Cloth and fiber armors are likely the longest-serving family of armor. Light and soft materials, from overlapping paper scales to thick fabric gambeson jackets, have long been used to create powerful armor that resists cuts and punctures. The effectiveness of these armors grew exponentially when combined with mail coats made of interwoven metal rings.
The introduction of firearms into warfare caused many armor designs to become obsolete, but armorers and inventors quickly began inventing better and stronger defensive equipment that could resist firearm projectiles. The first bulletproof armors are thought to have been reinforced metal breastplates, dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries.
Yet, the first modern soft, bullet-resistant vests are thought to have been created by the Japanese and Koreans in the mid-to-late 19th century. The Japanese found that garments that were skillfully constructed with around thirty layers of thick silk cloth could stop a bullet from puncturing the human body. The Koreans, too, constructed a bullet-resistant armor made of around ten layers of thick cotton material.
The men who popularized the modern notion of the bulletproof vest were inspired by the cloth designs of the Japanese and the Koreans. A Ukrainian immigrant priest named Casimir Zeglen and a Polish inventor named Jan Szczepanik created and marketed a bulletproof vest that consisted of a steel plate woven in between layers of silk. To prove that their product worked, the priest, Casimir Zeglen, held a demonstration where he was shot by a .44 caliber firearm at a distance of only ten steps from the shooter.
The materials of bullet-resistant armor have continued to change since the days of Japanese silk garments. Instead of steel, aluminum was tried. Kevlar replaced Asian silk, and ceramic plating was found to be a great solid material for bullet-resistant armor. Now, however, silk is making a return—yet, this time the inventors and engineers have set their gaze on scientifically-modified spider silk.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.