A Brief History of Bulletproof Vests


When a 16th century European blacksmith finished making armor that was impervious to firearms, he fired a shot at the breastplate, denting it. As the story goes, this dent was proof to his customer that the armor would stand up to a bullet, so it became known as "the bullet proof." Since then, the history of bulletproof vests has been anything but a straight shot.

The Bulletproof Priest

In the late 1800s, both Japan and Korea developed some of the first modern bulletproof vests when they discovered that 30 layers of silk fabric could stop the black powder bullets of the day. This "soft armor" laid the foundation for numerous inventors who tried to improve upon the idea as firearms became more powerful.

A priest from Chicago named Casimir Zeglen, with the help of fellow inventor Jan Szczepanik, devised a special way to weave a 1.6mm steel plate between four layers of silk. Zeglen claimed his 1/8" thick, 1/2 lb. vest could stop a .44 caliber—and he proved it when he volunteered to be shot before a live audience in New York City. When he was struck by the bullet at only 10 paces, he said he felt just "a tap." Zeglen and his "bullet proof cloth" became an overnight sensation. Egged on by the positive publicity, Zeglen left the priesthood in order to pursue his new business venture.

Sadly, he never made his fortune, in part due to bad timing and bad luck. When the U.S. Military tested his invention, they found that it was too hot and too expensive thanks to the amount of silk required. Undaunted, Zeglen then offered one to President McKinley in the hopes it might spur interest. After contacting the White House, Zeglen was told he could meet the President in a month, as McKinley was going to be too busy traveling. Two weeks later in Buffalo, McKinley was shot and killed by an assassin's bullet that ripped through his abdomen. Zeglen's vest would have easily stopped the .32 caliber round.

Zeglen did manage to get Archduke Franz Ferdinand to accept one of his vests.

Unfortunately, Ferdinand was killed while wearing it. The kill shot hit him in the neck, well above the vest itself, but it didn't matter—the bad publicity didn't help and Zeglen was soon out of business.

For the rest of his life, Zeglen continued to invent and improve existing products, but he never came as close to fame as he did with his bullet proof cloth.

Bulletproof Materials

Presently, there is no such thing as a bulletproof vest. Vests are only considered "bullet resistant," simply because there is always some type of firearm that can penetrate even the latest advancements in protective technology. For over 30 years, the synthetic fiber Kevlar has been the go-to material for making bullet-resistant vests. But researchers are constantly looking for new ideas and new materials to make a truly bulletproof vest. And they've looked in some unusual places.

A bulletproof vest has to have the ability to stop a bullet from penetrating, but must also spread out the kinetic energy of the projectile. One possible answer to this problem might be borrowed from the abalone. This mighty mollusk's shell is made up of layer upon layer of microscopic, rock hard calcium tiles. The layers of tiles are held together on the top and bottom by a sticky protein, but the sides are simply butting up against one another. Should an abalone's shell take a sharp blow, it's tough enough to keep the projectile from getting through. But the tiles also have enough give to slide back and forth, absorbing much of the impact by spreading it out to neighboring tiles. Researchers believe if a vest were made using these same concepts, it could stop just about anything you threw at it.

Spider silk is one of the strongest, most flexible materials in nature, and has also been called the next big thing in bulletproofing. It's not quite as strong as Kevlar, but it's 10 times more elastic, meaning it can bounce back and absorb the energy of a bullet much better. However, getting spider silk on a large scale is not easy. So inventors are mixing spider DNA with goats (yes, goats), who then secrete the web protein in their milk. After milking, the protein is extracted and processed to create a fiber known as BioSteel. If you made a vest using both BioSteel and Kevlar, you could have one very tough, but very flexible bulletproof solution.

Another idea is "liquid armor"—Kevlar coated in a non-toxic fluid made up of nano-particles of silica. When under low stress conditions, these nano-particles are completely flexible, allowing the wearer to move freely. But within a millisecond of receiving a high-impact blow, the silica in the immediate target zone would become rigid, preventing further penetration. Best of all, the armor would protect against threats that a normal bulletproof jacket can't—namely puncture wounds from knives and shrapnel from explosions. It could very well be the "silver bullet" to bulletproofing.

Bulletproof Fashion

In case you're not up on your fashion trends, bulletproof is "in." Many clothing manufacturers have released lines inspired by the look of ballistic vests and other tactical equipment, while others are producing the real deal for high-end clientele.

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Colombian fashion designer Miguel Caballero, AKA "The Armani of Armor," specializes in making bulletproof clothes for men and women that look like everyday business suits, raincoats, and even polo shirts. His clients include action star Steven Seagal, and dignitaries like President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, King Abdullah of Jordan, and President Barack Obama, who wore Caballero's clothes on inauguration day. The style doesn't come cheap, of course. For a polo shirt with the lowest level of protection, which can stop a 9mm round, you're looking at $7,500; for the medium protection, to stop automatic weapons fire, expect to spend close to $10,000.

But what if you want to look like Jack Bauer or 50 Cent? You can always just buy a bulletproof vest, though if you're a convicted felon, most states have laws against it. However, if dropping $400-$2,000 for an outfit accessory isn't your thing, you can now buy "fashion" bulletproof vests for less than $100. They look just like the real thing, but would barely stop a shot from a Red Rider BB Gun. If you're hoping for something a little more subtle, maybe Dynomighty Design's bulletproof t-shirt would be a better fit. The stylish tee features a screen printed image of a bulletproof vest and uses special ink that gives it a slight metallic shine. It's not bulletproof, but it looks like it wants to be.

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If you're a woman who's ready for action, check out Tactical Corsets—lingerie that uses real military materials to mimic the look and functionality of military vests. With numerous hooks, loops, and pouches, you can carry whatever you need—all while being properly supported. As of right now, Tactical Corsets are not bulletproof, but they're working on it.

Save the Children

And let's not forget the kids. Introduced in 2007, the $265 Bullet Blocker Backpack looks just like any other bag from a department store. But inside it features a protection panel that can stop .44 Magnum rounds. If a gun is pulled, a kid with a Bullet Blocker can either run away and still be protected, or he can swing the bag around to cover his chest and face. If he has a bulletproof notebook inside ($145, sold separately) and he's wearing a bulletproof denim jacket ($979, sold separately), he should be very well protected.
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Are you a cop, in the military, or part of an elite, covert, anti-terrorist team? Tell us your bulletproof vest stories in the comments section below!