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South Neighborhoods
Octagenarian inventor's vest repels armor-piercing bullets

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

By David Templeton, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

This article ran previously in Washington Sunday.

Based on Norman Shorr's way of thinking, the best way to stop armor-piercing bullets and rocket-propelled grenades isn't with clad-metal armor. Using engineering chutzpah, Shorr is proving that crime and terrorism can be repelled better with plastic, glass and marbles.

The 86-year-old Mt. Lebanon man, who holds a doctorate in engineering, and his associate, Richard Parobeck of Brackenridge, relish the skepticism they generate when they describe Shorr's lightweight glass-plastic laminates and compounds that repel armor-piercing bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.

His new-age bulletproof vest can protect a person against any handgun bullet, and he's working on a composite material he hopes will protect infrastructure against terrorist attacks.

During test firings at the H.P. White Laboratory in Street, Md., 16 Kozap bullets -- described by Shorr as the world's hardest 9 mm armor-piercing handgun projectiles -- were fired at his 6 1/2-pound vests without one failure. The laboratory tests bulletproof vests to determine whether they meet National Institute of Justice standards.

Donald R. Dunn, H.P. White Laboratory general manager, said the vest performed well in the limited testing his lab conducted. But more testing would be necessary under NIJ standards.

"It stopped all [16] 9 mm bullets we shot at it, and the deformation was less than half allowable," he said, describing the glass-plastic laminate as unique. "In that way, it performed very well."

But Dunn said the rigid panels in Shorr's vest might be uncomfortable for law-enforcement officers on regular duty. Rigid panels usually are used only in SWAT team vests. Top-grade SWAT vests, using steel or ceramic panels, can withstand armor-piercing handgun and rifle bullets but weigh more than 40 pounds.

"I don't know if he has a marketable product," Dunn said. "Whether he has customers who would sacrifice comfort and maneuverability for protection against high-end pistols, I don't know."

But Shorr said an officer might don his vest only when leaving a police car to confront a stopped motorist or in other risky situations.

From blimp to bullets

While seeking a doctorate in chemical engineering, Shorr landed a job with Goodyear Aircraft Corp. and began working to develop a strong, light gondola for the Goodyear Blimp. During those years, he aspired to be a blimp pilot, thinking it would be the ideal avocation for a man as small and thin as he.

Eventually he left the blimp project to go to PPG Industries Inc. in Pittsburgh to develop new types of glass. There he obtained numerous U.S. patents and hundreds of foreign patents for PPG with products he developed, including PPG's first patent issued by the Soviet Union.

After John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, he embarked upon a project to develop bulletproof glass for use in presidential limousines.

The result was a multilayered transparent material hard enough to stop a bullet and flexible enough to absorb a bullet's impact. The glass was installed in Lincoln Continentals used by Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

His glass composites also are used in airplane windshields to prevent decompression of cockpits when birds slam into them. Shorr tested his windshields with 4-pound electrocuted chickens hurtled at 600 mph. Those tests were done at the National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa.

Throughout his career at PPG, he worked on various military projects including development of protective glass for the A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft, nicknamed the Warthog.

But after retiring in 1997 from Polycom Huntsman Inc. in Washington, he resumed work on a bulletproof vest to defeat brass and steel armor-piercing handgun bullets.

Having spent a career working with glass and plastic, he decided to use layers of sodium aluminum boro-silicate, a hard research glass, and layers of plastic. The unique laminate worked. Tests showed his vests stopped .357 magnum and 9 mm bullets made of brass and steel.

But in recent years, Shorr decided to improve his invention by using Borofloat, an even harder glass, with layers of polyurethane, a harder plastic. Glass is extremely hard but brittle, he said. The polyurethane bonded with a back layer of polycarbonate and in front with glass plies keeps the bullet from penetrating the panel.

Rather than catch the bullet, as Kevlar vests do with lead bullets, Shorr's vest is designed to pulverize it. When the bullet hits the glass-polyurethane-polycarbonate laminate, Shorr explained, the hypersonic compression wave travels quickly through the material and reflects energy back against the incoming bullet, destroying it before it can penetrate the panel.

In essence, Shorr's laminate reflects the bullet's energy to destroy the bullet rather than the person wearing the vest.

The key is breaking the bullet's tip. Shorr said a woman's high heel can create more damage on a wooden floor that an elephant's foot because the high heel focuses weight on one small point. The idea is to spread the force over a larger area.

To enhance the vest's strength, he uses four small panels of laminate placed flush together inside a pouch in the poncho. The smaller the squares, the more protection the vest affords.

Shorr said his vest with a front panel weighs 6 1/2 pounds. With a front and back panel, the vest weighs about 12 pounds.

To test his vests, Shorr received a research permit from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms to acquire contraband armor-piercing brass and steel bullets from foreign countries. He once used brass bullets from France, but now uses armor-piercing steel bullets from the Czech Republic.

"I have to have an export permit for the country I'm getting the bullets from and an import permit to bring them into the United States," he said.

His goal now is to find a company interested in his invention.

"Since I'm too old to be in business, I'm looking for a marketer who knows military stuff and can manufacture them," he said.

Marbles against mayhem

In 1988, Polycom Huntsman created the Norman Shorr Fund at the U. Grant Miller Library at Washington and Jefferson College in celebration of his "exceptional contributions to science and engineering."

As a poor Jewish boy from Pittsburgh's Hill District, he decided he wanted to do work that would benefit humankind. And he feels he has succeeded with development of bulletproof glass and protective windshields for airplanes and military aircraft.

But he has larger goals.

Recently, he resumed a project to develop an ingenious composite material that will protect infrastructure against terrorist attacks. To accomplish this, Shorr has invented a composite material stronger and lighter than clad metals. The key ingredient in his composite material is fiberglass marbles.

As a PPG engineer, Shorr long ago began experimenting with composites that could serve as armor against rocket-propelled grenades. The problem is, the grenades create extremely high thermal, rather than kinetic, energy to punch through metal and other armor.

Mixing science and creativity, Shorr determined that a thick composite material of fiberglass marbles or double convex lenses held together by resin can stop grenades as readily as metal.

The idea is to use the hardest fiberglass marbles or lenses and process them in a special way to reflect and scatter the grenade's enormous energy and prevent it from focusing its heat along the line of trajectory. Tests on an early version of his composite material proved it to be as strong as equally thick metal. But Shorr plans to use uniquely processed fiberglass marbles to make the composite stronger.

If the Army used the composite rather than clad metals as internal tank armor, a tank could carry more cargo. "If you save 5,000 pounds on something that already weighs up to 90 tons, there are a lot of ways to use those savings," he said. "You could carry more fuel or shells."

But Shorr sees another purpose for his amazing fiberglass marbles. He said the relatively cheap and lightweight material could be used to protect structurally important sections of bridges and buildings from terrorist attacks to prevent them from collapsing.

Shorr has approached Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., for help in landing a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement through the Defense Department. The grant, he said, would help him refine his invention for use in stopping rocket-propelled grenades fired at important infrastructure.

"Terrorism is a growing business," Shorr said, "and I think it will be here for many years."


David Templeton, Washington County bureau chief, can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 724-746-8652.

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