Body Armor Comparison: Just Between You and The Road

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Categories: Frontlines, Gear, Safety, Technology, Ask RideApart

Not so long ago, motorcycle riding gear only had leather as the main material for body armor. Occasionally, there was leather in layers, or a little padding here and there to provide impact and abrasion protection for key areas like the joints.

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Now, there are way more options and not only are they affordable, but they are also tested for effectiveness against an international standard. But even though their performance is tested against a common standard—CE EN1621-1: 2012—their designs are not standardized. There are some important differences.

I took a look at four brands and styles of body armor, or more properly called “impact protectors,” to see how they differed. I will offer some insights into what factors might be worth looking at when buying replacement armor, adding armor to a jacket that has armor pockets (but did not come with it), or buying a new already-armored jacket.

All the protectors are for shoulder and elbow location, but chest and back protectors are also available. We put the following armor side-by-side: Knox Air V2 Part 45 (as used in some Triumph products, for example), Alpinestars BioArmor, ICON Field Armor and Harley-Davidson Dual Layer Air Limb protectors.

First, a little background on the test standards: The EN 1621-1 test is used to assess the protective qualities of armor worn on the limb joints. To conduct the test, a product sample is placed over a rigid metal hemispherical anvil with a radius of 50 mm, which is connected to a rigid base via a high speed force sensor.  A metal impactor weighing 5 kg with a flat strike face, 80 mm x 40 mm, is dropped onto the sample from a height necessary to generate an impact speed of 4.47 meters per second.  This is equivalent to an impact energy of 50 joules.

Upon impact, the force transmitted through the sample to the anvil is measured by the force transducer. The lower the force transmitted to the transducer, the more protective a product is considered to be. The mean maximum transmitted force must be below 35 kN and no single value should be over 50 kN in order for the product to be found to meet the performance standard.

The standard includes additional tests to assess performance in high and low temperature environments, plus after storage in humid conditions. A companion standard, EN 1621-2: 2014, applies to back and lumbar protectors. Only after passing the required tests can a product bear the “CE” (Certification Europe) label. Some manufacturers may claim performance exceeding the minimum standard by a certain percentage, as well.

These impact protectors are more than ten years old and show it.  Most of the breakdown happened in deep grooves molded into the pads to increase flexibility.  New models aren’t likely to fail like this.
Knox, Alpinestars, ICON, Harley-Davidson. Shoulder protector shown above, elbow protector below and inverted to show the interior surface.

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The products are generally similar, yet noticeably different in design—all but Harley-Davidson’s Air Limb product are molded in an anatomical curve that wraps around the elbow or shoulder area.  The H-D product is flat as a pancake and is constructed of two layers: a dense, perforated foam inner and a tough (but flexible) outer matrix with openings throughout the matrix to align with the vent holes in the bottom layer.

At first glance, this would seem likely to create pressure points where the flat surface of the protector presses against the curvature of the rider’s body. The H-D armor is pliable and slotted to allow the pad to curve when the garment is on. In using jackets with this type of armor for the past couple of years, pressure points did not develop as a problem, except briefly when the product was new and if the jacket is sized to fit fairly snugly.

For a brief time of initial use—in a snug jacket—there was some pressure right at the point of the shoulder. It wasn't uncomfortable, but it was there nonetheless. No pressure points were noticeable with the elbow pads. Of course, a snug fit is part of the formula for keeping the armor in place when it counts so it can provide the necessary protection.

Over time, the product assumes a partial curve based on the wearer’s contour and the presence of the protector becomes less and less noticeable.

Another interesting part of the H-D design is the “one size fits both” approach to sizing the shoulder and elbow protectors. Both are the same size, so there’s no need to worry about which goes where—assuming the interior pockets that the armor fits into are similarly designed. I’ve used the H-D protectors in more than one brand of jacket with no problem, but taking the jacket to the dealership/motorcycle gear store to try both pocket locations out is a good idea when retrofitting any brand of armor.

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