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From Wiki:

Originally the costume contained no protective armor, since the creative talent felt that it made Batman seem too powerful to see him shrug off bullet hits
...
However, the real world advent of various forms of personal protective materials like Kevlar and the realization that being shot while wearing such protection should still be avoided, has led to the costume being re-imagined with varying forms of bulletproof protection which employs the aforementioned use of the suit's chest symbol to lure shots at the armor's strongest point.

This gives an out-of-universe reason for the change.

But was there a specific in-universe reason or event that precipitated the change from the suit being non-armored to bulletproof?

  • @MichaelEdenfield you don't need to tell people :-P – Naftali aka Neal Jul 20 '12 at 16:03
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The Knightfall story-line in 1993 began the change from the unarmored (or lightly armored) Batsuit to more rigorously armored suits. Batman, in his confrontation with Bane, has his back broken and is nearly killed. You can see from the picture below, Batman is still wearing the version of the suit made popular by Neal Adams.

Bane breaks Batman's back.

While Batman is incapacitated he is replaced by the reformed assassin Azrael, John-Paul Valley, who uses a mechanized suit to augment his physical abilities.

Sword of Azrael cover

After his defeat, Bruce Wayne enlists the aid of Dr. Shondra Kinsolving to rehabilitate him and asks Jean-Paul Valley (Azrael) to take up the mantle of Batman so that Gotham has a protector.

Valley tailors his costume and redesigns it becoming the protector of Gotham as a highly armored, technologically advanced version of Batman. This armor, and how Valley used it inspires a new kind of terror in Gotham. Valley cares little for collateral damage and is indiscriminate in his use of his abilities.

enter image description here

Valley finds and confronts Bane and with his powered armor, is able to hand Bane a crushing defeat. He all but considers killing him but sends him to Blackgate Prison as Batman would have done. However, choosing Valley as the new Batman came with a high cost. Bruce would lose Alfred, alienate Nightwing (Dick Grayson) and risk his good name in Gotham, due to the near homicidal behavior of Valley.

When Batman is rehabilitated in the conclusion of the Knightfall, Knightquest and the Knights End saga, he introduces a new suit in Troika, made with stronger materials, armor plates and a new Batmobile.

Batman's armor introduced in Troika

This suit strongly resembled the Batman armor from the movie Batman (1989) with Michael Keaton.

Batman (1989) with Michael Keaton

There is a related article here on the Stack regarding the Bat-armor: Why doesn't Batman make an armored suit like Ironman?

If you are curious to see more of how Batman's costume/armor has evolved you can look at the Batsuit entry on the Batman Wiki.

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    "recently released movie Batman (1989)" - Do you consider 1989 to be recent, or did you copy that line from somewhere? – Jack B Nimble Jul 24 '12 at 15:09
  • It would be "Recently released" when compared to 1993, which is when the bat suit was remodeled. – JMD Jul 24 '12 at 21:15
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I'm not sure if this would be considered in universe or not.

In the graphic novel "The Dark Knight Returns", it is suggested that, upon his return to the cape and cowl, Batman reverts to the lightly armored "Neal Adams" costume.

enter image description here

Later in this story arch, Batman is shot in the chest. He makes the following comment;

"...The plate holds...Why do they think I wear a target on my chest..."

Later still, he is stabbed in the abdomen by The Joker. enter image description here This would indicate that he wore armor over his chest, but not lower abdomen.

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    "This would indicate that he wore armor over his chest, but not lower abdomen." Many bullet-proof materials are easily cut by knives. Bullets aren't sharp; knives aren't concussive. – user1030 Jul 21 '12 at 20:13
  • that is a good point – Michael Jul 21 '12 at 23:47

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