19th Century "Bulletproof" Vest

recreating body armor from the turn of the century

Question: Were the Victorian era "bulletproof" vests even capable of stopping bullets?

Answer: Depends on velocity and composition of the bullet, but yes.

Background Info

Once I read in a history book that Archduke Ferdinand was wearing a bulletproof vest made from silk on the day he was assassinated. According to the legend he was shot in the head, wasn't wearing the vest, or both.

I did more research and found that armored vest made from various natural fibers were in fact, marketed to civilians and police well into the 1920s. I found numerous black and white photos depicting cigar chomping pitch men confidently staring down their associates as they open fire on them with revolvers from mere yards away. The demonstrations are obviously staged, given that even though a vest might be capable of stopping a lead .38 caliber bullet, the blunt trauma would still send them doubled over in pain.

After doing more research into the composition of the vests, I found that the most common natural fibers used to make armor were Silk, Linen, and Canvas. Because I had no intention of constructing a full scale vest in these materials, only 6x6 inch test samples were created and used.

The results are as follows:

this is 64 layers of silk that stoped a 38 caliber bullet
64 Layers Silk Stopped a .38 special LSWC
this is 64 layers of silk that stoped a 22 caliber bullet
64 layers of silk stopped a .22LR.
this is 40 layers of linen that stoped a 38 caliber bullet
40 layers Linen Fabric stopped a .38 special LSWC
this is 40 layers of canvas that stoped a 38 caliber bullet
40 layers water repellent canvas stopped a .38 special LSWC.
this is 40 layers of canvas that stoped a 22 caliber bullet
40 layers water repellent canvas stopped a .22 LR LSWC.
 

Based on these results it is my opinion that the "bulletproof" vests from this period may have actually worked as advertised. Modern full metal jacket rounds propelled by smokeless powder would have zipped through these vests, but lead bullets propelled by black powder would have been the dominant threat until the mid 20th century.