Ballistic Levels and Your Protection; Keeping Officers Safe with Body Armour

Wednesday, 23 December, 2015


The threats facing Police Officers have always been of the most serious nature, and while the situations they may find themselves in will continue to vary, the seriousness of the threats facing them will not. Nevertheless, with Officers increasingly called to extremely dangerous situations, and serving as first responders at major attacks, it is more important than ever for those working as part of the Police Service to understand exactly how they can keep themselves protected.

All Police Officers will understand the importance of body armour, and most will be aware that the term body armour can refer to a wide range of products. However, it is not always clear exactly what protection is provided by each level and type of vest. Being aware of the levels of protection available is very important, as it outlines exactly what ammunition your vest can protect you against.

NIJ Levels and ‘Soft Armour’

Ballistic protection may not always seem to be the most appropriate protection for Officers, many of whom will likely not face a firearm during their career. However, ballistic protection is extremely light and thin, and is should be considered the minimum level of protection needed for Officers. Ballistic protection is standardised according to testing standards set by the US National Institute of Justice, the world-leader in ballistics testing. This organization then assigns levels (NIJ Levels), so you can easily see at a glance what ammunition each level of vest can protect against.

Each level of protection is capable of stopping all ammunition listed at lower levels. Level IIa armour should be considered the minimum recommended protection for body armour, as it can protect against the majority of ammunition used in handguns, including 9mm full metal jacketed round nose and .40 S&W full metal jacketed ammunition. The next highest level, the Level II, can protect against all of this ammunition, while also providing protection against more powerful rounds like the .357 Magnum. Finally, Level IIIa armour provides protection against nearly all rounds fired from handguns, revolvers, and most semi-automatics. Level IIIa armour is the highest level of ‘soft armour’ available.

‘Soft Armour’ refers to body armour that uses Kevlar or similar materials to offer ballistic protection. While ‘Hard Armour’ will also employ these materials, it requires additional rigid plates, whereas soft armour uses only the lightweight and flexible ballistic protection afforded by fabrics like Kevlar.

High Calibre Protection and ‘Hard Armour’

Unlike its soft counterparts, ‘Hard Armour’ is heavier and much less flexible because of the rigid plates it uses to provide protection. Higher level hard armours usually consist of a Kevlar Vest and a rigid plate, usually made from ceramics or polyethylene, thereby providing protection against even high-powered weapons and ammunition.

Hard armour is available at NIJ Level III and IV, which is the highest available level of ballistic protection. Level III hard armour protects against 7.62mmx51mm NATO full metal jacketed rifle rounds, as well as the 5.56x45mm NATO round. Most rifle and automatic rounds are covered by the Level III, including such staples as the .30-06 and the .308 Winchester. However, the highest level of protection, the Level IV, offers protection against all these bullets, as well as armour-piercing variants.

While hard armour is heavier than soft armour, advancements in thedevelopment of ballistic materials means that plates are thinner and lighter than ever before. This in turn means that protection even at Level IV can be achieved in a lightweight and discreet vest, and even vests designed to be worn under clothing can house rigid plates.

Edged and Spiked Weapons

As mentioned above, it is not just ballistics that Police Officers need to be protected against, and edged and spiked weapons like knives and needles bring their own considerations. Most Officers will be aware that a bullet resistant vest offers no protection against edged or spiked weapons, but far fewer will be aware that stab and spike protection is also graded according to its strength.

The testing and grading of stab and spike protection is undergone by the Home Office Centre for Applied Science and Technology (CAST, formerly HOSDB), which is widely considered to be the world leader in the testing of edged and spiked weapons. While higher levels of stab and spike protection can stop stronger blades, the levels available largely refer to the strength behind the attack. Nevertheless, it is important to be aware that engineered blades found in weapons like hunting knives will not be stopped by the lowest levels of stab protection.

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