Ballistic Nylon as Armor (Video)

You have probably heard of “ballistic” nylon, but everyone knows that soft armor is made of Kevlar, right? Well, it is today (and other similar fibers). But a few decades back, before Kevlar had been invented, Smith & Wesson was selling soft body armor made using layers of nylon – “ballistic” nylon.

Thanks to Movie Gun Services, I had a chance to take a look at a vintage set of S&W body armor, complete with steel plates (rated for .38 S&W in the soft panels and .30 Carbine on the plates). For good measure, I also pulled out some revolver-launched tear gas grenades from the same period. Enjoy!


  1. .38 S&W is a fairly puny round, even compared to .38 Special. They weren’t setting their goals very high.

    A bit of historic trivia: Some of the earliest soft body armor – going back several centuries – was multiple layers of woven silk. Silk “bulletproof vests” made of silk were sold in the Twenties, and perhaps earlier. However, while silk is stronger than nylon it stretches much more.

    • Proof against .38 S&W would probably make it also good against .380 Auto, and of course .32 ACP and .22 lr. The difference between .38 S&W and .38 Special standard loads actually isn’t THAT great, either. In fact the vest would probably stop some lower velocity .38 Special loads. However, more powerful loads for the .38 Spl do of course exist even without going to the +P territory.

    • “rated for .38 S&W in the soft panels and .30 Carbine on the plates”
      I assume that this mean that manufacturer guarantee that it will stop .38 S&W, now I am wondering would it or would not stop more powerful .38 Special, or how much any of this is probably?
      Assuming that penetration ability as energy (of bullet) / area (bullet cross-section), .38 S&W and .38 Special have equal bullet diameters, both fire LRN bullet then .38 Special (158gr @ 770fps) is ~18% more able than .38 S&W (200gr @ 620fps)

      Anyway bulletproof vests make .32 S&W Long, .380 Auto, .38 Special ineffective and lead to popularity of much higher-penetrating .38 Super and .357 Magnum, this “sword and shield” race is still running – new bulletproof materials and new cartridges (like FN 5.7x28mm for example) are still developed

      • The 200gn 38 S&W load is the old British .380 Mk. 1 / the US “super police” loading. Most US loads were 145gn at about 550-650 fps, depending on barrel length and flash gap, of course.

    • @Stickmaker – “Soft” body armour goes back a lot further than a few centuries. It goes back millennia. The Romans knew it as a “subarmalis”. In the middle ages in Europe it was called a “gambeson” or “aketon”, or various other names. I’ll just refer to it as a “gambeson” below.

      Gambesons were made in several different ways. They could be made from 20 to 30 layers of linen, or they could be multiple layers of linen or cotton with wool stuffed in between and then quilted.

      If you wore mail armour, you normally wore a gambeson underneath. Early plate armour was normally worn over top of mail, so you would have plate, mail, and then a gambeson. Later plate armour was worn over top of a special type of gambeson known as an “arming doublet”, which again went by several names. The arming doublet had mounting points for the plate built into it. You couldn’t wear the plate armour properly without it. Even with the Romans, the segmented style of armour (lorica segmentata) wouldn’t sit properly (would leave gaps between the segments) if you weren’t wearing a subarmalis beneath it. They were also important when wearing mail or plate as they provided cushioning against blows by hammers and maces as well as the final layer of protection from sharp weapons. They also, along with mail, provided the protection in the gaps between plates of full plate armour.

      Gambesons were sometimes worn on their own without any mail or plate over top. This would especially be the case for lower ranking soldiers who may not be able to afford anything better (you usually had to provide your own kit in those days). They provided excellent protection against sword cuts, pretty good protection against thrusts, and reasonable protection against arrows. We don’t have hard statistics, but many historians believe that gambeons were actually the most common form of armour throughout most of history.

      In late medieval or early renaissance Italy, it became fashionable for some middle class people to wear gambesons about town simply in order to look “cool” (or “tacti-cool” as we would say it).

    • Soft body armour goes back a lot further than that. Silk certainly wasn’t the first material used, and stretching isn’t the main problem with silk. Degradation is the biggest problem.

      • I don’t know if it would be more dangerous to be shot wearing chainmail than not (though I wouldn’t be surprised if there was extra surface damage from chain shrapnel, which might be significant with a large enough musket ball or shotgun slug).

        That said, I understand that decent arrows will go through soft body armour just fine. Of course you aren’t going to get through steel armor plate, or presumably ceramic plate either.

        • The penetration mechanism of hunting or late medieval military arrowheads are probably closer to that of a knife than a bullet or musket ball, so they would indeed go through soft ballistic armor quite easily. Armor designed to stop knife blades would probably work better against arrows.

          There are anecdotal stories that late medieval heavy crossbow bolts could penetrate knightly armor at close ranges. Of course the knightly armor of the date was much inferior to modern steel armor plate and also thinner. Breast plates remained in use until the late 17th century and apparently they were at least somewhat effective in stopping the balls fired from the firearms of the era, or otherwise they would have been abandoned earlier.

          • There were even special “Bodkin” arrowheads (Long and pointed as opposed to the more common broadhead) designed specifically for piercing armor and displacing the links in chain mail. Besides the arrowheads themselves (or any blades or blunt strikes), rusty, sweaty, broken links of chain mail could be forced into the wound and cause further damage and infection. As for plate armor in the gunpowder age, the French still fielded regiments of cuirassiers into the early days of WW1. I think Ian even tested a set of German trench armor recently, so the idea persisted into the 20th century. I think that jacketed spitzer bullets propelled by smokeless powder finally nailed the coffin shut on old-fashioned plate armor.

          • “I think that jacketed spitzer bullets propelled by smokeless powder finally nailed the coffin shut on old-fashioned plate armor.”
            Soviet Army used Stalnoi Nagrudnik:
            as late as Second World War, they also developed improved version after the war – SN-46 which was designed to protect against 9×19 (from MP38 or MP40) and 7.62×25 (from PPSh) @ distance 25m

          • An important thing limiting the use of traditional plate armor was also the change of tactics so that rapid dashes, usually in a crouched position, and on the other hand crawling became necessary for infantry. The WW1 German trench armor was designed for machine gunners, who with their heavy machine guns had a much lower mobility than riflemen in any case. From what I have read, US infantrymen in Afghanistan and in Iraq didn’t always use rigid trauma plates in their vests, since they tend to reduce mobility.

  2. Weren’t the Vietnam-era flak vests made of ballistic nylon as well? They were not meant to stop bullets but fragments from explosive devices if I recall correctly.

    The vest in the video reminds me of the one (sans plates) that James Caan pulled out of his closet before he went to shoot the kingpin in the movie Thief. A movie that fans of this site might find interesting. It was released around 1980. One of the characters had a bull-pup HighStandard shotgun. There was an M1 carbine. Some sort of H&K. Caan’s character had a 1911 and the director, Micheal Mann, sent Caan off to Gunsite to learn how to use it. Cooper thought there was no way a recently paroled convict (as per the movie) could possibly know the (then new) modern technique and had nothing to do with it. Chuck Taylor trained him in the new technique: Weaver stance, tactical reload, slicing the pie, press-check, etc. Maybe it was Taylor’s combat experience, but in the movie the mighty 45 ACP had to hit each bad guy 2 or 3 times to put them out of action.

  3. We had the S&W vests in the mid-Seventies, along with the first-generation Kevlar vests from Second Chance. The latter were supposed to be proof against .357 Magnum 158-gr. JSP at point-blank. Note that neither one would stop the old KTW conical-tip armor-piercing round in .357 closer than 70-75 yards, but then that’s hardly surprising.

    And yes, any decent “deer rifle” (.30-30 WCF on up to .30-06) round would barely slow down going through them, plate and all.

    The S&W vest was actually a modified bomb disposal/EOD vest, hence the groin protector panel with its own plates. The main purpose was to protect from fragmentation damage while not generating “spalling” from the back face of any of the plates.

    The EOD guys normally added a reinforced helmet rather like a heavier version of a welder’s mask to it, plus shin guards, arm guards, and heavy gauntlets. The arm, leg, and hand protection were all ballistic nylon with plates arranged sort of like a hockey goalie’s protective gear.

    As for it living up to its rating, the first run of the vests we got had plates that hadn’t been properly tempered after face-hardening. (The process was supposedly similar to the old Krupp Cemented Plate process used to make armor for warships before WW1.) They would stop bomb fragments, but that was about it.

    A .30 Carbine 110-grain FMJ at 25 yards would dent the trauma plate with the first couple of shots, crack it with the third and fourth, and from then on you were in real trouble. Hot handloads in a 7.63 x 25mm Mauser “Broomhandle” we had in inventory would do about the same within 20 yards or so.

    The nylon would stop .38 S&W, all right, also .32 ACP, .32 revolvers (including .32-20 WCF), .25 ACP, .380 ACP, all at point-blank, and .22 LR from rifle or pistol from beyond ten yards. By itself, the nylon wouldn’t stop a .22 WMRF from a rifle unless the shooter was at least 40 yards away. We never tested anything like the old military .22 Hornet FMJ “aircrew survival” round against it, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be the “crash test dummy” it was hung on for such a test.

    The only major drawback of the S&W and SC vests was that other than the plate, neither one would stop a knife thrust. And back then, knife attacks were at least as common as shootings “around the manor”, as a Bobby would say.

    As it turned out, the most common users of the S&W vests around here were the various bank armored car delivery companies. Their guards routinely wore them during specie transfers.

    Yes, I wore both on occasion. My definition of “armor” was still “get out of the car and get behind the engine block”.

    Especially if there was a “deer rifle” on the other side of same.



    • Does a Mauser 1895 in 7×57 count as a “deer rifle?” How would it fare against ballistic nylon under a thick great coat? Would we have a “Last Crusade” one-hit-polykill?

      • 7×57 Mauser is an excellent deer round, and I’ve always considered it to be almost perfect for whitetail when mated to the Winchester M70 Lightweight rifle. I’ve seen it rip through shoulder bones and turn internal organs into bubbling jelly at over 200 meters. I’m pretty sure it would rip right through the old nylon vests w/o much effort, even when paired with a greatcoat. High velocity rifle ammo will defeat most body armor, regardless of type. As eon said, if someone is engaging you with a “hunting rifle,” the best thing you can do is have an engine and a couple of wheels and tires in between you and the shooter. Those early vests were designed at the time when “Saturday Night Specials” (like RG .22s, Titan .25s and vintage top breaks in .32 and .38 S&W)were the most common armament of the miscreant class.

        • .32 top-breaks were the weapon of choice for the “sporting gentry” around here, I suspect due to a little too much “Front Page Detective” in their literary diet. (Those that could actually read, that is.)

          My mother had an Iver Johnson .32 3″ that I ended up selling to a collector. After determining that, with a 6 o’clock hold on the bull at twenty yards, slow fire, it consistently printed five-shot, 9″ “groups” six inches left and five inches down from point of aim. And it was tight, with no noticeable endshake.

          I concluded that I was reasonably likely to be able to effectively return fire against an opponent with one, assuming he was actually trying to aim at me. On the minus side, if he hit me at all with a center hold, it would probably be some place the vest didn’t cover.



          • I have a little .32 S&W Forehand and Wadsworth in my desk drawer that belonged to my Grandfather. It had been loaded for so long that the cartridges were stuck in the cylinder due to the verdigris covering the cases. I eventually got it cleaned up, and like your Iver Johnson, I soon discovered that the safest place to be when it was fired was right in front of the muzzle! A buddy of mine had an uncle who was a Major in a big city PD back in the ’60s. After he died, they were cleaning out his basement and found a milk crate full of those cheap little revolvers. I assumed that they were intended to be used for turning a bad shooting into a good shooting should the need ever arise. Ahh…the good old days ;).

          • Ironically, .32 S&W Long is still quite popular in Europe as an actual target shooting cartridge. Of course something like a Manurhin MR32 is far from being a cheap OR little revolver…

        • I saw some fighting clips from a historical drama depicting the Russo-Japanese War. Japanese infantry trying to break through Russian land defenses at Port Arthur would sometimes advance past the barbed wire behind improvised armor plates (I presumed they were improvised, but who knows what engineers might have created for lack of proper equipment). If such is true, then that would mean that some of the guys on the ground figured out that charging with bayonets fixed was useless against machine guns and wire traps… Anyone got a better explanation for the steel plates appearing in the dramatization of the battle?

          • That could have been during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), specifically the siege of Port Arthur in China. Or for that matter the siege of the German colony at Hangchow (Hangzhou today), on the Chinese coast in 1917-18. (Did the “defenders” wear “coal-scuttle” helmets, by any chance?)

            The shields were basically a modern version of the “pavise”, a wooden shield used in medieval warfare to protect archers at sieges from defending archers on the castle battlements. The main use of them at Port Arthur, and later in Flanders from 1914 to 1918, was to protect observation posts, etc., from enemy snipers, machine gunners, etc. I imagine they were used at Hangchow as well for the same reasons.

            Pushing the “pavise” ahead of a wire-cutting party crossing No Man’s Land at the front of an assault column was a common tactic in both fraci.

            BTW, one Japanese film I once saw, apparently about the Hangchow siege, showed the Japanese using early Curtiss type biplanes to bomb the German trenches. At one point they were dumping wooden boxes of 10d “spike” nails on same from about 1000 feet up.

            I distinctly remember seeing one poor guy getting a ten-penny right through the heel of his jackboot while kneeling. That must have hurt like H**l.

            Was that the movie you saw, by any chance, and if so, so you remember title, date of production, studio, etc?

            I’d love to track that one down and watch it again.



          • The Russians were very keen on using armor and Russian/Soviet heavy and medium machine guns usually came from the factory with a steel shield integrated to the wheeled mount to protect the gunner. Even the modern (at the time) SG-43 (and later SGM) machine gun developed during WW2 originally had one, although later they were usually removed. During WW2 the Soviet Maxim crews quite often removed the shields to save weight, so I wonder why the practice was continued for so long.

  4. The US Military has a long history of experimenting with ballistic nylon for frag and bullet protection. The WW2 aircrew body armor used steel plates in a ballistic nylon carrier. The soft body armor “flack jackets” that we know so well was 10 layers of ballistic nylon along the body and 12 along the spine wrapped in plastic in a nylon/cotton carrier. They were issued during Korea starting in 1951 for the first visions (US Army, M1952, available after that date) and a slightly different version was issued by the Marines (M1951 at first, final version M1955) with fiber glass plates (“doran”). They were only changed slightly during Vietnam (a collar was added, then modified) resulting in the M1969.

    Kevlar finally replaced ballistic nylon for the US Military in the late 1980s with the PASGT vest and Kevlar helmet.

  5. There was an ancient Greek linen cuirass,made from numerous layers. Spanish conquistadores in Mexico and Central America frequently adopted Mesoamerican cotton armor: lighter, somewhat cooler, not prone to rust, and adequate vs. bone and stone projectiles and blunt force trauma.

    Chiming in with the posts above re: gambesons and silk, my understanding is that Britain experimented with silk during WWI.

  6. This whole discussion is fascinating, it does, however rather sniff around the “step one” concerning selection of body armor.
    This would be “What’s the threat and how much coverage am I willing to wear/carry on a hot day? And, Oh, yeah, am I a male or a female?”
    —Correction officers (aka prison guards) need perhaps not so much ballistic protection as stiletto/knitting needle-like blade protection.
    —Coast Guard bordering parties need something with floatation capability in case they get tossed overboard during a tussle at sea, (or on the lake, for that matter.)
    —Highway Patrol officers need open sides for cooling on desert duty.
    —Female officers need darts on the vest. Yes they (or you) do.
    Fortunately all these things are possible.
    “Step two,” understand that in real life there is no such thing as “water-proof,” or “bullet-proof,” or any other kind of “proof.” Even submarines leak some and research yourself why your $29.95 “dive watch” from Wally-World doesn’t mean you can take it right down to the bottom of the lake.
    Especially understand there’s always someone out there with a bigger bullet than the vest can handle.
    “Step three,” in any case, try real hard not to get shot, even in the vest.
    It really hurts and will give you an unattractive scar that’s not even good to attract babes (or anyone else) with.
    [ I used to sell and wear law enforcement body armor, not to mention military Marine and Army armor and even use “Real-Deal” Renaissance dagger and rapier armor. I’ve seen a lot of good/bad adventures concerning it. Do your own research, take apocryphal tales with a healthy grain on salt, and especially obtain something you’re willing to wear.
    The biggest cause of armor malfunction is “Failure to Wear.”]

  7. The layered cloth/nylon Armors work by effectively increasing the diameter of the bullet/arrow as it pushes towards the target. The weight of the fabric also slows the projectile down. Chain mail works in the same way, but is a lot more effective if backed by cloth. (Against arrows it also provides friction on the shaft as it passes. a good hit will penetrate about 2″ against mail and layered cloth, and most hits will bounce. Even Mameluke horse archers complained that the only way to take down a crusader knight was to shoot his unarmoured horse.)

    When it comes to the use of armour in general it increased with technology and supply throughout the Middle Ages. In 1500 a Knights armour had a breastplate 1/10 inch thick and the whole thing weighed in at 50 pounds or less. This was sufficient to make him pretty well protected against anything, lances and longbows included.
    But not, alas, guns…
    As pistol armed cavalry and the heavy, long barreled muskets gained rapidly in popularity, armour was made thicker. In 1600 the breastplate alone weighed more than the whole armour did a century before. The infantry had mostly discarded their armour since it was either to heavy or to weak. The cavalry retained only the cuirass, or breastplate, and by the 1650s even that was becoming rare.

    Ironically, once the armour was gone cavalry went back to using melee weapons, as they where more efficient and reliable… Even the curassiers retained their name and role, but not their armour…
    Both the breastplate and the lance made a comeback during the napoleonic wars, and as a result both curassiers and lancers remained in the European armies until the First World War. The breastplates were mostly seremonial, and remained as a relic and badge of honor.

  8. Over the centuries, soft armor has progressed from silk, to nylon, to Kevlar to the currently fashionable Ultra high molecular weight polyethylene.
    Silk armor dates back to ancient China.
    Mongols horse archers sometimes wore soft armor made of multiple layers of silk. The most unique configuration was a pair of silk balloons worn on the back of their torsos. Silk prevented arrows from penetrating while slowly escaping air decelerated arrows before they hit the wearer/warrior.
    Cotton armor was common among European foot soldiers and worn as gambesons by knights wearing chain mail of plate armor.
    Nylon “flack” vests were introduced during WW2 and primarily worn by bomber crews. They were also issued to American infantry during the Viet Nam War. MIL SPEC ballistic cloth is a dense, thick weave of thick nylon threads, vastly thicker and stiffer than most of the “ballistic cloth” now sold as luggage.
    The next material was Kevlar which is far stronger than nylon and does not stretch. Resin-impregnated Kevlar cloth was used in the 1980s vintage “Fritz” helmets worn by G.I.s during the First Gulf War.
    The next no-stretch material is polyethelene cloth. High Density PE is marketed under a variety of names including Dynema and Spectra. Cast UHDPE is now used to make bulletproof helmets.

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