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Ballistic Vests


Your ballistic vest may be the most important piece of gear

you put on each day. After all, you never know when you
could be looking down the barrel of a gun. Even the “routine”
traffic stop can result in an armed confrontation. That’s why
you always need ballistic protection with you that's
concealable and comfortable.

Need more convincing? Then consider these statistics. Since

1973, ballistic vests have saved the lives of over 2,500
law enforcement and corrections personnel.1 Also, in 1994,
the FBI published a study that concluded law enforcement
officers who don’t wear ballistic vests are 14 times more
likely to sustain a fatal injury from a firearm than those
who do.2

The need for ballistic protection isn’t limited to law, security and corrections personnel
either. If you're a first responder, an EMT, a paramedic or a member of the fire rescue team,
you should consider wearing a ballistic vest too. Several surveys and studies have shown a
surprising number of EMS personnel have been assaulted including being shot while doing
their jobs. As a result, many emergency medical personnel believe ballistic vests should be a
part of their everyday uniform.

So, how do you choose the right ballistic vest? With so many types, it can be hard to decide.
Many look alike and provide the same or similar protection. That’s where this course can

The first two lessons give you a perspective on the type of protection we’re talking about.
You’ll read a brief history about how far body armor has come, followed by a peek into the
“mystery” of how a ballistic vests works. A greater understanding of the science behind your
vest may bolster your confidence in using it. And with technology and designs constantly
improving, it’s becoming more and more comfortable to wear this life-saving garment.

The following lessons provide the practical side of choosing and using your ballistic vests.
You’ll see how to choose the right protection and get a vest that’s comfortable enough for
you to wear every day. Finally, we offer some guidelines about the care and need for
replacing your ballistic vest.

Early Types of Armor

The need for body armor has been recognized since early human history. To respond to
changing threats and remain wearable it has taken many forms.

One of the earliest forms of soft body armor was animal skins. While relatively lightweight,
they eventually gave way to other forms of armor offering more protection.

For centuries what followed though was heavier armor. For instance, the ancient Greek
soldiers protected themselves with bronze plates. And in the 8th century, chain mail was
introduced. This shirt of interlocking metal rings weighed 14-30 lbs. and was used for
hundreds of years in one form or another.

Probably the heaviest body armor though was the medieval suit of armor. From about 1200
to the 1600s, medieval knights seeking greater protection encased themselves in whole
suits constructed of metal plate armor. While this armor was quite effective for the threats of
the time, it was extremely heavy weighing about 60 lbs. Despite its weight, what eventually
led to the suit of armor’s disappearance was the advance of gunpowder firearms.

In contrast to the suits of armor, the medieval Japanese used silk for protection. It was even
considered for use as ballistic protection in the United States as late as the early 1900s. This
natural fabric was strong yet lightweight and provided effective protection against low-
velocity weapons. However, it couldn’t stop the new higher velocity firearms of the time and
was determined to be too expensive.

Then during WWII, in another step toward softer body armor, the military began using the
flak jacket. It was constructed of ballistic nylon, which is a particular weave of nylon. Still,
the flak jacket was hardly like the concealable, lightweight ballistic vests used today. Also,
while the flak jacket helped shield personnel against munition fragments, it wasn’t up to the
task against most rifles and pistols.

Modern Ballistic Vests

Concealable ballistic vests arose in the late 1960’s. The catalyst for this new body armor
occurred when statistics showed a dramatic rise in the number of law enforcement officials
killed. From 1966 to 1971, the number of officers killed each year had doubled. And most of
these fatalities were a result of handguns.

As a result, the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, now called the
National Institute of Justice (NIJ), was formed to identify a fabric that could be used to
develop ballistic vests for everyday police use.

The material they found was a revolutionary fabric called Kevlar® 29 by DuPont. Originally
developed for tires, Kevlar® 29 was extremely lightweight yet five times stronger than
steel! From 1971 to 1976, with the cooperation of several public and private organizations,
the NIJ developed and thoroughly tested a vest made of Kevlar® 29. It proved effective
against the common handgun threat of that time.

In the nearly 30 years since then there have been many advances in the materials used for
concealable ballistic vests. They have been designed to provide greater protection against
more powerful weapons and/or to be lighter in weight so they are more comfortable to wear.
How Soft Ballistic Vests Work

A ballistic panel is constructed of several layers of high-strength “webbing.” The strength

comes from the use of innovative fibers that are either tightly woven together or affixed on
top of each other at 90-degree angles to form a “web” design.

This doesn’t necessarily prevent all injuries though. The design that allows the panel to stop
the bullet also makes the panel flexible. As a result, when the bullet strikes it bends the
panel inward towards the body and may cause injuries known as blunt trauma or backface
defamation. For more information on these blunt trauma injuries and further protection
against them, see the section, More Safety Considerations.

So, what are these high-tech fabrics? Today, you can find a
number of fabrics used in ballistic panels. Many of the
panels make use of several fabrics together. All of the
materials have relatively high strength-to-weight ratios so
that it can stop bullets and still keep the weight of the
ballistic vest to a minimum so it is comfortable enough to

Some of the high-tech materials you’ll encounter in

shopping for ballistic vests are newer generations of
Kevlar® by DuPont, Spectra® and GoldFlex® both by Allied
Signal and Twaron® by Twaron Products. For details on
these materials, see the manufacturers’ websites.
Keep in mind though it’s not
necessary to remember and
understand the particular design
and material used in each
ballistic panel when shopping for
your ballistic vest. The
important thing to shop for is
the performance and comfort
of the ballistic vest. Read on
to learn more about these life-
Choosing the Level of Ballistic Protection

In purchasing a ballistic vest the primary concern, of course, must be the protection it provides.
To identify the vest you need you must first assess your threat level and then identify the
corresponding NIJ threat level.

Note: It’s common lingo to hear a ballistic vest called a “bulletproof” vest. However, since no
vest is completely bulletproof, using this term may give a false sense of security. That’s why
you should use the more accurate term, ballistic-resistant vest. For easier reading, this course
uses a shorter version of this phrase, ballistic vest.

Assessing the Threat Level

The first step in choosing the proper protection is to assess what threat level you will most likely
face. At the very minimum, you need to protect against the threat you carry. As the following
statistics show, this advice should not be taken lightly. From 1980 to 1999, 163 law enforcement
officers were slain with their own gun.3

In addition to your own gun, you need to consider the most common guns and ammunition used
in crimes in your area. Keep in mind that the higher level of protection you choose often comes
with of a higher price tag and sometimes less comfort.

For first responders that don’t carry a gun, you might consult your local law enforcement
agencies for help in determining the most common threat in your area.

FBI Uniform Crime Reports: Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 1994-1999 (Annual

NIJ Threat Levels

After assessing your weapon and ammunition threat, you need to choose a ballistic vest model
that is NIJ certified. NIJ certification is the benchmark in the industry for ballistic vest protection
levels. Always make sure the vest you have is NIJ certified. This means it has gone through
rigorous testing. As proof of the importance of this rule, consider the fact that as of this time:
“No documented fatality has ever resulted from a round of ammunition penetrating
ballistic vests that NIJ had approved as protection against that level of threat.”4.

To say two ballistic vests are NIJ certified, however, doesn’t necessarily
mean they provide the same level of protection. The NIJ certifies
concealable ballistic vests for four different threat levels. (Higher NIJ
levels are for non-concealable ballistic vests that also protects against
rifles and greater dangers than handguns.)

But, before you identify an appropriate level you need to be aware of a

recent change in NIJ testing standards.

In response to new weapons and armor innovations as well as to

incorporate better testing methods, the NIJ has changed the standards
they use to test ballistic vests over the years. The last change was
made in October, 2000. Because this change is so recent, you may find
in the market place some vests that have been tested against the new
standard, NIJ–Standard 0101.04, and other vests that were tested
against the previous standard, NIJ–Standard 0101.03, but haven't been
tested or passed NIJ–Standard 0101.04.
In addition to testing against new threats, the new standard incorporated several testing
changes. One of these changes calls for an extra test for blunt trauma measurement. (For more
on blunt trauma, see the next section More Safety Considerations). Another significant
change requires all ballistic vests to be tested when they are completely wet. The reason for this
change is that certain ballistic materials lose some of their ballistic protectiveness when wet. This
is an important consideration since your vest could become wet from perspiration or rainy

Despite these important testing changes, you still shouldn’t automatically rule out a vest that has
passed the NIJ–Standard 0101.03, but not NIJ–Standard 0101.04. This vest wasn’t suddenly
found to be flawed or to be necessarily inferior to a vest that has passed NIJ–Standard 0101.04.
You can still rely on a NIJ–Standard 0101.03 compliant vest to give you the protection against
weapon threat levels that they were originally tested against. As a result, if such a vest meets
your protection requirements, it would be perfectly acceptable to purchase.

The National Institute of Justice’s National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center,
Selection and Application Guide to Personal Body Armor, p. 49, November 2001.

Important Note: NIJ standards test ballistic vests without the use of trauma packs. To learn
about trauma packs, see the next section, More Safety Considerations.

After deciding on the standard that meets your needs, your next step is to choose the specific
level of protection for your assessed threat level.

• Level I offers the most basic protection. It’s the same ballistic vest issued during the NIJ
demonstration project of the 1970s.
• Level II-A offers greater protection, from lower velocity 9mm and 40 S&W ammunition.
• Level II offers even greater protection like higher velocity .357 Magnum and 9mm
• Level III-A is the highest protection available for concealable, ballistic vests. Level III-A
protects against most handguns and all the weapons from the previous three levels.

For details on these threat levels according to NIJ Standard-0101.04, see publication, “NIJ
Standard–0101.04, Ballistic Resistance of Personal Body Armor, Revision A.”
This publication even explains how the NIJ tests ballistic vests. For details on the NIJ Standard-
0101.03, see “NIJ Standard 0101.03, Ballistic Resistance of Police Body Armor.”

An easier way to identify the appropriate threat level is with the Threat Level Selection and
Application Guide. It lists various weapons and ammunition you may face and their
corresponding NIJ threat level, II-A, II or III-A.
(Please note: while this chart is considered to be accurate, it’s a good idea to double check with
your firearms specialist to make sure you choose the correct level of armor.)

Another Important Note: Don’t assume a ballistic vest provides protection against knives and
other sharp instruments. Just because a vest can stop a bullet, it doesn’t mean it can stop a
knife. If you need a vest that can protect you against stab threats, make sure it is NIJ certified
for that threat. The NIJ has established separate protection levels specifically for stab

More Safety Considerations

Trauma Packs

While the ballistic panel may stop the bullet, it doesn’t necessarily prevent serious injury. While
NIJ Standard–0101.04 allows no more than .44mm blunt trauma indentation, the force of the
bullet against a flexible ballistic vest can still inflict bruises, broken ribs and other life-threatening
injuries. Trauma packs can help protect against such injuries.
Blunt Trauma

A ballistic vest is designed with ballistic panels that insert

into a carrier. The carrier often has additional pockets to
insert trauma packs for extra protection against blunt
trauma. The pockets are usually located to cover your
most vulnerable areas like the sternum.

Trauma packs are available in soft or hard styles. Soft

plates are constructed of the same materials as ballistic
panels, giving you extra protection against blunt trauma
with minimal extra weight. Hard plates are manufactured
using metal, ceramic or rigid plastic. These materials give
you more blunt trauma protection, but add more weight
than soft plates.


Another important element in getting the protection you

need is making sure you are covered.

The ballistic vest that offers the most complete coverage

is called extended coverage. It covers your front, back and
sides. Contour style provides a more basic coverage. It
protects your front and back but not your sides.

Proper fit is also critical to getting the coverage you need.

Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for sizing.
A vest that’s too small may
not leave you properly
protected. If you’re tall, you’ll be
glad to know that some ballistic vest styles come in long versions as
well. For details on getting the correct size see the next lesson on

The protection your ballistic vest provides always needs to be balanced against how comfortable
the vest is. If it isn’t comfortable, you may not wear it. And no ballistic vest can protect you
if it isn’t worn.

Your vest should be comfortable enough to allow you to perform your normal law enforcement
duties, give you the maneuverability to quickly respond to any situation and allow you to
withstand heat stress. Four factors to consider in getting a comfortable vest are weight, cooling
liners and t-shirts, carrier features and getting the correct size.


The biggest factor in the comfort of a ballistic vest is its weight. It can affect everything from
how easily and quickly you move to how much heat stress you have to endure.

While overall ballistic vests today are much lighter than the versions of 30 years ago, across
models they do differ considerably in weight. The most accurate way to compare a vest’s weight
is through a measurement called Areal Density. It gives the weight in pounds per square foot
allowing you to compare armor of different sizes. For instance, if a medium vest from one vendor
is a slightly different size than another vendor, you can use the Areal Density to tell which is
actually lighter. Because of the help this measurement provides in comparing different models.

As you might expect, a lighter vest generally comes at a greater price. Just like in choosing
protection, you need to balance the comfort level you want with what
your budget will allow. A ballistic vest that weighs less generally costs
more for the same level of protection.

Cooling Liners and T-Shirts

Although a lighter weight vest can do a lot to reduce heat stress, it may not be enough. For
instance, if you work in a warm geographic climate, you might also purchase a ballistic vest with
a carrier that includes material specially designed to help you keep cool like CoolMax® fabric.
Originally developed for athletic apparel, CoolMax® fabric wicks away moisture from the body
keeping you cooler.

In addition to getting a carrier with a “cooling” liner, you can also wear a t-shirt underneath your
vest that’s designed to keep you cool. Many of these “cool” t-shirts incorporate moisture wicking
fabrics like CoolMax®. The popular brand, Under Armour, uses a micro-fiber fabric that transports
moisture away from your body.

Carrier Features

Getting a ballistic vest that is comfortable also has a lot to do with the carrier's features. Some of
the features you should look for are pointed out in the photo below.
Getting the Correct Size

Once you have chosen a particular vest model, it is very important to order the right size. As was
mentioned in an earlier lesson, the size can determine the coverage you have and as a result
your protection. Also, if your armor doesn’t fit right, it could make it difficult for you to perform
your regular duties.

To get the correct size vest, you should always follow the manufacturer’s size charts. While these
size charts aren’t consistent across all manufacturers, you’ll find most require the same basic
measurements for a regular stock vest (not custom made).

It’s easy to get your measurements taken correctly by just enlisting the help of a partner and
following the tips below. (When being measured use a cloth tape and wear your regular, proper
attire like t-shirt, duty belt, etc.)

1. Chest: With your arms hanging at your sides, have

someone measure under your arms across shoulder blades
and around fullest part of your chest.

2. Waist: With your arms hanging at your side, have

someone measure your waist above the belt at the navel.
3. Girth or Mid-Abdominal: With your arms hanging at
your side, have someone measure around your back, just
below the rib cage and across the thickest portion of your
stomach. Do not “suck in”. (Your waist and girth size are
probably not the same size.)

4. Torso: In a sitting or normal driving position, measure

the front torso length. Measure from the first closed button
on your uniform shirt (or bottom of the clavicle depression)
to the top of the duty belt. For maximum comfort while
sitting, the bottom of your vest should be two-fingers above
the duty belt while standing.

Contrary to popular belief, female officers may or may not have to order a vest specially fitted for
women. If you wear an “A” or “B” cup bra you can probably wear a regular stock vest; if you
wear a larger size you will probably need to order a custom vest. In this case, there are
additional measurements you may need.

Caring For and Replacing Your Ballistic Vest

Caring for Your Vest

It is extremely important to care for your

ballistic vest properly because if you don't, it
may reduce the ballistic vest’s protective
qualities. That’s why you should always
follow the manufacturer’s care
instructions for both the ballistic panels
and the carrier.

If you feel the need to clean your ballistic

panels, there are some general guidelines
that apply to most manufacturer’s models.

• Don’t machine wash and dry the

panels or have them dry cleaned.
The machines or harsh detergents and
chemicals may damage or reduce the
fabric’s protective qualities.
• You can generally hand wash the
panels with cold water and mild
laundry detergent.>

As mentioned in an earlier lesson, certain ballistic materials lose some of their effectiveness
when wet. So don’t submerge the panels under water. Be sure to rinse the soap off of the
panels too because the soap may absorb water.

• Don’t dry the panels outdoors. Ultraviolet light can damage the ballistic panel’s
protective capabilities.

As for the carrier, you may be able to machine wash it if you can remove the ballistic panels.
Again, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. If you think you might wash your carrier, it’s a
good idea to buy a spare carrier first. Carriers are inexpensive and this way you’ll never be
without your armor just because your carrier is in the wash.

Between washings or instead of washing, you can eliminate odors by using a deodorizer that is
specifically made for ballistic vests. Don’t assume any general apparel deodorizer will work. It
may contain properties that will reduce the effectiveness of the armor or cause the vest to be
flammable. A deodorizer made for ballistic vests called Vest-Guard Ballistic Vest Deodorizer.

In addition to cleaning your vest, you should regularly inspect it for signs of wear like fraying or
unraveling of threads. If you find damage, don’t try and repair your vest yourself, send it back to
the manufacturer.

Replacing Your Vest

Even if you properly care for your armor, don’t expect to

wear the same ballistic vest forever. You should count on
having to replace your ballistic vest at some point for a
variety of reasons.

Reasons for replacement include wear and tear of your

ballistic panels and/or carrier, a change in body shape, and of
course, if the vest has been shot. Another big reason to
replace your vest is the need for greater protection. In the
1960’s, most of the ballistic vests were designed to protect
against the .38 caliber handgun. Today, many of the vests are
designed to protect against a 9mm handgun.

You may also want to replace your vest to take advantage of

the newer, lighter and more flexible materials that are constantly being developed to construct
ballistic panels. A more comfortable vest encourages both you and everyone in your department
to wear it more often.

One factor, however, that doesn’t appear to reduce the effectiveness of ballistic vest is its age. A
1986 NIJ study didn’t show any less effectiveness in the ballistic properties of the vest because
of how old it was. Of course, a vest that has been sitting in inventory for several years may no
longer provide the tougher level of protection you now require.

Note: As in the maintenance of your ballistic vest, you always should follow the manufacturer’s
recommendations as to replacement as well. You should also be aware of the manufacturer’s
warranty before you purchase your vest too.


Purchasing a ballistic vest is a serious decision and there are lots of

factors to consider. While you must make sure you get the right
protection, you also need to balance it with what you can afford and
comfort. Getting a vest that’s comfortable will allow you to perform your
regular duties and permit you to wear your vest all shift long.

Today, with so many different choices of ballistic vests, you can definitely
find a model that will work for you. There are models of vests to fit
almost every budget, threat level and comfort requirements.
Hopefully, what you’ve learned in this course will help you to make an informed decision about
which ballistic vest you need. If you feel you need more information, check out the NIJ website,

Finally, whichever model of vest you choose, you must remember to make it part of your regular
everyday uniform. After all, your ballistic vest can’t protect you if it’s not worn. For more than 30
years, ballistic vests have proven themselves as lifesavers. And in your work, you never know
when you’ll face the danger of a gun.

Size/Length Girth Torso Size Chart

How To Measure:

Small/Regular 28-32 11-1/4" While standing, have

Medium/Regular 32-36 11-5/8" another person
Large/Regular 36-40 12" measure your upper
Extra Large/Regular 40-44 12-1/2" torso. Use a cloth tape
to take the measurements. Wear proper attire
when being measured, (i.e.: T-shirt, service duty belt, etc.). For accurate fit, stay relaxed: do not
"suck in".

1. Mid-Abdominal: measure under back, just below rib cage and across thickest part of
2. Waist: with arms down, measure waist above the belt at the navel.
3. Torso: measure from the top of the notch in the sternum to the top of your duty belt. (For
maximum comfort while sitting, your vest should come two fingers above your duty belt while

*Girth is the larger size, between waist and mid-abdominal.

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