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The ABCs of Body Armor

May 01, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

Although it's often called a bulletproof vest, ballistic armor can't make you invincible. It can, however, save your life should you be shot in the vest. And this is no small thing. Just ask anyone who's lived to tell the tale. First and foremost, the best way to get the most out of your body armor is to wear it. You'd be amazed at how many officers not to wear their vest because it's too hot and uncomfortable on a summer day, or they're only doing a low-risk detail, or their shift is almost over.

You never know what's going to happen on the job. We're talking about your life here.

Beyond this fundamental truth, finding a vest with the proper fit will make it more comfortable and therefore easier to wear. And taking good care of your vest will extend its serviceable life, which means it will do a better job of safeguarding yours for longer. If you have confidence in your equipment, you'll have confidence in your mind and body to function at their highest capacity in all aspects of the job.

How It Works

To understand the importance of wearing armor, it helps to understand the science behind it. The principle behind bullet-resistant soft body armor is just basic physics.

"Performing its function is a two-stage process," says Georg Olsen, general manager of body armor manufacturer U.S. Armor. "Not only does body armor have to stop the projectile that's coming at it, it also has to do something with the energy that is pushing it."

One way of explaining this is that soft body armor is essentially a very strong net. Think of a baseball batting cage. The back of the cage is a net formed by many long lengths of tether. The cords of the tether are interlaced with each other and fastened to the cage's frame.

When the batter hits the baseball into the cage, the ball has a given amount of energy, in the form of inertia. When the ball hits the net, it pushes back on the tether lines at that given point. The tethers extend from one side of the frame to the other, dispersing the energy from the point of impact over a much wider area. This energy is dispersed further as the tethers are interlaced or, in this case, woven.

When the ball pushes on a horizontal length of the woven tether, that tether pulls on every interlaced vertical tether. These tethers, in turn, pull on all the connected horizontal tethers. The entire net works to absorb the ball's inertial energy.

Bullet-resistant material has a similar structure to that of a batting cage net. Long strands of interlaced fiber form a dense net. Of course, bullets travel at much greater speed than a batted baseball. Therefore, the bullet-resistant "net" needs to be made from materials of much greater strength.

There are different types of ballistic materials: Kevlar, Spectra, and Goldflex, just to name a few. Each has its own special ballistic properties that let it perform certain functions better than others. "That's why you see so many hybrid vests, as we're trying to achieve the best of all worlds on those specific functions," says Olsen.

The ballistic materials all work together in combination to create what's called a ballistic package. This is just a fancy name for all the layers that make up each panel in the vest.

"While one material may be included in the vest primarily as a stopping agent so the projectile does not go any farther, another ballistic material would be included because the way it's constructed dissipates the energy throughout the entire panel of the vest," says Olsen, "thus reducing the concentration of energy in one spot. This then reduces the chance of blunt trauma injury, or backface deformation."

How To Choose

Purchasing a ballistic vest can be a daunting task. Although some agencies issue them, many choose a company but leave it up to the officer to decide which model to buy. Some officers spend additional personal funds beyond their agency's allowance to buy the vest they feel will provide the most comfort and protection.

Even if you must foot the entire bill for your vest, review your agency's policies to be sure the one you choose fi ts within proscribed guidelines. Also determine what type of vest-inside and outside-will best fit your body and your job duties. You can even purchase more than one carrier (cloth garment) in which to place your ballistic panels.

"While you'll want the thinnest, lightest, and most flexible vest, you'll also want one that delivers the performance to keep you in the fight," Olsen says. "Stopping the bullet is one thing; keeping you in the fight is yet another. It's all about survival."

Research the materials being used in different vests. Technology is always evolving, and companies are finding ways to enhance breathability and overall comfort as well as effective energy absorption.

Fortunately, new high-tech fabrics such as Gore-Tex, Cocona, X-static, CoolMax, and others are being used in today's vests to make them much more comfortable than the body armor of years past. These fabrics provide a variety of comfort and wear benefits including moisture barriers that breathe, antimicrobial properties, and odor protection. The result is higher wear rates by officers, which has resulted in more officer saves.

"The final choice should be based on intelligent research and shopping, not by how clever a company's ads are," advises Olsen. "Find a vest you feel comfortable with."

Both the Underwriters Laboratories (UL Standard 752) and the United States National Institute of Justice (NIJ Standard 0101.04) have specific performance standards for bullet-resistant vests used by law enforcement. The US NIJ rates vests on the following scale against penetration and blunt trauma protection:

Type I (.22 LR; .380 ACP) Protects against 22 caliber Long Rifle Lead Round Nose (LR LRN) bullets, with nominal masses of 2.6 grams (40-grain) at a reference velocity of 329 m/s (1080 ft/s ± 30 ft/s) and .380 ACP Full Metal Jacketed Round Nose (FMJ RN) bullets, with nominal masses of 6.2 grams (95-grain) at a reference velocity of 322 m/s (1055 ft/s ± 30 ft/s).

Type IIA (9 mm; .40 S&W) Protects against 9 mm Full Metal Jacketed Round Nose (FMJ RN) bullets, with nominal masses of 8.0 grams (124-grain) at a reference velocity of 341 m/s (1120 ft/s ± 30 ft/s) and .40 S&W caliber Full Metal Jacketed (FMJ) bullets, with nominal masses of 11.7 grams (180-grain) at a reference velocity of 322 m/s (1055 ft/s ± 30 ft/s). It also provides protection against the threats mentioned in [Type I].

Type II (9 mm; .357 Magnum) Protects against 9 mm Full Metal Jacketed Round Nose (FMJ RN) bullets, with nominal masses of 8.0 gram (124-grain) at a reference velocity of 367 m/s (1205 ft/s ± 30 ft/s) and 357 Magnum Jacketed.

Soft Point (JSP) bullets, with nominal masses of 10.2 grams (158-grain) at a reference velocity of 436 m/s (1430 ft/s ± 30 ft/s). It also provides protection against the threats mentioned in [Types I and IIA].

Type IIIA (High Velocity 9 mm; .44 Magnum) Protects against 9 mm Full Metal Jacketed Round Nose (FMJ RN) bullets, with nominal masses of 8.0 grams (124-grain) at a reference velocity of 436 m/s (1430 ft/s ± 30 ft/s) and .44 Magnum Semi Jacketed Hollow Point (SJHP) bullets, with nominal masses of 15.6 grams (240-grain) at a reference velocity of 436 m/s (1430 ft/s ± 30 ft/s). It also provides protection against most handgun threats, as well as the threats mentioned in [Types I, IIA, and II].

Type III (Rifles) Protects against 7.62 mm Full Metal Jacketed (FMJ) bullets (U.S. Military designation M80), with nominal masses of 9.6 grams (148-grain) at a reference velocity of 847 m/s (2780 ft/s ± 30 ft/s) or less. It also provides protection against the threats mentioned in [Types I, IIA, II, and IIIA].

Type IV (Armor Piercing Rifle) Protects against .30 caliber armor piercing (AP) bullets (U.S. Military designation M2 AP), with nominal masses of 10.8 grams (166-grain) at a reference velocity of 878 m/s (2880 ft/s ± 30 ft/s). It also provides at least single-hit protection against the threats mentioned in [Types I, IIA, II, IIIA, and III].

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