Lester Shubin and Nicholas Montanarelli turned Kevlar into lifesaving armor.
On the website of the Kevlar survivors’ club are stories from many of its 2,800 members, mainly police officers describing how they owe their lives to the bullet-resistant vest. They should also be thanking Lester Shubin and Nicholas Montanarelli, who in the 1970s, while working for the U.S. government, led the development of the vest. And while they’re at it, they might also salute a small herd of goats that gave their lives in testing the new body armor.
Before the 1970s, soldiers had to make do with heavy, bulky nylon flak jackets that could resist shrapnel but were ineffective against bullets. Police officers found the jackets of little use, and they desperately needed something better.
It was at around this time that Kevlar appeared on the scene. DuPont chemists invented this synthetic fiber in 1965 as a material to replace the steel belts in tires. By the late 1960s, the U.S. Army was evaluating it as a possible replacement for nylon in its flak jackets.
Shubin, who was a technology assessment program manager with the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) in Washington, DC, found out about Kevlar from Montanarelli, an army technology specialist. By the early 1970s, the two had begun testing the material at an army firing range in Maryland. They folded a piece of Kevlar a few times, stuck it to a phone book, and shot at it with a .38-caliber gun. “The bullets bounced back,” remembers Shubin, 79, now living in Fairfax, VA.
At around the time of these tests, Shubin saw a photograph of a man suspended from a beam by a thin Kevlar fiber. Five times stronger than steel, Kevlar was also lightweight and flexible. “It seemed to me that you could get good body armor out of it,” says Shubin. “We were getting police shot every day. I thought, this could be the way to protect them.”
In 1972, the NIJ–an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice—launched a research program to develop lightweight body armor. Kevlar soon emerged as the most promising material.
Over the next five years, the National Institute of Justice would invest $3 million in the body armor project led by Shubin and Montanarelli and carried out by the U.S. Army. In a series of early tests, the two men drafted 100 goats to help. The 40- to 50-kilogram animals, it was thought, would be a good model for humans and had been used before to study the effects of trauma. The army researchers strapped seven-ply, 14-inch squares of Kevlar onto the anesthetized goats, propped them up, and shot at their hearts, spinal cords, livers, and lungs. They then monitored the goats’ heart rates and blood gas levels to check for lung injury. After 24 hours, one goat died. Autopsies on the other goats revealed wounds that were not life threatening.
The body armor project entered its final phase in 1975 with the field-testing of 5,000 vests by police officers in 15 cities with higher-than-average officer assault rates. While some officers complained that the vests were hot, they soon found that they could wear the body armor and still do their jobs. Just before Christmas of that year, a Seattle policeman was shot in the chest in the line of duty. He survived thanks to the bullet-resistant vest he was wearing as part of the field test. It was the first real proof of the vest’s protective power. “I was elated,” says Shubin, “especially after talking to his wife. She was almost hysterical.”
Shubin and Montanarelli issued a report in 1976 concluding that their vest worked. “The police really took to it,” recalls Shubin. Moreover, this project sped up the army’s parallel efforts in developing Kevlar body armor for soldiers, says Montanarelli. The army began using Kevlar vests by the early 1980s. What started off as tire material became a lifesaving piece of equipment widely used by law enforcement and soldiers.