The ABCs of Body Armor

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.

Melanie Basich 2012 Headshot

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].[PAGEBREAK]

Proper Fit

The comfort vs. coverage trade-off is a factor that you must take into account when fitting body armor. For example, it may be more comfortable to allow small gaps in the side of your vest because it provides better ventilation. However, those same gaps leave you without protection in very vulnerable areas, which is why an overlap between front and back panels is preferred for seamless protection.

"A proper fit is a 'butt fit,' where both edges meet on the side," says Olsen. "If you have too much of an overlap, because most vest panels overlap from the back to the front you'll actually create a channel that a bullet can follow."

You must determine for yourself what level of comfort vs. coverage that you can tolerate in your body armor.

When getting measured for your body armor, make sure you are receiving a custom vest that will be created exactly to your measurements. This will ensure optimal protection.

Properly fitted body armor enables the wearer to have unrestricted movement. A properly fitted vest should be not only comfortable, but optimally protective. A poorly fitted vest will be uncomfortable and may not provide the protection it should.

Measurements should always be taken while the officer is in uniform, including duty gear, because that's how the vest is going to be worn. If your vest is too long, it could hit your duty belt, which could prevent you from accessing your holster and could cause the vest to bunch up in front, leaving you vulnerable.

It's also important to let the person measuring you know about anything else that could affect the fit of your body armor.

"Female officers, of which there is a growing number, should insist on a body armor panel that is an actual genuine female cut that creates cups to accommodate the female shape rather than the unisex or partial solution," says Olsen. "Female officers should also always tell the measuring person if they're wearing a sports bra, because that changes the measurements and the way the body armor will fit."

Don't be shy about discussing any weight gain, weight loss, or even a recent or upcoming breast reduction or implant surgery. All of these will alter the fit. Any change could keep your vest from providing proper protection.

"All officers, especially if they're in the academy, should let the measuring person know if they are in a muscle-building program," says Olsen. "That will change the fit of the vest."

Even if it's been fitted correctly, like any new garment, body armor has a brief break-in period. If your vest feels somewhat stiff at first, take a few days to wear it off duty or around the house to speed up the break-in process. This will also help you determine if it fits properly.

Most manufacturers provide a limited period of time (typically 30 days) during which the vest can be altered or adjusted to provide a more comfortable fit, at no charge to you. But it's up to you to ensure from the outset that the vest fits properly to avoid long-term issues.

Also, while your vest may soften up a bit and conform more comfortably to your body with regular use, be aware that how it fits after the first few weeks of use is most likely how it will feel months or even years from now (assuming there are no significant weight or body shape changes). Make sure that you are happy with the way your armor fits within the grace period or you may be stuck with it.

Care and Maintenance

Your body armor isn't just another piece of your uniform. It is a critical component of your safety equipment and should be maintained and treated as such. Always make sure to review and closely follow the care instructions provided by your vest's manufacturer to ensure it continues to perform as intended.

Cleaning the Ballistic Panels

Remove the ballistic panels from your carrier before cleaning it. Both components of your vest should be cleaned separately.

Wipe down your vest's protective panels by hand with a damp sponge or soft cloth, using mild soap and cold water. Never fully submerge the panels in water.

Don't machine wash or dry the panels of your body armor. Machine laundering can damage the ballistic material.

Don't use bleach or solvents to clean the panels. Harsh chemicals can degrade the moisture barrier of the panel cover and the all-important ballistic material.

Don't dry-clean the panels.

Don't dry your ballistic panels outdoors in direct sunlight, as ultraviolet exposure can degrade some ballistic materials.

Cleaning the Carrier

Use a cloth or soft bristle brush to remove loose dirt from the carrier's surface and hook-and-loop fasteners.

Close all of the hook-and-loop fasteners before washing the carrier, as it helps prevent wear and lint buildup.

Hand wash or machine wash the carrier in cool or warm water on the gentle cycle using mild soap or detergent.

Don't use bleach, starch, or fabric softeners on the carrier.

Don't dry clean the vest carrier because cleaning solvents can negatively affect some of the components.

Hang the carrier indoors to drip dry after washing, without the ballistic panels inserted. You can also machine dry the carrier at either the Air or lowest temperature setting.

This is very important. When reinserting the ballistic panels into the carrier after cleaning, make sure you do so with the strike face of the ballistic panel facing the proper way. Read the manufacturer's instructions to ensure you do this properly.

Improperly installed ballistic panels or ballistic inserts may not provide the full level of protection the vest is intended to confer because they may not be designed to work unidirectionally.

Storing Your Vest

When storing your vest, lay it flat (the best way to store it) or hang it upside down from the bottom of the carrier. "Hanging vests from their straps stretches out the elastic prematurely," Olsen cautions.

Don't lay the vest out or attempt to dry it in direct sunlight.

Don't hang the vest in such a way that it can stretch the shoulder straps.

Don't fold your vest or lay it on its side in a locker or car trunk.

Don't lay heavy objects on the vest. Th is will cause creasing of the ballistic package.

Vest Inspection and Repairs

Regularly inspect your armor for cuts, tears, and other fabric damage to the carrier and ballistic panels that could compromise the overall integrity and safety of the vest. Make a practice of inspecting your armor when shedding the carrier for washing.

Don't attempt to make repairs to the vest yourself. Instead, return the armor to the manufacturer for repairs or replacement.

If you research the type of vest you want, get the right fit, follow care instructions, and wear your vest on duty without fail, it should provide life-saving protection for years to come.

About the Author
Melanie Basich 2012 Headshot
Managing Editor
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