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Even as crime rates decline, the ballistic threat facing law enforcement officers, security personnel and individuals involved in tactical operations is increasing every day. with this increase in threat comes a greater need for these individuals to wear superior body armor protection.

The most important aspect to remember about body armor is that it works only when it is worn. We urge you to wear your body armor all the time so you can "Be Safe. Stay Alive!" In the 60s, the primary ballistic threat facing law enforcement was the Saturday Night Special

Ever since weapons were invented, man has sought ways to armor himself against them. Some of the first sophisticated uses of body armor can be traced back centuries. For example, the ancient Greeks used helmets and carried shields. Later, Roman soldiers wore metal chain mail for protection. By the fourteenth century, innovations with weapons such as the crossbow rendered chain mail ineffective. This led to the development of solid metal armor capable of deflecting higher velocity projectiles, as well as swords and spears.

Although effective, this armor was extremely heavy, requiring more than one person to help put on. Once placed on the body, the weight and rigidity somewhat limited the wearer's movement.

Advanced firearms came along in the twentieth century and stimulated the invention of new ballistic materials. Some of this turn-of-the century body armor even used silk.

As the century continued, innovation in synthetic fibers were introduced, Bringing about new developments in protective armor. In the 1960s, for instance, military flak jackets used nylon.

By the late '60s, a new generation of nylon, called aramids, brought about a radical change in body armor. These aramids nylons were strong - Five times stronger than steel - yet relatively light. These characteristics sparked the development of what is now called soft body armor.

With the increased threat brought about by automatic weapons in the 1980s, demand for a higher level of ballistic protection rose. Simultaneously, a new generation of ultra-strong polyethylene-based material was developed that met this new ballistic threat and further revolutionized the body armor industry.

The material called Spectra Fiber is, pound for pound, 10 times stronger than steel and one of the strongest and lightest synthetic materials available today. AlliedSignal inc., which developed the fiber, has also invented a unique Shield Technology. This category of flexible composites in general provides better "stopping power" and trauma protection than woven ballistic fabrics.

What Are the Key Materials in Soft Body Armor?

Today, a variety of materials are used in soft body armor. The primary ballistic materials include: Ultra-high molecular weight (UHMW) polyethylene fibers (AlliedSignal's Spectra® and DSM's Dyneema® brands) are ultra lightweight, high-strength synthetics with properties that include moisture resistance, chemical resistance, ultra-violet (UV) resistance, cut resistance and abrasion resistance.

Aramid fibers (DuPont's Kevlar®, Akzo's Twaron® and Teijin's Technora® brands) are known for high strength (pound-for-pound five times stronger than steel), flexibility and thermal resistance. Both aramid and high-strength polyethylene fibers are used to make woven ballistic fabrics. With each, various fiber types and weaving styles are utilized to make ballistic fabrics with specific ballistic capabilities. Advanced ballistic fabrics woven with Spectra yarns provide both ballistic protection and "shock absorbency" for trauma protection.

Shield Technology Composites (AlliedSignal) nonwoven composite fabrics have become the worldwide benchmark for the most advanced armor systems. Leading brands for soft body armor include Spectra Shield® Plus, Spectra Shield and SpectraFlex® composites.

The preceding are made with Spectra Fibers. Shield Technology Products made with aramid fibers are Gold Shield® and GoldFlex® composites. Contrasted with traditional woven ballistic fabrics, Shield Technology offers the highest stopping power in comparative V-50 tests; superior multiple-hit protection measures. When made with Spectra polyethylene fibers, these light weight materials also feature a high-degree of resistance to abrasion, chemicals and UV.

How Body Armor Works

In woven ballistic fabrics the fibers are twisted, as in a spring. And like a spring, the fibers have an amount of "give" before they fully engage the bullet.

In Shield Technology composites, the fibers are aligned next to each other (like strapping tape), cross-plied at right angles and held in place by flexible resin, then laminated between two thin sheets of film. This orientation provides for uniform energy dispersion using most of the tensile strength of the fiber. Shield Technology construction greatly reduces the backface deformation caused by a stopped bullet, reducing the effects of blunt trauma. Shield Technology is especially effective against full metal jacketed rounds.

Body armor protects the wearer in two ways: by stopping bullet penetration and by minimizing blunt trauma to the body. Blunt trauma - the bullet's whack against the body, even when it doesn't enter it - can cause serious damage to internal organs. The blow also reduces an officer's tactical advantage, reducing a proactive officer to reactive responses.

Reduced blunt trauma helps save lives, since it not only prevents internal injury, but also temporary incapacitation during the initial hit, allowing the wearer to respond immediately in a high threat situation.

The diagram shows how the energy of a bullet is absorbed and distributed in a ballistic material, It's important to note that the greater the area over which the bullet energy is distributed, the less blunt trauma the point of impact will receive and the more protection the body armor will offer.

National Institute of Justice Ratings

The most widely recognized federal certification test for body armor has been established by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). Nearly all domestic law enforcement agencies require that the body armor they are going to purchase meet or exceed "NIJ STANDARDS." The test requires the vest model being considered, to successfully stop a sequenced pattern of six bullets shot. Each panel tested is mounted on a calibrated clay block and shot six times dry and also soaking wet at specific velocities. (See Diagram Right) Additionally, the vest model being tested cannot exceed the maximum allowable backface of 44mm. This portion of the test has been instituted to help reduce the possible incapacitation and/or injury from the impact force of the bullet to the body, Known as "blunt trauma." Copies of the entire testing procedure can be obtained by contacting the technology assessment program information center (NLETC) located in Rockville, MD. (800) 248-2742.

In 1972, with the rise in the popularity of body armor, the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice created a standard for ballistic performance of body armor called 0101.00. Several revisions to this standard were made in subsequent years.

In 1987, the Law Enforcement Standards Laboratory of the National Institute of Standards and Technology created the National Institute of Justice standard 0101.03 (Ballistic Resistance of Police Body Armor) as part of the Technology Assessment Program of the NIJ. The 0101.03 standard helps ensure that vests that have been through a testing program are properly rated by manufacturers. The standard applies to the performance of armor - not the construction - allowing flexibility of design, especially in the use of materials and areas of coverage.

The 0101.03 standard categorizes armor into various levels of protection, reflecting the type of ammunition the armor will protect against. These categories rate armor into Levels I - IV, with Level I being the lowest and Level IV being the highest. The table to the right lists the threats that each level protects against.

Countries outside the United States have different standards that take into consideration differences in weapons and bullets. You should contact the local authorities if purchasing body armor for use outside the U.S.

The NIJ reported in 1998 that it is preparing revisions to the current 0101.03 standard to better meet the needs of the Law Enforcement community. For more information on current measures being considered and updates to police armor standards, contact:

National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center 2277 Research Blvd. Rockville, MD 20850 Tel. 800-248-2742 or 301-519-5060 Internet:

Ballistic Testing V-50

In addition to the "pass/fall" testing protocols established by the NIJ for certification of ballistic vest, the body armor industry has embraced V-50 testing to measure the effectiveness of materials to ensure consistent protection.

Originally used in medical research to determine lethal dosages of medicine, the method was later adopted by the U.S. military to evaluate ballistic materials for its troops.

AlliedSignal adopted the V-50 test and refined it further, developing a better understanding of how it relates to body armor, and introducing it to the civilian body armor industry.

Today V-50 testing is used by body armor manufacturers to identify the velocity at which a specific projectile has a 50 percent chance of penetrating the armor being tested. This allows the manufacturer to compare different designs being considered and to optimize a design for a specific type of armor product.

Since there is no uniform standard for V-50 testing, the V-50 data cannot be relied upon to compare one manufacturer's vest to another since V-50 testing standards can vary among manufacturers. The data can, however, be used to compare how much better one vest is than another in the product line of a single manufacturer where the same standards are used.

V-50 testing can also be used to identify the performance of armor against rounds other than those specified by the NIJ compliance program. The higher the V-50 rating (velocity expressed in feet-per-second) the higher the level of protection.

In the future, V-50 testing does have significant potential for comparing the stopping power of various vests from different manufacturers that have been certified to the same NIJ level. However, this would require a uniform standard. The NIJ reports that it is considering using V-50 testing to evaluate the ongoing performance of body armor.

Making a Purchase: What to Look For

Encouraging the use of body armor is among the greatest challenges facing law enforcement, the military and the security profession today. Remember, body armor can only protect when it is being worn. Be Safe. Stay Alive! If you have body armor, wear it. If you haven't purchased body armor yet, ask someone who has about the reason why they wear it. They may be the same reasons why you should wear it.


Selecting body armor is a highly personal decision. Your individual needs may be quite different than those of someone else. For this reason, body armor comes in a variety of styles and levels of protection. Concealable vest and tee-shirt styles are common for law enforcement. Manufacturers also offer a wide selection of soft body armor, including vest, coats for outer wear, full SWAT outfits and fashionable executive wear. Protective side panels, shorter and longer styles and other special features offer both individualized levels of protection and a customized fit.

In addition to the style of the garment, there are several other important functional aspects to consider when choosing body armor.


The level of protection soft body armor provides is indicated by its NIJ threat level rating. One important consideration is the level of threat you will encounter on a routine basis. Police officers should consider the weapons encountered and confiscated on there beat. Media reports, indicate that high-powered semi-automatic weapons have become the criminal's weapon of choice. Since traditional firearms continue to be a threat, They should also be considered when making a purchase

As a rule of thumb, officers should wear a vest that protects against the weapon they carry. A review of reports on officers killed during the period of 1970 to 1986 shows that, on the average, one in five victims was assaulted with his or her own service weapon.

Special Considerations

There are a variety of other circumstances that should be considered when purchasing body armor. For example, not all vest perform consistently in wet conditions. Because the performance capabilities of some aramid nylon fibers lessen in wet conditions, some body armor manufacturers have add water-repellent treatments to aramid materials to maintain their performance characteristics. Spectra® fiber-based materials are naturally water-resistant, making them the ideal ballistic material for vest that will be used in situations where moisture is excessive, including coastal patrols or fire-fighting situations.

Basic Care & Maintenance

Aramids and ultra-high molecular weight polyethylenes ("polyethylene" for short") require different care and laundering techniques. Since many vest on the market today contain a combination of polyethylene and aramid fabrics, the care requirements of both materials should be taken into consideration to keep the equipment in proper condition. Some general care tips are listed below, but the best way to ensure that your body armor receives proper care is to fallow the instructions provided by the manufacturer. Note that failure to fallow the care instructions of any manufacturer may result in voiding of warranties.


If possible, remove the ballistic insert from the outer shell. Launder the outer shell according to manufacturer's directions. If it is necessary to wash the ballistic insert , hand-wash and rack/drip-drying are recommended. Machine washing and drying should be avoided, since the machine action can damage the fibers and reduce their ballistic protection. Careful hand-washing with a mild detergent and indoor drying are generally safe for body armor made with combination materials.


Chlorine bleach should not be used . Even the smallest amount will reduce the protective qualities of an aramid fabric.

Dry Cleaning

Perchlorethylene, a popular dry cleaning solution, is not commonly known to affect the ballistic materials used in body armor. However, because dry cleaners can use a variety of cleaning solvents, many manufacturers recommend against dry cleaning body armor.


Both machine drying and outside drying should be avoided. Drip-dry laundered body armor in an indoor environment, away from direct sunlight.


Strike Face:

The surface of an armor designated by the manufacturer as the surface that should face the ballistic threat. In plain words, the surface of a body armor panel which is intended to be facing the bullet as it strikes the armor.

Wear Face:

The surface of an armor designated by the manufacturer as the surface that should be worn toward the body.


Complete Penetration

A projectile which passes completely through an object (body armor), and clears the wear face of the object before coming to rest.

Partial Penetration

A projectile which remains trapped within an object (body armor), but a portion of the projectile can be seen protruding from the wear face of the object (body armor).

Specific Projectile:

A bullet of one clearly defined configuration - for example, the same catalog and lot number having the same materials, shape, and construction.

Blunt Trauma:

Injuries to the wearer resulting from the forces imparted by a bullet stopped by body armor.

V-50 Testing:

A test performed on a sample of body armor to determine the velocity at which a specific projectile has a 50% probability of complete or partial penetration. V-50 Testing is performed by firing a specific projectile at a sample of body armor at a velocity which has been determined to be near, but below, the velocity at which the projectile is expected to penetrate the armor sample. By increasing the velocity of successive shots by small increments, the velocity at which penetration occurs is experimentally determined. A number of shots is then fired at the sample, and the velocity is adjusted until half of the shots penetrate, and half do not. The average velocity from the last few shots is the V-50 number for that specific projectile and armor sample. The number of shots used to determine the V-50 value varies from manufacturer to manufacturer.

Spectra and Spectra Shield are registered trademarks of AlliedSignal, Inc. SpectraFlex, Gold Shield, GoldFlex and Spectra Shield Plus are trademarks of AlliedSignal, Inc. KEVLAR®, NOMEX® and TEFLON® Fiber are DuPont registered trademarks.