Few items in a cop’s arsenal are as poorly understood as body armor. We all call them “bulletproof vests,” but the truth is that no vest is truly bulletproof, just bullet-resistant. And some vests are more bullet-resistant than others. But stopping bullets is only half of the story. Vests also need to disperse blunt trauma. If the vest stops the round, but your sternum gets pushed clear back to your spine, the fact that it stopped the bullet probably won’t matter. Finally, they have to be comfortable. The toughest vest in the world is useless if no one is willing to wear it.
I have had the good fortune of working for federal agencies that had enough money to issue everyone a vest and replace them when they expired. A few years ago, I was assisting with the vest program for my agency. A fellow agent mentioned that his vest had expired. I told him that I would make sure he got a brand new one. He declined the offer. He said that the vests keep getting lighter and more comfortable. He was certain if he waited a year or two, they would be as soft and flexible as a T-shirt, and he wanted to get one of those. Although he had worn vests for many years, he clearly had no understanding of how they work or what they have to do to protect us. While companies might be able to make a vest as light and comfortable as a T-shirt, it would probably be unable to disperse the blunt trauma. The bullet might not penetrate the material, but the bullet might still go through the person, pushing the fabric with it.
To learn more about body armor, I reached out to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. They began setting standards for body armor in the mid-1970s. The current version of the standards, 0101.06, was published in July 2008, and it is 89 pages long. In it, the NIJ outlines exactly what a vest must do to pass each threat level. These standards include measuring velocities of the rounds that are stopped, blunt trauma, shot-to-edge distance, wear resistance and even water resistance. The NIJ body armor standards dictate virtually every conceivable variable for the testing, including angles and distances for each shot, number of vests tested, room temperature and even humidity levels in the testing rooms.
Adhering to the NIJ standards is completely voluntary. No body armor producer has to follow its guidelines. However, most law enforcement agencies will insist that the vests they buy have already been tested and passed the objective standards set up by the NIJ. Some agencies, like the FBI, will go further and add additional criterion before they will authorize the purchase of a specific model of vest for their agents.
The NIJ threat levels are broken down from the weakest to the strongest: Level 2A, Level 2, Level 3A, Level 3 and Level 4. Currently, the 0101.06 standards say that a Level 2A, the weakest classification, must stop a 124-grain 9mm ball round travelling up to 1,225 feet per second (fps). That is a higher standard than the old 0101.05 Level 2A. In fact, the NIJ standards have gotten tougher each time they have been revised through the years. Here is what each level is currently tested against:
- Level 2A: 9mm and .40 S&W
- Level 2: 9mm and .357 Magnum
- Level 3A: .357 SIG and .44 Magnum
- Level 3: Rifle rounds
- Level 4: Armor-piercing rifle rounds
Hard armor is required to stop a Level 3 and Level 4 threat. Probably the most common type of hard armor are “plates” that are typically made of steel, ceramic or other rigid materials, such as Spectra Shield. Most hard plates are supposed to be used in conjunction with soft armor behind them. If you ever wear a plate carrier by itself, make sure the plates that you wear are designed to be used alone, or that you can put the right type of soft armor behind it. I commonly see guys wearing plates by themselves that have never been tested or certified without soft armor behind them.