If Miguel Caballero offers to shoot you point-blank wearing his company’s bulletproof clothing, you might want to take another shot first -- of whiskey. Simply put, it hurts!
I should know -- I went down to his Bogota, Colombia headquarters, to find out firsthand. Caballero encourages employees to take a bullet wearing the company’s clothing. He has shot more than 650 people without inflicting serious injury -- some of them interested pedestrians like me.
After a morning tour of the factory, including live demonstrations with Uzis and Glocks in a soundproof lab, I was fitted with a brown leather jacket. On the surface the garment, similar to one actor Steven Seagal bought and costing about $7,000 at Harrods according to Caballero, is stylish but inside is fitted with flexible bulletproof panels a half-inch thick.
The patented compound used to make them is as secret as the Coke recipe (“If I told you I would have to kill you,” Caballero joked).
Next I was escorted into a large factory room with workers behind their sewing machines. Some put in earplugs, others made the sign of the cross because they knew what was about to happen. It clearly made them nervous.
For extra protection, all “test” subjects wear two layers in the lower stomach area where they are to be shot -- the thinner, flexible one that comes standard with the jacket, and a harder, Kevlar-like back-up plate.
I wanted to take the shot the way someone in the field might. That meant just the one flexible layer.
Caballero debated long and hard about my request. He explained that he had only shot someone that way once and the poor soul had a fractured rib and large painful bruise for weeks afterward.
But he also assured me I would be safe -- that flexible layer protects for as much as 44 mm of trauma force, the international ballistics standard, and that he would aim for below my rib cage.
The .38 “long” revolver he was using causes flesh displacement of about 25 mm, well within the “safe” range. Still, Caballero said, the impact would be similar to a heavyweight punch.
I nodded that I understood this, but inside my stomach was churning. I couldn’t help but think of Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” movies and Harry Callahan’s famous line, “The question you have to ask yourself: ‘Do I feel lucky?’”
Well do I, I wondered? Underneath the jacket I wore a blessed rosary just in case I wasn’t.
Caballero practiced first with an empty gun. As instructed, each time I held my breath and tensed my stomach muscles while he counted. Each time he pulled the trigger on the number three.
Just before the real deal, he placed a target sticker on the jacket -- just below my ribs but above the hip and slightly left of center where the torso has the most fat. I put in my earplugs.
Caballero then made a gesture and a nervous hush came over the room. He carefully placed a bullet in the gun -- one I had randomly chosen from a box earlier --- sighed, looked me in the eye and said, “Ready!” I took a deep breath and tensed my stomach.
Just after he counted “one,” I saw a bright flash and heard a sharp crack. Simultaneously it was as if a hot whip burned my skin followed by a sickening thud the likes of a Mike Tyson punch.
I was stunned, standing and momentarily confused. I didn’t move in case Caballero would shoot again (he was supposed to fire on three!), but he quickly lowered the gun and smiled. The audience, visibly relieved, applauded.
Caballero explained that pre-tests were only to ensure he became familiar with my “tensing” cadence, and that he had always planned to shoot me early. It is safer that way, he said, like a doctor giving an injection without warning while the patient is looking away. He also shot me from less than a foot away to minimize any chance of my flinching.
I’m now an “honorary” member of Caballero’s Survivor’s Club, and have the circular lyme-disease-like stomach bruise and T-shirt to prove it. The club’s official members were all shot in the line of duty wearing Caballero’s products.
Since 1992 Caballero, has produced ballistic fashion garments for politicians, businessmen and celebrities. Customers in 23 countries include President Barack Obama.
Caballero plans to make the fashion line both attractive and discreet while also providing maximum protection. (The company also makes more heavy-duty gear for the military.)
As you can imagine, Caballero is vigilant about worker slip-ups. “Sometimes I’ll stop by a station where a custom garment is being made,” says research and development director Carolina Ballesteros. “I’ll say, ‘This is for President Obama so what you’re doing is important.’ A life is at stake if we make a mistake.”
Now 46, Caballero says he may consider selling his company because he has three young children and wants to spend more time with them. With annual revenues topping $20 million and earnings rising, a sale would pay off handsomely for the entrepreneur who owns 99 percent of the company.
Speaking of kids, Caballero is planning a line of bulletproof children’s products for the U.S. market, prompted by the Newtown school shootings. “The week that happened, we received many calls from Americans for this problem,” says Caballero.
Back in New York, my corner newsstand proprietor asked why I hadn’t been by for a few days. When I mentioned the Bogota experience he raised his shirt, exposing two scars from bullets, one still lodged in his stomach. He explained he had been robbed in 1999, and joked that maybe he should get hold of Caballero.
(James M. Clash is the author of “The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1960s” (AskMen, 2012). He writes on adventure for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)