Body Armour. The Do’s & Dont’s

The Fiction About Body Armour

Mel Gibson lights a cigarette, the collar of his long, uncharacteristic mac is turned up against the wet Los Angeles night.  A fast moving car handbrake-turns towards him. A shotgun pokes through an open window and is discharged at Gibson at point blank range, who obligingly catapults backwards through a shop window.

Cue Danny Glover, who runs up, pulls open the mac to reveal the ubiquitous Hollywood body armour with several pieces of silvery metal blobs depressed therein.  Quick speech about “thank God you were wearing … ».  Gibson jumps back to consciousness and off they gallop into the night.

Errr, well no actually.

The Facts

Although many of us in the security industry are familiar with body armour, may have worn it or used it operationally, very few people have actually seen or experienced it doing what it is designed to do; taking live rounds or knife attacks or both.

Now whilst we security people  think we will never be victims of our own work or industry, there are times when we decide, correctly, that body armour is a necessary to meet the risk of the task.  It is at this point our lack of knowledge and experience will fail us. Very few of us have knowledge of the material used in the manufacture and construction of body armour.

So, what armour to use?  We usually take advice from others who have worn & used body armour, as to the best choice. Those from whom we take advice have probably chosen body armour previously on advice from others and so on, ad infinitum.

Very few of us make detailed enquiries into what is the best body armour for the job & which body armour meets the UK and US government standards, currently in place to define how armour is made, used and how to decide what armour to select for the task in hand.

This is extremely poor risk management and a highly dangerous decision, given that we are potentially entrusting our and other people’s lives to this equipment. The words « Negligence », « Fiduciary Responsibility » and « Corporate Manslaughter » come to mind!

The Carpet Story

As an example to ponder and a true story there was a small security company who won a contract in Iraq, in the early days of the private security gold rush.  The owner of the company made the right decision in buying body armour for his sub-contractors but made the wrong decision in buying body armour from a « bloke who had some good quality armour for sale ».

Fortunately, the company owner and now proud possessor of newly acquired body armour, sent the armour to a small UK testing laboratory which specialised in body armour, to ensure the body armour was undamaged and fit for use.

On receipt of the units, the laboratory technicians completed the first part of testing body armour, which was to remove the covers containing the protective material.  On doing so, they found only two pieces of carpet, cut to size and pretending to be body armour in each of the purchased units.  The implications of this were terrifying. Can you imagine the consequences of actually deploying this armour?

How Do You Choose Body Armour and What Will It Do?

Body armour is available to meet wide and varied dangers. It can protect against ballistics, knife or spike or a combination of these. The first step  is to decide what type of threat you wish to mitigate.  Analysing the task, assessing the risk and completing the ubiquitous risk assessment should define the armour you require.

You should also take into account such factors as comfort, environmental conditions, ergonomics and especially whether the end-user can carry out normal duties or carry weapons. Remember, wearing body armour in Bridlington is completely different to wearing body armour in Baghdad!

Completing this process is likely to improve end-user performance, save money and prevent the worst possible scenario where end-users are issued with uncomfortable armour which they simply dump because they do not want to wear it.

Bear in mind it is common for first time customers to purchase armour manufactured to the highest protection levels, typically NIJ IIIA or HOSDB HG2 KR2 SP2. More of these levels later.

Although there may be a need for the maximum level of protection, high levels are often requested in ignorance of the actual requirements. This can lead to the purchase of incorrectly or over-specified armour, which can be expensive, has less comfort than is acceptable and, possibly and most importantly, the wrong armour for the task.  Not a good position to defend in either a civil or a criminal court.

When considering buying body armour, ensure you purchase from respected manufacturers. Companies claiming to have “officially approved” or “certified” products must be able to verify these claims.  If they cannot, do not deal with them.

Check the true status of the product and take steps to discover the provenance of the armour. Bone fide suppliers will have direct links to the manufacturer and should be able to provide written evidence of performance and the standards that their body armour meet.  If they can’t, don’t buy from them.  Simples!

Once you have completed your research, locate the make of body armour that provides the protection you want at the quality you can afford.  Then talk to the manufacturer to get the best for the job you want it to do.

Body Armour Standards

This is the technical and slightly tedious bit, but it is important so take a deep breath and press on!

The standards governing the levels of protection offered by body armour vary across the world. The police and military end-users in many countries have their owns standards based upon regional threats. These national standards are too numerous to mention but several stand out as being used by multiple governments and NGOs’:

  • HOSDB Body Armour Standard for UK Police (2007) published by the Home Office Centre for Applied Science and Technology (CAST, formerly HOSDB)
  • US NIJ Standard 0101.04 (old standard, but regularly used by non-US governments and NGOs)
  • US NIJ Standard 0101.06 (new standard, but not used much outside of the US)
  • VPAM APR 2006 (Germany/Austria/Switzerland) (general method for ballistic testing)
  • VPAM BSW 2006 (Germany/Austria/Switzerland) (specific method for ballistic testing of body armour)

The HOSDB standard is of particular interest to police departments in several countries (UK, Portugal, Sweden) because it defines protection levels for bullets, knives and spikes. The HOSDB knife standard is more-or-less the de-facto standard for knife resistant armour. Although the USA and Germany have their own, the HOSDB standard is the most popular and forms the basis of the US NIJ 0115.00 knife & spike standard.

In general, there are moves towards creating new standards with much stricter requirements. In particular, new standards require more shots to be fired or knife stabs to be made. For example, the old UK police standard, PSDB 2003, required a total of 12 shots and/or 12 stabs to be made for each level of protection. The current HOSDB 2007 standard requires a total 60 shots and/or 40 knife stabs. The later standards also require testing of different sizes or armour panels, whereas the older ones tested only one large size.

The HOSDB 2007 standard also limits product certification to 2 years or 5000 vests, meaning that older or more popular products must be re-tested in order to maintain their certified status.  This is important as body armour that has not been looked after, has been allowed to get wet or has been exposed to sunlight on an on-going basis wont be any good for Mel Gibson or you!

The Materials

There are a variety of materials now used in the manufacture of body armour.  Kevlar is probably the most well known.  However, Lorica® Research based in the UK have developed a technology that goes into a number of materials used to stop knives, bullets and spikes. The material is a thermoplastic resin impregnated aramid textile. Such new technology has been utilised by armour manufacturers to produce a combined knife and bullet resistant armour.

Lorica® and other similar materials have some unique advantages: complete water-resistance, optimised knife & bullet resistance and efficient blunt trauma. Such an advantage has enabled companies as Jack Ellis, a UK armour manufacturer based in Kirriemuir, Scotland to produce a body armour unit combined with an inflatable collar to act as a buoyancy aid.  This is an excellent development for operators working in maritime security or other water-borne operations.

The combination of Lorica® material, advanced methods of weaving and coating with specific plastics have advanced the capability of body armour, whereby knife blows can be prevented from penetrating the armour and ballistic attack is considerably enhanced to prevent 9mm, most shotgun rounds, .45 and 44 Magnum rounds penetrating the body armour.

This does not apply to all body armour and this is why it is important to see what Standard(s) the manufacturer produces to and, what levels of protection their material will operate to.

The Fit

Body armour needs to fit well in order to perform effectively and be comfortable for long periods of wear. Some companies provide a measuring service and extensive size range to ensure armour is an exact fit.  Some companies manufacture specially contoured armour panels to comfortably fit the female form to provide separately certified female armour.

When buying armour, ensure the manufacturer has produced their material under conditions following an ISO9001: 2008 certified quality system.

The End Bit  

This all may seem a little “Techy”. But, if you did not know this before you read this article, then pay attention.  You want this stuff to save your life if it all goes pear-shaped and knowing the technical details is powerful risk management and life preservation.

To paraphrase dear old Sean Connery in the “The Untouchables”,

“Make sure at the end of your shift, everybody goes home alive.

Here endeth the lesson!”