Sunday 20 October 2013

Soviet Infantry Protection

Popular history treats Soviet infantry as expendables that overwhelm quality with quantity, but examination of actual historical evidence suggests otherwise. Attempts to lengthen the life of the regular soldier (or, in this case, policeman) predate the USSR, beginning with the Russian Empire. "A catalogue of armour invented by Lieutenant-Colonel Chemerzin" describes his inventions, dating back to 1905:

"The armours vary in mass, the lightest are 1.5 pounds, the heaviest are 8 pounds. They are unnoticeable under clothing. Anti-rifle bullet plates weigh 8 pounds. The plates cover the heart, lungs, stomach, sides, as well as the spine and back over the heart and lungs. Each plate is tested for impenetrability in front of the customer."

A little more on trials:
"In the presence of HIS IMPERIAL MAJESTY, on June 11th, 1905, in the city of Orienbaum, a company of machine gunners performed tests. 8 machine guns fired at a plate made from an alloy created by Lieutenant-Colonel Chemerzin, from a distance of 300 paces. It was hit 36 times. The plates were not penetrated, and did not crack. All non-permanent personnel of the infantry school were present."

The Moscow Capital Police, who ordered the armour in the first place, tested it at 15 paces, from unspecified arms. The performance proved exemplary: "[the armour plates] are impenetrable, and do not produce fragments. The first batch is satisfactory."

The St. Petersburg Capital Police report was more thorough: "The results of the trials were as follows: after firing at the front and back plates, one that weighed 4 pounds and 75 zolotniks [a zolotnik is 4.26 grams] and the other 5 pounds 18 zolotniks, composed of steel and wrapped in thin silk fabric, with a Browning bullet, the bullet penetrates the silk, and makes a dent in the plate, but does not penetrate it, and remains in between the silk and steel. No fragments of the bullet fly out."

The Ust-Izhor training proving grounds achieved positive results when testing the plates with "3 line rifles of the infantry type, from 200, 150, 100, 50, and 8 paces."

The archive file further mentions 4791 sets of body armour, 340 shields, and 200 helmets made of this alloy sent to the Warsaw fortress over the period of 3 months.

The invention made a mark on media. The "Rus" newspaper (#69, 1907) wrote: "I saw a miracle yesterday. A young man, thirty years of age, in a military uniform, stood still in a room. A Browning was pointed at him from half a pace, a frightening Browning, aimed right for the chest, for the heart. The young man waited, smiling. A shot struck, the bullet bounced off.
"See," said the military man. "I barely felt anything.""

"Novoye Vremya" wrote on February 28th, 1908: "The invincible armour and new breastplates are wonderful inventions of our century, and surpass the knight's armour of the past. The scale layers remain the same, but the alloy is different. It is the inventor's secret. A. A. Chemerzin only explained the main idea behind his discovery. A. A. Chemerzin is a Lieutenant-Colonel of engineering forces. He finished a degree in mathematics, then an engineering school. He taught mathematics, while studying chemistry, and a series of experiments led him to exploration of nickel-chromed steel. The alloy was created under high temperature and pressure. Precious metals like platinum, silver, iridium, vanadium, and many others were added to the mix. This led to a very ductile and strong metal, that is 3.5 times tougher than steel. As a result, at three paces, the Mauser bullet could not penetrate a half-millimeter plate. Armour and breastplates were made that were impenetrable for revolver and rifle bullets, which deformed without giving off fragments. The danger of concussions and ricochets was solved.
The armour is expensive, but life is costs more. Putting on the 5 pound armour that covers the front and back, I did not consider it heavy. It is entirely unnoticeable underneath a suit. 7000 breastplates, helmets, and shields were sent to the army in the Far East, but sadly, too late..."

Indeed, the invention did not come cheap. 1500-1900 rubles would buy you a standard set of armour. 5000-8000 could buy you a custom-made set, tailored to your body. Chemerzin also offered the armouring of a carriage (20,000 rubles) and a car's engine compartment (15,000).

In 1916, Chemerzin's armour was tested for pilots. While it performed admirably, a cheaper armour was chosen, manufactured at the Petrograd mechanical and metalworking factories.

I don't have anything about the interbellum period, but the question of protecting infantry was explored during the Winter War.

CAMD RF 81-12040-69

"In 1939, NKV NII-13 manufactured trial batches of steel SN-39 (150 units) breastplates and SNSh-39 (100 units ) breastplate-shields, which were then tested in combat (on Karelia). 

As is stated in our previous report for 1940 (report T-06-77), the breastplate received good reviews from the commanders of the 7th army, but the issue of increasing the strength of the armour in order to ensure bullet protection in close combat was raised. 

To resolve this issue, we have created a new (thickened) breastplate, SN-40A. According to the orders from GAU KA, a decision was made to mass produce the SN-40A, with the following goals in mind:
  1. Manufacture 100-150 SN-40A breastplates, providing protection from model 1908 bullets fired from a rifle or machine gun from 150 meters at 0 degrees and from any distance at 30 degrees.
  2. Manufacture the breastplates in three sizes. Previously, breastplates were produces in one size (small).
  3. Explore the requirements for production of the breastplates and develop blueprints for equipment to mass produce the breastplates.
  4. Conduct proving ground and battlefield trials to determine if the breastplates can be accepted by the Red Army.
The aforementioned mass production of the SN-40A is the topic of this report."

SN stands for Stalnoy Nagrudnik (steel breastplate). 

CAMD RF 81-12040-69

"The manufacturing of the SN-40A was done at the "Industria" factory in Lysva. The breastplates were produced in 3 sizes, and in two thicknesses and weights. The blueprints of the the breastplate are shown in figure 2."

Trials of the SN-40A were performed in the fall of 1941. The results were unsatisfactory. At 5.2 mm (one batch was 4.2 mm), the breastplates were too heavy. Even the air force did not want to use them. One would not immediately expect a heavy breastplate to matter in an airplane, but it does. "Uniform of the Russian Air Force 1935-1955" writes "The medical corps frequently equipped pilots with army type steel helmets. For example, in 1943, elements of the 4th Air Army made it mandatory for Il-2 and Pe-2 gunners to wear "a metallic helmet and special breast shields". However, in practice, when breaking away from a steep dive, the rear gunner was subjected to unacceptable forces, which lowered his capacity of defending the plane from enemy fighters." However, the specific breastplate in question was almost certainly not the SN-40A, but its successor, the SN-42.

The SN-42 was developed in the spring of 1942 and tested in August of the same year by airborne troops. It was composed of 36 SGN type steel, and was 2 mm thick. 500 units were manufactured, and sent to be tested in the army.

Overall view of the breastplate

Breastplate used as a shield

Breastplate used as a shield while prone

The results were as follows:

CAMD RF 81-12040-109

"In 1942, according to the orders from the GAU of the Red Army, the Scientific-Investigative Institute #13 of the USSR NKV, developed a steel breastplate 3.3 kg in mass, 2 mm thick, that protects the main organs of the human body against German submachineguns at all distances, and rifles and machineguns at 300 meters. 
According to GOKO order #2160ss from August 8th, 1942, the steel breastplates were sent to the army, and received positive reviews. The reviews mention the following:
  1. The steel breastplates provide reliable protection from German submachineguns, as well as fragments of mines and hand grenades.
  2. The maneuverability of soldiers with breastplates is almost unimpaired.
  3. Aside from providing protection for the soldier, the breastplate also increases the soldier's morale when performing his duties.
The technical documentation on the steel breastplate was accepted by the GAU of the Red Army on August 7th, 1942, after which the breastplate was mass produced at factory #700 (city of Lysva). At this time, 85,000 breastplates have been produced, distributed as follows:
  1. South-Western Front: 5,000
  2. Stalingrad Front: 3,000
  3. Leningrad Front: 1,000
  4. Volhov Front: 1,000
  5. Don Front: 5,000
70,000 units remain at the warehouse. "

The benefits of the SN-42 breastplate are outlined in more detail in a letter from the deputy commander of the artillery of the 68th Army to the head of the GAU KA, Major-General Hohlov.

CAMD RF 81-12040-109

"In November of 1942, the 57th army received 5000 steel breastplates to test. After the army established the reliability of the breastplates by shooting them from 100 meters with rifles, they issued a small amount (500 units) on a trial basis.
The breastplates were met with distrust, but commanders requested the breastplates in maximum available numbers after testing them in battle. All breastplates available in the warehouses were given out. In battles for Stalingrad, they were exhaustively tested.
Comments by unit commanders and soldiers say that the breastplate, in addition to the steel helmet, is a good and reliable method of protection from bayonets, bullets, and shrapnel.
It is also necessary to point out the morale value of the breastplate. Soldiers equipped with the breastplates that have experienced their reliability go into battle calmly and assuredly.
The artillery supply units are constantly receiving orders for additional breastplates. All these factors combined lead me to believe that the breastplates live up to expectations and are a worthwhile investment.
Please issue 15000 units to the 68th army."

Popular history dictates that only specially formed assault groups were equipped with SN-42 breastplates, but you may already be suspecting that it was not so. The breastplates were not meant for any one kind of soldier, as their instruction memorandum reveals:

CAMD RF 81-12040-69

"A memo on the use of SN-42 steel breastplates
  1. The steel breastplate safeguards the chest and stomach of the soldier in combat from 1) bullets of a German submachinegun at any distance 2) bullets of rifles and machineguns at 300 meters 3) fragments of mines and grenades.
  2. The steel breastplate, thanks to its construction, does not stifle the soldier's movement while walking, running, or crawling.
  3. The breastplate weighs 3.3 kg. To maintain the soldier's endurance and maneuverability, the soldier must be lightened at the cost of his backpack load.
  4. The breastplate can be used by:
    1. scouts, out on a mission.
    2. sappers, while out scouting, making breaches in barbed wire, defusing explosives under enemy fire, etc.
    3. infantry teams during scouting by combat.
    4. submachinegunners, sneaking through the enemy lines, riding as tank infantry, and laying in ambush.
    5. assault teams, attacking a pillbox.
    6. soldiers fighting in city streets.
    7. communications personnel, checking and fixing telephone lines under enemy fire.
    8. any other situation where the commander deems that the breastplates can be usefully applied.
  5. The breastplate can be used in 3 ways.
    1. The breastplate is attached using straps and covers the chest and stomach during movement.
    2. When crawling, the breastplate can be used as a shield.
    3. When removed, the breastplate can be used to cover other parts of the body (right side, left side, head).
  6. The breastplate consists of:
    1. a hull, with the upper and lower plates.
    2. soft lining, attached to the hull with a snap pin.
    3. belts for attaching the breastplate: one on the waist and two on the shoulder
  7. The breastplates are made in three sizes. The breastplate is 2 mm thick.
The breastplates are handed out by the Front Commanders, and are to be used by those armies where they can be usefully applied. Army and Front Commanders should send their feedback on using the breastplates and suggestions to the General Staff of the Red Army, and send a copy to the GAU of the Red Army.

November 11th, 1942"

At the same time as the SN-42, the SShN-42 (steel shield-breastplate) was developed. 

CAMD RF 81-12040-69

The SShN-42 was thicker than the SN-42, at 4.9 mm. Only 25 SShN-42s were produced. The design passed trials, but their subsequent fate is unknown. Is is probable that they joined their regular breastplate cousins in the 5th Army for testing. 

CAMD RF 81-12040-69

In 1942, NII-48 developed its own batch of a spin on breastplates: bulletproof vests. The armour was composed of four plates: two in the front, and two in the back. The vest tied in the front with two bows, like a lifejacket. 

From minutes #215 section 40 of the Sverdlovsk Regional Committee, on August 30th, 1942 (TsDOOSO 4-18-15): 

"On the manufacturing of a trial batch of personal methods of protection for riflemen and machinegunners

The Regional Committee of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks approves of the initiative of the NII-48 in developing a design of personal armour protection and its mass production, and decrees that:
  1. The director of the Uralmash factory comrade Muzrukov and director of NII-48 comrade Zavyalov must ensure the production of 200 units of personal armour and 50 units for personal armour for Maxim machinegunners by September 20th, 1942.
  2. The VIZ director, comrade Radkevich, must provide to the Uralmash factory 3 tons of rolled 30 HGS steel for production of trial personal armour sets.
  3. NII-48 director comrade Zavyalov is urged to manufacture a trial batch of armour sets and send them to the Red Army for practical tests. In the event that the tests pass and the armour is accepted for mass production, send the proposal to the Regional Committee.
  4.  The General Secretary of the Sverdlovsk All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks must provide all necessary resources to factories in order to produce the personal amour sets for riflemen and machinegunners.
Regional committee secretary Andrianov"

500 vests were produced in total. They all were sent to the 5th Army, but did not saw very limited combat. It did, however, see enough that the Germans captured one unit.

"The picture was attached to a message from an intelligence officer in the headquarters of the German 35th Panzer division, informing the command of the 9th Army Corps that the enemy is using new defensive gear on October 2nd, 1942 called an "armoured vest", drawn based on an inspection of the unit captured during a battle."

The picture on the right is also of interest to us.

"Another picture from an intelligence officer in the 35th Panzer division, composed based on the statements of POWs from the 1158th regiment, which revealed that the regiment assault group used this second model of defensive gear on October 2nd, 1942, obtained with the purpose of evaluating its usefulness in battle. Based on the sketch, it was probably a prototype of the SN-42."

Based on reports from the front lines, NII-48 gave their bulleproof vest another try.

CAMD RF 81-12040-69

The change is pretty self-evident: two more plates were added to the front to protect more of the soldier's body. 

CAMD RF 81-12040-109

Here is another breastplate design, this one is a little different. Instead of one lower plate, there are three. The upper plate is composed of two pieces. The back also has a full shirt, not just straps. Its index was PZ-ZiF-20. As its name suggests, it was produced at the Frunze factory (#7). It did not perform as well as the SN-42, but was produced in large numbers anyway, as the army needed all the breastplates it could get. These breastplates were first issued in 1943. 

While the SN-42 was, no doubt, the best Soviet breastplate of the war, work did not stop with it. The financial plan for the second quarter of 1945 of the 6th Department of the Tank Directorate of GBTU KA (CAMD RF 38-11355-2756) mentions the following: 

"An experimental batch of bulletproof vests is being manufactured by the NKTP and NKLP factories. The vests are a new type of protection for Red Army soldiers. The contract is still being processed. The approximate cost is 500,000 rubles."

It is hard to judge how much 500,000 rubles is worth in today's money, but it is no small cost. For example, in 1941, developing the SPG-212 (more commonly known as Object 212) cost only 100,000 rubles. 


  1. Great article, I had no idea these were used in such numbers.
    Is there any possibility of posting something more about the alloy by A. A. Chemerzin?

    Atomic Emu

  2. I've always found it rather ironic that the only major WW2 combatants to issue body armour (in meaningful numbers anyway) were the two *least* known for their concern for human life, ie. the USSR and the Japanese (whose naval infantry apparently made fairly wide use of a type). Interesting to know the background of the former's design.

    1. Yeah, and think about the benefits! Especially with the importance that experience has in infantry combat.
      Every solider not lost during a combat mission provides several benefits: he's not lost as an asset during the mission, can learn from his mistakes and must not be replaced (including training, equipment and so on). Plus his eventual replacement can learn to be a skilled worker and provide goods and services to the Army and State. Seeing how mamy skilled manufacturing personal had to be send to the frontlines to make up shortcomings, the potential overall benefit could be enormous...