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Ballistic shields must match escalating firepower

The world’s strongest and lightest materials have been combined in an up-armored shield for tactical use

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GC Graphene Composites RF2 Shield 3.jpg

At 28 pounds, the RF2 shield is lighter than similarly protective alternatives, without using brittle ceramic or heavy metal materials. And it has several other key features that enhance the safety and functioning of tactical operators.

GC

A ballistic shield is an essential part of a tactical operator‘s kit, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to work with. The most protective shields are often bulky, heavy and cumbersome. Weighing 40 pounds or more, they can be awkward to maneuver, and coverage can be compromised to compensate for weight. Scratched viewports impair visibility, and rigid carrying systems limit an officer’s ability to transition swiftly if they need to free up hands and arms.

As threats from powerful weapons intensify, the shortcomings of traditional shields carry an elevated risk – demanding a next-generation solution that provides comprehensive protection without compromising mobility or hampering the dynamic response capabilities.

“Shields in general present a hindrance tactically,” said Ron Tetreau, a longtime law enforcement officer and detective from Rhode Island who spent more than 16 years as a SWAT team leader. “They have to provide a level of protection that outweighs that hindrance. If I’m going to be using a shield, I need to be able to move with it quickly and tactically. I need to manage its weight. And I need to be able to quickly move it out of the way so I can get to my secondary firearms and engage a threat if I need to.”

Improving that ratio of strength to weight in shields for law enforcement is something Graphene Composites (GC) has been working on for several years now. With a background in advanced materials, the company has pioneered a shield design that blends materials that are literally the world’s strongest and lightest. The initial result – the novel GC Patrol Shield, intended for routine patrol and users in soft targets like schools – hit the streets in 2022. Now an up-armored version, the GC RF2 Shield, offers enhanced protection against an even greater threat – the “green-tip.”

“The benefits of the RF2 are similar to those of the Patrol Shield,” said Carol Jarvest, GC’s cofounder and marketing director. “We market the Patrol Shield as being lightweight and easy to handle – every officer can have one in their car, and anyone can pick it up and use it. With the RF2 you still have those qualities, but with added protection against additional threats.”

The RF2 shield’s protective abilities come from its patented composite blend of materials. Graphene – at 40 times stronger than diamond, the strongest material ever measured – is a one-atom-thick layer of carbon arranged in a hexagonal lattice nanostructure. The company combines it with an aerogel – an ultralight material derived from gel by replacing its liquid component with gas – developed by NASA that’s robust, flexible and a great shock absorber.

The result is the RF2 shield, which at 28 pounds is lighter than similarly protective alternatives despite being larger (35 by 20 inches), without using brittle ceramic or heavy metal materials. And it has several other key features that enhance the safety and functioning of tactical operators.

GC Graphene Composites RF2 Shield 1.jpg

The RF2 shield’s protective abilities come from its patented composite blend of materials. Graphene – at 40 times stronger than diamond, the strongest material ever measured – is a one-atom-thick layer of carbon arranged in a hexagonal lattice nanostructure. The company combines it with an aerogel – an ultralight material derived from gel by replacing its liquid component with gas – developed by NASA that’s robust, flexible and a great shock absorber.

GC

PROTECTION FROM GREEN-TIP ROUNDS

M855 “green-tip” ammunition isn’t technically armor-piercing under 18 U.S. Code §921, which formalizes the definition, but it may nonetheless penetrate up to Level III armor plates. And there’s a lot of it on U.S. streets.

Known for their distinctive green nose – an innovation that originated with the U.S. military to differentiate them from older, lower-quality M193 ammo – these 5.56x45mm NATO rounds descended from the SS109 ammo developed in Belgium in the 1970s. They came to the U.S. in the 1980s, where they became known as M855 and found great success in the civilian market.

The main distinction of M855 ammo vs. the M193 is a steel core at the tip, replacing soft lead that can deform on impact. This provides M855 rounds the stability to pass through basic barriers like glass, thin walls and underbrush. As a result they’ve become popular with users like hunters and long-range shooters. They’re less suited for home defense, due to overpenetration and that same tendency to pass straight through targets, rather than deforming and transmitting their energy to a burglar or attacker.

Nonetheless, they’re produced in large numbers and priced affordably for civilians, who often use them in popular weapons like AR-15s.

In addition to the range of threats stopped by the Patrol Shield – which includes 9mm full metal jacket, .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, 5.56x45mm M193 (AR-15), 7.62x51mm M80, and 7.62x39mm AK-47 and mild steel core rounds – the RF2 Shield stops the M855 as well.

“The level of protection the RF2 provides is at or above [NIJ ballistic protection] Level III – stopping the M855 green-tip rounds is military-grade protection,” said Tetreau, an experienced firearms instructor with extensive military experience who consulted on its development over the last several years.

GC Graphene Composites RF2 Shield 2.jpg

“In something like a shooter event, there’s no time to wait for the next officer,” Tetreau noted. “You might be the only person with an opportunity to neutralize that threat. Having the tools to increase your confidence in doing that is only going to help you.”

GC

The RF2 not only stops such rounds, it captures them – reducing the secondary danger of fragmentation. Comparable rifle-rated shields, Tetreau explained, are made from AR500 steel – a high-carbon steel with extreme surface hardness.

“Some are ceramic, but most are AR500 coated with some Kevlar-type coating,” he said. “When those shields are hit by rounds, the rounds can fragment, causing spalling [fragmentation of the target caused by the impact]. And those fragments are as dangerous as getting hit by a round – if you’re hit in an extremity, it can cause an artery bleed. The difference between the GC product and other shields is that the technology within the shield actually encapsulates the projectiles.”

GC confirmed the RF2’s protective abilities with extensive live testing in early 2024. A marksman put more than four dozen shots of various types into the shield, focusing particularly on edge shots and stacked rounds. “We threw pretty much everything at it,” recalled Jarvest.

Stacking five .308 Winchester 168/175-grain rounds eventually punched through, but it took five shots into the same precise spot – extremely unlikely in a tactical engagement. Prior to that the shield exhibited no backface deformation against any round.

Testing the edges ensures the shield itself is fully protective and unlikely to fragment, which can be a risk with AR500 alternatives.

“We were able to put the rounds pretty much right on the edge, and the material still encapsulated the round,” said Tetreau. See the RF2’s performance against various rounds in this testing video.

WHEN THERE’S NO TIME TO WAIT

The RF2 Shield has several additional points of distinction that benefit tactical users. One is thermal signature masking – when you’re behind it, you can’t be seen via infrared. And while the shield’s large size provides plenty of cover – “I’m 5-foot-9 and can get down completely behind it,” noted Tetreau – each one also comes with military-grade hook-and-loop Velcro attachments that let them be connected. Like the Patrol Shield, several can be linked together to create a shield wall to evacuate victims or advance toward a threat with greater protection and confidence. The reinforced edges also facilitate reloading.

The RF2 Shield has an ambidextrous handle system for comfortable carrying and reduced injury risk, with an integrated sling that lets users quickly go hands-free. Its slim profile lets it be stored behind the seats of patrol vehicles, and its flat shape simplifies stacking multiple units for transport. It also floats.

Like the Patrol Shield, the RF2 was developed without a viewport – those are a structural weak point, add weight and can easily be damaged, reducing any benefit they provide. “Over time you end up not being able to see through the viewports anyway, and just end up peeking around the side,” said Tetreau.

To enhance visibility, GC offers a camera option for the shield’s front that feeds to a monitor on the back where the viewport would otherwise reside. This provides both standard and thermal views without sacrificing protection. It also works with the Patrol Shield.

The innovative materials behind GC’s shields will also be coming into broader use in other applications that may benefit law enforcement, the military and other security purposes. One is as vehicle armor.

“The product GC has developed is primarily being used for shields at this point, but it could be used in door panels, floor panels for aircraft, anywhere you might need to stop small arms fire,” said Tetreau, who retired as a master sergeant after 40 years in the U.S. Air Force, Army and Army Reserves. “In the up-armored vehicles I’ve used over the years, the door panels were very heavy and cumbersome. This product can be an answer to that. There are other products out there being used for it, but the GC product is much lighter.”

That’s in the works. For now, police tactical users can experience the same benefits of strength and weight in a shield as suitable for everyday use as it is for tactical calls.

“In something like a shooter event, there’s no time to wait for the next officer,” Tetreau noted. “You might be the only person with an opportunity to neutralize that threat. Having the tools to increase your confidence in doing that is only going to help you. And I think both the Patrol Shield and RF2 Shield can provide that in that situation.”

For more information, visit GC.

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John Erich is a Branded Content Project Lead for Lexipol. He is a career writer and editor with more than two decades of experience covering public safety and emergency response.