Body armor tech: .06 is here

“Resist the twist.” Virtually nothing about the science and technology of body armor is simple, but that one statement, offered to Police1 by Bob Weber, Director of Ballistic Development for Safariland, during our recent visit to their state-of-the-art ballistic laboratory in Ontario, California, simply and succinctly sums up some of the philosophy behind the design of Safariland’s newest armor.

The twist to which Bob was referring is the one that’s imparted by a bullet when it comes in contact with a vest. But the latest twist in body armor — the move toward manufacturing vests to meet the new .06 standard — is one that is fully embraced by Bob and his team, as well as by engineers and executives at several other body armor companies with whom we’ve talked in the past several weeks.

New Testing, Materials, Processes
In July 2008, the National Institute of Justice released NIJ Standard-0101.06, Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor, the latest evolution in standards by which law enforcement protective vests are measured. The .06 standard “establishes minimum performance requirements and test methods for the ballistic resistance of personal body armor designed to protect the torso against gunfire.”

R&D Manager Jonathan Lirette works with a clay blade in Point Blank Solutions’ Pompano Beach (Fla.) labs.

R&D Manager Jonathan Lirette works with a clay blade in Point Blank Solutions’ Pompano Beach (Fla.) labs.

Ballistic engineers for a host of body armor companies have spent the past three decades working with an array of advanced, high-strength fibers such as Dupont Kevlar, DSM Dyneema, Honeywell Spectra and Pro-Systems Artec and others.  Manufacturers such as these have been stepping up thier game in the past year as they work toward collaborating with body armor companies to bring .06-compliant vests to market. 

Today, there are numerous new models of armor available that meet this new standard, and many more models are on the way. First out of the gate, as we reported in June, was Safariland, but they were soon followed by several manufacturers and today a host of .06-compliant armor is available in various threat levels and price-points from an array of vendors including Point Blank, First Choice, Protective Products International, Galls, MSA, and others.

Safariland says they were slightly ahead of the curve because Weber and his team started working toward the .06 standard back in December of 2005 when the company was certifying to the interim .05 standard. During the development and testing for .05, Weber took strengths he saw and made refinements to things such as the geometrics, the stitching patterns, stitching overlap, and what-have-you. In effect, Weber was using .05 to pretest for .06.

In addition, Weber tells Police1 that in the past year — the time period during which the .06 standard was announced — he has doubled the size of his team, doubled their capacity for shooting (went from one range to two) and purchased several new pieces of testing equipment. Weber adds that having the ability to test product with his own equipment has lead to design breakthroughs that helped him and his team improve their product.

“Key to being first with approved NIJ .06 vest technology was our company’s commitment to invest in the assets to allow in-house testing,” Weber tells Police1. “For instance, Safariland purchased our own tumbler and the environmental machine in which it is housed, and which tested for the heat and humidity requirements. This is the tumbler that NIJ actually designed. To our knowledge only one of the independent labs has this tumbler and we believe we are the only ones on the CPL list that have their own tumbler.

“The new standard requires 72,000 turns in a tumbler and requires the testing of both small and large vests. We found, by running our vests with the protective carrier in the tumbler that our outer materials weren’t holding up to the thousands of revolutions required. The vest carrier must stay heat sealed properly. We wanted our vest to stay sealed over a longer period of time, so we changed to a more robust outer material,” Weber says.

Dale Wise, Vice President of Research and Development for Point Blank Solutions, tells Police1 that his company has certified four models of body armor to the .06 standard, and several more models are in various stages of testing and certification. Like Safariland, Wise says that Point Blank has made some changes to the materials evaluation process.

“While the new standard provides the minimum benchmarks for body armor design and testing, we’d like to emphasize that Point Blank Solutions continues to take comprehensive steps to exceed these requirements. Perhaps the most critical stage in preparing products for submission was the material evaluation phase. Our R&D team did an in-depth analysis of raw materials to determine their ballistic strength and performance characteristics.”

Once this was completed, says Wise, the company worked with various hybrids of materials to see how best they performed — after condition testing — with other ballistic materials. “We refer to this as the hybridization process. With the .04 standard there were a host of materials that the lab team would consider using for body armor development. However, under the new .06 testing mandates, which for the first time require an artificial aging process where body armor is tumbled for 10 days at 149 degrees at 80 percent humidity, our engineers took a step back to examine certain material finishes and their ability to withstand extreme conditions such as heat, humidity, and mechanical wear.”

Wise tells Police1, “Our development process for the new .06 certification started in 2007 and is being led by a team of engineers including Research and Development Manager Jonathan Lirette, Assistant Director of Domestic and International Certifications Julio Ramirez, and Research and Development Engineer Xiaolin Xu.”

Point Blank is quick to point out that they are devoting special attention to .06-certified armor made especially for female officers. “For the most part, in most discussions about the new certification requirements, there have been references to body armor designed for the male officer. We don’t hear much about development and testing of equipment for our female officers. While NIJ testing requirements for ballistic resistance in male and female body armor are the same, product construction and cut aren’t. Point Blank has been working on an advanced design for the female silhouette that offers enhanced features and greater comfort benefits. A separate submission for this new prototype has already been made to the NIJ.”

Interestingly, Weber’s team, which consists of Senior Ballistic Technician David Miller, Ballistic Technicians Jeff Lashbrook and Henry Bolin, and Administrative Assistant Lia Taubert, makes extensive use of a high-speed camera in their labs. This, says Weber, enables them to evaluate what happens at the instant of impact — they can actually see that twist we referred to at the top of this article.

“I was a police officer for 20 years, two months and five days — I’ve been in this industry for 22 years now. We were always able to see the after effects, but you never saw the event — but now we can actually see it. With this camera we actually get to put our designs up and see at thousandths-of-a-second speed what’s happening and so we can estimate at different speeds how much resistance we’re getting. I can fire a round down here and I can measure the depth in the clay, I can measure the bullet, how far it went into the package, whether it went through, how much it expanded, what it’s doing to the stitching, I get the trail. But to get to see the event has really made a difference to this lab.”

More to Come
Naturally, there are numerous other companies that have not yet released product to market but are striving toward the goal of selling vests that meet the .06 standard. One such vendor is U.S. Armor Corporation, which expects to be announcing .06-certified models fairly soon.

Georg Olsen, General Manager for U.S. Armor Corporation says, “The new standard is indeed here, and U.S. Armor will make our new armor products according to how the new standard dictates that we make them, because no responsible agency is going to buy armor that hasn't been NIJ-certified. Most importantly in this development process, we want to make sure that we continue to follow U.S. Armor's well-worn path of extreme caution and extensive performance verification... the product’s end-user function is way too critical to trade measured, safe development for speed in getting to market. Human life is just too valuable — this isn’t a process in which you would want to leave any margin of error.”

Olsen adds that Steve Armellino, President of U.S. Armor Corporation, has been working on developing their new .06 products since we first became aware that there was going to be a new Standard and as its requirements evolved. “He is also one of the appointees to the NIJ’s Board of Experts that is working on the Forward Field Testing protocols and the NIJ Armor Factory Inspection protocols included within the new .06 standard.”

There are Differences, but .04 is Sill Valid
As has been previously reported here on Police1, the .06 standard supersedes all previous NIJ body armor standards, but does not negate them. The new standard is intended to ensure that the vests police officers wear will continue to protect them as the material ages, but is limited to ballistic resistance only (.06 addresses some incresed ballistic threats) and does not address resistance from knives or other sharply pointed objects. Under the new standard, the NIJ can now require much more rigorous testing of ballistic armor, including subject ing armor to conditions of high heat, humidity, and mechanical wear before testing. In addition, the NIJ now will require not only to test only new vests, but also those that have been in service out in the field. The testing of vests over time could be the most significant day-to-day operational impacts of the new standard from an individual officer's perspective.    

Although there are some significant differences between .04- and .06-compliant armor, it bears repeating that the new standard does not invalidate the usefulness of body armor models that are compliant with the “old” standard. Everyone we talked with wanted to emphasize that point.

“The NIJ,” Olsen says, “has clearly not said that armor manufactured and certified under the .04 and .05 standards is in any way obsolete, no longer certified, unsafe, non-functional or in any other way not perfectly safe and suitable for continued regular use while still within the manufacturer's warranty period, which is usually five years from the date of manufacture. At the last Armor Summit Meeting the NIJ held for armor manufacturers in Virginia last month, NIJ still did not have an exit strategy developed yet for the gradual phasing out of previously certified armor in favor of the new .06-certified models, although they advised that they were working on it and would release it shortly.”

Olsen says that there is absolutely no reason for any officer to have any negative safety concerns or other performance issues regarding their current armor. “They should continue to wear it confidently throughout its useful life cycle and then thoughtfully compare and evaluate the choices available to them at that time. Body armor is truly a product of ever-evolving technology.”

Weber agrees: “The .04 standard is still a good standard. Threats change as time goes by and it is our responsibility as an industry to keep up with the changes. This does not mean that the .04 vests are unsafe in any way. If the product is still under warranty and has been taken care of properly per the company’s documentation then officers should continue to wear the vest until it’s time for replacement, and then move to the 06 standard. Any usable vest — under warranty, treated well, kept up, and maintained per the company instructions — will test out very well. The main thing we advocate is for officers to both maintain their armor and to always wear their armor. If an officer doesn’t have the company instructions he/she should call the company it was purchased from and request instructions and then adhere to them.”

“The bottom line is that body armor is only effective when it’s worn, so we continue to encourage officers to wear their protective vests at all times, while on duty,” Wise says. “Point Blank works tirelessly at engineering products that enhance performance and offer a level of comfort that motivate an officer to wear their vest. An officer shouldn’t be concerned that their vest is ineffective simply because it was certified under the older .04 standard. Frankly, the more important issue is the level of care and maintenance that has been put into preserving a vest’s integrity and performance over time. Not withstanding, we continue to recommend to agencies that they replace equipment every five years as stipulated and to make the NIJ .06 upgrade accordingly.”

Olsen adds, “While the new standard clearly ‘raises the bar’ on what tests armor will now have to pass before being certified and will now require the very beneficial future-forward testing and continued construction verification of armor well into its life cycle beyond the initial certification, there is very strong debate throughout the law enforcement community as to whether a clearly demonstrated need existed for a change over and above what protections the existing .04 and .05 standards already provided. Indeed, I’m sure that the IACP Survivors Club would point to the well over 3,000 men and women of law enforcement whom are alive today because they were wearing their armor on the day of their critical incident that form a very strong testimony to the viability of today’s existing armor.”

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