Knowing the V50 rating on a new vest allows departments to take vests that have been used in the field for two, three or more years and compare the V50 ratings. Olsen describes the V50 as an "early warning system" to how quickly vests are degrading, which may lead departments to update replacement timelines.
Stephen Armellino, president of U.S. Armor, cautions that just because a product brochure lists a specific V50 rating not every vest will test to this exact same number. "I can cut one panel of the material as it's configured and sewn, run a V50 and get 1,600 fps," describes Armellino. "I can then cut another panel from the same roll, test it, and get 1,550 fps. There is a deviation in brand new material from the same rolls of fabric."
Olsen adds that if 10 vests were cut from the same roll, "you would not get any two to have the same results, but your expectation is that they would all be the same," he says. "Look at the V50 as an overview guide, not an absolute."Cutting, sewing, trimming
With the sandwich layering determined and the measurements in hand (see "Weights and measurements on Page 86), it's time to build the vests.
Vests of the same polymer composition are grouped together and constructed at the same time. This may include orders from a department outfitting all its officers with the same vest or individual orders that have accumulated over time.
Each officer's measurements are inputted into a computer, which then lays out the patterns for each vest component to maximize fabric efficiency. Because of the cost of materials, "You don't want to be wasting a lot of material," notes Olsen.
The inevitable scraps of ballistic material that do accumulate through the production process are recycled. They are ground into a course powder and converted into clutch plates and brake shoes.
A technician then rolls the layers of ballistic fiber onto the cutting table in the order developed during the research process. Once this layering is complete, the pattern sheet is placed on top. The Gerber cutting machine is integrated with the software that writes the pattern, and therefore, doesn't actually read the pattern sheet rolled across the ballistic sandwich. But the pattern sheet is still used because it lists the corresponding name and serial number so the custom-fit vest ends up in the hands of the appropriate person.
When custom orders are being produced, only one layer of vests can be cut at a time. If stock sizes are being produced, thin sheets of plastic can be rolled between the ballistic sandwiches so that multiple layers of vests can be cut at the same time.
At U.S. Armor, a fan system beneath the Gerber draws air down, holding the material in place so it doesn't slide or move. A dry run of the cutter is performed. The technician watches that the cutter follows the lines on the pattern, although at this point, just a laser guide indicates where the cut will take place — the blade is not yet in motion.
After a successful dry run, the pieces are cut. "The blade actually operates more like a drill," notes Olsen. The CNC machining allows for replicable precision.
As the pieces are excised from the fabric, the technician stacks them, making sure to keep the paper pattern with the ballistic sandwich, ballistic cover or outside carrier — whichever of the three components is being produced.
Following cutting, the pieces are moved to the sewing line. "Different pieces of armor are stitched in different ways," notes Olsen. Vests may just have a few lines of sewing to keep the layers of material together, while the ballistics in a breaching blanket are quilted.
"You can affect ballistic performance by the way you construct the vest," adds Wagner. "In a soft armor product, you can affect performance by the stitching, layering of materials and use of different materials."
Each vest is marked with its appropriate sewing lines. The ballistic sandwich is then sewn into its cover, and the carrier is also sewn.
At the assembly stage, any loose threads are trimmed — both inside and outside the carrier and vest. Once again, the serial numbers are checked to be sure that both the vest and carrier match. "They are checking when they are assembling, cutting, cleaning, packing, all throughout the process," reiterates Olsen.