The evolution of the firearm is an interesting one — from the unknown Chinese origins of gunpowder, to the fire lance, and the slow development of handheld tubes that use gunpowder to force a projectile outward and into an enemy target. By the 1300s, what we consider guns today were well along in development, and by the 1500s they had been definitive in enough battles that the world was starting to really dig its teeth into the future of warfare.

And as the predator’s teeth sharpens over the ages, so the prey’s hide begins to thicken. The development of body armor was an inevitable result of the evolution of firearms — it had certainly been produced specifically for arrows and other weapons in the past, so the concept was not a new one.

In the 1500s, several European nations were beginning to test the development of “pistol proof” armor. One has to realize that the effectiveness of guns at this stage in history was not anywhere close to the effectiveness of weapons we have today. While that might sound obvious, it’s important to realize when understanding that what might not have worked now, could have worked perfectly well back then — for example, suits of armor wrought in steel. Wearing a silk vest could likely save someone’s life back then, but it’s not about to stop a .45 today.

It wasn’t until the 1800s that the world started to see the earliest significant stages of ballistic vests and armor that were finding their way into the public eye. On the commercial side, Ireland, Korea and Japan were all developing various sorts of tailored armor.

On the criminal side, many were fashioning together all sorts of various types of armor. The criminal Ned Kelly from Australia had built a suit with iron plates protecting the head and chest, and the entire iron get-up weight 97 lbs, padded on the inside. He and his outlaw family would have an infamous last stand against the police, where he was the only one to survive (and subsequently captured and executed). However, his suit of armor, made from the moldboards of plows, proved to be quite effective — 18 bullets had struck him, and it was the hanging that killed him.

Kelly’s armor on display (left), partially worn by a police officer after the fight (right) | Wikimedia Commons

George Goodfellow of Tombstone fame would go on to push the concept of silk-based armor. In the late 1800s, Goodfellow had noticed that a round that killed Charlie Storm had suspiciously not drawn blood, though the bullet went straight to the man’s heart. Upon investigation, he realized the bullet had passed through a silk handkerchief, and the silk had wrapped around the bullet, rather than being perforated. Goodfellow treated many gunshot wounds, and he would find more evidence to support his silk theories, prompting him to publish them.

Silk protection from bullets found popularity in the United States, and by the 1900s, expensive, tailored silk “body armor” was popular among notorious criminals and various politicians alike. It saved the life of the King of Spain during an assassination attempt in 1901, and authorities said that it would have saved the life of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, had he been wearing it (an interesting thought, considering his assassination was the tipping point for WWI).

However, the development of silk body armor would not prove effective for long, as firearms would push forward in the race of effectiveness. WWI saw massive changes in weaponry, and proved to be the first war where machine guns were used anywhere near that effectively. However, most body armor at the time hindered mobility too much, and was more common among specialty personnel instead of mass-produced for the infantry.