Five Things to Know When Buying Body Armor

Identifying your threat level and finding the right fit are key concerns when it comes to choosing ballistic protection.

Body armor saves lives. However, it can be difficult to know which of the many options is right for you and your department. Choosing your body armor solution need not be an agonizing misery. With the help of the NIJ and other organizations, body armor has come a long way in meeting today’s law enforcement needs.


The IACP encourages officers to wear ballistic protection at all times.


Here are five things to consider next time you buy body armor:


  1. Identify your threat level

When choosing your armor, first determine the mission during which you will most likely be wearing it and the level of protection you will most likely need. If you face the probability of a rifle threat, don’t go into that threat environment with only pistol protection armor. Know the difference and armor up accordingly.


Typically, by the nature of their mission, SWAT and other specialty upper tier response teams need protection against more than handguns.  However, with the rise in active shooter incidents, more agencies and departments are investing in rifle-rated hard armor plates for their front-line patrol officers. If there is doubt about the threat you may face, it is advisable to at least wear body armor that protects against the threat level of your duty weapon.


  1. Understand the NIJ standards

Once you determine your threat level, you can start to search for the body armor that is right for you. The National Institute of Justice conducts ballistic and other tests to judge the effectiveness of a manufacturer’s vest, soft armor panels and hard plates (or combinations thereof), as well as to determine the useful lifespan of that armor.


It’s important to know which Type stops a given caliber of threat. These range from Types I, IIA, II and IIIA for handguns, to hard armor Types III and IV to defeat rifle and armor-piercing rounds. The higher the rating, the greater the protection. Although not officially recognized by the NIJ, the armor industry has evolved to offer a “III+” hard armor rifle plate. The level of protection of a III+ plate varies by manufacturer; however, the threat protection sits somewhere between the minimum standards for a Type III but not to the level of a Type IV.  In any case, it is important to verify that a Type III+ has been certified as a Type III. To verify that a piece of body armor has been tested and certified to the latest NIJ 0101.06 Standard, you can check the compliant product list.


In March of 2017, the NIJ modified its labeling requirements for body armor and now requires manufacturer’s to include the new NIJ mark on their label. This directive was implemented to combat a dishonest practice by some armor manufacturer’s whereby the required label wording was manipulated to make it appear as though a particular armor was NIJ certified when in fact it was not. Again, verify that your armor is certified to the current standard by checking the compliant product list.


  1. Know the difference between stand-alone and in-conjunction-with armor

It’s important to understand the difference between stand-alone armor and in-conjunction with (ICW) armor.  Most police officers today wear soft body armor to protect against handguns. To defeat a rifle threat, an additional hard plate is needed. If this hard plate is referred to as ICW body armor – together, they defeat the threat. An ICW plate MUST be worn with the specific soft body armor it was tested with to be effective.


Once a pair of soft armor and ICW plate is certified by the NIJ, the pair may not be separated and still be considered to be certified. For instance, if company X’s soft armor was certified with their ICW plate as a Type III system, company Y could not use company X’s ICW plate and say that their new pair is certified. The new pair would have to be submitted separately for testing and certification.


With a stand-alone armor plate, no other protection or combination of ballistic protection is needed to be effective against a prescribed threat level.  A stand-alone plate is certified to do all the work itself.


  1. Choose the right armor – and wear it

Armor only protects you when you’re wearing it. It is crucial that you choose the right armor for the threats you’re likely to face in the field and to make sure you always wear it.


It’s well worth the time and effort to fit and wear-test different brands and combinations of armor. Move around to get a sense for how it will feel in the field. Mount your accessories, shoulder your weapon, put your gear on and see how the different armor moves with you. Does the system chafe? Does that plate prevent you from mounting the weapon properly? Does it hamper arm movement? Does it interfere with your handgun or duty belt items? Is it too heavy? Is it too thick? These are all critical considerations when deciding on an armor system.


  1. Get the right fit

Body armor should cover three key areas of your torso: front, back and sides. Trained personnel from manufacturers can assist you with proper fitting. Get measured correctly when you buy your armor. It should be snug without hampering movement. Make sure it doesn’t ride up into your throat or interfere with your duty belt when you squat, sit or bend.


Proper placement of the plates is critical. The very top of the plate should be about an inch below the center of the joining point of your clavicles.  If the plates are not worn in the correct position on the body, they will not protect the vital organs as they are designed, and a full system of side and torso plates for complete protection is recommended. You never know when entering a given environment from what direction the threat will emerge from. There is a high likelihood that it’s not going to be head-on.


If your weight or body dimensions have changed since your original fitting, it’s a good idea to have the fit of your armor system re-evaluated to find out whether your armor still fits properly or needs to be replaced. Fitting body armor can be especially problematic for female officers, although custom options are available from many manufacturers. The NIJ provides a useful video with fitting tips here.


Notably, the DOJ recently imposed a fit-related requirement tied to the receipt of Bulletproof Vest Partnership funds.  Through an amendment to the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, officers will now be afforded an opportunity to have their armor systems uniquely fitted.


Find the solution that works best for you

For more than 25 years, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has encouraged ballistic protection for all police officers, and increasingly, agencies are requiring officers to wear a protective vest at all times.


Body armor can mean the difference between life and death, and it’s critical to find the solution that works best for you. If you need help purchasing a vest, the DOJ sponsors the Bulletproof Vest Partnership, which helps provide grant money for officers. Always check to make sure they are NIJ compliant and remember: if in doubt, find out!

By Brian Beckwith, ATS Armor COO and Co-Founder


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