"Bulletproof" glass is very different to ordinary glass. More correctly called bullet-resistant glass (because no glass is totally bulletproof), it's made from multiple layers of tough glass with "interlayers" of various plastics. Sometimes, there's a final inner layer of polycarbonate (a tough type of plastic) or plastic film to prevent "spalling" (where dangerous shards of glass or plastic splinter off following the impact of a bullet). This sandwich of layers is called a laminate. It can be up to ten times thicker than a single pane of ordinary glass and it's usually very heavy.
When a bullet strikes bulletproof glass, its energy spreads out sideways through the layers. Because the energy is divided between a number of different pieces of glass and plastic, and spread over a large area, it is quickly absorbed. The bullet slows down so much that it no longer has enough energy to pierce through—or to do much damage if it does so. Although the glass panes do break, the plastic layers stop them flying apart. Think of bulletproof glass as "energy-absorbing" glass and you'll have a good idea how it works.
Photo: Top: Ordinary glass shatters and does nothing to stop the passage of a speeding bullet. Bottom: Bulletproof glass shatters too, but the layers of plastic sandwiched between the layers of glass absorb and dissipate the bullet's energy. If it does manage to penetrate through the glass, it will be greatly slowed down and it will do much less damage.
How do you make bulletproof glass?
Traditional bulletproof glass is made from alternating layers of glass (typically 3–10mm) and plastic, where the plastic is simply a thin film of polyvinyl butyral (PVB) or ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), (around 0.38mm to 1.52mm thick). Newer, stronger kinds of bulletproof glass use a sandwich of glass and plastic made of acrylic glass, ionoplast polymers (such as SentryGlas®), ethylene vinyl acetate, or polycarbonate, with the thick glass and plastic layers separated by thinner films of various plastics, such as PVB or polyurethane.
To make simple PVB-based bulletproof glass, the thin PVB film is sandwiched between the thicker glass to make a laminate, which is heated and compressed so the plastic melts and begins to bond to the glass. Often this process happens in a vacuum to prevent air becoming trapped between the layers, which makes the laminate weaker and affects its optical properties (distorting the light that passes through). The unit is then fully "cooked" at a much higher temperature (up to about 150°C) and pressure (up to about 13–14 times normal atmospheric pressure) in an autoclave (a kind of industrial pressure cooker). The main difficulty with the process is ensuring that the plastic and glass layers stick together properly with no air trapped between them, and ensuring the autoclave's heat and pressure doesn't distort the plastic so it becomes difficult to see through. (You can read more about the manufacturing process in US Patent: 5,445,890, listed in full in the references below.)
Where is bulletproof glass used?
Bulletproof glass comes in all shapes and sizes to give different levels of protection in different situations. You're most likely to find it in places like banks, where the tellers typically sit behind thick bulletproof windows and use bulletproof drawers to exchange paperwork and money with customers. Generally speaking, the thicker the glass and the more layers it has, the more energy it can absorb and the more protection it will give. Basic bulletproof glass ranges from about 28mm to 54mm in thickness, but it can be made twice this thick if necessary.
The only problem is, the thicker you make bulletproof glass the heavier it becomes. That may not be a problem in a bank, but it's certainly a consideration when you're trying to bulletproof a presidential car. Making bulletproof glass thicker also makes it slightly more opaque, because light struggles to get through all those extra layers. That can cause difficulties if it impairs the driver's visibility.
Standards for bulletproof glass
Chart: You need thicker glass to stop bullets with higher velocities and energies. This chart compares the effectiveness of bulletproof glass rated BR1–7 on the standard EN/CEN 1063. BR1 would typically be around 13–15mm thick; BR7 would be more like 75–85mm —roughly six times thicker.
Different standards exist in different parts of the world. In the United States, the effectiveness of bulletproof glass is typically compared using NIJ (National Institute of Justice) Standard 0108 for Ballistic Resistant Protective Materials (September 1985), which lists seven kinds of armour broken into five main types (Types I, II-A, II, III-A, III, IV, and Special). The highest classification, Type IV, must be able to cope with a single hit from a 30-caliber armour piercing rifle with a bullet mass of 10.8g and measured velocity of 868±15m/s. In the UK, the relevant British Standard is BS EN 1063:2000, which compares nine different types of glass (BR1 for handguns and rifles, BR2–4 for handguns, BR5–7 for rifles; and SG1–2 for shotguns). Elsewhere in Europe, that's equivalent to CEN 1063.
Who invented bulletproof glass?
Artwork: Earl Fix's idea was to sandwich polyvinyl acetyl resin (PVA) between two layers of glass. Artwork from US Patent 2,045,130: Safety Glass, courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office.
Modern bulletproof glass is simply a variation on laminated safety glass, and that was invented by a French chemist named Édouard Bénédictus(1878–1930), who took out a patent on the idea in 1909. His original version used celluloid (an early plastic) sandwiched between two sheets of glass. The idea of using polyvinyl plastics in laminated glass dates from 1936, when it was first proposed by Earl Fix of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company.