Second Chance Body Armor: The real story behind the largest U.S. manufacturer of soft, concealable body armor

CENTRAL LAKE – Had it not been for a pizza delivery that turned ugly, Richard Davis might still be twirling dough in a Detroit pizzeria. Instead, he is founder and president of Second Chance Body Armor of Central Lake and can proudly claim that the soft, concealable body armor he developed has saved the lives of almost 800 police officers.

He is also noted for demonstrating his product in a most unusual way. Since founding the company 27 years ago, Davis has, on 180 separate occasions, proved the effectiveness of his armor by shooting himself while wearing it–an act that puts new meaning in the concept of standing behind one’s product.

Davis, 56, gives the appearance of being a friendly, out-going, teddy bear kind of a guy. His vehicle of choice is a pick-up truck with a snow blade on the front and his wardrobe appears to lean toward northern Michigan casual. But looks can be deceiving. His mind seems to have an unlimited capacity for information and the words pour out in an unending, rapid-fire stream of facts, information, and stories. Some are wildly humorous and some drag the listener down into the nether world of the sociopaths and criminals who are his enemies in his crusade to protect the law enforcement officer.

For Davis it all started in northwest Detroit where, after graduating from Henry Ford High School, he was taking college courses and delivering pizza. As a delivery person, his entrepreneurial mind was quick to see the profit potential in making pizza. That led to starting his own pizzeria. One night in 1969 on a delivery (two large pepperoni and hams, as he recalls) he was shot in an attempted robbery. He was armed, returned fire, and wounded two of his three attackers. Three weeks later, while still recovering, his pizzeria burned to the ground. Others might have been tempted, at that point, to find a nice comfortable job on the assembly line, possibly putting the left rear tail lamps on Chevrolets. But to Davis, a whole new world opened up.

The shooting incident focused Davis’ mind on the concept of soft, concealable body armor. In his mind it had to be soft to be comfortable so that it could be worn for an entire working shift. He also felt it had to be concealable (worn under the shirt). Davis’ theory was that if it was visible, the assailant would shoot at an unprotected part of the body.

At about the same time Davis was thinking about body armor, eight policemen were shot on one weekend, in totally unrelated incidents, across the United States. Davis felt that most of those officers could have been saved if they had been wearing the type of protection he had in mind. So, in 1970 with $70, all the working capital he could scrape together, he bought a roll of ballistic nylon and made about 10 vests. His equipment consisted primarily of an awl and a pair of scissors.

Davis found the material so tough to cut that he had to wrap his fingers in bandages to use the scissors. He started out making the vests at night and going to police stations during the day, talking to cops, showing them his product. It turned out to be the right product at the right time. Policemen were interested. The vests cost about $50 and cops began buying them with their own money.

His first “save” was in 1971 and was actually a knife attack. The first shooting “save” came in 1973. By then, Davis was able to buy $660 ads in Law and Order Magazine, which was read by 25,000 policemen. Orders were coming in and the business was growing.

When it came time to open a manufacturing plant, Davis had only one location in mind. His dream had always been to live in the area around the small town of Central Lake in Antrim County where he had spent his summers as a boy. His great grandfather had been a lumberman in the area and the family had a cottage on Intermediate Lake. To Davis, Central Lake, on Antrim County’s Chain of Lakes, was a refuge of sorts and a place of pleasant memories. So, in 1973, Davis moved to Central Lake and started operations with four employees.

Today he has over 100 local people working in four separate buildings, including a former Texas Instruments plant. In addition to the 100-plus on-site employees, he also has another 100-plus who work in their homes at their own sewing machines.

When Davis started making vests in 1970, he made two sizes: medium and large. Today, to insure comfort, each vest is made to order, serially numbered and shipped with the wearer’s name on it. Every vest is guaranteed to fit properly, and if for any reason it does not fit, it is returned and a new one is shipped to revised measurements. This is an important point to Davis and the Second Chance organization: If the vest is not comfortable, it will not be worn. To Davis, a vest in the trunk of a police car is not going to save anyone.

The product line is much expanded from the original basic, concealable body armor and now includes so-called tactical armor which is worn outside the clothing during drug raids, riots, and other dangerous confrontations. When women came into police work, Second Chance designed vests specifically for women. Vests are also made for prison guards where the threat is from ice picks, awls, and “shanks.”

The protective material includes DuPont Kevlar® and similar materials. Recently, Second Chance introduced its eighth generation vest: the Ultima® made with a new material called Zylon®. Development continues with the goal of making vests lighter and more comfortable, and with improved stopping power.

Second Chance is the largest U.S. manufacturer of soft body armor and ships about 1,000 vests per week, costing anywhere from just under $200 to $2,000 each. Their 800 verified saves represent half of the total industry saves–the other half being divided between some 14 competitors. Second Chance carefully documents and verifies its saves. Interviews are obtained from witnesses, doctors, police chiefs, etc., and only life-saving events are recognized and then serially numbered. In every case of a save, the officer gets a new vest, free. The old one is still perfectly good, but will normally be used as evidence.

And how does it feel to be shot while wearing soft armor? The man who has shot himself 180 times is the best authority. While one might think it would feel like a sledge hammer blow, Davis compares it more to the injury from a whip, usually resulting in a whip-like red welt. It is not incapacitating, as evidenced by the many officers who have returned fire and, in some cases, killed their assailants.

Davis actually got started shooting himself when skeptics pointed out that the telephone books he was using were not like a human body. To prove that the vests worked, he simply put one on and shot himself. Nevertheless, it took an unusual person to put his own body behind his product and fire a lethal projectile at himself.

From his contacts with his saves, Davis can recite from a seemingly endless repertoire of horror stories to illustrate the need for vests. One story he tells deals with a shooting that started over an undercooked ham at a Christmas dinner. But save number 700 is particularly dramatic. The officer involved was a female state trooper in another state, who, in Davis’ words, probably weighs all of 115 pounds. Her vest stopped a .44 Magnum slug. She returned three shots, cleared a jam, continued firing, and killed her assailant. When she met Davis, she asked a very special favor of him. She is planning to be married this coming June and has no father who can give her away. She asked Davis if he would come to her wedding and fill the role usually played by the father of the bride. It may have been the only time that Davis was left speechless. The real significance is that it will be a wedding that might never have occurred.

But if Davis feels a closeness with his saves, there is also a closeness between him and the town of Central Lake where Second Chance Body Armor is everything a small town of 900 people could ask for: The business is clean, the buildings are neat, and Davis is good to the town and well-liked there.

The work force is a busy, dedicated group of employees who seem to be as caught up in their mission as Davis himself. If ever there was a marriage made in heaven, it’s the one between Second Chance Body Armor and Central Lake.