Body Armor Now Being Made Safer with More Advanced Materials and a Better Fit for Female Officers

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More Advanced Materials Available For Body Armor

We seem to be hearing about an innovative new technology every few weeks now. Those developing these new technologies all claim that they can improve our lives or somehow make us more efficient. These technological innovations are impacting law enforcement as well. In fact, one area of law enforcement has experienced a long series of small changes resulting in huge improvements. We’re talking about body armor.

In the last several years the development of stronger raw materials has made an enormous difference in body armor. The materials most commonly being used in today’s more advanced body armor are ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE), along with aramid fibers.  UHMWPE has contributed to vast improvements when you compare it to Kevlar, an aramid product.

Not long ago Kevlar was the only option available for body armor. However, in the past few years we’ve seen more soft armor panels being made of UHMWPE. DSM is producing this material under the brand name Dyneema and Honeywell’s UHMWPE product is called Spectra.

Looking at just the weight factor, UHMWPE is by far the strongest fiber currently available on the market. The Dyneema Force Multiplier SB115 and SB117 soft armor materials are an improvement over the old Dyneema SB21 fiber. They are 28% stronger, so vests made with these fibers are about 28% lighter. And, they’re substantially more flexible, which is another improvement. Armor panels are now being made with SB115 and SB117. The U.S. military has now started using Dyneema Force Multiplier materials in their body armor.

Why would this be important for law enforcement?

These stronger materials allow the manufacture of NIJ-certified vests that are remarkably thin and lightweight for soft body armor. As UHMWPE materials are continually being improved, advances are being made as well in armor ceramics. This is a sure indication that hard armor plates will become lighter and thinner as well.

At present, most of U.S. law enforcement is being issued body armor made of steel. However, a steel core is quite heavy to wear all day long and it fragments as well. If a bullet strikes your steel plate, the shell will break up and this could cause serious shrapnel wounds. In fact, these injuries could be more serious than if the bullet struck you directly.

With these new polyethylene composites being used in body armor, the bullet would actually get lodged inside the armor. What’s the downside? The cost of these polyethylene plates is quite a bit more than the cost of steel plates. Most law enforcement agencies are strapped for money as it is and this added cost could be untenable.

Protection Against Today’s More Serious Threats

While technological advances are improving body armor, improvements are being made in special threat rounds as well. Body armor is only worthwhile if it can stop the more serious threats of today. Therefore, we have to ask whether body armor is advancing fast enough to protect the wearer from more advanced threats.

FBI data on deadly officer shootings show that by far the threats most commonly being faced today by law enforcement are from 9mm, .38 and .40 caliber firearms. Rounds from these firearms have caused more officer deaths than all other rounds combined. The .10mm, .22, .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .357 Sig and .45 hardly appear by comparison.

Prior to placing any order for new body armor, each law enforcement agency should research which threats pose the most danger. And, they should not forget to figure out which types of ammunitions are the most challenging as well.

Where is the body armor industry headed?

With advancements in body armor material comes changes in how body armor is manufactured. Other changes are on the horizon as well.

Improved Body Armor Standard

The NIJ is currently developing a revised body armor standard. This new NIJ 0101.07 standard should be out by the beginning of next year. When you look at the last decades, we had the NIJ 2005 (interim) requirements, which progressed all the way to the NIJ 0101.06 standard. In all of these standards, changes have been significant.

For NIJ 0101.07 there have been major changes in nomenclature with the implementation of HF for rifle and HG for handgun. We will now have HG I, HG II, RF I, RF II and RF III and no longer the roman numerals.

The new NIJ 0101.07 standard will also describe a special test protocol for soft armor designed for female wearers.

Many body armor manufacturers have started to offer “female cut” ballistic vests. They proudly tout the added cups, darts, multiple closure panels, and etc. But these improvements do not address the primary problem, which is the fact that breast tissue is heavier and tends to move around a lot. Adding darts, cups and more paneling enclosures does not help or solve these problems.

What does help is a design that comfortably compresses the breasts, making her torso flatter and more like a man’s. The Cheata bra, which has been widely worn in female equestrian circles, seems to be the answer. Women at the NAWLEE (National Association of Women’s Law Enforcement Executives) put the bra on under their vests and the overwhelming response was, “What a huge difference.” These bras are comfortable and more importantly, they can make female officers safer.

Custom-fitted vests for women must become a priority because not only are women’s bodies vastly different than men’s, the body shapes and sizes among women vary a great deal as well. For adequate protection and comfort, a ballistic vest should compress the breasts and cover the majority of the torso, starting just below the neck. It should be custom made using each female officer’s specific measurements.

Law enforcement agencies must be careful when purchasing new body armor. They need to consider all the NIJ certified products as well as the standard that those products have been certified for. It would be wise to review the ballistic lab reports and if possible, test out the products themselves. With continued R & D, body armor should become more lightweight and more comfortable to wear. However, it still must protect against the threats facing law enforcement every single day.

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