The testing of a bulletproof vest, September 1923

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A man aiming a gun at another person wearing a bulletproof vest. Smoke from the barrel surrounds them and onlookers watch on. September 1923.
The testing of a bulletproof vest in Washington, D.C. on the 13th September 1923. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

You’d expect the invention of the bulletproof vest to have come closer to the 21st century than its actual invention date, but armour has consistently been used by humans to protect themselves throughout time. The bulletproof vest was the next step in the long line of armour inventions. A polish inventor by the name of Casimir Zeglen, emigrated to America and invented the world’s first bulletproof vest in 1893 following the assassination of Carter Harrison Sr. Indeed, the need seemingly became more necessary as more people became politically inclined and started resenting their leaders. Zeglen’s initial invention helped to save the King of Spain, Alfonso VIII from murder when an attempt at his life was made soon after, but in the same year President William McKinley would be assassinated. This led many to call for a more widespread access to bulletproof technology in America.

This picture specifically displays two men testing their recent commercial bulletproof vest that was sold as being the most lightweight and easily manufacturable to date. Like any good salesman of the time, these two would need to demonstrate and prove their worth to any potential buyers usually via demonstration. However, given the piece of kit that they are punting, this proved slightly more dangerous than working on a market or selling a car. The demonstrators are WH Murphy and his assistant; the audience is the Washington City police department. Murphy worked for the Protective Garment Corporation of New York, looking to sell off their goods to the continually growing police market in the US.

Standing a mere 10ft (3m) apart from each other using a gun (documented as an S&W Model 10 Revolver), Murphy’s assistant shot two bullets at the chest of Murphy. According to eyewitnesses he didn’t even bat an eyelid. The image looks haunting, almost like a ghost is leaving Murphy as he gets shot, but this 5kg, tight fitting vest worked a treat. So much so that Murphy gave the used bullets as a souvenir to the police officer who also tested his vest.

This sparked a huge interest from police forces across the nation who were increasingly finding themselves warring with mobsters and gangsters as America entered the prohibition era. The huge rise of armed crime within America during the prohibition period led many police to add protection for officers and agents who were dismantling well equipped criminal organisations and had been put thoroughly on the back foot. By providing protection from guns, the police could do their job more easily and provide a force against the mobsters of the prohibition and Great Depression periods. Indeed, this would see a change in protective policing resulting in armored police nowadays who have bulletproof everything, creating a cultural shift in the way policing now occurs in the present day 21st century.

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