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TECHNOLOGY REVIEW february 2005
On the website of the Kevlar
sur vivors’ club are stories from
many of its 2,800 members,
mainly police o�cers describing how
they owe their lives to the bullet-resistant
vest. They should also be thanking Les-
ter 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 ar mor.
Before the 1970s, soldiers had to make
do with heavy, bulky nylon �ak jackets
that could resist shrapnel but were inef -
fective against bullets. Police o�cers
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 �ber in 1965 as a
material to replace the steel belts in tires.
By the late 1960s, the U.S. Army was evalu-
ating it as a possible replacement for ny -
lon in its �ak jackets.
Shubin, who was a technology assess -
ment program manager with the National
Institute of Justice (NIJ) in Washington,
DC, found out about Kevlar from Mon -
tanarelli, an army technology specialist.
By the early 1970s, the two had begun
testing the material at an army �ring
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, Shu -
bin saw a photograph of a man suspended
from a beam by a thin Kevlar �ber. Five
times stronger than steel, Kevlar was also
lightweight and �exible. “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 �ve years, the National
Institute of Justice would invest $3 mil -
lion in the body armor project led by
Shubin and Montanarelli and car ried 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 hu -
mans and had been used before to study
the e�ects of trauma. The army research -
ers 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 � -
nal phase in 1975 with the �eld-testing of
5,000 vests by police o�cers in 15 cities
with higher-than-average o�cer assault
rates. While some o�cers 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 sur vived
thanks to the bullet-resistant vest he was
wearing as part of the �eld test. It was the
�rst real proof of the vest’s protective
power. “I was elated,” says Shubin, “espe -
cially after talking to his wife. She was al -
Shubin and Montanarelli issued a re -
port in 1976 concluding that their vest
worked. “The police really took to it,” re -
calls Shubin. Moreover, this project sped
up the army’s parallel e�orts in develop -
ing Kevlar body armor for soldiers, says
Montanarelli. The army began using Kev -
lar vests by the early 1980s. What started
o� as tire material became a lifesaving
piece of equipment widely used by law
enforcement and soldiers. C O R I E LO K
Lester Shubin and Nicholas Montanarelli
turned Kevlar into lifesaving armor
Marines engaged in Lebanon in 1983, around the time the U.S. began using Kevlar vests.
© FRANK FOURNIER/CONTACT PRESS IMAGES
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