Balancing the Importance of Weight, Performance, and Cost for Advanced Ballistic Protection Solutions


Law enforcement professionals worldwide are facing unprecedented challenges and threats in the field, including more frequent active shooter incidents.1 Police are expected to arrive at emergencies within a moment’s notice, be prepared to address a potentially violent situation, and bring it to an end as quickly as possible—no matter the inherent risks to their own safety.

The FBI’s Preliminary Semiannual Uniform Crime Report revealed a substantial upswing in violent crime in the United States. The January 2017 report compared the first six months of 2015 to the first six months of 2016. The report stated that violent crime

• rose 9.7 percent in cities with populations of 1 million or more

• increased 5.2 percent in cities with populations from 500,000 to 999,999

• jumped 4.3 percent in cities with populations from 250,000 to 499,9992

Violent situations can range from domestic confrontations between individuals and gang violence to full-fledged terrorist attacks involving multiple actors. Increasingly, these incidents include the use of high-powered rifles, such as the AR-15, M4, or AK-47 platforms.3 The mission for law enforcement during these events hasn’t changed, however: Subdue the actors and quickly bring the situation to an end with minimal or no loss of life. While Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams are particularly well trained for this mission, it is often impractical to contain the violence and await the arrival of SWAT teams, which means any responding officer has to be adequately protected and trained to arrive on scene and engage threats from high-powered rifles.

The good news for police leaders is that ballistic protection solutions that protect officers from handguns to high-powered rifles are available. The options for ballistic protection balance the scales between several important factors, including weight, performance, level of protection, and cost.

 Testing and Certification

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), an adjunct agency associated with the U.S. Department of Justice, sets standards for ballistic protective equipment, validates compliance, and certifies ballistic protection solutions. NIJ Standard 0101.06 outlines levels of body armor protection from weapons and ammunition. These include the following ratings:

• Level IIA: Tested to stop 9mm and .40 Smith & Wesson ammunition fired from handguns

• Level II: Tested to stop 9mm and .357 Magnum ammunition fired from handguns

• Level IIIA: Tested to stop .357 SIG and .44 Magnum ammunition fired from handguns

• Level III: Tested to stop 7.62mm FMJ lead-core rifle ammunition

• Level IV: Tested to stop .30-caliber steel core armor piercing rifle ammunition.4

 NIJ publishes the Ballistic Armor Compliant Product List (CPL), which is a reference list of ballistic body armor solutions that comply with NIJ standards; the CPL is essentially the gold standard for those selecting body armor.5 The CPL lists the manufacturers and model numbers of ballistic body armor products that comply with NIJ standards that the Justice Technology Information Center, host of the NIJ Compliance Testing Program, has verified through by certified ballistics laboratories. This is the key resource for police leaders as they make purchasing decisions based on department budgetary cycles.

Evolution of Body Armor

Body armor is not new; however, use of ballistic body armor that provides effective protection against modern firearms is relatively new to military and law enforcement. Early body armor typically used heavy steel and iron plates, and the first generation of useful, modern, lightweight body armor consisted of flexible materials such as Kevlar and similar materials. These products remain effective against many munitions, including most handgun munitions. Many of these products, which are in general use now by most law enforcement departments and agencies, offer NIJ Level IIIA compliant ballistics protection. However, these soft body armor panels offer no ballistic protection from high-velocity rifle rounds.

By the late 1990s, lighter-weight armor plates made from ceramic and other composites became available. These small arms protective insert (SAPI) plates were light enough to be integrated into carriers and vests worn by combat soldiers and special duty law enforcement officers. The rigid SAPI plates offered the first viable stand-alone ballistic protection against high-velocity rifle munitions. Using the plates in conjunction with Kevlar-type soft body armor panels can enhance protective levels.

By 2007, further advances in the use of ceramics and composite materials enabled enhanced SAPI (ESAPI) products to protect against high-velocity rifle munitions with hardened steel or tungsten core military-type munitions such as .30-06 M2 armor piercing rounds. However, these composite ESAPI rifle plates remain heavy, weighing about five to seven pounds each, depending on size. The plates are typically fragile and easily damaged. They are expensive to inspect using non-intrusive means such as x-ray and MRI technologies, and difficult to repair. However, many of these plates provide NIJ Level IV compliant protection, which is most often suitable for military-style and SWAT operations, but might not be needed for most line officers.

Advanced Ballistic Technologies

Recently, advanced ballistic technologies have enabled body armor plates to be produced from polyethylene materials that are exponentially lighter, yet strong enough to provide ballistic protection against most high-velocity rifle munitions, such as those typically fired from AR-15, M4, and AK-47 rifles. Many of these polyethylene-based products offer stand-alone NIJ Level III–compliant protection.

To select the ballistic protection kit most appropriate to the meet the threats and operational conditions their departments face, police leaders and their technical staffs must stay familiar with these new advances in ballistic technologies—and new products are continually emerging that could provide more comfort and protection for offices in the field, such as strong, ultra-light, high-strength ballistic plates made of materials like polyethylene.

Total Cost of Ownership

An important consideration for all departments and agencies is cost. Total cost of ownership for body armor should be carefully considered before selecting any body armor products. Total ownership costs include everything that goes into acquiring; using; maintaining; and, ultimately, retiring outdated or damaged body armor, as well as associated training requirements. New, advanced ballistic plates often offer a lower total ownership cost because they are strong and rugged and require no costly high-tech inspections or additional training. Since the plates are well-suited to handle the rigors of the field operations, including response to active shooter incidents, some manufacturers will also offer repair or replace warranty terms on their products.

Modification and Standardization

Another important consideration for police leaders is whether a manufacturer can efficiently modify ballistic plates to meet the specific requirements for their force. For example, assume a department has a diverse force characterized by numerous differences in body stature, as well as gender. Plates can be modified to better accommodate female officers, with a slightly larger curve or bend in the plate’s upper torso dimensions. Ceramic composite plates and metal plates are not easily modified, requiring prototype development schedules, additional testing protocols, and certification to ensure NIJ compliance. A number of manufacturers building ultra-light polyethylene armor plates can quickly and efficiently modify their plates to meet specific operational requirements for an agency or department.

Experience indicates that, next to ballistic protection and weight considerations, comfort and fit are critical factors for body armor plate design. Multi-curved plates that resemble the shape and size of the U.S. military ESAPI plates have evolved into the standard shape that most manufacturers have adopted. This standardization ensures that plates will fit into most preferred carrier and vest designs.

Body Armor as a System

It cannot be emphasized enough that ballistic body armor plates and panels can only be effective if a properly designed carrier or vest holds them securely in place. The carrier and protective ballistic materials must work as a system. The body armor system must provide ballistic protection, with minimal degradation of the officer’s mobility, speed, and agility. The ballistic carrier or vest must fit securely, distribute weight evenly, and allow the option for officers to carry other provisions such as communications gear, ammunition, first aid supplies, restraining devices, and other technical gear as appropriate to the mission.

There are numerous styles and types of vests available on the commercial market to carry ballistic body armor panels and plates. These products can meet the most common law enforcement missions including patrol, SWAT operations, and active shooter response situations. As body armor began to be used in law enforcement, many departments and agencies were often required to develop their own body armor load carrying systems and vests. Often, each officer was measured and fitted with his or her own personal body armor as one might be fitted for a tailored suit. This was expensive and time consuming.

Fortunately, there are many vest and carrier design alternatives available now so that a standard vest can be issued by size and quickly adjusted using fastening closure systems such as adjustable straps, buckles, and hook-and-loop fastener materials. The most versatile of these vests can carry both soft body armor NIJ Level IIIA ballistic panels and NIJ-certified Level III rifle plates. The ballistic rifle plates can be quickly inserted into front and rear pockets on the vest to meet increased threat scenarios. Variants of these vests are also able to carry side torso ballistic plates. Choosing a standardized body armor load carriage system lowers initial costs and allows interchangeability of ballistic body armor components by size.

Standard ballistic vest
BALCS-style standardization eliminates the requirement for specialized individual tailoring to fit each person, further lowering acquisition costs.

Body armor designs developed by U.S. military special forces organizations paved the way in addressing the challenge of interchangeability and standardization for ballistic protective vests. They developed the Body Armor/Load Carriage System (BALCS) in multiple sizes, from extra-small through extra-large, with standardized front and back panel designs. The BALCS protective pattern was developed after extensive battlefield post-action evaluations to ensure maximum protection with minimal constraint on movement and mobility. BALCS-style standardization eliminates the requirement for specialized individual tailoring to fit each person, further lowering acquisition costs. Fortunately, these standard BALCS designs and sizes are now available from a variety of manufacturers and should be considered whenever body armor systems are procured.

By adopting BALCS standard vest designs and BALCS-style NIJ Level IIIA ballistic panels, a police force can easily interchange new BALCS-style vests with existing stocks of body armor equipment. Adopting the BALCS standard further enables interoperability and equipment exchange between departments and jurisdictions.

BALCS-style plate carrier systems are ideally suited for equipping law enforcement officers with active shooter response carrier kits. Acquiring these kits, minimally equipped with NIJ Level III rifle plates, should be considered so that each officer is equipped to immediately respond to active shooter emergencies with ballistic protection against high-velocity rifle munitions. By equipping the vest carrier with ultra-lightweight rifle plates, a complete medium-sized body armor system, including NIJ Level III side and torso plates and NIJ Level IIIA soft body armor BALCS panels, could weigh as little as 15 pounds. Larger sizes would weigh only slightly more. That’s a lot of ballistic protection from a lightweight body armor system.

These body armor protective systems are also ideally suited for other critical security personnel, such as those who serve at courthouses, access control points in prisons and medical facilities, and critical supply and distribution hubs, as well as first responders such as firefighters and emergency medical technicians who may be required to respond to the scene of an active shooter incident.

Checklist for Success

When police leaders are choosing ballistic protective equipment to meet the increasingly lethal threats posed by high-velocity rifle munitions, including active shooter situations involving criminals and terrorists, they should become familiar with newly available advanced ballistic technologies. Their choices of ballistic body armor systems including plates, soft body armor insert panels, and vests should be guided by the following three important principals.

• Advanced Technology: Identify and select body armor products appropriate to the mission and threats. Make sure they are manufactured using advanced technology polyethylene materials, and they are listed on the NIJ Compliant Product List. Evaluate these additional factors:

» Weight. Consider choosing products that evenly distribute the load, with minimum restrictions on movement, speed, and agility, thus avoiding complications in the field that are common with heavier ceramic or metal plates.

Consider choosing products with the lowest areal densities available that minimally comply with NIJ Level III or III+ standards for stand-alone plates and NIJ Level IIIA for soft body armor. Plates and panels should be rugged and able to withstand rough treatment in a variety of environments.

»  Modification Options. Consider choosing a manufacturer that is capable of making quick and affordable modifications to their products to meet specific mission requirements.

• Affordable: Identify, compare, and select products that offer reasonably low total costs of ownership. Consider the additional factors beyond initial acquisition costs, such as maintenance, inspection, inventory and accountability, training, and retirement and replacement costs. Plan and budget for a five-year or longer acquisition and replacement cycle, which corresponds to most manufacturer warranty periods.

• Standardized: Consider choosing body armor systems that accommodate standard interchangeable components such as BALCS-style Level IIIA soft body armor components and easily adjustable BALCS-style vests and plate carriers that can accommodate ESAPI-style multi-curve ballistic plate designs. This helps ensure that each officer can quickly apply adjustments necessary to fit the system to their unique body shape.

Making these principles paramount will allow police leaders to be fiscally responsible in an ongoing basis when it comes to this crucial piece of equipment. But more importantly, it will allow them to better protect all officers against growing threats in the field.


Larry Bronstein is executive director for manufacturing, sales, and marketing for Warrior Trail Consulting, LLC, based in Fairfax, Virginia. He supervises research, development, and manufacturing related to Warrior Trail training and ballistic products and services. He has served more than 23 years in military law enforcement, security, and intelligence operations. He earned a bachelor of science in engineering from the United States Military Academy, and a master of science in international relations from the University of Southern California. He can be reached at



1 Jack Date, Pierre Thomas, and Mike Levine, “Active Shooter Incidents Continue to Rise, New FBI Data Show,” ABC News, June 15, 2016.

{sup>2 FBI, “FBI Releases Preliminary Semiannual Crime Statistics for 2016,” news release, January 9, 2017.

3 Mark Follman, “How America’s Mass Shooters Now Use Weapons of War,” Mother Jones, June 13, 2016.

4 National Institute of Justice, Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor NIJ Standard-0101.06, July 2008.

5Models That Comply with the NIJ Standard-0101.06 for Ballistic-Resistance of Body Armor.”