Bulletproof protection has been in development since the introduction of gunpowder weaponry and has seen incredible improvements in the process. From the use of heavy and cumbersome metal in the 1500s, to lightweight yet expensive silk in the 1800s, ballistic nylon in the mid-1900s, to the current use of Kevlar, this evolution in body armor was born out of a continual need to protect its wearers against the growing advancements in weapons technology.
With hundreds of armor options on the market today, how can you be sure you are getting the right protection for your needs?
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has long been setting the standards for body armor quality. Along with strength, construction, and functionality, NIJ-certified armor has been tested to meet rigorous standards. If even something as seemingly inconsequential as an armor’s label doesn’t meet the required standard, the armor is denied certification. What does this mean for you? It means that users of NIJ-certified armor can rest assured that they are protected by the best.
The Current NIJ Standard 0101.06
The NIJ performance standards are meant for commercially available body armor. The NIJ publishes ballistic and stab resistance standards for personal body armor, both active and inactive. Its standards ensure that body armor meets performance requirements to protect users from a variety of ballistic threats. Currently the active NIJ Standard 0101.06 supersedes 2005 Interim requirements and NIJ Standard 0101.04, September 2000.
Understanding the level of protection, as well as the limitations a piece of armor offers is the first step in making the right decision for you and your department. The NIJ strongly recommends selecting armor that protects from the threats users could encounter in the line of duty. Read below to understand the existing levels of protection.
Armor Protection Levels
Level IIA - This level indicates testing of 9mm and .40 Smith and Wesson fired from short barrel handguns. There is no rifle ammo protection.
Level II - This level tests stops of 9mm and .357 Magnum from short barrel handguns. There is rifle ammo protection.
Level IIIA - Tested to stop .357 Sig Sauer and .44 Magnum ammo from hand guns with longer barrels. No rifle protection is provided at this level.
Level III - Tested to stop lead core ammunition, 7.62 mm FMJ .
Level IV - This level is tested to stop .30 caliber steel-core armor-piercing rifle ammunition.
How Does It Work
When soft armor is struck by a bullet, a "web" of strong fibers catches the bullet on impact. The fibers not only absorb the impact, but also disperse the energy from the bullet into the vest. As the bullet mushrooms into the first layer, additional energy is then absorbed successively, layer by layer, until all energy fully dissipates. Today's soft body armor provides varying levels of protection against most common low- and medium-energy handgun ammunition. Hard armor, however, is designed to withstand rifle fire. It is semi-rigid or rigid, and incorporates materials such as metal or ceramic.
Methods and Materials of Construction
As noted above, soft body armor construction is composed of multiple layers of ballistic or stab-resistant materials. These materials are then assembled into a protective panel which is inserted into a carrier. Carriers are made of fabrics like nylon or cotton. Protective panels may either be sewn into the carrier permanently or inserted into a pouch for easy removal.
Man-made fabrics are available in various styles and compositions from many manufacturers, each having unique ballistic or stab-resistant properties. Body armor manufacturers may choose to construct a panel from a single type of fabric or two or more types combined. In addition, manufacturers may coat the fabric with various materials such as resin. Below are a few examples of materials that make up some armor carriers.
Man-made organic fiber: high strength, low weight, high chemical, tear, abrasion, and flame resistance. These fibers do not melt or soften and, when coated, the fiber is unaffected by immersion in water.
Ultra-high-strength polyethylene fiber: this fiber is dissolved in a solvent, then spun through a series of small orifices called spinnerets. The solution is then solidified in a cooling process. The cooled fiber has a gel-like appearance which is water resistant and has extremely high chemical and cut resistance.
Aramid fibers: This fiber is made up of 1,000 or more finely spun single filaments. Acting as an energy sponge, the fiber is capable of absorbing a bullet's impact. Since more filaments are used, impact disperses more quickly. This fiber's properties allow it to be light enough to float on water.
PBO (poly phenylene benzobisoxazole): Considered to be a high-performance organic fiber, PBO has outstanding thermal properties with almost twice the tensile strength of conventional para-aramid fibers. This fiber has excellent heat and mechanical resistant properties helping it to be light and flexible.
Armor StylesIn addition to concealable body armor, protective garments like tactical vests come in various styles made with special pouches to insert armor panels. Commonly known as "trauma packs," this armor is placed in the front and sometimes the back. These armor panels can be made from metal, ceramic, or rigid plastic. Some armor panels may be soft, made from interwoven layers of vest materials. It is important to note that the increased protection is only applicable to the section of the torso behind the insert, and the NIJ has not performed research and testing of such inserts.
Numerous designs of tactical vests are available commercially. Body armor providing protection against higher threat levels (III and IV), will be either semi-rigid or rigid. See below for the two types of body armor construction for tactical vests.
Semi-rigid Body Armor: As its name implies, semi-rigid body armor consists of a flexible material with ballistic fabric composed of small reinforced articulated plates of either plastic, steel, or ceramic. Inspired by nature, this body armor design mimics the armadillo. Semi-rigid vests are difficult to conceal and can cause limited movement due to the use of dense materials.
Rigid Body Armor: Composed of a molded ballistic material and designed to cover particular portions of the body, rigid body armor can restrict body movement. Because it is difficult to conceal, this armor is generally paired with a tactical vest.
Tactical Vest Fit and Maintenance
Comfort and FitComfort, with respect to fit or heat dissipation, is best discerned by researching and trying out various styles. To resolve questions regarding comfort, departments often wear a few samples on a trial basis to make a decision before making a major purchase. Lightweight, secure fit, adjustability, ease of use, and range of motion are key factors to think about when purchasing tactical vests.
MaintenanceMost all tactical vests and body armor are water-repellant. However, in order to maintain their ballistic capabilities these items need to be hand washed and inspected regularly according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Tests have shown that ballistic efficiency is greatly affected when exposed to sunlight for extended periods of time, so body armor/tactical vest fabrics should never be dried outdoors. Even in shade, UV light is known to cause degradation of certain ballistic fabrics.
For over 30 years, the National Institute of Justice has committed themselves to ensure safety of law enforcement officers. If you have questions about NIJ-certified gear, the team at Vel Tye is ready to help. Feel free to contact us and let one of our tactical experts help you today. Vel Tye is backed by experienced military and law enforcement personnel; they know the industry like no one else.
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