbersome as it’s commonly made out to be, Henry VIII was said to be able to cartwheels in his own suit of plate, back when he was still young and slim that is. The weight of a full suit of plate is about the same, 30 – 40 lbs., as a modern flak vest with inserts but with the advantage that the weight is distributed all across the body.

      And if by nimble British archers you’re implying that because the French knights were so slow and heavy it allowed the British archers to pick them off, that’s highly debatable. The jury still seems to be out as to whether an English longbow with bodkins can actually penetrate plate armor at range Some people claim yes while others say no and both sides have conducted tests supporting their respective positions. What is definitely possible is that the archers hit the French knight’s horses and/or deliberately targeted the joints and other weak spots in their armor. But in a close up, hand to hand fight my money is on the knight whose armor would have granted them excellent protection against the sidearms of most archers and don’t mention the amount of training the knights had.

      • Docsenko

        At Agincourt the British longbowmen had armor piercing tips and a range of 600 yds. 6,000 French Knights were killed. The French had crossbows, they were powerful, armor piercing but only a range of 150 yds. The Arbalest had a range of 300 yds. This is where giving someone the finger first came from, but they held up two fingers to taunt the French.

    • Michael

      There is certainly a point to be made that in certain situations nimble unencumbered movement can be a huge advantage. For instance, unencumbered combat in a forest or mountain regions vs someone who is heavily armored/restricted movement; even back in the day (medieval), the desert regions where heat and lack of water would take it’s toll on the human factor.

      That doesn’t necessarily mean though that modern armor has no place on the battlefield. Situationally, that should be up to the tactical commanders. I think your referring to the battle of Agincourt during the English-French 100 year’s war? In that situation, the English commander utilized the terrain, man-made fortifications, and his forces in a superior manner, which took advantage of the French hubrus and resulted in a decisive victory.

      In general though, on an open plain/field with nothing in between or to impede a charging line of armored knights and English bowmen; I highly doubt the bowmen would want to stand toe-to-toe; as the cavalry could cover the distance too quickly and get to a range where their weapons, armor, skill and speed, gave them a critical advantage. The opposite might be said, if this was a rocky, forested, mountain pass.

      Similarly, a soldier conducting urban combat operations is almost certainly thankful to have body-armor on, when his enemy is shooting at him from 50 m’s away; whereas the guys running around the Afgan mountains are cursing the arduous climb, while his standard engagement range is greater than 400 – 500 m’s away.

      Personally, I think of lethality as being the optimal combination of strength, speed, and agility for a given set of conditions. It is not always overwhelming firepower, although that certainly helps… if the enemy can out-maneuver you or run away from you.

  • Lance

    stealing design ideas from Dragonskin. That was developed about 10 years ago! SMH

  • nobody

    How has no one commented on how this increases penetration protection by 40 times. Even if the finished product only achieves half of that it would still provide ridiculous weight savings to the point where full body suits of armor that provide protection against more powerful rounds than ESAPI plates while weighing the same as a plate carrier with only front and back plates would be possible.

  • Hooksdown

    Can’t remember where I read of it but I seem to recall reading of Chinese body armor using small overlapping fishscale plates made of tightly compressed paper. Don’t recall reports of the test results. Mayhap there were no survivors.

    • KameiRonin

      IIRC, Mythbusters did an episode on it and it was surprisingly effective against the firearms of the time.

      • Docsenko

        The Chinese later added bronze scales of the same design over the paper. Could stop arrows even those launched by gunpowder charges.

  • Darrel

    Are they going to keep going with the thermoplastic idea? I know the ECH is made out of the stuff, but it’s still heavy and significantly thicker than Kevlar.


    Pretty soon the Infantry is gonna start looking like they did back in the middle ages minus the horse……