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3 keys to buying body armor that’s right for you

Consider fit, likely threats and funding sources to ensure a successful purchase


Sponsored by Propper

By PoliceOne BrandFocus Staff

Of the 135 police officers killed in 2016, 64 died in firearm-related incidents, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. As criminals with firearms continue to threaten officers on the job, body armor can be a lifesaver.

Body armor can be a lifesaver, but vests are not one-size-fits-all. It’s important to know the differences between the various armor options and threat ratings. (photo/Propper)
Body armor can be a lifesaver, but vests are not one-size-fits-all. It’s important to know the differences between the various armor options and threat ratings. (photo/Propper)

However, buying the right body armor requires more than simply checking a box and placing an order. Vests are not one-size-fits-all. Many require custom fitting, and it’s important to know the differences between the various armor options and threat ratings. Plus, there’s the challenge of funding.

Here are three key steps to help you prepare for a purchase of body armor:

1. Measure for correct fit

A ballistic vest that doesn't fit correctly might be uncomfortable, or worse, not provide enough coverage. Body armor should protect all vital organs, especially on the sides, where most officers are shot. If a vest isn’t sized correctly, coverage across the sides is often not complete.

In order to get accurate measurements, it’s important to have someone else measure with a soft measuring tape rather than taking self-measurements.

Be sure to take both sitting and standing measurements to ensure that vests fit comfortably whether you are sitting in a cruiser or on foot, says Skip Church, vice president of Propper International’s armor division.

He recommends taking the average of these two measurements so that when an officer sits down, the vest doesn't hit him or her in the throat or interfere with the duty belt but still offers enough coverage while standing.

It’s also important to consider the difference between tactical and concealed armor. Concealed armor is usually custom-fitted, while tactical armor often comes in alpha sizing, which can range from XS-2XL depending on the model.

2. Match the armor to the mission

When deciding what armor to buy, first determine what threats you and your agency anticipate and what your budget will allow.

The National Institute of Justice categorizes ballistic armor based on bullet resistance, with levels I, IIA, II and IIIA in the softer materials, and III and IV for harder armors. The higher the rating, the higher level of protection the vest offers. The higher ratings offer greater protection but often come with heavier and stiffer materials and higher costs.

It’s important to understand the difference between soft, semi-rigid and hard armor. Soft armor is flexible, made to wrap around the wearer and stop handgun rounds. As the majority of firearm threats officers see are from handguns, this is the most popular type of armor.

Semi-rigid plates can offer protection from rifle rounds and absorb blunt force trauma while still remaining lightweight. Hard armor plates made from ceramic or metal must be able to withstand multiple shots from a high-powered rifle, making them generally much heavier and less comfortable. Ceramic plates, which “catch” a bullet, are preferred over metal. Metal (typically steel) plates cause bullets to spall and shatter, putting the officer and those nearby in danger from the shrapnel.

With the exception of an active shooter situation, most patrol officers opt for a soft, handgun-rated vest for daily wear. A SWAT officer generally requires a higher level of protection and tactical capability, so they tend to wear heavier rifle-rated plates.

Deciding between the safety of hard armor and the greater comfort of soft is a constant problem, says Church, and hard plates cover vital organs but may leave gaps in coverage on the wearer’s sides.

“It won't cover the side unless there’s a side plate,” he said. “You could surround yourself with hard armor, but it would be so uncomfortable, so heavy, that you would never want to wear it.”

Armor comes in two basic configurations: two-panel “clamshell” or four-panel wraparound vests with overlapping panels. If you opt for a two-panel vest, be sure any gaps on the sides are closed for full coverage.

3. Find funding for your armor

Body armor doesn’t last forever and generally should be replaced every five years. The materials, especially in soft armor, break down over time, even faster with daily use. The NIJ recommends inspecting in-use body armor at least once a year, and any armor that has taken a hit should be replaced immediately.

While most departments list body armor as a budgeted item, it can be difficult to find the funds to replace old vests and buy new armor. Luckily, there’s a lot of grant money available for departments with smaller budgets. Here are a few programs that offer grants for body armor:

Some manufacturers, including Propper, offer bulk purchasing discounts as well. Ask about this when making your inquiries.

It’s important to be prepared with the right kind of body armor for your mission. Selecting and buying armor that fits correctly and meets your specific needs without breaking the bank can provide protection for years. Consider what kinds of threats you and your fellow officers are most likely to face in the field, match that to an NIJ rating, and then consider what armor best meets your needs.

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