Traversing The Molecular Armor Maze

By Gerde Applethwaite

Shorter: When buying armor purchase the CE – En1621-(1 and 2), level 2 gear and you will get the highest level of protection currently available.

The main goal in doing the research for this blogicle was to sort through the data and info about armor in order to find the best (most impact resistant) padding to insert into my new motorcycle jacket. I didn’t look into the separate, strap-on, back pad units that you see racers or dirt bikers running (like the Knox or Forcefield types) – I wanted armor to swap into the pouches of my jacket. I am not going off road – at least not intentionally. It gets a bit confusing but I hope to sort it out here and now.

My objective is pretty straightforward – I need to be as visible as possible to distracted drivers by wearing hi-viz clothing and I also want to protect myself by wearing good impact and abrasion resistant toggery. ATGATT. I am pretty well covered with a hi-viz Arai RX-Q helmet and a hi-viz textile jacket. The next thing is to dial in the armor.

The armor that comes with nearly all jackets is not the most highly rated you can get. The cost is kept down this way and if you’re really interested you can swap in better kit. In relative terms this replacement armor is not all that expensive. Compared to a hospital visit the armor is ridiculously cheap. This means pulling out the factory armor (with back armor it is often just a slice of place-holding foam with some holes in it) and replacing it with something designed to fit the pocket in your gear. This can be limiting because your pockets may not reasonably fit your replacement armor: it boils down to either doing some sewing work to change the pocket or cutting the armor to fit the pocket. The former is the smartest way to go but its also the most work and will of course void your warranty. Online you will find riders who talk about taking a knife to their new high end armor in order to make it fit the existing pocket.  I am reticent to do this. This means, for me, buying a jacket that has pockets designed to fit the form factor of the armor I choose. Now all of a sudden moto gear shopping becomes a matter of firstly finding the armor I want and then finding moto apparel makers that make clothing designed to fit that armor. This is a little backwards from the manner in which most of us shop for motorcycle clothing but it guarantees that I won’t be sitting at the kitchen table with a Sharpie and an electric carving knife.

The Europeans generally do the consumer protection stuff substantially better than do their stateside counterparts. They have come up with a European Union standard for motorcycle armor called CE: EN 1261-1,2 etc. The CE standard is used worldwide now to judge armor’s ability to withstand impact. Be advised though that there are various levels of CE rated armor and just because some guy on the interwebz tells you that some manufacturer’s gear is “CE rated” doesn’t mean that it is the most highly rated. “CE” is now used as part of the product hype and you should look a little deeper to find out what actual CE rating the gear you’re interested in actually conforms to.  Bear with me, I will try to make it as un-boring as possible.

In their labs the Euro tech gremlins (The EU fonctionnaires hire independent labs to do their testing) place the armor to be tested upon a round dome for hip, knee shoulder and elbow armor and upon a sort of rounded prism for back armor*. This anvil is loaded with sensors that detect the impact and the results are rated in Kilonewtons – earlier measurements were in Joules/metre (1 newton = .001KN or 1 Joule/metre.)  The armor is whacked with a hammerlike device and the results of the impact are measured. With this technology all motorcycle armor can be rated by its ability to withstand the transmission of the impact force from the impact hammer side to the anvil/sensor side. This is precisely what you want to know when you are out shopping for good armor. You are the anvil – asphalt be the hammer.

The human rib cage can withstand 4 kilo-newtons of force before ribs start to break. The only back armor that comes anywhere close to that is the stuff that passes the CE-EN1621-2, Level 2 test. That’s the stuff I want. For an additional $15 or $20 over the cost of the CE Level 1 armor why would you bother with Level 1?

CE has two broad categories for armor: the back armor is in one group and the hip, shoulder, knee and elbow are in the other. The testing scheme is a bit different and the expectations are different. Teh back armor regime is called CE-EN1621-2 (2003) and all of the other armor is categorized under CE-EN1621-1 (1997) [note too: there is a new provisional standard as of 2011, with 2 levels within that standard.]  We’re not done yet. As armor improved the CE added Levels to (now) both categories. There are Level 1 and Level 2 to tack onto the aforementioned number sets. The strongest armor in both groups is Level 2. Its not easy to get a Level 2 and one way that you get there is with the so-called molecular armor. From wikipedia comes this:

Level 1 protectors: The average peak force recorded below the anvil in the tests shall be below 18 kN, and no single value shall exceed 24 kN.

Level 2 protectors: The average peak force recorded below the anvil in the tests shall be below 9 kN, and no single value shall exceed 12 kN.”

Again, let me state for the purposes of clarity that the EN-1621-1 (1997) (2011) rating is for hip, knee, shoulder and elbow armor and the EN-1621-2(2003) rating is only for back armor. Then on top of that there are the 2 levels applied to both the 2003 and the 2011 standards. The higher the level the greater the protection. Some folks on the interwebz seem confused by this. If you want the strongest gear you need to look not only for 2011 provisional standard for the joint gear and the 2003 standard for the back gear BUT ALSO the level 2 rated stuff as well.

D3O and Sas-Tec are the primary manufacturers of molecular (viscoelastic) armor and they are not owned by any of the gear makers. D3O is designed and made in the UK and the Sas-Tec stuff is made in Germany. Molecular armor works in an intriguing way** and the cornstarch and water impact demos on youtube are worth a look. The armor is soft and pliable to the touch (making it more comfortable to ride with than hard puck type armor) but upon impact it hardens briefly and then returns to its original state. This property distributes and reduces the force of the impact dramatically. Old style hard armor has now been bested by this armor – but only when you go for the Level 2 viscoelastic armor.

Which is better the D3O or the Sas-Tec? Sas-Tec has a more competently laid out and informative website than do the folks at D3O. It was easier to get concrete information from Sas-Tec. I cannot clearly say at this point which one has the better high end armor than the other and my ultimate choice was also made by other factors, like different features on the jacket that I opted for.  At one time D3O was the only kid on the block. When Sas-Tec came along it is alleged that German miltiary bomb defusers used it on the soles of their shoes. The D3O is now being used as joint padding in some of the British miltary’s combat uniforms. As innovations continued apace. D3O came out with a generation of stronger armor and then another. D3O armor now comes in T5 (lightweight, lower protection), T6 (with a hard plastic shield on one side to help limit penetrations) and Xergo (thicker, Level 2 kit that gets you nearer to that 4 KN goal) flavors – each offering a bit more protection. Sas-Tec certainly has leading design innovation as well.

Sas-Tec’s high end joint armor is labeled Prestige SC-1/42 and when I squint at their chart (note: their charts are much more readable than are D3O’s) they indicate that the armor transmits a mere 6 KN to the body. Their SC and SK level 2 back armor rings in at about the same: 6 KN.

At this point I can tell you this. If you buy armor that is rated to CE-EN1621- 1 and 2, Level 2 you will be getting the highest rated armor currently available. The Scorpion Commander 2 jacket that I recently tested has Level 1 Sas-Tec armor in it when you buy it. The Firstgear Kilimanjaro jacket that I just tested comes stock with Level 1 D3O armor. With either of these jackets if you wanted the top end armor you would be able to swap out the scorpion with Sas-Tec Level 2 and the Firstgear with D3O Level 2 – they will swap straight out. Of course you cannot do a straight swap for the Sas-tec in a jacket that was designed for D3O and vice versa. You can also upgrade your old jacket to Molecular but it will require some time on the blogowebz to figure out the fitting constraints. You must also factor in your willingness to go at your older jacket with a scissors, needle and thread or alternatively your new armor with the electric turkey carver.

Here’s what I did: I researched jackets within my budget that had either D3O or Sas-Tec armor and then, after some waffling between the Firstgear Kilimanjaro (D3O) and the Scorpion Commander 2 (Sas-Tec), I popped for the Kilimanjaro. I then bought the D3O Viper Stealth Pro back armor (the “Pro” series is level 2 rated). Next up I will be ordering the D3O Xergo hip, knee shoulder and elbow inserts and they will all swap into my Firstgear clothing. Whoop-La, done and done.

I ordered my back armor insert from Klim because they actually had it in stock. Klim is one of the maker’s of gear that lays D3O armor into their motorcycle clothing and it is not surprising that they do so. D3O, in its its early day was often seen on the ski slopes and boarding half-pipes. Klim is a big maker of snow wear and Klim’s adoption of D3O into their motorcycle clothing was a natural one. Other makers are following as riders demand the best in protection. Demand the best in protection.

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* It is important to note that during my poking around on the webz I found documentation and commentary to indicate that the relative value of back armor to prevent or substantially reduce the possibility of spinal injury is, surprisingly, quite low. The majority of the damage to the spinal column is initiated by severe torquing of the head and neck and/or the hip. Back armor aids more in limiting injury to the ribs and also helps in both lowering bruising and organ damage. It is not as substantial a contributor to the prevention of spinal injury as most folks think.  [NB.: Cambridge Standard For motorcyclists Clothing, Roderick Woods.]

** I don’t want to make this post any more unwieldy than it already is so if you are interested in learning more about the unique property of the molecular armor take a look at wikipedia’s entry for “dilatant.”

Gerde Applethwaite