Common Sense Standards in Selecting Your Body Armor

Jan. 9, 2024
Balance cost and performance, but ensure your armor meets some minimum standards

In a perfect (but also purely imaginary) world, the body armor worn by law enforcement professionals would cover them from head to toe, never inhibit mobility at all, weigh nothing and stop everything fired at them. “Everything” would include from 40mm grenades to the fragmentation from any explosive. Such body armor would, of course, be free and provided by manufacturers who want to ensure a higher level of working comfort and safety for the law enforcement community. Unfortunately, that perfect world is purely imaginary so agencies and officers have to choose their body armor with a balance between cost, mobility and performance. Let’s recognize reality: wearing body armor is not a guarantee of no injury in a shooting situation. It’s a risk reducer at best. 

Cost is, unfortunately, always a factor. Every agency head has to deal with budgetary restrictions and has to prioritize where budget dollars go. While administrators would love to put their line troops in the absolute best, latest, greatest body armor available, budgets often don’t allow it. Where they might, it comes at the cost of other equipment. Let’s take a look at the functional equation for selecting body armor. Performance and mobility are a balance. The more types of ammunition the armor will stop (performance), the greater the mobility of an officer is impeded. Ideally, we want the performance to be as high as possible while the mobility inhibition is as low as can be maintained.

Generally speaking:

Low Performance + Low Mobility = Low Cost

Low Performance + High Mobility = Reasonable Cost

High Performance + Low Mobility = Reasonable Cost

High Performance + High Mobility = Higher Cost

What should our requirements be from a common sense perspective?

Agency administrators are always going to be working with limited budgets. We can assume that we have to aim for either a reasonable cost or a low cost solution. If we consider the three characteristics of armor to have an acceptable bottom threshold for performance and mobility, what should they be?

Performance is easy to identify: most body armor designs have been tested to meet the National Institute of Justice standards. Those standards indicate a rating of protection based on what projectiles the armor has been tested and is certified to stop. That means the projectile will not penetrate through the armor, but it’s important to remember that stopping the projectile doesn’t stop injury. Blunt force trauma still exists and where the armor is lighter and offers more mobility it also does less to reduce or spread the blunt force trauma. Just as typically, the higher the rating on the armor, the thicker and heavier it is, reducing comfort and mobility.

At a bare minimum, the officer’s body armor should be of a high enough rating to stop the ammunition issued or authorized by the agency for the duty sidearm. Yes, it would be nice if the armor would also stop the issued shotgun and rifle rounds, but doing so requires the additional of trauma/hard plates that increase the weight of the body armor to the point of not being worn for any lengthy period of time. Most officers simply aren’t up to it and don’t need to be. Tactical officers? Yes. But for the “average” duty officer, if their body armor will stop their duty ammunition, then it will also stop the large majority of threats that they face on the street.

Mobility commonly involves a combination of cut and coverage and stiffness. By “cut” we mean how well the armor has been fitted to the person wearing it. With so many apparel items being sized as small, medium, large or extra-large, and even when you add in modifiers like medium-long, or large-regular, there’s a limit to how well a piece of body armor will fit anyone. Very few officers are the perfect “medium-regular” (read “average average”) size. Most officers have longer or shorter torsos, thicker chests or waists and broader backs, or not. Body armor should cover as much of the officer as possible from hips to shoulders all the way around their body but has to do so without inhibiting movement of the shoulders or waist. Officers must be able to comfortably move their arms in circles as necessary, reaching in front of their body, or behind as much as their personal flexibility will allow. They have to be able to bend at the waist—forward, backward and to either side—without the body armor’s impact into their gunbelt stopping them or moving things in an uncomfortable fashion.

Combining the two, performance and mobility, what we’re looking for is a set of body armor that is, at a minimum, rated to stop the officer’s duty ammunition. It should offer as much coverage as possible from belly button to jugular notch (that small hollow at the top of your sternum) and across the chest to each side where the pectoralis muscles (chest) meet the deltoid muscles (shoulders). Below the armpit, only as far as necessary to allow full arm movement, the armor should wrap around both sides of the body, meeting and potentially slightly overlapping the back armor piece. The back armor should reach from just above the belt up to the top of both shoulders—without going over them—and the full width of the back which means the armor has to be cut in an abbreviated V shape. The armor itself, and not just the straps, may wrap over the shoulders but the width has to be measured carefully. Any armor that goes over the shoulder inhibits free movement of the arms while reaching above the head. This movement, if the armor is too wide over the shoulders, causes the sides of the neck to be pinched or have pressure put on it.

The cost of such armor can be reasonable if common sizes are used to fit the majority of officers. However, officers who don’t fit the atypical size and shape (e.g. someone with an unusually large chest or shoulders with a very narrow waist) or even female officers with large busts, can require custom fitting which could automatically raise the cost.

While the cost has to be measured for the sake of the agency overall, the necessity of properly fitted and properly performing body armor cannot be downplayed. Every uniform wearing officer, no matter the rank, should have body armor that performs to a minimum accepted standard and fits them comfortably throughout the day of their duty rotation.  

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