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. Furthermore, 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 substantially more than steel plates. Most law enforcement agencies are strapped for money as it is and this added cost could be untenable.
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?
Protection Against Today’s 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.
The most significant new threats come from the 9mm, .38, and .40 high-penetration handgun rounds, the Lehigh Defense Xtreme Defender and Xtreme Penetrator rounds (both made of solid copper and optimized to penetrate hard targets), as well as the Fort Defense and Fort Scott Munitions solid copper rounds.
Rounds from the Lehigh Xtreme and the Fort Defense 80 gr 9mm SCS can easily pierce through most Level IIIA soft body armor panels. Unfortunately, these rounds are starting to become more popular. They are not labeled “armor piercing,” and are bought and sold quite freely, no different than any lead-core ammunition. While they are still not very common, these are a very serious emerging threat.
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 determine 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.
The NIJ is currently revising body armor standards and reportedly removing Levels II – IV standards. The new standards should be out by next year. When you look at the last decade, we had the NIJ 2005 (interim) requirements, which progressed all the way to the NIJ 0101.06 standard. All of these changes have been significant.
There have been major changes in nomenclature with the implementation of HF for rifle and HG for handgun. We now have HG I, HG II, RF I, RF II and RF III. The development of body armor is certainly not at a plateau either. However, we must not forget that companies often do come out with new materials and processes. But, law enforcement must remain skeptical until these new products are proven.
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.