WWI German Trench Armor at RIA

During WWI, the German army issued about a half million sets of trench armor, often called grabenpanzer or sappenpanzer. Despite common belief, this armor was not intended for trench raiding – in fact, German orders regarding it specifically prohibited this use because of the amount of mobility lost when wearing it. Instead, the armor was for sentries and machine gunners. These were soldiers who tended to be stationary and easily targeted, and the armor was intended to help protect them.

American testing after the war suggested that it could stop a rifle bullet at 400-500 yards. That would not be very useful in a trench raiding scenario, but for someone like an MG08 gunner under enemy machine gun fire from a distance, that could be enough protection to stop otherwise fatal hits.

This set at Rock Island includes a set of the torso armor, plus a Stahlhelm, reproduction liner, and armored browplate as well.

Since filming this video, I have talked to International Military Antiques and gotten a reproduction set of the armor from them, which I plan to do ballistic testing on next week. Should be interesting to try it out firsthand!


  1. “Drat! I can’t snipe you with all that steel in the way!”

    The only way to counter all the armor: Kill them with TANKS!

    • If you’ve forced the enemy to build and deploy a tank in order to take out a machine gun nest, the math works out.

  2. In 1917-18, the armor was also issued to some field gun detachments. To counter the British MK IV and French St. Chamond tanks, the Germans deployed some of their 77mm field guns forward, sometimes right in the trench line, with AP shot in addition to HE shell, as anti-tank defense.

    Often, the confrontations between the German 77’s and the British “Male” tanks with twin 6-pounders (57mm) or the French tank’s single 75mm, ended up as direct-fire duels at the artillery’s definition of “knife-fighting” range, under 500 yards.

    Since the defending German guns would of necessity have been sited in at least fairly exposed positions, it’s easy to see why the Grabenpanzer array would have come in handy for the gunners. Like lookouts and machine-gunners, they’d be more-or-less stationary (serving the gun), and the armor would be an extra bit of insurance against fragments if a tank gun’s HE shell detonated “close aboard”. Not to mention the tank’s machine guns, which tank commanders considered very handy “brooms” for clearing the German gun crews away from their guns.

    Trivia note: Ian v. Hogg, Master Gunner Royal Army, once said this;

    In the artillery, we don’t “rally round the colours”. Our rallying point is the nearest gun that will still fire.

    Or in other words, the “Redleg’s” rally point is always the nearest piece of heavy ordnance that he can still kill you with.

    One more good reason to never honk off the Artillery.




  3. “Artillery lends dignity to what would otherwise be an unseemly brawl.” Not sure of the source of that saying, but it popped into my head reading the above.

  4. Always wondered why they had those exposed rivets on WWI German helmets; now I know! Have to think of Alvin C. York, and don’t imagine that a machinegunner’s body armor would have saved their lives from a well placed face shot.

    • Yeah, and I think he headshot over half of them before they gave up… 132 prisoners, York and 7 Americans walk back to base. All the Germans were scared of York alone for all of that mess.

      • York took the senior surviving German officer and stood behind him in the middle of the prisoners, left hand on the officer’s shoulder and the muzzle of his M-1911 against the back of the man’s head.

        • Re: York pressing the muzzle of his 1911 against the back of prisoner officers’ head – might not be real good idea – too easy to press enough to push pistol out of battery, in which condition it won’t (or better not ;-} = poor case support & other probs) fire, especially quickly – likely Good for ‘show’ however.
          just babbeling …

  5. The body armor looks a lot like WWII US air crew armor with the layered lower plates.Makes you wonder where they got the design, although it is well documented that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York designed and made a lot of air crew armor.

    • Everyone should go to the Metropolitan Museum in NYC and visit the Arms and Armor section. Matchlocks, wheellocks, flintlocks, an engraved Colt and armorwearing horse manikins!

    • It reminds me of a piece worn by a Northern calvary officer during the Civil War, from a photo in a book on armor I have. It was not uncommon for calvary officers on both sides in that conflict to wear steel chest armor. The one in the book was in a museum. It had several small dents and fist-sized hole. The caption for the photo explained that the wearer charged an artillery emplacement and someone got off a lucky shot.

  6. It could deflect shovel strikes, bayonets, flak from grenades yours/or others when raiding a trench. Revolver rounds, rocks, fists…

  7. Hi,

    I’m currently researching prototype body armours from post WWI onwards and have it a stump when it comes to R&D during WWII. If anyone could point me in the right direction of relevant reading material?
    For anyone else interested, Helmets and Body Armour in Modern Warfare provides a fascinating insight into what those old boys speculated would be the future of body armour circa 1919.
    Thanks in advance!

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