A vested interest in stopping bullets

Published Nov 2, 2000


By Julie MacIntosh

Chicago - After an attempted robbery left him recovering from bullet wounds to the head and leg, Richard Davis vowed he would prevent more gun-related injuries or deaths. So he shot himself in the chest 190 times.

"I've been shot more times than anybody else in the world," exclaimed Davis, who is still alive, of course, thanks to his invention: concealable bulletproof vests made of Dupont Kevlar and similar lightweight materials.

But his Second Chance Body Armour might not have survived its birth had he not been willing to prove his vests worked by firing a handgun at his own torso.

While Davis, who has a framed autograph of Thomas Edison on his office wall, is now regarded by some as a visionary, the dawn of Second Chance was anything but premeditated.

On the eve of the July 1969 Apollo 11 lunar blastoff, three men called in a pizza delivery order to Davis' small Detroit pizzeria. When Davis arrived at their address in a dark alley, he held a little something extra beneath the pizza boxes in his left hand: a loaded 22-calibre revolver.

Davis had a hunch the same men had set up and robbed his fiancee six weeks earlier. "They made a mistake," he explained. "They ordered the same pizzas: two large pepperoni and ham."

The streetwise Davis came prepared for an assault, but his body was unprepared for the two bullets that nailed him seconds later, one glancing off his head just beneath the frame of his glasses and the other ploughing into the back of his leg.

Rather than falling to the ground, Davis somehow managed to wound two of his three attackers. "Thank God for the 'Saturday Night Special', he said, referring to the small, cheap handgun his attackers used. "I was hit twice, but I got four hits on them, so I won the game on points, I guess."

When his pizzeria burned to the ground weeks later, he found himself out of a job, recovering from bullet wounds, and almost penniless. "I didn't have insurance or anything," he said. "If a trip across the world cost a nickel, I didn't have enough money to get out of sight."

But what he lacked in money he made up for in initiative. He sat down with a pair of scissors, a roll of ballistic nylon and $70 (about R530) in startup capital, creating his own cottage industry, sewing bulletproof vests by day and making the rounds of police precincts at night to pitch his newfangled life-saving device.

"We started out in Detroit, which at the time was losing policemen like clockwork: one every two months," he said. But it soon became clear he would have to convince police officers that strapping on a piece of fabric could save their lives.

"Now there are whole departments that have rules saying you must wear your vest no matter what," Davis said. But in the early 1970s, "It was just totally new to them - they had no confidence in this."

So Davis arranged in 1972 to film his first live product demonstration with an 8 millimetre camera near the small town of Walled Lake, Michigan.

"I told the cops there that I was going to do this out in the middle of a field somewhere - just to prove that it works - with no ambulance standing by," Davis said.

Wearing one of his own creations, he kneeled in the grass and turned a gun toward his chest, cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger with his thumb. "I did it, and it worked."

As far as Davis knows, he is the only person who performs live soft body armour demonstrations. But while Second Chance's list of more than 800 "documented saves" - more than any other body armour company worldwide - may now be proof enough that his vests work, he is still asked to perform the infamous live demonstration on occasion.

"I don't have to do it that often now, because everyone finally gets the idea," Davis said. "I'll do it if someone asks because I'm 57 and I can't really bow out for old age until I'm 65," he said. "But it's not as fun as you might think."

More than 30 years after his life-altering alley encounter, he has turned Second Chance, now based in Central Lake, Michigan, into a family business currently grossing around $24-million annually, Davis said.

Second Chance vests have been used in the Gulf War and in guerrilla activity in the Philippines and Africa, he said, as well as in prison systems across the United States. Davis hired his now-deceased father, Clint, a few years after Second Chance got off the ground and now hopes his sons Andy and Matt will step into their dad's shoes.

"Eventually, some day, I'd like to see the two of them carry on the family tradition," Davis said.

Since the early 1970s, he has experimented with various forms of Kevlar as well as Tri-Flex and Zylon to create thinner, lighter ballistic vests. He says no piece of Second Chance body armour has ever failed to perform as advertised.

"In many cases, we've stopped stuff that we didn't claim to stop. We'll take them any way we can get them, I guess." - Reuters

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