Body armor refers to any of a number of protective garments used by military and police in a variety of cultures through history to protect the wearer against the blows or projectiles of an opponent. Ballistic armor, though often used interchangeably with body armor, refers specifically to protective attire designed to protect the wearer from bullets. Body armor was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Chinese soldiers of the Ch’ing Dynasty used plates of bone and lacquer connected with silk cord. Japanese craftsman constructed elaborate armor suits, helmets and face masks using a variety of materials including leather, lacquer, iron and wood, often bound together using silk cord, for their Samurai clientele. Bone bound with buffalo sinew was used for breastplates by native American warriors. The Zulu trained with small and easily maneuvered shields of tanned animal hide on flexible wooden frames to deflect the spears and arrows of their opponents.
In Europe chain-mail and armor plating was used for centuries by knights until advances in firearms and ballistics technology made metal body armor increasingly impractical. As firearms increased in accuracy and velocity after 1600, effective body armor became too heavy for the wearer to don the traditional “suit” of amor and still retain the ability to maneuver effectively on the battlefield.
By the 17th Century, body armor in Europe referred to a steel breastplate or cuirass. Still, the weight of body armor made it impractical for most warriors and so, by the mid-18th century, body armor was rarely encountered on the European battlefield.
In the early 20th century advances in lighter weight materials resulted in the gradual reappearance of body armor. The experience with trench warfare in WWI and the resultant increase in head wounds convinced first the French and later the Germans to design steel helmets (stahlhelm) to protect the head against shrapnel. The Germans even designed a front plate of thick steel to fit on the stahlhelm which could protect against direct hits from rifles. These were issued mostly to snipers and machine gunners.
In the interwar years the Japanese Army equipped some of their troops with body armor made of steel and quilted cloth. However, the use of body armor by other belligerents, with the exception of the steel helmet mentioned above, was rare.
Body armor began to reappear in the United States in the 1920s when quilted cotton garments were found to defeat lower velocity pistol rounds. In WWII ballistic vests in the form of “flak” jackets were developed to protect U.S. Army Air Corps crews, especially gunners, from anti-aircraft flak.
In the 1960s in Vietnam, US ground troops were issued personal body armor, which they continued to call flak jackets, of heavy nylon which could reduce or mitigate wounds from shrapnel but that were useless against high velocity pistol and rifle rounds. This situation persisted until the invention of lightweight material such as Kevlar from E.I. DuPont™ in the late 60’s and early 70’s which could be used to manufacture lightweight body armor. Vests made of these lighter weight materials began to gain currency among police and military beginning in the 1970s and continuing to the present day.
Today body armor is manufactured of a variety of materials including woven aramids such as Dupont Kevlar and Taejin Twaron, unidirectional aramids such as Honeywell’s Goldflex and high molecular weight polyethylene products such as Honeywell Spectra and DSM Dyneema. Each material has its advantages in terms of strength, flexibility and cost. Manufacturers of these materials are constantly improving their performance and coming out with newer, superior performing materials. Often body armor is constructed of hybrid panels of more than one material in order to combine the advantages of several products. Helmets are now usually made of either polyethylene or pressed, laminated aramid fiber (such as Kevlar).
Nowadays body armor is divided into two broad categories, concealable and tactical vests. Concealable vests are worn under the shirt, blouse or tunic “concealed” from view. These are used almost exclusively by police and personal security. Concealable vests typically employ lighter materials to allow for comfort needed for the officer to wear the ballistic vest throughout the day. Police body armor in the United States is usually designed to protect against common threats such as .38 caliber, 9 mm, .357 magnum and .45 ACP handgun rounds. When confronted with a rifle threat, police will often don an active shooter kit consisting of a military type body armor with plates that can stop rifle rounds.
Military body armor is designed for a different set of threats; namely, shrapnel and high velocity rifle rounds such as the 7.62 and 5.56 NATO round. Military body armor is normally worn outside the clothing and contains pockets on front, back and, often, the sides to accommodate hard plates which are needed to counter high velocity rifle rounds. The plates can be constructed of steel, polyethylene or other materials, but ceramic is the most popular today. These plates will stop the rounds one would expect to encounter on the modern battlefield. The plates augment the soft ballistic material of which the vest panels are composed. Without the panels, the vest is satisfactory for shrapnel, fragments and most pistol rounds.
Today all bona fide body armor is certified by the National Institute of Justice, which is a U.S. Department of Justice entity dedicated to research, development and the promulgation of sensible, safe standards of compliance for ballistic armor and other law enforcement equipment. Ballistic armor that does not have NIJ certification should be avoided at all costs. The process for obtaining certification is straightforward and relatively inexpensive. All too often the reason for a manufacturer not to obtain this certification is the foreknowledge that the manufacturer’s body armor will not pass an objective field test either because of poor design or, more commonly, because the manufacturer is using cheaper, inferior ballistic material and dare not risk an objective laboratory test and periodic mandatory retests that the NIJ requires of its complaint products. A list of manufacturers and their compliant products is available on the NIJ website: www.justnet.org.
For body armor as for many other products, there are objective and independent standards organizations that help end-users to have confidence that the product they are purchasing will be safe and effective. Because it is so critical and because inferior body armor is likely to result in injury or death, the buyer is well-served by insuring that the body armor they are buying enjoys certification from a large and independent standards organization.
The ATT-TACTICAL™ brand of body armor by Applied Tactical Technologies, Inc. is certified as being in compliance with the standards of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research, development and evaluation agent of the United States Department of Justice. NIJ certifies many manufacturers, not just the ATT-TACTICAL™ brand . All ballistic products offered for sale by Applied Tactical Technologies, Inc., manufacturers of ATT-Tactical™ are fully certified as being in compliance and listed by NIJ on their website.
Currently, the standard used for body armor is NIJ 0101.06, often abbreviated as “NIJ 06”. This is the latest standard. Body armor firms and products that are compliant to this standard are listed on the NIJ website, so there is no need for a user to accept a company’s claim on its own. The product must be on the website and the provider just have a Letter of Compliance from the NIJ in order for the product to be considered as in compliance with the standard. Using the NIJ website to find compliant products is easy and free of charge. Simply go to the website www.justnet.org. Then click on Compliant Product List. Then click on Ballistic Armor.
The Ballistic Armor Compliant Product List is a listing of all compliant products. Ballistic Armor is listed by company, product name and other filters including Threat Level.
The process of getting one’s body armor or ballistic armor product listed is as follows. The manufacturer sends several panels of each size offered (referred to as C1-C5) to one of several laboratories certified by the National Institute of Justice to perform such testing. The panels are the tested using various calibers, various velocities and various strike angles. This is done while the panels are adored to a large clay block which provides a resistive datable backing. Once it is shown that the vest is not penetrated by the rounds, the back face signature is measured. Back face signature is the depth of the indentation made in the clay by the projectile. For the purposes of NIJ 010106, this depth may not exceed 44 mm for the vest to pass testing.
Testing is conducted on both new and conditioned body armor. Conditions means that the panels have been subjected to submersion in water or exposed to heat and tumbling. 72,000 revolutions / 10 days worth of conditioning to replicate as close as possible the 5-year wear rate of the average ballistic vest. Conditioned panels simulate panels that have been in use in the field for some time.
Once the test results indicating that the ballistic armor panel has passed have been received, they are submitted to the NIJ and a letter of compliance is issued to the manufacturer.
Once one knows where to look, there is no further reason to be victimized by fraudulent purveyors of body armor or ballistic armor. Unfortunately there are many of them, particularly in Latin America and Asia, but also here in the US. Here are some of the methods they employ:
Bait and Switch. A vendor will often have one ballistic armor panel certified and listed on the NIJ Ballistic Armor Compliant Product List and then try to sell the user another cheaper vest using panels that are not certified. Always ensure that the panel being purchased is the one that is certified. It should say so plainly on the label and the model should be listed in the Ballistic Armor Compliant Product List. If doubts persist, ask the manufacturer for a letter stating the mode in question is a compliant product.
According to NIJ standards. Terms like "Tested to NIJ Standards" are often used by unscrupulous vendors to sell inferior body armor that probably could not pass the NIJ testing. They will claim that the ballistic armor panel was “tested in accordance with NIJ protocol” or words to such effect. This is extremely misleading for two reasons. Only NIJ-certified labs are able to perform NIJ testing. Moreover, once achieving the NIJ certification, manufacturers are visited from time to time by NIJ representative who select panels at random to be retested. This ensures that the quality is maintained over time.
Expired or Off Warranty. Some unscrupulous vendors will sell expired or off warranty panels. Check the date of manufacture which appears on all NIJ compliant product. If it is older than 5 years, the panel is no longer under warranty and probably should be destroyed. Of course, any liability coverage would be null and void in the case of expired body armor. Expired body armor should not be sold. Using it puts the user’s life in jeopardy.
Level II is as good as Level IIIA. Some vendors will claim that their cheaper Level II or even IIA body armor is as good as a Level IIIA vest. Of course, the reason is that the former contains less ballistic material and is this cheaper to manufacture. If Level II or IIA is as good as Level IIIA then they should have testing from an NIJ laboratory to support that claim.