Soft body armor is one of the greatest of modern marvels. It has saved thousands of people, mostly cops and soldiers, from death or serious wounds. But for the majority of American law enforcement officers, donning soft body armor has just become part of the job.
Once a curious novelty, today body armor is one of those things that a lot of officers take for granted. It's something that few officers give a second thought. But there's a lot that the average officer should know about his or her concealed "life preserver."
To produce the following story, POLICE Magazine interviewed some of the leading experts from top armor manufacturers and asked them what you need to know. Here's what they said:
1 It's Not Really Bulletproof
Your body armor will not protect you from all threats. It is a fabric garment, not a force field. Yes, it's an extraordinary fabric garment, but no article of clothing is really "bulletproof." It's bullet resistant.
"Statistically speaking, nothing can be bulletproof, not even a manhole cover," says John Geshay, Safariland's director of marketing for soft body armor. "In an extremely small percentage of cases, a round can even go through a vest that it is rated to stop. The round itself could have an extra serration on it or something."
U.S. Armor's Georg Olsen adds the following comment. "There is no red 'S' on body armor. It does not turn you into Superman. Stuff you do that's stupid and reckless without body armor is still stupid when you are wearing body armor."
2 How Does Fabric Stop a Bullet?
The ballistic panels in soft body armor are made of extremely strong woven or non-woven fibers or a combination of the two. This material stops a bullet pretty much the way a net stops a tennis ball. It turns the bullet, slows it down, and disperses its energy throughout the panel. The mushrooming of a handgun bullet helps with this process. Also, the slower and heavier the bullet the better. High-velocity and hardened tip bullets like those fired from rifles can just cut through the fibers and punch through the vest.
3 Your Armor Should Stop Your Duty Load
The whole NIJ certification levels can be pretty confusing. There are agencies that wear Level II A vests, others wear Level II, and others wear level III A. It's hard for you or your agency to anticipate what handgun rounds will be popular with your local thugs, but there's one threat you can anticipate: Your own sidearm. A shocking number of police officers are shot with their own weapons after gun grabs or accidentally shot by other cops in training. So your vest should be able to defeat the rounds used by yourself and the other officers in your agency.
4 All Guns Are Deadly
There's a tendency among gun enthusiasts to dismiss the lethal potential of certain calibers of handguns. Don't believe it. A small round traveling at high speed can punch through body armor. Big handgun rounds like .45 ACP and .44 Magnum tend to travel relatively slowly and are easier to stop with soft body armor than 9mm and .357 SIG. Shotgun pellets are particularly dangerous. "Vests aren't even rated for shot shells," explains Corey Provenzano, director of business development for Protective Products International. "Shot shells are not all that consistent in velocity."
5 It's Not the Years, It's the Mileage
Most soft body armor sold in the United States is rated for five years of service. That's the standard of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). But the truth is that body armor wear should really be calculated by how it's been worn. As Indiana Jones said in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," it's not the years it's the mileage. A vest that's worn every day will lose its protective capability much faster than one that has been sitting on a shelf. Unfortunately, there's no way to track wear of vests by the hour, so the NIJ set five years as a standard. Regardless, after a few years of wear, you should check your own ballistic panels. Look for tears, creases, burns, smells, and damage. If you take good care of your vest, it should easily survive five years. If you treat it like an old T-shirt, it may degrade much sooner. Follow your user care instructions.
6 Register Your Vest
That warranty card that came with your body armor was there for a reason. If your agency doesn't fill it out and send it, you should. During the xylon vest recall, a lot of companies had a hard time reaching their customers because they hadn't filled out and sent in the warranty cards.
7 Wash Your Carrier
You should have at least two carriers for your ballistic panels. This will allow you to wash one and wear the other. Keeping your carrier clean and dry will help your ballistic panels last the full five years.
8 Ballistic Panels Can Be Cleaned with a Sponge, Not a Washing Machine
The best way to clean your ballistic panels is with a damp sponge and maybe some gentle soap like dove. You can even spray some Febreeze on them. But don't throw them in the washing machine. Don't put them in the dryer. And don't iron them, not even on the lowest setting. You can't iron out creases in that many layers of ballistic fiber, and the fiber may melt or even burn.
9 Hang Up Your Vest
Ballistic panels are made of many layers of bullet resistant fiber. If they get bent out of shape, they can't be ironed or straightened out. "If you smush a sweaty vest into the bottom of your locker, it will dry in that configuration," PPI's Provenzano says. "That's really hard on a vest."
10 What Is a V-50?
Is it true that your body armor failed to stop 50 percent of bullets at a certain muzzle velocity? Absolutely. That's how it's tested. Manufacturers fire high-velocity rounds into the stuff until 50 percent of them go through. That's expressed as Velocity-50 (V-50). V-50s are generally higher than the muzzle velocities of common street rounds. "You could conceivably produce soft body armor to stop the highest velocity rounds in each caliber, but it wouldn't be very wearable," says Safariland's Geshay.