19th Century Korean Bullet Proof Vest — The Mayeonje Baegab
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During the 19th century Korea was ruled by the Joseon Dynasty, which was a very insular and isolationist regime whose goal was to protect Korea from Western colonialism and imperialism. In 1866 France sent a punitive expedition to Korea after the execution of a number of Jesuit priests. In the ensuing conflict the Koreans were able to repel the French invaders, but only through sheer numbers and after much bloodshed. After centuries of isolationism, Korean technology had fallen greatly behind that of the West. While French troops were armed with state of the art weapons, the Koreans were armed with obsolete matchlock muskets and outdated cannon.
After the French expedition, the Joseon ruler, Prince Heungseon Daewongun ordered that Korea undergo a vast reform of its weapons technology in order to defend itself from foreign powers. Among the reforms, the prince ordered the creation of a vest able to repel the bullets from a firearm. Called the Mayeonje Baegab, the vest was constructed of 13-30 layers of tightly woven cotton fabric. The vests were first issued to troops in 1871, just in time for a US military expedition in the same year. In the ensuing conflict, the vests were proven to be able to stop a bullet while protecting the wearer from serious trauma. However, the vests were very heavy and cumbersome, practically unwearable in the summer heat. In addition, the vests were known to easily catch fire.
The vests did little to stop the onslaught of American Marines and sailors, who captured a number of Korean forts while suffering minimal casualties. However, the Americans were so impressed by the vests that a number of examples were taken back to the United States for evaluation. Today only one example survives, currently under the care of the Smithsonian Museum.
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