Early modern era
In 1538, Francesco Maria della Rovere commissioned Filippo Negroli to create a bulletproof vest. In 1561, Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor is recorded as testing his armor against gun-fire. Similarly, in 1590 Sir Henry Lee expected his Greenwich armor to be "pistol proof". Its actual effectiveness was controversial at the time. The etymology of "bullet" and the adjective form of "proof" in the late 16th century would suggest that the term "bulletproof" originated shortly thereafter.
During the English Civil War Oliver Cromwell's Ironside cavalry were equipped with Capeline helmets and musket-proof cuirasses which consisted of two layers of armor plate (in later studies involving X-ray a third layer was discovered which was placed in between the outer and inner layer). The outer layer was designed to absorb the bullet's energy and the thicker inner layer stopped further penetration. The armor would be left badly dented but still serviceable. One of the first recorded descriptions of soft armor use was found in medieval Japan, with the armor having been manufactured from silk.
One of the first examples of commercially sold bulletproof armour was produced by a tailor in Dublin, Ireland in the 1840s. The Cork Examiner reported on his line of business in December 1847:
The daily melancholy announcements of assassination that are now disgracing the country, and the murderers permitted to walk quietly away and defy the law, have induced me to get constructed a garment, shot and ball proof, so that every man can be protected, and enabled to return the fire of the assassin, and thus soon put a stop to the cowardly conduct which has deprived society of so many excellent and valuable lives, spreading terror and desolation through the country. I hope in a few days to have a specimen garment on view at my warerooms.
Ned Kelly's Ploughboard Ballistic Suit
Another soft ballistic vest, Myeonje baegab, was invented in Joseon, Korea in the 1860s shortly after the French campaign against Korea. The Heungseon Daewongun ordered development of bullet-proof armor because of increasing threats from Western armies. Kim Gi-Doo and Gang Yoon found that cotton could protect against bullets if 10 layers of cotton fabric were used. The vests were used in battle during the United States expedition to Korea, when the US Navy attacked Ganghwa Island in 1871. The US Navy captured one of the vests and took it to the US, where it was stored at the Smithsonian Museum until 2007. The vest has since been sent back to Korea and is currently on display to the public.
Simple ballistic armor was sometimes constructed by criminals. During the 1880s, a gang of Australian bushrangers led by Ned Kelly made basic armour from plough blades. By this time the Victorian Government had a reward for the capture of a member of the Kelly Gang at £8,000 (equivalent to 2 million Australian dollars in 2005). One of the stated aims of Kelly was the establishment of a Republic in North East Victoria. Each of the four Kelly gang members had fought a siege at a hotel clad in suits of armour made from the mouldboards of ploughs. The maker's stamp (Lennon Number 2 Type) was found inside several of the plates. The armour covered the men's torsos, upper arms, and upper legs, and was worn with a helmet. The suits were roughly made on a creek bed using a makeshift forge and a stringy-bark log as a muffled anvil. The suits had a mass of around 44 kg (96 lb) but eventually were of no use as the suits lacked protection for the legs and hands.
American outlaw and gunfighter Jim Miller was infamous for wearing a steel breastplate over his frock coat as a form of body armor. This plate saved Miller on two occasions, and it proved to be highly resistant to pistol bullets and shotguns. One example can be seen in his gun battle with a sheriff named George A. "Bud" Frazer, where the plate managed to deflect all bullets from the lawmen's six-shooter.
Test of a 1901 vest designed by Jan Szczepanik
, in which a 7 mm revolver is fired at a person wearing the vest
In 1881, Tombstone physician George E. Goodfellow noticed that a faro dealer Charlie Storms who was shot twice by Luke Short had one bullet stopped by a silk handkerchief in his breast pocket that prevented that bullet from penetrating. In 1887, he wrote an article titled Impenetrability of Silk to Bullets for the Southern California Practitioner documenting the first known instance of bulletproof fabric. He experimented with silk vests resembling medieval gambesons, which used 18 to 30 layers of silk fabric to protect the wearers from penetration.
Fr. Kazimierz Żegleń used Goodfellow's findings to develop a bulletproof vest made of silk fabric at the end of the 19th century, which could stop the relatively slow rounds from black powder handguns. The vests cost US$800 each in 1914, a small fortune given the $20.67/1oz-Au exchange-rate back then, equivalent to ~$50,000 circa 2016, exceeding mean annual income.
A similar vest, made by Polish inventor Jan Szczepanik in 1901, saved the life of Alfonso XIII of Spain when he was shot by an attacker. By 1900, US gangsters were wearing $800 silk vests to protect themselves.
On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary was fatally shot, triggering World War I; despite owning a silk bulletproof vest, which tests by Britain's Royal Armouries indicate would likely have stopped a bullet of that era, and despite being aware of potential threats to his life including an attempted assassination of his uncle a few years earlier, Ferdinand was not wearing his on that fateful day.
First World War
World War I German Infanterie-Panzer, 1917
The combatants of World War I started the war without any attempt at providing the soldiers with body armor. Various private companies advertised body protection suits such as the Birmingham Chemico Body Shield, although these products were generally far too expensive for an average soldier.
The first official attempts at commissioning body armor were made in 1915 by the British Army Design Committee, in particular a 'Bomber's Shield' for the use of bomber pilots who were notoriously under-protected in the air from anti-aircraft bullets and shrapnel. The Experimental Ordnance Board also reviewed potential materials for bullet and fragment proof armor, such as steel plate. A 'necklet' was successfully issued on a small scale (due to cost considerations), which protected the neck and shoulders from bullets traveling at 600 feet per second with interwoven layers of silk and cotton stiffened with resin. The Dayfield body shield entered service in 1916 and a hardened breastplate was introduced the following year.
The British army medical services calculated towards the end of the War, that three quarters of all battle injuries could have been prevented if an effective armor had been issued.
The French also experimented with steel visors attached to the Adrian helmet and 'abdominal armor' designed by General Adrian. These failed to be practical, because they severely impeded the soldier's mobility. The Germans officially issued body armor in the shape of nickel and silicon armor plates that was called sappenpanzer (nicknamed 'Lobster armor') from late 1916. These were similarly too heavy to be practical for the rank-and-file, but were used by static units, such as sentries and occasionally the machine-gunners. An improved version, the Infantrie-Panzer, was introduced in 1918, with hooks for equipment.
Testing a bulletproof vest in Washington, D.C. September 1923.
The United States developed several types of body armor, including the chrome nickel steel Brewster Body Shield, which consisted of a breastplate and a headpiece and could withstand Lewis Gun bullets at 2,700 ft/s (820 m/s), but was clumsy and heavy at 40 lb (18 kg). A scaled waistcoat of overlapping steel scales fixed to a leather lining was also designed; this armor weighed 11 lb (5.0 kg), fit close to the body, and was considered more comfortable.
During the late 1920s through the early 1930s, gunmen from criminal gangs in the United States began wearing less-expensive vests made from thick layers of cotton padding and cloth. These early vests could absorb the impact of handgun rounds such as .22 Long Rifle, .25 ACP, .32 S&W Long, .32 S&W, .380 ACP, .38 Special and .45 ACP traveling at speeds of up to 300 m/s (980 ft/s). To overcome these vests, law enforcement agents such as the FBI began using the newer and more powerful .38 Super, and later the .357 Magnum cartridge.
Second World War
A Japanese vest, which used overlapping armour plates
In 1940, the Medical Research Council in Britain proposed the use of a lightweight suit of armor for general use by infantry, and a heavier suit for troops in more dangerous positions, such as anti-aircraft and naval gun crews. By February 1941, trials had begun on body armor made of manganese steel plates. Two plates covered the front area and one plate on the lower back protected the kidneys and other vital organs. Five thousand sets were made and evaluated to almost unanimous approval – as well as providing adequate protection, the armor didn't severely impede the mobility of the soldier and were reasonably comfortable to wear. The armor was introduced in 1942 although the demand for it was later scaled down. The Canadian Army in northwestern Europe also adopted this armor for the medical personnel of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division.
The British company Wilkinson Sword began to produce flak jackets for bomber crew in 1943 under contract with the Royal Air Force. It was realised that the majority of pilot deaths in the air was due to low velocity fragments rather than bullets. Surgeon of the United States Army Air Forces, Colonel M. C. Grow, stationed in Britain, thought that many wounds he was treating could have been prevented by some kind of light armor. Two types of armor were issued for different specifications. These jackets were made of nylon fabric and capable of stopping flak and shrapnel, but were not designed to stop bullets. Although they were considered too bulky for pilots using the Avro Lancaster bombers, they were adopted by United States Army Air Forces.
In the early stages of World War II, the United States also designed body armor for infantrymen, but most models were too heavy and mobility-restricting to be useful in the field and incompatible with existing required equipment. Near the middle of 1944, development of infantry body armor in the United States restarted. Several vests were produced for the US military, including but not limited to the T34, the T39, the T62E1, and the M12. The United States developed a vest using Doron Plate, a fiberglass-based laminate. These vests were first used in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.
The Soviet Armed Forces used several types of body armor, including the SN-42 ("Stalnoi Nagrudnik" is Russian for "steel breastplate", and the number denotes the design year). All were tested, but only the SN-42 was put in production. It consisted of two pressed steel plates that protected the front torso and groin. The plates were 2 mm thick and weighed 3.5 kg (7.7 lb). This armor was generally supplied to SHISBr (assault engineers) and Tankodesantniki. The SN armor protected wearers from 9×19mm bullets fired by an MP 40 at around 100 meters, and sometimes it was able to deflect 7.92 Mauser bullets (and bayonet blades), but only at very low angle. Which made it useful in urban battles such as the Battle of Stalingrad. However, the SN's weight made it impractical for infantry in the open.
During the Korean War several new vests were produced for the United States military, including the M-1951, which made use of fibre-reinforced plastic or aluminium segments woven into a nylon vest. These vests represented "a vast improvement on weight, but the armor failed to stop bullets and fragments very successfully," although officially they were claimed to be able to stop 7.62×25mm Tokarev pistol rounds at the muzzle. Developed by Natick Laboratories and introduced in 1967, T65-2 plate carriers were the first vests designed to hold hard ceramic plates, making them capable of stopping 7 mm rifle rounds.
These "Chicken Plates" were made of either boron carbide, silicon carbide, or aluminium oxide. They were issued to the crew of low-flying aircraft, such as the UH-1 and UC-123, during the Vietnam War.
In 1969, American Body Armor was founded and began to produce a patented combination of quilted nylon faced with multiple steel plates. This armor configuration was marketed to American law enforcement agencies by Smith & Wesson under the trade name "Barrier Vest." The Barrier Vest was the first police vest to gain wide use during high threat police operations.
In 1971, research chemist Stephanie Kwolek discovered a liquid crystalline polymer solution. Its exceptional strength and stiffness led to the invention of Kevlar, a synthetic fibre, woven into a fabric and layered, that, by weight, has five times the tensile strength of steel. In the mid-1970s, DuPont the company which employed Kwolek introduced Kevlar. Immediately Kevlar was incorporated into a National Institute of Justice (NIJ) evaluation program to provide lightweight, able body armor to a test pool of American law enforcement officers to ascertain if everyday able wearing was possible. Lester Shubin, a program manager at the NIJ, managed this law enforcement feasibility study within a few selected large police agencies, and quickly determined that Kevlar body armor could be comfortably worn by police daily, and would save lives.
In 1975 Richard A. Armellino, the founder of American Body Armor, marketed an all Kevlar vest called the K-15, consisting of 15 layers of Kevlar that also included a 5" × 8" ballistic steel "Shok Plate" positioned vertically over the heart and was issued US Patent #3,971,072 for this innovation. Similarly sized and positioned "trauma plates" are still used today on the front ballistic panels of most able vests, reducing blunt trauma and increasing ballistic protection in the center-mass heart/sternum area.
In 1976, Richard Davis, founder of Second Chance Body Armor, designed the company's first all-Kevlar vest, the Model Y. The lightweight, able vest industry was launched and a new form of daily protection for the modern police officer was quickly adapted. By the mid-to-late 1980s, an estimated 1/3 to 1/2 of police patrol officers wore able vests daily. By 2006, more than 2,000 documented police vest "saves" were recorded, validating the success and efficiency of lightweight able body armor as a standard piece of everyday police equipment.
US Marines being issued the MTV at Camp Foster
During the 1980s, the US military issued the PASGT kevlar vest, tested privately at NIJ level IIA by several sources, able to stop pistol rounds (including 9 mm FMJ), but intended and approved only for fragmentation. West Germany issued a similar rated vest called the
Kevlar soft armor had its shortcomings because if "large fragments or high velocity bullets hit the vest, the energy could cause life-threatening, blunt trauma injuries"Ranger Body Armor was developed for the American military in 1991. Although it was the second modern US body armor that was able to stop rifle caliber rounds and still be light enough to be worn by infantry soldiers in the field, it still had its flaws: "it was still heavier than the concurrently issued PASGT (Personal Armor System for Ground Troops) anti-fragmentation armor worn by regular infantry and ... did not have the same degree of ballistic protection around the neck and shoulders." The format of Ranger Body Armor (and more recent body armor issued to US special operations units) highlights the trade-offs between force protection and mobility that modern body armor forces organizations to address.
in selected, vital areas.
Newer armor issued by the United States armed forces to large numbers of troops includes the United States Army's Improved Outer Tactical Vest and the United States Marine Corps Modular Tactical Vest. All of these systems are designed with the vest intended to provide protection from fragments and pistol rounds. Hard ceramic plates, such as the Small Arms Protective Insert, as used with Interceptor Body Armor, are worn to protect the vital organs from higher level threats. These threats mostly take the form of high velocity and armor-piercing rifle rounds. Similar types of protective equipment have been adopted by modern armed forces over the world.
Since the 1970s, several new fibers and construction methods for bulletproof fabric have been developed besides woven Kevlar, such as DSM's Dyneema, Honeywell's Gold Flex and Spectra, Teijin Aramid's Twaron, Pinnacle Armor's Dragon Skin, and Toyobo's Zylon. The US military has developed body armor for the working dogs who aid GIs in battle.
Since 2004, U.S. Special Operations Command has been at work on a new full-body armor that will rely on rheology, or the technology behind the elasticity of liquids in skin care and automotive products. Named TALOS, this new technology may be used in the future.