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Sweat Suits: Ballistic Vests

Manufacturers are working hard to make ballistic vests cooler and more comfortable.

September 01, 2003  |  by Dave Douglas

My department issues our body armor and requires that officers wear it. Our risk management people even tell us we won’t be covered by worker’s compensation if we are shot on duty and we are not wearing our vests. I don’t know, maybe that’s a bean counter scare tactic. But if it is, it’s wasted on me. I’m much more afraid of having a bullet enter my body and perhaps never seeing my wife, daughter, and two boys again than I am of losing financial benefits because I was too stupid to wear my vest.

Some agencies are less strident on this issue and let their officers choose whether to wear a vest. And some of you who have this option choose not to.

Officers who don’t wear vests make all kinds of excuses for hitting the streets without armor. And I’ve heard them all. They say, “It’s uncomfortable.” “It’s too hot.” “It pinches me.” “It doesn’t fit my body type.”

The bad news is, regardless of comfort, you need to wear your vest. The good news is, the manufacturers of ballistic vests and other innovators are working on ways to make wearing a vest more bearable.

Comfort Can Kill

Unfortunately, manufacturers must balance your comfort concerns with ballistic science and materials development. A vest that’s very light and comfortable may not have the stopping power necessary for its designed function, i.e. stopping a bullet and preventing blunt trauma.

This is the paradox that faces soft armor companies. If they make their products so strong that they will stop anything coming your way, they will be too heavy and wearing them will be torture. If they make their armor too easy to wear, odds are it’s going to be less than robust when it comes to catching hot lead.

Consequently, manufacturers try to achieve a happy medium by making their armor light enough to be reasonably comfortable and heavy enough to provide the wearer with adequate protection. Fortunately for us armor-wearing officers, bullet-resistant material developers and vest makers are redefining these parameters with innovative chemistry and design.

Raw Materials

Teijin Twaron’s microfilament fabrics are being used in strong, lightweight body armor. For improved comfort, Twaron is making the fabric softer.

To achieve the almost mutually exclusive goals of comfort and protection, many vest manufacturers are now combining different fabrics and products in layers. For example, one fabric may have outstanding stopping characteristics but fall short in the blunt trauma area. Another may have great blunt trauma protection but offer only mid-level stopping power. This is why many vest makers are combining multiple fibers in their vest designs.

To understand how this works, it’s a good idea to take a look at some of the key players in the soft armor materials market.

The best-known ballistic fiber is, of course, DuPont’s Kevlar, the material that started the whole everyday wearable body armor business. Just as many people use the name “Kleenex” for all “facial tissue” regardless of its brand, “Kevlar” has become synonymous with “soft body armor.” Contrary to popular belief, not all vests are made of Kevlar.

But Kevlar’s importance shouldn’t be understated either. It’s been 30 years since the material was first commercialized in bullet-resistant vests, and vests made of Kevlar fibers have saved the lives of thousands of law enforcement officers.

Today, DuPont continues to improve on the product. Dawn Werry from DuPont Advanced Fiber Systems says, “We regularly engage departments to tell us what improvements they would like to see in body armor, and we use this to guide our development.” Werry adds that for both civilian and military applications, DuPont is considering options beyond fiber content for enhancing body armor comfort. But she would not elaborate.

DuPont supplies its Kevlar fibers to a number of different vest makers. Then the vest makers use it alone or in combination with other fibers to make soft body armor.

Some ballistic fiber makers have even developed techniques for laminating different weaves of their fibers together to improve overall efficiency. These proprietary laminating processes and weave techniques provide increased efficiency in stopping power, blunt trauma mitigation, and less rigidity to aid in wearability.

Dave Hand of Teijin Twaron says the company produces a laminated aramid fiber product that offers high performance with comfort. According to Hand, Teijin Twaron’s Laminated Fabric Technology (LFT) features Twaron microfilament fabrics that offer significant strength and weight reduction. Addressing another comfort concern, Teijin Twaron says it has been able to create a surface for the product that offers a soft textile feel.

Another widely used ballistic fiber is Honeywell’s Spectra. Pound-for-pound, Spectra is 10 times stronger than steel, yet light enough to float. Spectra fiber applications include cut protection, ropes, vehicular and personal armor, and fishing line, as well as various specialty applications.

Like Kevlar and Twaron, Spectra is also being combined with other materials to create fabrics that benefit from the performance characteristics of each fiber. For example, Spectra is one of the key components of Spectra Shield composite fabrics. Spectra Shield technology lays parallel strands of these synthetic fibers side by side and holds them in place with a resin system, creating a unidirectional tape. Two layers are then cross-plied at right angles and fused into a composite structure under heat and pressure. The cross-plied material is then packaged as rolls, ready for shipping to ballistic vest manufacturers.

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