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The Strange Brewster Body Shield of World War I

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.

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A trained soldier in body armor is a frightening sight to behold. The layers of metal covering his body basically dehumanized him, making him more like a mechanical weapon of war rather than organic flesh and blood. Throughout history, armored warriors never failed to amaze us, and frighten us all the same. From the Greek hoplites, the Roman legionnaires, the Japanese samurai and to the medieval knights, we could only imagine what the enemy felt as these warriors charged towards them. Even today, when such armor was made obsolete by modern weapons and tactics, it remained a fabled sight to behold. And the modern soldiers have their own versions of these protective equipment, in the form of combat helmets, and Kevlar in their plate carriers.

But during the First World War, an armored soldier might induce a fit of laughter.

Firstly, we must understand that the First World War had unique requirements. Armies were still adjusting to the emergence of modern weapons and equipment. The traditional military tactics that worked so well in earlier wars simply don’t work against machine gun fires and other technical monstrosities that armies encountered. Hence, they are forced to retreat in fortified trenches as the war went into a stalemate. The attempts of each side to storm these positions contributed to the emergence of some of the weirdest weapons there is. Trench knives looked odd enough, the same can be said to trench raiding clubs. Even stranger was what the soldiers almost donned in the battlefield, as the need for body armor resulted to something that children would wear in Halloweens

Need for Protection

The WW1 Vickers machine gun.

The WW1 Vickers machine gun.

As what was mentioned, the First World War changed how conflicts were fought. The massed infantry and great cavalry charges were rendered obsolete by technical advancements in the battlefield. One of them was the introduction of the first practical machine gun. Here we have a weapon than fired streams of bullets in high rate, and manned by fewer crews. World War One machine guns were also lighter and easier to be moved around, unlike earlier versions like the Gatling gun, which was mounted on wheels. Combined with barbed wire entanglement, machine guns were fearsome weapons. Artilleries were the biggest killer, but a spray of bullets and defenses of barbed wire made massed infantry charged suicidal. The attempts by both sides to breach such defenses resulted in massive casualties, and they retreated into their trenches as the war became a bloody stalemate.

And now, it’s up to these world powers to come up with ways to protect their troops against the spray of bullets.

By this time, armors were obsolete. Their inability to stop a speeding bullet reduced them to ceremonial accessories. But the helmets made a glorious return, with models like Brodie, Stahlhelm and Adrian reducing head injuries from artillery blasts and shrapnel. The German side however outfitted their sappers with their own body armor. It was not a complete protection, but such armor could absorb a few shots, and protect the soldier’s vital organs from blasts.

But the Americans had their own proposed form of protection.

Enter Dr. Guy Otis Brewster

Dr. Brewster in his boxing gear.

Dr. Brewster in his boxing gear.

At present, people might describe Dr. Guy Otis Brewster as eccentric, almost like a mad scientist (with a fairly large biceps for a doctor). He once invented a form of body protection to make boxing safer, hence opening the sports (and self-defense) to women and people with impairments. It sounded like a great idea until you see his contraption. Unlike the padded headgears and torso covers of modern contact sports, his design consisted of steel cage, for the head and body. In fact, some present-day observer likened his protector to a horror movie costume. Nevertheless, it offered a great deal of protection, though competitions nowadays prefer padding instead.

And during World War I, he had a new assignment. The U.S. Government turned to him to design and built a body armor that could stop machine gun fire. Bullet resistant armor wasn’t a new concept, as Ned Kelly and his gang once wore an improvised one. Brewster’s design wasn’t rudimentary however. It used a 0.21-inch chrome nickel steel, tough enough to stop a 303 British bullet. For added strength, the helmet and chest protector were given a V-shaped design.

And much like his protective equipment in boxing, the resulting bullet-proof armor looked bizarre, if not hilarious. In fact, the rough Ned Kelly armor looks a lot better.

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It Looks Cartoonish

Yes, it looks hilarious.

Yes, it looks hilarious.

I will say it again, I would rather wear a Ned Kelly armor than this Brewster’s monstrosity. Having a suit that deflects bullets might sound amazing, but the resulting shape of the armor is an object of ridicule. It came in two pieces; the helmet and the cuirass. The helmet could be likened to an angular trash bin with a pointy lid and holes for eyes. The helmet itself was oversized, and the front being the most heavily armored. For added protection, the eye holes, or eye slits however one might see it, had covers.

The breastplate that came with the helmet will put any medieval and ceremonial cuirass to shame. The leaf shaped piece of armor was angled for added strength and extended to cover parts of the neck and groin. Like the helmet, it was oversized. In fact, a wearable Roman legionnaire shield would come in mind upon first impression.

Clunky, ridiculous and hilarious were the words that best described the outside aesthetics of the armor. But one has to admit that waves and waves of soldier clad in such cartoonish suit coming at you is an object of terror. But one might wonder, if the thing even worked.

It Works, But...

Bullets failed to penetrate the armor.

Bullets failed to penetrate the armor.

Dr. Brewster might be a mad scientist for some, and his inventions were as eccentric as he was. But one has to admit that his inventions work. Going back to his boxing cage armor, the Japanese already used a similar form of sports protection, in the form of Kendo Bogu. And some styles of Karate incorporated the Bogu as a head protector during full contact sparring. In the case of Brewster’s boxing gear, it had an added padding for shock absorption. And we could conclude that indeed, it worked!

But how about his bullet resistant shield.

To prove a point, this buffed doctor put his body on the line. He initiated a field test and invited army officers and some people as witnesses. He then donned his crazy armor and let the firing squad do the rest. But prior to that, he let his assistant hit him with sledgehammer before the soldiers fired their shots. The weapon of choice was Springfield rifle.

And it worked!

The doctor walked out alive and unscathed, even commenting that being shot was “only about one-tenth the shock as being struck by a sledgehammer.” The army had a potential game charger, but they never saw it as one.

Bulky

First impression said it all. The armor was never light. The combined weight of the cuirass and helmet was 110 lbs, not something a soldier want to carry when storming trenches. Plus, the very shape of the armor might hinder mobility, not to mention an added discomfort to the already uncomfortable battlefield conditions. Even with further testing involving a Lewis Machine Gun, Dr. Brewster never persuaded the military to take his design.

Decades later, in the modern battlefield, soldiers don their Kevlar inside the plate carrier. Though limited in protection, it gave the wearer the benefits of mobility. Nevertheless, we could only imagine how things would go it the army went on with Dr. Brewster’s armor. Who knows, we could have a real version of Iron Man suit.

References:

1. Milzarski, Eric (11 April 2021). "This ridiculous WWI body armor somehow never managed to get fielded." wearethemighty.com.

2. Bizarre World War I – The New Body Armor that Failed (n.d.). Retrieved from Bizarre World War I – The New Body Armor that Failed — History is Now Magazine, Podcasts, Blog and Books | Modern International and American history

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