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Body armor in various guises has been used for thousands of years in military applications, but the development of materials that spawned the modern age of bulletproof vests, helmets, and more practical daily-use body armor, can be traced back to the frontier town of Tombstone, Arizona. George E. Goodfellow was the local doctor in Tombstone during the days of Wyatt Earp, and actually treated the Earps for wounds after the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Given the era and place he lived, he developed a particular reputation for dealing with abdominal gunshot wounds.
Dr. Goodfellow witnessed a gunfight in 1881 that occurred on Allen Street in Tombstone between a gambler, Charlie Storms, and a man named Luke Short. The two men took aim and shot each other from nearly punching-range, and Storms was shot twice with a cut-down Colt .45 that Luke Short was known to prefer for convenient carry. One of those rounds went cleanly through Charlie Storms’ heart and killed him; the other was removed by Dr. Goodfellow, remarkably intact and encased in a silk handkerchief the man had in his jacket pocket. Even more remarkable, the silk had not torn.
The discovery led Dr. Goodfellow to explore the qualities of silk fabric, and it is rumored he uncovered at least two other instances when silk clothing or handkerchiefs had stopped a bullet from killing. He published his findings in an article in 1887 titled, “The Impenetrability Of Silk To Bullets.” Ten years after his article was published, a Polish immigrant named Casimir Zeglen, who, oddly enough, was also a Catholic priest, gave a special presentation for the mayor of the crime ridden city of Chicago. He stood bravely on the sidewalk wearing a vest of his own design made of tightly woven silk and linen and wool, while a pistol expert shot him. He was unscathed by the bullet.
As impressive as his demonstration was, Zeglen couldn’t find investors for his bulletproof vest, and ended up returning to his home country where he connected with the inventor, Jan Szczepanik. Utilizing the writings and information from Dr. Goodfellow’s research, they created the first production quality bulletproof vest. It was both a practical and commercial success, worn by world leaders and royalty, and one was credited with saving the life of King Alfonso XIII of Spain from an assassin’s bullet.
Since those days, the materials used to make bulletproof vests and body armor have continued to evolve and offer more real-world solutions for use by servicemen and women, law enforcement, and civilians.
There are various materials used to make bulletproof vests including Kevlar, polyethylene (UHMWPE), and ceramic.
In the early 1960’s, a chemist working for DuPont was attempting to create a new high-performance synthetic fiber and came up with the chemical polymer dubbed, poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide, more commonly referred to now as Kevlar. The polymer had a unique ability to both absorb and redistribute impact-energy along the length of the fiber, which is the secret to tightly woven and layered fabric being able to slow and stop a bullet. Kevlar is generally the most flexible armor, and is also easily shaped into modern bulletproof helmet designs.
Following Kevlar, the next generation of polymer fibers to be used in body armor are polyethylene, or to be precise, Ultra-High-Molecular-Weight-Polyethylene. It’s strong, low profile and lightweight, more durable to environmental wear than Kevlar, and offers as high or higher levels of protection. And when addressing the performance of body armor it’s also worth mentioning the back-face deformation qualities of the materials. Even though the bullet doesn’t penetrate the body, the level of deformation can still result in physical trauma. UHMWPE armor tends to heat, cool, and reform under the friction of a bullet impact, which results in less deformation and subsequently less potential trauma.
And for the ultimate level of protection sought by military and law enforcement, high tech ceramic plates get the nod, and are capable of stopping high caliber rifle rounds.
It’s a commonly asked question, but it’s more practical to understand how they work and what the materials and designs are intended to do, which is save lives. While it might be possible to create body armor that would stop almost anything, it also might not be usable in daily life or even in combat because of the bulk and weight. The standards set by the National Institute of Justice offer a very good rating system for a vest’s ability to stop penetration by bullets from different caliber weapons, from small pistol cartridges up to rifles. The ratings range from level IIA to IV, and within the guidelines of those ratings bulletproof vests can stop bullets with a high degree of confidence, but things like bullet shape, speed, or special coatings have an effect.
What level you choose should be based on the threats you think you might face, and also how the weight and bulk will effect your ability to move and function. Soft, flexible body armor is the most practical for civilians and it comes in levels up to IIIA, which is rated to stop large caliber handgun bullets such as: 9mm, .44 mag, .40 cal, 45 ACP, and .357 Magnum. There are even designs that can be worn nicely beneath a suit for total discretion. And yes, in most states it is completely legal for civilians to wear bulletproof vests in public, although some states have restrictions for convicted felons. You should always check the laws for your state first.
Moving up to level III body armor with bulletproof inserts will provide protection from higher velocity rifle rounds like the 5.56 NATO (typically chambered in AR-15’s,) .308 Remington, 7.62 and more. The ultimate level of protection is provided by level IV armor, which handles everything previously mentioned as well as armor piercing ammunition.
The unique fibers that absorb and disperse the energy of a bullet as it deforms into a mushroom shape, aren’t always well suited to keep an edged weapon from slicing through. So don’t assume that any vest that will stop a bullet will also stop a blade. But modern advances in Kevlar fibers have made it possible to design level IIIA soft vests, as well as level III and IV that will not only stop bullets, but knives and shrapnel. Atomic Defense has multiple vests rated for both bulletproof and stab proof applications, in Kevlar, UHMWPE, Ceramic, or Steel.
Bulletproof vests are a highly specialized piece of equipment that are made to exact performance standards, with high-tech materials. Like any other high-tech equipment, they have certain limits, beyond which, they lose effectiveness. The polymer fibers that make a bulletproof vest strong, can be degraded over time by washing it with soaps or detergent, solvents, and even being exposed to rain or perspiration. Normal wear and tear will also take a toll. They may be bulletproof, but that doesn’t mean they are indestructible! They should be spot cleaned and air dried, but never fully submerged or thrown into the washing machine and dryer, and never use any harsh chemical cleaning agents.
When you are looking for a piece of equipment whose sole purpose is to save your life, never take the risk of buying used body armor. Even if the vest or bulletproof helmet appears to be in good condition, there is no way of knowing what elements it might have been subjected to and if it was properly maintained, and therefore, whether it will perform when your life depends on it.
Whether you are a civilian looking for a business suit compatible vest, or a police officer who needs the best protection available for a dangerous job, Atomic Defense can help you find what you need. We supply the very best NIJ-tested bulletproof vests, helmets, backpacks, and ballistic masks on the market at affordable prices.