The Evolution of Body Armor Standards

The Evolution of Body Armor Standards

January 14th, 2024 - Rochester NY 3:30 pm

Two police officers respond to a 911 call at 709 Garfield St.  Upon arriving on the scene, Police encountered a suspect armed with a handgun.  After ignoring multiple verbal commands, the suspect drew a handgun and pointed it at the officers.   There was an immediate exchange of gunfire in which the suspect and a police officer were hit by multiple rounds.  The officer was struck in the torso area, but the rounds were captured in his ballistic resistant vest.  Following the incident the officer was transported to the hospital, treated, and promptly released.   The suspect, also hit by multiple rounds, remained in the hospital receiving treatment for gunshot wounds (1). 

This story highlights one of over three thousand incidents where law enforcement officers have been saved by ballistic resistant body armor over the past three decades.  While armor manufacturers strive to make body armor lighter and more flexible while also providing adequate protection, The National Institute of Justice, or NIJ is responsible for developing standards to which body armor is tested and evaluated. 

The National Institute of Justice

The National Institute of Justice, or NIJ was established in 1969 with the goal of monitoring and assisting in federally funded criminal justice research. Soft body armor, originally made from high tenacity nylon, was first introduced by Richard Davis of Second Chance Body Armor in 1971. By the mid-1970’s, following the introduction of Kevlar woven fabric and industrial manufacture of personal body armor, the NIJ was tasked with researching the impact of the daily wear of body armor. It was quickly determined that body armor saves lives. The NIJ then recognized the need to establish a national minimum performance standard for body armor. With that goal, in 1978 the NIJ published Ballistic Protection of Police Body Armor, NIJ Standard 0101.01. (2) This was the first test standard that would evaluate ballistic body armor and mark the beginning of the NIJ Body Armor Testing program.

The National Institute of Justice Body Armor Testing Program

The NIJ established the Compliance Testing Program or CTP in 1978. The CTP would facilitate the testing of body armor through certified laboratories. The CTP evaluates armor products for a variety of uses including ballistic protection, stab protection, and blunt force impact. (For the purposes of this article we will focus on soft type ballistic armor that provides handgun protection.)

On November 30, 2023, the NIJ announced the publication of the new NIJ 0101.07 body armor standard. This new body armor standard is the latest and most extensive test evaluation for personal body armor today, addressing a variety of ballistics safety concerns in the law enforcement community. The publication of the NIJ .07 represents over 45 years of research, real world data, testing, lifesaving successes and unfortunate tragedy. To understand the NIJ .07 it is important to understand previous NIJ standards and the lessons learned.

NIJ 0101.01 and NIJ 0101.02  1978 - 1987

In the mid 1970’s, daily use of body armor was becoming more commonplace in the US. Armor could be produced in large volumes and departments were purchasing vests to protect officers.  At the time body armor testing was non standardized. Manufacturers tested body armor themselves using a variety of test methods and threat rounds. In 1978, the NIJ published the Ballistic Resistance of Police Body Armor NIJ 0101.01. This was the first national standardized testing procedure. Testing was and is still today voluntary. Manufacturers were eager to market products that met the new standard. The standard focused on three primary safety aspects including:

  • Workmanship. The armor samples must be constructed consistently with respect to construction and stitching.
  • Penetration Resistance. The armor must successfully capture bullets inside the vest and not allow them to fully penetrate.
  • Blunt Force Trauma. Despite capturing bullets efforts were made to minimize injury associated with the impact to the body. The armor was mounted on a block of specialized clay material and after stopping the bullet, the impact could not leave a depression in the clay more than 44mm. The 44mm number was developed at Aberdeen Proving Ground, correlating injury associated with such impacts through live fire testing on goats. The 44mm standard has remained the benchmark for armor testing through present day.

Levels of protection were established so end users could choose ballistic protection that fit their needs. Protection levels and test rounds for each level are listed in the chart below for early versions of the NIJ body armor standards.

 

The concept of two ballistic threats for each level was based on testing one large caliber, heavy bullet that would measure how the vest responds to blunt force trauma and another smaller, jacketed projectile that would measure the vest’s resistance to penetration. That concept has continued in every NIJ standard.

In early versions of the NIJ test standard, vests were tested with six shots of each caliber. The vest could not be smoothed or repositioned between shots. Both front and back panels were tested. Vests were also subjected to water by being placed into a calibrated shower for three minutes on each side. This would simulate the possibility of the armor being exposed to a light rain during use. The armor would then be tested after the removal from the shower to examine performance. The NIJ 0101.02 body armor standard, published in 1985 would evolve to include testing the armor at 30-degree angle impacts. At this time, ballistics testing was also in its early stages. Accuracy, velocity, and exact impacts were difficult to achieve.

NIJ 0101.03 1987 – 2000

By the mid 1980’s, the daily wear of police body armor was becoming increasingly popular.   More companies were manufacturing police body armor, and the NIJ body armor standards were recognized not only in the US but worldwide. Federal funding became available for police departments to buy body armor, but usually that would also require the armor meet NIJ standards. In 1987, the NIJ Standard for the Ballistic Resistance of Police Body Armor NIJ 0101.03 was published.

The NIJ 0101.03 standard would change little from the early versions of the standard. Ballistic threats, armor conditioning (wet and dry), number and angle of shots would remain the same.  Some notable differences were that the velocity range was more specific (only 50 ft per second), the number of test samples also increased from testing only one vest for each caliber (front and back) to testing two vests with each caliber. Like previous standards, the three driving performance factors were workmanship, resistance to bullet penetration, and blunt force trauma.

NIJ 0101.04 2000 – 2005

In September of 2000, the NIJ published the Resistance of Personal Body Armor NIJ 0101.04.   This new standard would address more modernized threats and protection needs. This would include the .308 Auto, .40 S&W and a more modern .44 Magnum projectile. The list of threats for the .04 requirement is listed below. Almost all velocities were also slightly elevated.

 

The most notable change from the NIJ .03 to the NIJ .04 was the inclusion of the Ballistic Limit Determination Test or V50. This test is a statistical measure of not just if the armor will stop bullets, but how well it does it. At the time there were no pass/fail criteria for this test, but it was used to learn information about the life of the armor and/or changes in materials and manufacturing. 

By year 2000, ballistic testing was evolving, and the new NIJ .04 standard accounted for improved methods. Conditioning and calibration of the clay backing material was improved.  While the armor still received six shots, the armor was smoothed between shots for more accurate and consistent testing. In the past, standard Back Face Deformation (BFD) was only measured once for each vest, but for the new .04 standard BFD would be measured twice.  

While the NIJ test standards and test methods were improving, early standards were not without flaws.  Some flaws included:

  • Only a limited number of samples were tested, 24 shots with each caliber.
  • There was no size limitation for test samples. Large samples usually provide better trauma results and often unrealistically large samples were sent for testing.
  • In early standards, if a model failed testing, it could be simply tested again or with only a very minor change to the design. A manufacturer could simply continue testing until the vest would eventually pass.
  • The Ballistic Limit was not used as a pass/fail criteria, so armor models could be certified with only a minimum level of protection.
  • There were no criteria for the vest carrier (this is the external, wearable covering that the vest is tested in). Manufacturers could submit vests for testing with reinforced carriers made to enhance performance.
  • There was no way to measure or ensure the performance of a vest model over its warranty period after repeated use and field conditions.

2003 Forrest Hills, Pennsylvania

While the previous NIJ standards served wearers very well and had potentially saved thousands of officers, a tragic instance in 2003 would change NIJ standards and testing forever. 

In June 2003, Officer Edward Limbacher attempted to arrest a suspect on drug related charges.  During the arrest Limbacher was shot twice. One of the rounds, a .40 S&W, penetrated his NIJ certified IIA ballistic vest. This vest was designed and certified to stop this projectile and for the first time, a certified product failed in the field. Fortunately, Officer Limbacher survived the incident. 

NIJ 2005 Interim Requirement2005 - 2008

The tragedy in 2003 resulted in numerous investigations and litigation to determine the cause of the vest penetration and how it could be avoided. At the center of controversy was a new fiber called Zylon, a high-performance fiber used to manufacture ballistic resistant vests. Studies showed the performance of this fiber could degrade over time, especially when exposed to extreme heat and humidity. After two years of investigation, the NIJ reacted by publishing the 2005 Interim Requirement. This requirement, a supplement to the existing .04 standard, was mostly administrative, but would allow the NIJ to issue advisory notices to law enforcement agencies if there were safety concerns about a certified product. It also disallowed manufacturers to use any materials listed in an NIJ Advisory Notice, more specifically Zylon.

NIJ 0101.06  2008 - Present

The NIJ published the Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor NIJ 0101.06 in June of 2008. The NIJ .06 would be a revolutionary new body armor standard that would address not only materials issues and product life but also many other concerns. 

The NIJ 06 would enhance ballistic threat levels and associated velocities to meet more modern ballistic threats. Level I protection was eliminated entirely, considered antiquated for current protection needs. The table below lists threats and velocitiesfor the NIJ 0101.06:

 

 The NIJ would also include the following:

  • Number of armors tested previously five vests, now 28 vests.
  • Specified drawings and build sheets to track and monitor armor designs.
  • Standardized size ranges where both smaller and larger sized armor would be tested.
  • Specified carrier types and material for all test samples.
  • Blunt trauma is now measured on three of the six total shots per panel. Statistical analysis is also used to determine pass/fail for trauma.
  • The Ballistic Limit Testing now has a pass/fail criteria established using statistical analysis.
  • All armor samples are now fully submerged in water for 30 minutes prior to ballistic testing.
  • The NIJ introduced environmental testing including exposure to high heat, humidity, and tumbling over a 10-day cycle to replicate daily wear and field conditions. This is followed by ballistic testing.
  • If a model fails certification, major changes are required to resubmit for testing.
  • The NIJ also continues to monitor certified armor models following the certification, randomly collecting, and testing certified armor models every year. End users are notified of any issues with either workmanship or ballistic performance.

In short, the NIJ 0101.06 has been the most stringent and thorough body armor standard to date.   Since the 05 Interim and the introduction of the NIJ 1010.06 standard, there have been no instances of vest penetrations in the field with rounds that the armor was designed to stop. The NIJ 0101.06 has been regarded as the premier body armor standard in the world.

NIJ 0101.07  2024

In November of 2024, the NIJ published the Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor NIJ 0101.07.  This standard was in progress for over 16 years. Unlike standards in the past, the NIJ formed a committee consisting of law enforcement, NIJ members, test laboratories, and other subject matter experts to develop the new .07 standard. The result is the most conclusive body armor standard to date. 

The protection levels and ballistic threats were once again updated to reflect the most modern protection needs. One major change was the names of protection levels. The committee found that the former protection levels known as level IIA, II, etc. were difficult to understand. The new standard will only have two levels for soft armor protection, HG1 and HG2, signifying “Handgun Level” 1 and 2, with level HG2 offering the higher level of protection. The former level IIA was eliminated, considered inadequate for modern ballistic threats. The chart below lists the protection levels and associated ballistic threats.

The NIJ has also enhanced test methodologies for the new .07 standard. These new test methods include:

  • Samples size has again increased from 28 vests (NIJ .06) to 31 vests (NIJ .07)
  • The new standard now requires a 7th shot per panel. This shot will impact the armor near the neckline at the edge of the armor. The angle of the shot will be 45 degrees outward toward the edge. The armor is required to capture the round entirely. The purpose is to simulate possible field conditions where the edge of the armor is impacted at an angle that could cause the projectile to “skip off” the armor or exit the edge causing potential harm to the wearer.
  • Female armor testing methods have been improved and now have more specific methodologies.
  • Armor that has been exposed to the environmental conditioning process will now be subject to ballistic testing at higher velocities.

The NIJ 0101.07 is expected to become the latest body armor testing standard in the summer of 2024. It represents years of research, real world data, and feedback from end users and subject matter experts. The NIJ .07 is the most advanced body armor standard and will provide the highest level of protection to date. As technology and material science develops, manufacturers will strive to make body armor lighter, more flexible, and more comfortable. The NIJ 0101.07 will give confidence to the end user knowing that they are wearing the very best protection.

 

(1) Robert Bell, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, January 16th 2024, https://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/2024/01/16/brad-steve-and-raymond-noel-were-shot-during-incident-in-east-rochester-ny-garfield-st/72235684007/

 

(2)  Chris Tillery, Debra Stoe ,Michael O’Shea, Senior Law Enforcement Program Selection and Application Guide to Ballistic-Resistant Body Armor For Law Enforcement, Corrections and Public Safety, December 2014, https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/247281.pdf

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