History of Bullet Proof Vests and Body Armor
The homemade armor worn
by Australian outlaw Ned Kelly in 1880, and now on display
in Australia's State Library of Victoria.
The armor has many
bullet impressions, but none penetrated.
Click on the image to
open a larger picture of this suit of armor.
Part 3 of a new series on
body armor. See links to other parts of the series on
The knights in armor, glorified
in legends and stories, are merely one early example of rigid
armor being used to protect combatants from other combatants.
In addition to evolving solid
armor, flexible softer armor has been in use since medieval
But it is only from the mid
1970s that modern bullet proof vests became practical in terms
of size, weight, comfort and cost.
Continued developments in
artificial fibers and manufacturing techniques have seen steady,
albeit slow, improvements in bullet proof vests in the 35 years
since then, and exciting new technologies may offer much greater
improvements in the future.
A Quick History of Body
There is nothing new to the
concept of using some type of device to shield oneself from an
enemy's attack. Indeed, the word 'shield' itself also
refers to devices one would hold in front of oneself, to protect
against the enemy's sword or other weapon.
Armor itself first came to
be used in the form of an item of clothing in the middle ages,
when knights would wear either rigid hinged armor or more
flexible 'chain mail' type armor.
The development of firearms
made these early types of armor obsolete, but in the 1500s,
solid metal armor designed to withstand firearms started to
appear, with one of the first recorded instances being in 1538
when the Italian Duke of Urbino commissioned a bullet proof vest
from an armorer in Milan, possibly of Damascus steel. He
died shortly thereafter, but of poison.
The word 'bulletproof'
itself dates back to the late 1500s, indicating an awareness and
appreciation of the concept.
In the English Civil War
(1642 - 1651) Oliver Cromwell's cavalry were equipped with
double-layered metal cuirasses (vests) that were designed to be
One infamous use of armor
occurred in Australia in 1880 when four outlaws known as the Ned
Kelly gang built their own body armor out of ploughshares.
They concealed their armor under long coats, and in a shoot-out
with the police, their armor was hit repeatedly but never
penetrated. The armor comprised a helmet, vest, and apron,
with additional protection for the shoulders and weighed almost
But the balance of each
person's arms and legs were unprotected, and it was repeated
shots to these unprotected parts of their bodies that finally
stopped them. Fascinating details
Different countries and
armies continued to experiment with solid protective garments,
and by World War 1 the US was equipping some of its soldiers
with a combination of breastplate and headpiece known as a
Brewster Body Shield. This device, made from chrome nickel
steel, could protect against rifle bullets, but weighed 40 lbs.
Initial attempts at
developing something one could more comfortably wear and still be protected against
firearm bullets - lighter weight and more flexible than solid
metal - revolved around using natural substances, of
course, primarily woven silk (first used by the medieval
Japanese). Improvements to firearm technologies and the
increasing speed of bullets more than kept up with improvements
to silk type armor, and the cost of such garments was also
extremely high, making them impractical for all but the most
As an interesting aside, it
is believed that Archduke Ferdinand was wearing a silk bullet
proof vest, but his assassination at Sarajevo in 1914 - the
event that resulted in World War 1 - was in the form of a shot
to the head.
There have been US patents
granted for bullet proof garments dating back to 1919.
During the late 1920s and
early 1930s, gangsters in the US started wearing vests made from
multiple layers of cotton padding and cloth. These worked
quite well against the not very powerful handgun rounds commonly
used at the time, and resulted in the FBI changing to more
powerful pistol rounds, first the .38 Special and subsequently
the .357 Magnum.
Flexible body armor first
approached something like mainstream use in World War 2, with
bulky flak jackets being adopted, and made out of nylon.
Unfortunately these were not only cumbersome to wear, they were
also of limited value; providing some protection against
shrapnel but no real effective protection against rifle or even
The revolution that introduced
modern body armor
Things finally started to
change in the 1960s with the development of new artificial
fibers that could be used to create more effective, less bulky,
and lighter protection. These new fibers were termed
aramids and first started to appear in the early 1960s (DuPont's
Nomex was the first, developed in the early 1960s and first
marketed in 1967). Perhaps the best known aramid is
DuPont's Kevlar, developed in 1965 and first commercially used
as a replacement for steel in racing tires in the early 1970s.
Intensive research in the
first half of the 1970s saw Kevlar adapted to be used in the
manufacture of a totally new type of wearable (and even
concealable) ballistic vest, with a report from the NIJ
(National Institute of Justice) in 1976 concluding that Kevlar
based body armor was sufficiently practical and effective as to
be beneficial for police officers to adopt.
Kevlar has made modern body
armor possible, and although the fiber is now 40+ years old, it
still remains the dominant material used in vests designed to
protect against pistol bullets, supplemented with solid steel or
ceramic plates to give greater protection against rifle round
Kevlar has had several 'upgrades' - the
original Kevlar was superseded by Kevlar 29, which was the first
version used for production models of bullet proof vests in the
1970s, which in turn was superseded by Kevlar 129 in 1988 - a
product DuPont referred to as a second generation of Kevlar
In 1995, Kevlar Correctional
was introduced, which added some stab-resistant capabilities
(prison officers are more at risk of being stabbed by inmates
with make-shift spike weapons than they are at risk of being
shot), and then Kevlar Protera came out in 1996. There
have been no new enhanced Kevlar products since then.
Alternatives to Kevlar
In addition to Kevlar, other
materials of note include Spectra, Spectra Shield and GoldFlex
from Honeywell. Honeywell claims Spectra has the highest
strength to weight ratio of any fiber in the world. It is
also very cut resistant.
Spectra Shield has layers of
Spectra fiber sealed between sheets of polyethylene film.
GoldFlex is similar to Spectra Shield but instead of using
Spectra fiber, which is polyethylene based, it uses an aramid
(Kevlar type) fiber instead.
Another product is Twaron,
made by Twaron Products. Its main claim to fame is that
it has lots of finely spun single filaments that act as an
'energy sponge', absorbing and dissipating a bullet's energy.
It is also claimed to be lighter weight for the same amount of
protection than, eg, Kevlar.
A product from The
Netherlands is Dyneema, which again boasts a very high strength
to weight ratio, lightness, and high energy absorption.
And then there is Zylon from
Japan. It is claimed to have twice the tensile strength of
Kevlar type aramids.
It is relevant to note that
the fibers used for bullet proofing have other uses too,
including manufacturing other types of industrial protective
clothing, making other strong light objects (eg fishing poles
and tennis rackets) and even brake linings.
Dragon Skin Armor
Most current flexible bullet
proof vests are of woven fabric. An interesting alternate
approach has been taken by a Californian company, Pinnacle
Armor. They have created a flexible vest which comprises
about 150 2" wide ceramic disks, each individually mounted on a
vest carrier, and all overlapping each other so as to provide an
overall solid barrier, but with flexibility for easy wearing and
This has been a
controversial new approach, with some experts proclaiming it to
be a brilliant step forward in body armor design, and others
citing concerns and failures in some testing procedures and in
some specific combinations of bullet angles when they hit the
Dragon Skin vest.
Some commentators are
claiming the US Army deliberately engineered testing
circumstances that would cause the Dragon Skin armor to fail,
and the situation is further complicated by some apparent
quality control issues Pinnacle had in its early production
The continued enhancements
to fibers has resulted in bullet proof vests that are lighter
and less bulky than their predecessors. They are not
necessarily any stronger or more bullet resistant, but for the
same amount of resistance, they are definitely lighter and
easier to wear.
In the past, improvements
often came by way of making the fibers thinner and the weave
tighter, but the extra cost of this becomes greater and greater
and is at a point now where continued reductions in fiber size
are not cost effective with present technologies. Some
manufacturers are now looking at three dimensional weaving as a
new way to make stronger lighter garments.
New technologies and new
materials are needed. Some are on the horizon - a new
fiber called M5 seems promising, but is not yet in commercial
Carbon fibers produced from
carbon nanotubes are also being developed.
technology is a shear thickening substance that is normally
flexible but which thickens up when experiencing sudden strong
Are your eyes starting to
glaze over yet? No wonder! By the early 2000s, and
simply using present technologies, more
than 80 different manufacturers offer NIJ certified body armor.
Fortunately, as you'll see
in subsequent parts of this series, it is actually quite easy to
choose a good bullet proof vest. So please click on to
find out how.
Part of a multi-part series
Please click the links at
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other parts of this extensive series on body armor and the
protection it offers.
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11 Jan 2011, last update
21 Jul 2020
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