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History of Body Armor and Bullet Proof Vests

Humans throughout recorded history have used various types of materials as body

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Man Showing Bulletproof Vest
Jeff Rotman/ The Image Bank/ Getty images
Humans throughout recorded history have used various types of materials as body armor to protect themselves from injury in combat and other dangerous situations. The first protective clothing and shields were made from animal skins. As civilizations became more advanced, wooden shields and then metal shields came into use. Eventually, metal was also used as body armor, what we now refer to as the suit of armor associated with the knights of the Middle Ages. However, with the invention of firearms around 1500, metal body armor became ineffective. Then only real protection available against firearms were stone walls or natural barriers such as rocks, trees, and ditches.

Soft Body Armor

One of the first recorded instances of the use of soft body armor was by the medieval Japanese, who used armor manufactured from silk. It was not until the late 19th century that the first use of soft body armor in the United States was recorded. At that time, the military explored the possibility of using soft body armor manufactured from silk. The project even attracted congressional attention after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. While the garments were shown to be effective against low-velocity bullets, those traveling at 400 feet per second or less, they did not offer protection against the new generation of handgun ammunition being introduced at that time. Ammunition that traveled at velocities of more than 600 feet per second. This, along with the prohibitive cost of silk made the concept unacceptable. Silk armor of this type was said to have been worn by Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria when he was killed by a shot to the head, thereby precipitating World War I.

Early Bullet Proof Vests Patents

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office lists records dating back to 1919 for various designs of bullet proof vests and body armor type garments. One of the first documented instances where such a garment was demonstrated for use by law enforcement officers was detailed in the April 2, 1931 edition of the Washington, D.C., Evening Star, where a bullet proof vest was demonstrated to members of the Metropolitan Police Department.

Flak Jacket

The next generation of anti-ballistic bullet proof vest was the World War II "flak jacket" made from ballistic nylon. The flak jacket provided protection primarily from ammunitions fragments and was ineffective against most pistol and rifle threats. Flak jackets were also very cumbersome and bulky.

Lightweight Body Armor

It would not be until the late 1960s that new fibers were discovered that made today's modern generation of cancelable body armor possible. The National Institute of Justice or NIJ initiated a research program to investigate development of a lightweight body armor that on-duty policemen could wear full time. The investigation readily identified new materials that could be woven into a lightweight fabric with excellent ballistic resistant properties. Performance standards were set that defined ballistic resistant requirements for police body armor.

Kevlar

In the 1970s, one of its most significant achievements in the development of body armor was the invention of DuPont's Kevlar ballistic fabric. Ironically, the fabric was originally intended to replace steel belting in vehicle tires.

Next - Testing of Kevlar Fabric Bullet Proof Vests

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