The History of Bulletproof Vests

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The mere mention of the word ‘bulletproof’ bring to mind images of war and gunfights. Who hasn’t watched movies or heard stories about knights in their armors, bravely engaging in bloody battles and coming out alive and victorious all because their body armor kept them protected from arrows, swords and of course, firearms?

The scenario today isn’t very different, except that the loyal body has been evolving right since the medieval times. However, the early armor wasn’t very comfortable or convenient to use. It was only in the mid-1970s that bulletproof vests became more pragmatic and functional with respect to their design, size, weight, comfort and cost.

Ever since then, there have been gradual and continuous developments in areas related to artificial fibers and manufacturing techniques. Armors have gotten better and more reliable over time, which is indicative of greater advances in the future.
In this post, we take a look at how the modern-day bullet proof vest, considered one of the safest and the most reliable forms of body armor, came into being.

A Quick Rewind
Body armor first came into being as a part of the warfare attire in the middle ages, when knights were required to wear heavy defensive gear. In addition to that, they would also carry a shield, which was akin to a protective screen or a barrier, which they could hold in front of themselves to ward off the incoming barrages of arrows, and strikes from swords, battle axes, maces or other weapons.

With the discovery of gun powder by Chinese alchemists in the 800s, came the firearms which led to the early body armor to become obsolete. The first recorded use of firearms has been sometime in the 1100s. However, it was only in the 1500s that solid metal armor that could withstand firearms made its appearance.

In 1538, the Italian Duke of Urbino, Francesco Maria I della Rovere commissioned Filippo Negroli, an armorer in Milan, to create the first bulletproof vest. It is believed that this armor was made of Damascus steel. He breathed his last soon after that after being poisoned.

The term ‘bulletproof’ dates back to the late 1500s, which points towards the increasing awareness and appreciation of the concept at that time.

During the English Civil War from 1642 to 1651, Oliver Cromwell’s troops were fortified with double-layered metal vests, which were meant to be bulletproof.

Softer body armor was developed by the Japanese in the 1800s. It was made from silk and proved to be effective against low-velocity bullets.

After President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, the US military tested the soft body armor as well. It was found to be ineffective against the improved firearm technologies and speeding bullets, and was also found to be expensive, which is why they decided not to go with it.

Meanwhile, various countries and their armies continued to work around developing solid protective garments. By the time World War I was declared, the US was arming some of its soldiers with an armor that consisted of a headpiece and a breastplate which came to be known as the Brewster Body Shield. This armor, which weighed 40 lbs., was made of chrome nickel steel and offered protection against rifle bullets.

By World War II, flexible body armor such as massive flak jackets, made of ballistic nylon, had been developed and adopted. But, not only were they a hassle to put on, they were also ineffective against rifle and pistol fires. However, because they offered a certain level of protection against shrapnel and ammo fragments, they made the soldiers feel protected, thereby boosting their morale.

The Revolutionary Discovery
It was in the 1960s that things finally started to move forward for the better. New fibers were developed, which were more effective, lighter and bullet-resistant.

In the 1970s, DuPont came out with their Kevlar ballistic fabric, which was exceptionally strong and meant as a substitute for steel belting in tires.

Kevlar had to undergo waterproofing and include additional layers of fabric to become wearable and more durable. Upon testing several versions of the Kevlar vest, the National Institute of Justice found that it could offer protection against some of the most common lead bullets: 38 Specials and 22 Long Rifle Bullets.

Thanks to the invention of Kevlar, the modern-day body armor or bulletproof vest exists as we know it today. Even after 40 years, Kevlar continues to be used in the manufacturing of body armor for protection against pistol bullets.

The original Kevlar was, however, outmoded by Kevlar 29, which was first used for manufacturing prototypes of bulletproof vests in the 1970s. In 1988, these models went on to be antiquated by Kevlar 129, which DuPont declared as the second generation of Kevlar fiber.

The year 1995 witnesses the debut of Kevlar Correctional technology, which had stab-resistant abilities. This was followed by Kevlar Protera in 1996. There have been no further developments in Kevlar products thereafter.

Kevlar Substitutes
Ever since the 1970s, several new bulletproof fibers have been developed. Apart from Kevlar, there is The Netherlands-based DMS’s Dyneema, Honeywell’s Gold Flex and Spectra, Akzo Industrial Fibers’ Twaron, Pinnacle Armor’s Dragon Skin, and Japan-based Toyobo’s Zylon. The manufacturers of these materials claim that their products are lighter, thinner and more effective than Kevlar, although they are also considerably expensive.

The U.S. Special Operations Command has been working to develop a new full-length armor based on rheology (the technology that supports elasticity of liquids in skin care and automotive products) called TALOS since 2004. This technology is being developed for use in the future.

Crime and wars have been around for centuries, and human beings have always used some sort of body armor to keep themselves protected in such scenarios. Thanks to the technological developments in this field and the advancements in the manufacturing processes, human lives can be protected better. The history of bulletproof vests is interesting and fascinating and gives a clear idea about the future of such products, and it looks like it will get only more hi-tech.

Judith Wright is a passionate blogger in the areas of adventurous, perilous and outdoor activities. Judith is also extremely enthusiastic about skiing, hill climbing and trekking. Currently she is an editor at – a provider of gears, rifles and guns for outdoor activities like hunting and fishing.