Apparel & Body Armor: External Excitement

Jan. 9, 2024
Departments are consistently migrating to body armor external carriers, and must be mindful of NIJ certification.

The dramatic increase in acceptance and adoption of external carrier systems is the biggest trend to arrive in body armor.

“For years, many agencies have been reluctant to adopt external carrier options over concerns of uniformity with current apparel, overly militaristic appearances, or control over the consistency of application. At Safariland, we have worked extensively with agencies to address these concerns and have made dramatic revisions to some of our most popular carriers such as the Bothel and Oregon City models,” says Sean Conville, Vice-President at Atlantic Tactical.

There are now body armor carriers that appear to be uniform shirts, load-bearing solutions, and hybrid designs.

The result is agencies enjoy dramatically increasing wearability of armor, moving weight from the officers’ hips onto the carrier. All this offers greater functionality while maintaining the professional appearance that both law enforcement administrators and the public expect.

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“Galls has seen a trend in agencies moving to external carriers to take the weight off the duty belt and increase the officer comfort. Over the last 18 months, we’ve seen that trend continue with a shift to more uniform shirt style carriers and less tactical looks for patrol,” says Mike Fadden, CEO of Galls, LLC.

The uniform outer carriers are available in both MOLLE and regular styles. Elbeco’s BodyShield External Vest Carrier V4 and Point Blank’s Guardian series are reported best sellers for some. Hybrid undervest shirts are also gaining in popularity, as well as base layers. Most departments wearing carriers with MOLLE are moving away from thick winter jackets and opting for a nice base layer shirt under the vest.

“Winter jackets are hindering access to the items loaded on the front of their vest where the MOLLE pouches are commonly held. Flying Cross is making a nice base layer hybrid uniform shirt that is gaining traction in SWVA called the HT Pull Over, which is lightweight, and HT+ Pull Over, the winter weight,” says James Witmer, CEO of Witmer Public Safety Group, Inc. “One of the nicest features is that the handwarmer pockets are raised all the way up to the officer’s chest. Most officers are already putting their hands behind their vests to keep them warm. Flying Cross adding handwarmer pockets to the chest is a nice feature.”

Witmer also reports that the biggest area he sees is a move toward the external carrier. Even with the “discreet” type of MOLLE on the market chiefs are asking Witmer about external options for officers. Many Chiefs do not want the “tactical” look for their patrol officers, so hybrid options are filling a need.

“Comfort is obviously a priority as well. Most departments are now buying an outer carrier to wear over their uniform shirt. The outer carrier is capable of holding pouches such as handgun magazines, cuffs, flashlight, OC spray, radio and more. This gets officers’ weight off their hips, which is proven to help back problems and also free up space on their duty belts to accommodate other products such as the BolaWrap,” says Mitch Miles, Sales Manager at Southern Police Equipment.

Conville agrees with this sentiment and points out how Safariland not only focuses on sourcing the latest technologies for light and thin ballistic materials but they recognize that a large degree of comfort is actually derived by the fit of the armor. “We have done a ton of research in developing the shape and grade to fit both male and female officers in a variety of body types,” he says.

Staying vigilant regarding NIJ certification

Another major consideration for agencies is being mindful that the body armor technology and products they provide their officers are certified by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), which oversees the testing and evaluation of new body armor product lines.

“Some companies will market their technology as ‘NIJ Compliant’ or ‘Tested to NIJ Standards’ without ever going through the certification process,” warns Fadden.

Products that do not meet the standards are not eligible for most grant funding, a financial consideration. More importantly, products that are not certified pose a greater potential risk to the officer and represent a huge potential liability for the agency.

The NIJ certification is also just the first question agencies are asking regarding body armor specifications. Witmer points out that “the next consideration is will the body armor defeat typical common calibers, such as 223/5.56, 7.62 x 39, 9mm, .40 SW, or .45ACP.”

There are three levels of soft armor that stop handgun rounds: IIA, II, IIIA.

“We only sell level II and IIIA. All of what we sell meets the NIJ standard. Most of what we sell meets the FBI and DEA protocol and has been independently lab tested by a certified lab. The FBI and DEA protocol is a higher standard than NIJ meaning these vest stop more special threat rounds,” says Miles.

More and more departments are now wanting handgun and rifle protection to be worn all the time throughout an officer’s shift. The level III ICW plate meets these needs. In this case, the plate would be worn inside the outer carrier in front of their level IIIA (not level II) ballistic pad. The Level IIIA soft armor in conjunction with the level III ICW hard plate provides both handgun and rifle protection. Most level III ICW plates are an inch or less thick and weigh no more than one pound. The level III and IV plates weigh 4lbs-7lbs and are not wearable for a patrol officer all the time.

“We’ve also seen a marked increase in the desire to provide everyday protection for threat levels beyond traditional soft body armor. The Omega plate from Point Blank is one example of an up armoring technology that pairs well with standard soft armor and provides enhanced protection without the weight of traditional hard armor plates,” says Fadden.

At the end of the day, all body armor trends move us toward one goal. Karen Allan Ballenge, the owner of Southern Police Equipment, says it best: “Our success comes from the care we have for the officer in the vest. Our motto has always been to protect our protectors.” 

About the Author

Rick Levine is the Executive Director of NAUMD, a global network of uniform manufacturers and distributors. Contact him at [email protected] and visit for more information

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