What if Archduke Franz Ferdinand had worn a bulletproof vest? asks Royal Armouries

By Richard Moss | 29 July 2014

Could a bulletproof silk vest have saved the life Archduke Franz Ferdinand? The Royal Armouries investigates

a photo of woman holding a pistol with a man holding a sword and a man holding a rifle
The Royal Armouries’ First World War researcher Lisa Traynor with colleagues© Courtesy Royal Armouries
Counter-factual history may not be to the taste of some historians who prefer hard facts and events from which to develop their interpretations of the past. But at the Royal Armouries they are pondering one of the biggest what-ifs of the 20th century.  

As part of a new exhibition for the First World War Centenary, experts at the Leeds museum are conducting tests to see what would have happened if Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been wearing his bulletproof vest when Serbian terrorist Gavrilo Princip shot him and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28 1914.

The killings triggered a rapid chain of events, widely acknowledged to have sparked the outbreak of the First World War. At the time, reporters speculated that the Archduke owned, but failed to wear, a piece of silk body armour on the fateful day.

a photo of a man and woman in regal dress leaving a building flanked by people
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, minutes before their assassination in Sarajevo, June 28 1914© Courtesy Europeana 1914-18
The patented silk bulletproof vest, an unusual type of ballistic protection developed by priest-turned-inventor Casimir Zeglen, consisted of organic layers (most notably silk) which had the ability to resist bullets. By the early 1900s, the vests were sold globally, and were bought by European royalty and heads of state.

Initial results have borne out a widely-held theory that silk does have bullet-stopping capabilities. The tests have involved the recreation of replica silk vests made to the original patent’s specifications, which have been fired at with the same type of pistol and ammunition and from the same distance as the original event.

Lisa Traynor, the Armouries’ First World War researcher, explains: “In a previous role, I stumbled across a Browning Model 1910 self-loading pistol, the same type used to assassinate the Archduke.

“Upon examining its serial number, I realised it was only 516 away from the actual pistol used in the assassination and would probably have been manufactured around the same time.

“This made me think about the ‘what if scenario’ surrounding the death of the Archduke. If he hadn’t been killed, would the war have been delayed?”

Further experiments to test the capabilities of late 19th century body armour against the 20th century firepower of the Browning pistol will go ahead in early September.

“I don’t want to pre-empt the next round of tests, but I can report that silk does have bullet-stopping capabilities,” adds Traynor. “So this research could result in very exciting results.”  

Those results will form part of the Royal Armouries' new permanent exhibition in Leeds, Bullets, Blades and Battle Bowlers, which opens in September 2014.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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If you want 'terror', instead of the regular go-to guy of Princip, check out some of the publications by Archibald Reiss, who documented Austrian Army terror against Serbian civilians during the war. That's Franz Ferdinand's Austrian Army, by the way.
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