Body Armor Comparison: Just Between You and The RoadNot so long ago, motorcycle riding gear only had leather as the main material for body armor....
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.
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.
Knox, Alpinestars, ICON, Harley-Davidson. Shoulder protector shown above, elbow protector below and inverted to show the interior surface.
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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The Knox product found in a sample Triumph jacket is similar to the H-D product in two ways (at least in the samples we evaluated). They are dual layered, and both elbow and shoulder pads are the same size. The outer layer is a hard plastic shell and the inner layer is a high-density foam— though a similar Knox item is available in monolithic molded material without the hard plastic shell.
Unlike the H-D product, the Knox product is pre-curved. In my case, the curve is about right and no pressure areas are noticeable in use. Individuals with significantly larger curvature at the elbows and shoulder may experience some degree of pressure along the edges, but that may be offset by some degree of flexion the material provides.
The Knox pads had vent holes in the hard outer shell, but no corresponding venting through the foam impact layer, so airflow under the armor would be limited in the hard shell version. Twin scallop slits on each side of the pads, which increases the ability of the pads to flex with the rider.
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.
The AlpineStars BioArmor and ICON Field Armor products are similar in that they are monolithic high density foam products molded with a pre-curved shape. They also use a different size for shoulder and elbow, with each using a shorter, wider pad for the shoulder and a longer, narrower pad for the elbow.
The AlpineStars pads are slightly thinner and firmer than the ICON pads, the ICON elbow pads are about 5/8 inch shorter in length, but about ½ inch wider and uses a somewhat wider curve than the AlpineStars.
The shoulder pads are about the same in length, width and curvature between the two. Both of these pads also include scallop slits along the edge to allow more flexibility. Both are drilled for ventilation.
Overall, weight is not substantially different across the four products—at least, not on a scale that most riders would notice. All but the Knox product appears to be amenable to some trimming if need be for fitting, but that generally shouldn’t be necessary and would be on a very limited basis, if at all.
Long-term durability is another thing that can be difficult to assess, but we have some evidence that shows, like with anything else, these products have a service life and can break down in use.
The enclosed image shows what is left of the original armor from one of my ICON jackets, which is now over ten years old. (Note: my failed attempt to use packing tape to hold the things together.)
These types of impact protectors, which had deep grooves across them to make them more flexible, are no longer in the product line, so this kind of product break-down isn’t very likely any more in the products we looked at.
Of course, new products are developed and old ones improved on a constant basis, so the information provided here is intended to be helpful in a general way when looking at impact protection products. Trying the product on in a jacket whenever possible is helpful, and asking people who use different types of armor about how they like them is always a good way to get information.
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