Why today’s threats require new body armor
Protection from rifle fire now a critical need
Sponsored by Buffalo Armory
By Tim Dees for PoliceOne BrandFocus
Body armor has been part of the standard kit for U.S. law enforcement officers for over 40 years, and has saved thousands of officers’ lives. Even so, officers wearing what has become the standard in police body armor are unprotected from threats commonly present today.
Limitations of soft body armor
Most ballistic panels in police body armor are made of synthetic fibers with a tensile strength greater than an equivalent weight of steel. Weaving and layering these fibers into flexible panels provides protection against most projectiles from handguns, which are traditionally the most common weapons used against law enforcement officers. Improvements in design and technology allows for body armor that is half the thickness and weight of the original models, yet stops most handgun rounds.
The emergent problem is that an increasing number of firearm threats come not from handguns, but from military-grade rifles and ammunition. The classic “active shooter” in a school, nightclub, or other public gathering is armed with a rifle similar to an AR-15 or AK-47. The bullets fired by these weapons are smaller and lighter than most handgun rounds, but are composed of harder metals and move at a much higher velocity.
Where Level IIIA body armor (the most common protection level worn by American police officers) protects the wearer from most handgun rounds, rifle rounds will penetrate the officer’s body armor and retain sufficient energy to be lethal.
Rifle ammo is faster and harder
The standard rifle round fired by military forces of NATO countries (mainly the United States) is 5.56mm, while former Warsaw Pact nations favor 7.62mm ammunition. This latter round is the one fired by the AK-47 rifle, the most common model used worldwide. It’s estimated that over 75 million AK-47 variant rifles have been manufactured.
The incidence of assaults on police by rifle fire is no longer rare, and the assaults are increasing in frequency.
- In July 2018, a man at a motel in Kansas City shot three police officers with a semi-automatic rifle.
- In the same month, another shooter with a semi-automatic rifle was killed after he fired on Miami-Dade police officers in Hialeah, FL.
- In May 2018, a man attempted to ambush police in Evansville, IN with an AR-15 rifle.
- In July 2016, a sniper armed with an AK-74 variant rifle killed five police officers in Dallas in a single incident.
- Between 1982 and June 2018, 49 rifles have been used in 41 mass shootings in the United States.
Rifle-proof body armor
Supplemental body armor for protection from rifle rounds needs to be readily available in the officer’s car, not stored at the station. Analysis of past incidents shows that responding patrol officers are the ones most likely to have to engage these shooters. There is seldom time to drive back to the station, gear up with the extra protection, and then go to the scene. By the time the up-armored officers arrive, the situation will either be over or tragically aggravated.
It’s also critical that the special armor be designed for quick donning, over whatever the officer is already wearing. Officers may have to deploy this protection while under fire and having no cover other than their patrol vehicle. Because it’s likely to be the outermost item of the officer’s uniform, it should have identification panels clearly indicating the wearer’s law enforcement status. At under 6.5 pounds, the Star 647 model from Buffalo Armory is a good choice for steel armor that can withstand rifle fire while being lightweight. Buffalo Armory’s 647 armor and carrier combo make it easy for first responders to don body armor quickly and also includes MOLLE attachment loops for customization, such as added magazine carriers. One model adds side plates for lateral protection from rifle fire.
One hazard associated with hard body armor is that of “spalling,” or breakup of rounds impacting the ballistic panels. The hard protective plates stop the bullets, but the projectiles may splatter, producing shrapnel-like fragments that can wound the wearer or a bystander in the arm, neck, or face. Injuries from these fragments are seldom lethal, but can be painful and even temporarily disabling. Buffalo Armory’s spall sleeve, available on request, slips over the ballistic plates and traps fragmented rounds, eliminating the effects of spall and fragmentation from three shots of M80 .308.
As with any other piece of safety equipment, proper training is critical for effective deployment. Officers have to be able to put the extra body armor on quickly and while behind cover. They also have to practice moving, shooting, and performing arrest techniques while wearing the gear, and know what limitations it imposes on their mobility and endurance.
About the Author
Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement websites who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.