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Back to Archives | Back to February 2009 Contents 

Soft Body Armor Coverage and Fit

By Lieutenant Adrienne Quigley, Arlington County, Virginia, Police Department, and IACP Fellow; and Lianne M. Tuomey, Deputy Chief, University of Vermont Police Services, Burlington, Vermont; Lieutenant (Retired), Burlington, Vermont, Police Department

ince the creation of the first bullet-resistant vest in the late 1800s, numerous developments have been made in the field of soft body armor. Through World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, several vests were produced for the U.S. military. In 1969, American Body Armor was founded and began to produce a patented combination of quilted nylon and multiple steel plates to be marketed for the first time to the U.S. law enforcement community. By the mid-1970s, the DuPont Corporation introduced the Kevlar synthetic fiber, which was immediately incorporated into the evaluation program led by the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice (known today as simply the National Institute of Justice) to analyze the possibility of creating an everyday, concealable vest.

Since the original introduction of Kevlar, several new fibers and construction methods have been developed and proved effective. Armor is becoming lighter and more flexible, and continued improvements in technology are providing an increase in efficiency. Soft body armor functions on the principle of dispersing energy across an interlaced pattern of fibers. When a bullet strikes a vest, the horizontal and vertical fibers pull synchronously, absorbing the energy of the bullet and dispersing it over a wide area. This absorption of energy not only slows the bullet down to prevent penetration but also deforms the bullet, further limiting its ability to pierce the vest. In modern vests, it is not unusual for companies to incorporate two or three different types of fibers with different types of weave to maximize effectiveness.

In 1972, the forerunner of the National Institute of Justice developed a bullet-resistant body armor performance standard. Revisions to the original standard have been made to reflect the growing threats faced by officers, not only by gunfire but also by blunt force trauma. In formulating the standard, weapon type and rounds are selected based on a combination of types of firearms commonly carried by law enforcement personnel as well as criminals. New, updated standards were published in July 2008.1

The level of protection offered by a ballistic vest is clearly an important element of officer safety—but equally as important and commonly overlooked is how a vest fits. Although the NIJ has taken the lead on clearly defining levels of protection for ballistic vests and documenting the testing procedures to ensure compliance, the policy falls short in regards to standardizing proper fit. Manufacturers are left to decide on officers’ behalf the correct measurement and coverage for protection. This can vary depending on the person performing the measurements. One vendor may believe that the maximum necessary protection covers all vital organs, whereas another may feel that two inches above the gun belt is sufficient. In either case, officers are often left in the dark about the options. They are never counseled on what “fit” means, nor are they advised about how it should feel. Many times, officers receiving their vests for the first time take for granted that the people who measured them knew what they were doing. There are several documented cases of officers feloniously killed or injured as a result of ballistic impacts in areas of the torso left unprotected by their body armor.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) annually tracks extensive data on law enforcement officers killed and assaulted (LEOKA). These reports provide specific information on area of injury, caliber of weapon, and use of body armor. From 1996 to 2007, 119 officers were killed as a result of ballistic penetration to the torso in areas not protected by their armor. The breakdown of the failures are as follows:

  • 15 percent (18 officers) between the side vest panels

  • 34 percent (41 officers) in the armhole or shoulder area

  • 16 percent (19 officers) above the vest

  • 13 percent (16 officers) below the vest2

Unfortunately, these are only a portion of verified cases of vest failures due to fit problems, since the number of documented cases for disabilities or injuries is not known. The FBI provides specific analysis only on felonious deaths and not injuries resulting from assaults. Currently, research is being conducted to identify potential areas for increased coverage that will enhance protection without decreasing task performance.

Fit and Gender

The issue of fit is further exacerbated when analyzing the female vest. Accommodating the female figure presents a unique set of design challenges that could result in protective and functional sacrifices. There are numerous technological and ergonomic factors that need to be addressed to provide a vest that is equally comfortable and effective for female users. According to Dr. Minshon Chiou, a research fellow at DuPont Company’s Advanced Fibers Systems, there have been several developments in the design of the female vest over the past 10 years. Any perceived flaws with the lack of uniformity of a female vest have been minimized by using specific stitching techniques to reduce seams, in turn making the vest more effective.

In recent years, the soft body armor industry has evolved, specifically addressing the exigency to produce comfortable body armor for women. One such example was spearheaded by BAE Systems, a global manufacturing company that created the first manufacturer of body armor only for women, SAVVY. Its underlying mission is to provide the safest and most comfortable body armor for female users by taking into consideration anatomical differences. The key to the enhanced features is the fit. Whereas most vest manufacturers take measurements and use them to categorize the vests into standard sizes with some minor adjustments, these vests offer women a precise fit that results in increased coverage and comfort. Exact measurements are entered into a computer program that designs the vest panels specific to a body shape. SAVVY uses a method of construction termed radial offset pleating. Using this technique, the panels of the vest are created using a pleating system, eliminating the issue of seams and allowing the panel to remain uniform.

Vest manufacturers have also addressed the issue of vest carriers. In the past, manufacturers would incorporate the creation of a female vest panel but use a male vest carrier, which undercut the desired result in regard to fit. Now, however, manufacturers are creating female vest carriers and including them for use in conjunction with a specific vest, maximizing its benefits.

Vest Fit Policy Guidelines

The most important elements in the creation of a tailored vest are the measurements. The product will be only as good as the information obtained by the individuals working with the officer for whom the vest is tailored. Standards need to be set in regards to required training for individuals taking measurements. A policy should be implemented within the vest manufacturing industry requiring all employees performing this job function to complete a certification program, demonstrating core competencies in the expected duties. Moreover, accommodations should be made for customers to be measured by members of the same sex to eliminate anticipated problems with anxiety or discomfort from either party that could result in incomplete or improper measurements.

Currently, the U.S. military is also crafting a vest specifically to be used by female soldiers in the field. Designers have three primary technical objectives:

  • Determine vital organ vulnerability and body surface exposure as a function of armor size and shape

  • Identify characteristics of armor size and shape that restrict mobility

  • Determine the feasibility of accommodating men and women within the same sizing system3

Overall, improvements need to be made by modifying identified areas of fit and function. The ultimate goal is to design a framework for a new armor system that provides equal protection, function, and comfort for men and women alike.

Concealed Vests or Outer Vests?

There is a debate in the U.S. law enforcement community regarding the benefits of concealed vests versus outer vests. Outer vests have been the standard in Europe for years. Although perceived as having an intimidating appearance, outer vests have several safety benefits. It is estimated that the coverage area for a midsized outer vest is almost double that of a concealed vest. Whereas outer vests allow for increased protection around the armpits, neck, stomach, and groin, concealed vests are limited in their design capacity. Dr. Chiou has found that the flexibility in design options with the outer vest has allowed him to create soft body armor that is lighter and more breathable, thus more comfortable for officers, while maximizing ballistic coverage.

Currently, outer vests are produced with a traditional outer-uniform appearance. Vests can be color matched to existing uniform colors so that they will blend and be less aggressive in appearance. Many manufacturers are designing outer vests not only to accommodate the requests of law enforcement professionals regarding appearance but also to address major health and safety concerns. As a result of the large number of officer complaints of lower back pain attributed to heavy and awkward duty belts, outer vests have been engineered to carry equipment in detachable carriers equally distributed across the front of the vest. In addition, several vest models attach to the gun belt to help distribute the weight to the chest and shoulders and alleviate the burden on the lower back. Outer vests have many benefits that should be evaluated when deciding how to outfit officers. They have been proven to increase coverage, reduce lower back stress, and increase airflow and comfort.

Numerous agencies in the United States already use outer vests. Some provide them for the officers; others are purchased at the officers’ own expense. Two years ago, Chief Craig Steckler of the Fremont, California, Police Department (FPD) proposed an outer vest project for his officers to help alleviate back injuries resulting from the inequitable weight distribution of the duty belt. Working with a private vendor, the FPD designed a vest to meet the needs of the agency and provided officers with an option of purchasing an outer vest cover to be used with their existing concealed vest panels or a completely new vest with increased coverage. Chief Steckler has allowed officers to place any of their equipment, except their handgun, on the vest using a modular lightweight load-carrying equipment (MOLLE)–based system, which allows a variety of pockets and pouches to be attached. The response to this program has been overwhelmingly positive. Officers have reported that the outer vests are more comfortable and have indeed helped to reduce back strain. The ability to remove the vest easily has proven beneficial for officers completing paperwork at the station; and some feel that officers will be more likely to wear their vests because of such convenience.

Vest Training

In addition to improving fit and function, it is important to provide officers with training on how to wear their vests properly and care for them to ensure maximum effectiveness and longevity. Officers are constantly trained and recertified on the use of weapons, vehicles, and defensive tactics, but they rarely if ever receive training on one of the principal pieces of equipment that can save their lives. Agencies must incorporate vest fit, care, and wear considerations into officers’ continuing education regimens. The IACP has long supported the proper use and care of soft body armor and has created a model policy addressing the issue.4 The policy calls for routine inspections of issued soft body armor for damage and cleanliness. Officers should be held responsible and accountable for the proper storage, maintenance, and care of their armor in accordance with their agencies’ policies and the manufacturers’ instructions. Law enforcement administrators must ensure that officers are receiving and reviewing care instructions to be properly informed on how to maintain their soft body armor. Additionally, officers should receive training on a continuous basis in proper use, fit, and function of their armor as well as technological advances inthe body armor industry. At a minimum, officers should understand what a properly fitted vest is and should be informed about coverage versus comfort/function issues when ordering their vests so that they can make informed decisions about balancing all the considerations mentioned here.

Procuring the Best Possible Equipment

Clearly, improvements and standardization are needed in the field of soft body armor in regard to fit and coverage. Concentrated research and testing must be conducted in collaboration with vest manufacturing companies to identify the best possible body armor system that provides maximum protection, function, and comfort for both male and female officers. Soft body armor design and construction should be updated and regulated to meet the needs of contemporary police officers who are as varied and diverse as the population they serve. Officers’ ballistic vests constitute the only “cover” that is with them all of the time—as long as they are worn. Law enforcement professionals need to look beyond the materials used to construct a vest and consider coverage and fit when purchasing and wearing this fundamental piece of safety equipment. The only acceptable officer safety philosophy embraces a belief in zero officers killed or injured—but this belief can be made a reality only when agencies provide the best possible equipment for their officers and ensure that it is being used properly.?


1U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor, NIJ Standard–0101.06, July 2008, (accessed January 5, 2009).
2U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Table 38,” Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 2005,; and U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Table 40,” Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 2007, (both accessed January 12, 2009).
3“Body Armor Sizing and Development for Female Soldiers,” Body Armor News, 2006, (accessed January 2, 2009).
4For more information about ordering IACP Model Policies, see the National Law Enforcement Policy Center Web page, .



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 2, February 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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