The reason law enforcement agencies buy body armor is to save lives. To do that, officers need to understand how it actually works and how to take good care of it. Ballistic armor also needs to fit properly or it cannot offer the level of protection it’s designed to provide.
If you want to get the most out of your body armor this article is a must read. Also, if you plan on buying bullet-resistant armor this information will help you make the right choice.
In the last three decades body armor saved the lives of more than 3,000 police officers. That’s just in the United States, so it’s safe to say tens of thousands of lives have been saved worldwide. The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) has conducted studies on the effectiveness of body armor in saving lives. Results show that by not wearing ballistic armor, police officers have 14 times the risk of dying of an injury.
Once considered a rarity, many in law enforcement are commonly wearing body armor on the job these days. A lot of police officers in the U.S. are making a daily ritual of putting on their body armor. However, there are many facts about ballistic-resistant armor that most officers who habitually wear it are not aware of. To protect “life and limb” all officers should be fully informed about the protective vests they’re counting on to save their lives.
Body Armor is NOT in Fact, Bulletproof
While body armor offers a great deal of protection, it can’t protect against every possible threat. It’s basically made only of layers of fabric. Agreed, a revolutionary type of fabric is used in making the vest, but a body armor vest is not “bulletproof.” No garment is, but you can count on your protective vest being bullet resistant.
In reality, there is no substance that can claim to be totally bulletproof. In very rare instances, bullets have penetrated vests that, according to their rating, should have stopped them. This could occur from a specialized round being fired that may have more serration than usual, but who knows?
The point is that there is no such thing as a "bulletproof vest". Wearing body armor does not protect you 100%. So, you must still be vigilant about your own safety by continuing to act responsibly. Risks you take when you don’t have your armor on would still be risky when you do have it on. Don’t be stupid; be careful.
What Type of Fabric Withstands a Bullet?
Soft body armor contains a number of ballistic panels that consist of highly specialized and extraordinarily strong fibers. Woven or non-woven fibers make up the fabric and oftentimes, a combination of both. This particular fabric is very effective at stopping bullets. It slows them down while turning them to the side so the full force is dispersed across the panel.
The specialized fabric more easily disperses the force coming in from mushrooming handgun rounds. Also, a bullet-resistant armor vest is more likely to stop bullets that travel more slowly. However, high-velocity rounds coming in from rifles firing hard-tipped bullets can pierce right through a soft armor protective vest.
Ballistic Fiber Choices Now Go Beyond Kevlar
DuPont came out with the very first bullet-resistant material, which they named Kevlar. This is why you’ve heard the term “Kevlar vests” so many times over the years in this context. Kevlar is still very much in use, but manufacturers have developed dozens of other ballistic fibers in recent years. One protective vest may actually contain several different types of ballistic fibers. DuPont Kevlar, DSM Dyneema and Teijin Twaron are the top three materials currently being used in the industry.
As with everything in life there are pros and cons to each one of these bullet-resistant fibers. For example, a woven material may have more flexibility than a laminate, but the added weight means a heavier vest. Due to the introduction of Dyneema Force Multiplier Technology, more and more body armor manufacturers have shifted towards the use of Dyneema ballistic fibers instead of Kevlar for their high-end ballistic solutions.
What Protection Levels For Soft Body Armor Do Exist?
Unfortunately, the various certification levels set forth by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) are not always easily understood. Law enforcement agencies across the country differ on what level their officers’ should wear. You will find police officers wearing Level II, Level IIA or Level IIIA vests.
In the new NIJ standard NIJ 0101.07 that will be introduced at the end of 2018, NIJ decided that the IIA protection level against low velocity rounds from handguns will no longer be used. So, basically you should choose between two protection levels, Level II and IIIA.
In general, Level II body armor offers less protection in comparison with Level IIIA. But Level II is more flexible, more lightweight and often more economical. The main reason for this is that a Level II soft body armor panel contains less protective material.
It is good to know that in the new NIJ standard NIJ 0101.07 easier terms will replace the confusing Roman numerals. For handgun threats, the term HG1 will replace NIJ Level II. And the term HG2 will replace Level IIIA. HG stands for Hand Gun.
What About Rifle Threats?
Over the last few years, more and more active shooter incidents involve high-velocity rounds from assault rifles. In order to stop these rounds, additional hard armor panels are required as these high-velocity rounds easily penetrate soft armor. In the video below you can see what happens if you shoot a high-powered round with an AK-47 rifle at a soft armor vest.
In order to stop these rifle rounds you need hard armor plates. At the moment two threat levels exist for hard armor plates. NIJ Level III and Level IV. The most important difference between these two levels is that a Level IV plates also stop armor piercing rounds, whereas a Level III plate does not.
For the new NIJ standard NIJ 0101.07 the term RF1 will replace Level III and the term RF3 will replace Level IV. RF stands for Rifle Fire.
The truly focused reader will have missed threat level RF2. And he/she is right. RF2 is an entirely new threat level that has been introduced for the NIJ standard NIJ 0101.07. This level fills the gap between RF1 and RF3.
Why Should Your Ballistic Armor be Capable of Stopping Your Own Rounds?
No agency can predict what type of firearm the gang members or thugs in their area are likely to use. But, what type of firearm you will be carrying as your sidearm can be anticipated. Tragically, suspects on the run often grab and use a police officers own gun to shoot them. Also, friendly fire shootings can easily occur when officers find themselves in a shootout with a gang of thugs. Your protective vest should be strong enough to withstand the type of rounds you and your fellow officers use.
All Guns Kill
Gun lovers often minimize the lethality of certain types of handguns. Don’t let yourself be fooled. High-velocity rounds fired from a small 9mm handgun can penetrate body armor, killing the wearer. Whereas, rounds from a large 44 Magnum travel slower, so soft body armor can more easily stop those.
Shotgun pellets are extremely unpredictable because they are so inconsistent in terms of velocity. They are so lethal that protective vests cannot even be rated for the threat posed by shotgun pellets.
It’s Not How Old the Vest is; it’s the Wear & Tear
Most bullet-resistant armor sold to law enforcement agencies in the U.S. hold their rating for five years. This is the standard set forth by the NIJ. However, it would be more accurate to determine the rating in terms of how often the body armor has been worn. A vest worn every single day undergoes a lot more “wear and tear” than one that is rarely used. Wearing a vest everyday will tend to weaken it and therefore it will lose much of its protective strength.
Since it’s impossible to monitor how often a particular vest is worn, the NIJ set the lifetime standard at five years. We recommend that you examine the ballistic panels on your vest after owning it several years. Check to see if it has suffered any damage, like tears, burned areas, creases or even a suspicious odor.
If you follow the care instructions in your user guide your ballistic armor should last a good five years. Otherwise, it can degrade and lose its ability to protect you a whole lot sooner.
Make Sure Your Vest is Registered
Body armor always comes with a warranty card. Your law enforcement agency may routinely fill in the information and send the cards off to the manufacturer. But if they don’t do it, you are the one responsible for registering your vest. Do you remember when Zylon recalled their protective vests? They had a terrible time locating a lot of the owners. Why? Because many buyers never bothered to complete their warranty cards and/or send them in.
Buy an additional carrier
You are going to need more than one carrier for your bullet-resistant armor panels. For your panels to live out their five-year warranty, they need to reside in a clean and dry carrier. Having an extra carrier will give you one to use while you wash and air-dry the other.
Use a Sponge to Clean Your Panels; Do Not Toss Them in the Washer or Dryer
A moist sponge, a little detergent, and some elbow grease are all that’s needed to clean your ballistic armor panels. And it wouldn’t hurt to spray them with Febreze. But, you can do serious damage to them by putting them in the washer or drier. So, you should never do that and you should never iron them either.
First of all, ironing your ballistic panels will never get the creases out because there are tons of layers of fiber. Secondly, you could easily melt or singe the fiber. Ironing would probably also damage the textile envelope that protects the ballistic package. A hole in the textile envelope would allow moisture to reach the ballistic package. This moisture can negatively influence the performance of the ballistic panel. Even if you set the iron on low, ironing your vest is extremely risky so don’t even try it.
Do Not Hang Up Your Vest During Storage
The best way to store your ballistic vest is by laying it flat, not on an edge and never bunched up. Hanging your vest up can cause the elastic bands of a carrier to stretch out. This is due to the heavy ballistic panels weighing down on the elastic bands.
What’s the Meaning & Significance of a V-50 Value?
In testing body armor, manufacturers keep firing high-velocity bullets into the armor until half the rounds go clear through. Protective body armor will stop half the bullets fired at specific velocity and the other half will penetrate through. V-50 value, which stands for Velocity-50, references this.
A V-50 value gives you a good indication of the ballistic limit of a ballistic panel and helps you to compare body armor from different manufacturers. Just so you know, V-50s pretty much surpass the muzzle velocities of most rounds being fired on the streets these days.
Your Vest Should Be Kept Dry
If you’re chasing a subject and you somehow fall into a pond or swimming pool, your soft body armor is going to get wet. This is not good because water can make it easier for a bullet to pierce the vest and get through. However all NIJ 0101.06 certified soft body armor has been fully immersed vertically in a water bath at 70°F for 30 minutes before ballistic testing. So, if you have or intend to buy an NIJ 0101.06 certified vest your panels should be fine, even after a swim.
Dyneema and SpectraShield are two materials used in the manufacture of bullet-resistant armor. Both are water resistant and have positive buoyancy, so they’re often used in the manufacture of marine industry products. If you work around water, it would be a good idea to purchase a vest made of DSM Dyneema or Honeywell SpectraShield instead of DuPont Kevlar.
Your Protective Vest is Part of Your Wardrobe
Garment workers on the front lines who make the body armor that police officers rely on are highly trained specialists. These skilled workers use a combination of quilt and tack stitching techniques in sewing every piece together. However, these vests are not inspected in the same way as a shirt, for example. Inspection protocols for vests are much stricter as we are dealing with a piece of life-saving equipment.
How the Trauma Rating is Determined & What it Signifies
When a bullet strikes a protective vest, the kinetic energy quickly dissipates across the vest. The faster this occurs, the wearer suffers less physical trauma. Even so, the bullet is likely traveling at 800 ft. per second up to 2,000 ft. per second. A dent will appear on the outside of the fabric as the vest stops the bullet.
The corresponding bulge on the inside of the body armor panel is called back face deformation (BFD). The wearer suffers all the more trauma the larger the bulge.
To come up with a trauma rating, a tray filled with soft clay is placed against the panel being tested. A bullet is then shot into the panel. The depth of the dent left in the clay determines the trauma rating.
You Can Continue Fighting if a Bullet Strikes Your Vest
Over the years many officers have found themselves in a shootout and been struck in their vest. When you’re shot in the vest it feels like you’ve just been slammed with a hammer. The BFD will cause an ugly looking bruise to form, but you’ll still be alive, thanks to your bullet-resistant armor.
Ultimately, you’re likely to be just fine. In the meantime, you should be perfectly capable of shooting back until the situation is contained. Painful bruising was the norm before the development of the most recent bullet-resistant materials, which further lessen the pain and impact.
All Vests Require an Arduous Round of Testing
It has long been whispered that body armor manufacturers secretly reinforce the areas in the vests that the NIJ fires at during testing. Before the vests go in for certification this is supposedly carried out. Obviously, this would be cheating and the manufacturers deny that they do anything of the kind.
Every 5 to 10 years the NIJ updates and further refines the test methods and performance requirements for the ballistic resistance of body armor designed to protect the torso against handgun and rifle ammunition.
How to Keep Your Panel from Sagging
Sagging panels are uncomfortable to say the least, but what’s worse is they lose some of their ability to protect you. To avoid sagging panels, you need to switch out your carriers on a regular basis. Most protective vests come with two carriers to begin with. However, some manufacturers recommend having at least three. By regularly switching out your carriers, you can minimize wear and tear on the Velcro straps and the fabric itself and thus keep your panels from sagging.
If Your Weight Goes Up or Down, You Need New Body Armor
There is very little, if any, give in soft body armor, so it’s not going to stretch out to fit if you put on weight. In order to protect you to the extent that it was designed to do so, your vest needs to fit properly. If you weighed 200 lbs. when your vest was first fitted, but you’ve since gained 10-20 lbs., you need a larger vest. But, if instead you’ve lost a similar percentage of weight, (5–10%) you need to get a smaller vest.
The Panel Carrier is Not Bullet Resistant
The term “vest” commonly refers to a bullet-resistant vest. The fabric part of the vest, also known as the carrier, is not bullet resistant. As such, the carrier itself offers no protection. What does protect you is the bullet-resistant panel that you insert inside your vest.
Do not make the mistake of thinking your carrier alone will give you a measure of protection, because it won’t. You may as well just wear a t-shirt under your uniform for all the ballistic protection your carrier provides.
Follow the Instructions When Inserting the Panels
Ballistic armor panels are specifically designed so that the strike side is facing outward when inserted into the carrier. This is so that the side being struck is the one specifically built to slow down and stop the bullet while dispersing the force. The panel’s backside is specifically built to lessen the officer’s physical trauma when shot.
This is why you should never flip the panel back to front. When flipping the panel and placing the strike face side against your body, the best-case scenario is that you will have just a higher back face deformation. The worst-case scenario is a complete penetration of the vest, and you know what that means.
Without a Stab-Resistant Vest On, You Cannot Expect to be Saved From a Knife Wielding Assailant
Highly specialized fibers are used in making stab-Resistant vests. Very different types of fibers are used in making typical ballistic armor vests. There are vests designed to protect against multiple threats, but they weigh more and tend to be bulkier and stiffer. They also cost more and that’s a consideration.
Currently, no lightweight and flexible material exists that will stop bullets, knives and spikes. If you were able to invent a material like this, you would probably not have to work for the rest of your life.
If Your Patrol Car Crashes; Your Vest May Well Save Your Life
Body armor is built to distribute certain kinds of shock and prevent penetration injuries. Every year DuPont has a ceremony at the conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. This is in recognition of all the officers whose body armor saved their lives. A lot of these officers were not in shootouts, but crashed their patrol cars. When the steering column rammed their chests, the vest is what saved their lives.
The Military Gets a Lot of Credit for Advances in Body Armor
The U.S. Military gets a tremendous amount of credit for the advances made in the development of today’s body armor. Army engineers from the Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center collaborate with designers at the Navy Clothing & Textile Research Facility to develop the most protective bullet-resistant armor possible while keeping it as flexible and lightweight as they can.
Women’s Body Armor Needs to be Specifically Designed for Them
Historically, female police officers have been wearing the same body armor as men. This doesn’t make any sense. It stands to reason that women would need additional chest protection. Women’s vests have lacked the kind of cup-style support that is typically built into their bras and swimwear.
NIJ Standard 0101.07 has now introduced a special test protocol for female body armor. This has been a long time coming. Finally, body armor is being designed that specifically gives women the fit and added protection they need.
Your Vest is Not Supposed to be Skin Tight
Although you may wear your street clothes skin tight, that is not how your vest is supposed to fit. There needs to be some space between your torso and the body armor panels. As you are being measured for your vest, inhale deeply and hold your breath so you can get the proper fit. This will allow space enough to lessen the physical trauma in the event a bullet strikes you. You will also be more comfortable when running and generally performing your job.
Body armor works best when it has room to move around. You should feel a little tension when you pull it on, but that’s about it. Sometimes when an officer puts his/her vest on for the first time, he/she thinks it should fit snugly. But, if it fits like that you would be severely constrained in a foot pursuit, and perhaps even have trouble breathing.
Do Not Use Duct Tape to Attach Your Vest
Officers have been known to duct tape their ballistic vests to their bodies. This is not a good solution by any means. Taping your vest down will prevent it from shifting around as it was designed to do on your body. This can keep your vest from adequately covering you should you be shot at. Plus, the duct tape does not offer any protection whatsoever. You’re supposed to have properly fitted vest straps.
Putting on Two Vests Does Not Provide Twice the Protection
In the abstract, it seems like two Level IIIA protective vests would provide you with Level III protection. But in the real world, it would be nearly impossible to function wearing all that bulk and weight. All those ballistic panels could perhaps save you from a round coming in from an AK 47, but who knows?
Level III and Level IV panels are comprised of polyethylene layers numbering in the hundreds, all mechanically pressed together. They are lightweight and one Level III vest definitely offers more protection than wearing two Level IIIA vests.
Your Front and Backside Both Must be Protected
Just because the weather is warmer in summer, it does not mean you can afford to ditch your back panels. You need to be protected as much as possible all year round, so that means consistently wearing both front and back ballistic panels.
Carry Your Trauma Pad at All Times
There is a pocket sewn into the back of your carrier. The reason it’s been put there is so you can carry your trauma pad with you at all times. It is not there to hold your cell phone or your wallet. Only use it to hold your trauma pad. There is no point in wearing your vest if you’re not responsible enough to carry your trauma pad. If you happen to get shot, your trauma pad will lessen the bruising. That’s what it’s for and that’s why you need it.
After Taking a Round, Your Vest Must be Discarded
Although your armor panel is tested to withstand six shots, always buy a new vest after you’ve been shot in the vest. If a second round hits the same spot where you were first struck it can more easily penetrate the panel.
Plate Carriers & The Benefits They Offer
Plate carriers are adjustable vests that are made to carry bullet-resistant armor panels. The carrier itself has a cool, moisture-resistant inner lining with a sturdy, scrape-resistant fabric on the outside. Specialized pockets are built into the vest (or carrier) to hold body armor panels.
The U.S. military and law enforcement have recently started using plate carriers because they offer certain advantages. Carriers are specifically made to hold a variety of interchangeable components. These can be adjusted and reconfigured according to the specific threat being faced.
Normally, these panels are 10” x 12” in size and very lightweight although they can stop handgun rounds. You can also get panels that protect against rifle rounds, but of course these panels are heavier and a lot less flexible. To protect against extreme threat levels, like from armor piercing ammunition, you would add supplemental protection in the form of hard body armor inserts.
Wear Your Body Armor on a Consistent Basis
It’s a terrible tragedy when an officer who is works to protect all of us is killed doing his/her job. It is even more tragic when it turns out that they hadn’t been wearing their vest that day. In the midst of their grief, family and fellow officers will forever dwell on what might have been. Take the time to put your vest on every single day you are in uniform. You owe it to yourself and loved ones.
Price Of Body Armor
The price for concealable body armor roughly ranges from $250 to $1250 USD. As with other products, you get what you pay for and good quality costs money. The most advanced, lightweight and flexible materials available are used to make high-end body armor. For less expensive models, lower cost materials have been used that tend to be heavier and less flexible.
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