Historical rumours claim that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand owned a piece of silk, bullet-proof body armour, which he failed to wear on the day of his assassination. Originally the brainchild of priest-turned-inventor Casimir Zeglen, this armour was composed of a combination of organic layers, most notably silk, which had bullet stopping capabilities. By the early 1900s various different patents of these armours were being sold globally, and were marketed to heads of state and royalty.
We spoke to Lisa Traynor, First World War Researcher at Royal Armouries, about the on-going research undertaken by Britain’s oldest public museum to determine whether this vest could have changed the course of history…
What can you tell us about the significance of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand?
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo, is an event which will forever be associated with the outbreak of the First World War. In 1914, political relationships in the Balkans were very fragile, most notably due to Austro-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia. War had been a possibility in this area of the globe for a number of years, due militarism, imperialism, nationalism and the alliance systems. During the late 19th century/early 20th century, many heads of state and public figures had been assassinated, none of which had led to war. The assassination of the Archduke was the final ‘spark’ which ignited these existing European tensions, thus catapulting the world into the age of modern warfare.
Royal Armouries has had various samples of this type of silk armour made, from the specifications laid out in the original patents of the invention © Royal Armouries
Why did Royal Armouries feel it important to carry out this research?
In my previous role as Firearms Documentation Assistant, I stumbled across a Browning Model 1910 pistol (the same type used to assassinate the Archduke). In 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? I then considered the body armour from the turn of the 20th century and how this might have been achieved.
After months of independent research in international archives and with the assistance of international academics on the subject, I discovered that it was entirely possible that the Archduke may have owned a piece of body armour. Our First World War team thought it would be interesting to test the theory of silk body armour against the Browning Model 1910, to understand the ballistic capabilities of 19th century body armour against 20th century firepower.
How was the research carried out?
Royal Armouries has had various samples of this type of silk armour made, from the specifications laid out in the original patents of the invention. We have tested the body armour against pistols of varying calibres, at the National Firearms Centre in Leeds. The process has tried to replicate the assassination as closely as possible.
What is the most interesting thing you found out?
I don’t want to reveal too much before the opening of the exhibition however I can report that silk does have bullet stopping capabilities!
We have tested the body armour against pistols of varying calibres, at the National Firearms Centre in Leeds © Royal Armouries
What will people see and be able to discover when visiting the exhibition?
The exhibition will explain to the visitor how these bullet proof vests were constructed, it will show footage of our experiments against the Browning pistol, and we will be exhibiting one of our silk vest samples. I am also doing a talk in September, which will go into more depth about Franz Ferdinand’s reasons for possibly purchasing one of these armours, and it will take an in depth look at our experiments in the National Firearms Centre. This research is still on-going, so by September more evidence may have come to light.
What other things in particular have you enjoyed / found most interesting or been surprised at during your research?
This research has both surprised and disappointed me at times. It has been interesting to discover what lurks at the bottom of historical archives around the world! It has also allowed me to connect with other international academics around the world, on the subject of Arms and Armour. Most notably, it has allowed me to give the public insight into the exciting historical research which the curatorial department at Royal Armouries achieves on a frequent basis.
Lisa Traynor (First World War researcher), test firing a Vickers Mk. II belt fed machine gun (XXIV.8841) at the National Firearms Centre, 29th March, 2014 © Royal Armouries
Blogger: Lisa Traynor, First World War Researcher, Royal Armouries
Lisa is delivering a talk at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds on September 24, which will shed fresh light on the issue, and reveal the results from the upcoming tests. For tickets, priced £5, and more information, visit the website.
Lisa is also presenting an international paper focused on the research at the International Committee for the History of Technology’s Conference in Romania, which runs from July 29 to August 2.
For more information regarding Royal Armouries’ First World War Centenary programme, visit www.royalarmouries.org/events/first-world-war-centenary