SafeGuard Armor: The 2015 Guide to Body Armor for Law Enforcement Officers

The 2015 Guide to Body Armor for Law Enforcement Officers

Every day, law enforcement officers place themselves on the front line of a war against society's most dangerous individuals. We depend on these brave men and women to help us stay safe, and to do this, forces need the best protective clothing available. As an officer, how do you know which vest is right for each risk? There are two key factors of choosing armor: finding the right level of protection to defend against specific threats, and the correct style / design (or 'system') for each application. In this guide, we will assess the biggest threats you may face (covering specific weapons and ammunition) and provide advice on choosing the best vest for your current situation.


For maximum protection, armor is manufactured with layers of tough, flexible, and lightweight materials. The majority of vests are built from Aramids (Kevlar, for example) or UHMWPE (Ultra-High-Molecular-Weight Polyethylene, such as Dyneema), yet the design and amount of fabrics will vary, depending on the amount of protection demanded. To evaluate its performance, body armor is tested by multiple independent organizations across the globe (the USA's NIJ and the UK's HOSDB, for example); following specific tests, each vest is assigned a rating to denote the amount of protection it offers. As the NIJ ratings are the most commonly used around the world, we will refer to these in this guide.

Protection Types

The three potential threats you may encounter can be categorized as:


We'll discuss the particular ballistic threats in more detail later, but here's a general guide: Ratings range across five levels, from softer IIA designs (defending against low-level rounds such as 9mm), to IIIA (stopping high-powered pistols, such as .44MAG). For more advanced defense, hard-armor plates are available, with a level III rating to protect against standard AK47, 7.62 NATO round, as well as level IV vests, to protect against armor-piercing rounds.

Edged Blade

These vests are designed to repel knives, and are rated according to the various levels of energy an attacker may use, as well as blades of multiple construction types: level 1 vests stop 24 joules of energy, level 2 stops 33 joules, and level 3 stops 44 joules. You'll need the highest level of protection to stop the most ferocious attacks.


You may face an attack with a pointed tool, perhaps a needle or an ice pick. These vests are rated according to the same standard as edged blades – level 1 stops an assault made with 24 joules, while level 2 stops 33 joules, and, finally, level 3 stops 44 joules.

To provide the most protection against these threats, each vest needs to be made with specific design and construction methods, as well as certain materials. For example, no matter how tough it may appear, a ballistic vest guarantees no protection against spikes or blades, and vice versa. Multi-purpose vests are available, which offer protection against various threats, but bear in mind, the more protection you add to your vest, the heavier and more expensive it's likely to become. You'll need to consider how much of an effect this extra weight will have on your day-to-day activities, but never forget the invaluable defense vests provide.

Understanding NIJ Ballistic Levels

To help you choose the best ballistic vest, we will take a look at the NIJ levels available. Bulletproof vests are made with multiple layers of Kevlar and, at the higher levels, additional hard plates; these are designed to absorb a round's energy on impact, and redistribute it, flattening the tip. Vests are available as soft and hard armors, with levels IIA – IIIA Kevlar-only, and levels III & IV featuring a more rigid build.

According to the NIJ's standards, vests offer the following types of protection: IIA stops 9mm rounds of a lower velocity (hitting at a speed of 373 m/s) and .40 S&W rounds; level II defends against higher-velocity 9mm rounds (398 m/s) as well as .357 Magnum rounds; level IIIA stops .357 SIG bullets, as well as .44 Magnum rounds. These 'soft' armors are generally lightweight enough to be worn underneath clothing, and are available in covert styles, with thinner materials.

Level III vests have enough stopping power to protect against 7.62mm rifle rounds, hitting at a velocity of 847 m/s – a significant increase from the impact-speeds previous vests are designed to stop. Finally, vests at level IV feature ballistic plates, to protect against .30 caliber armor-piercing rounds, which hit at a velocity of 878 m/s. Given that these may only be needed in the most extreme situations, they may not always be required wear for all officers, but hard armors should always be available when needed.


How Long will your Body Armor Last?

Kevlar will if looked after will still protect the individual for over 10 years although the protection will deteriate, so the vest wont be as effective if attacked. Some online bulletproof vest companies such as SafeGuard Clothing offer a 5 year warranty on Kevlar vests. Though your vest should last far longer provided you care for it as best you can: avoid exposing them to moisture (which can damage the fibers) and direct sunlight (UV rays also damage Kevlar). Never wear a vest that has been damaged in any way, as you may be unprotected.

How do Risks Change with your Assignment?

Depending on the area of law enforcement you work within, you may be more exposed to certain risks or types of weaponry than in others. For example, working in a SWAT team is more likely to place you in harm's way of high-caliber weaponry than working as a corrections officer, whereas working in undercover narcotics operations may leave you more likely to face attack with needles. You can never know exactly which threats you'll encounter in any given shift, but understanding the type of risks certain scenarios pose is vital to ensure you choose the right armor. Performing a thorough risk assessment of viable hazards can help you make the smartest choice.

You should also consider the level of visibility and discretion your current (or forthcoming) assignment demands – do you need to maintain a clear, uniformed presence, or adopt a more low-key approach? The level of protection you feel necessary will affect your outfit, given the variance in weight and size: should you expect a high-risk ammunition-type on a plain-clothes assignment, you'll need to wear a vest at level III or IV, which will obviously negate any intentions of stealth. On the other hand, whether you need to wear your uniform or civilian gear, if you only expect low-level risks, you'll be free to choose which type of armor you wear – covert or overt.

Overt armor is the standard type, worn over clothing, as worn by SWAT officers; these vests tend to be bulkier, typically black or dark blue. Undercover officers wear covert armor, with thinner, lightweight fabrics (potentially offering breathable performance for more comfort during prolonged use).

Which Armor Suits your Role?

Law enforcement encompasses multiple areas, with each posing a specific variety of potential risks. To help you choose the best armor for your assignments, we will take a look at these areas.


From entering armed sieges to handling terrorist threats, SWAT teams need the strongest protection to stay safe in numerous high-risk situations. Level III and IV vests are typically worn alongside additional protection, such as ballistic helmets, goggles, and arm-guards. Combined with advanced training in handling the most volatile scenarios, such tactical gear is an essential aspect of a SWAT officer's role.

Narcotics Team

For narcotics operations, you'll face a multitude of volatile individuals, from low-level drug dealers to those at the higher levels – people willing to protect their product and finances by any means necessary. Whether raiding production labs, performing surveillance, or even working undercover among criminals, you'll need to be prepared. Given the discretion you're likely to need while following suspicious individuals or working undercover, you'll need to consider the threats you may face: do you believe your targets possess high-caliber weaponry demanding the highest levels of protection, or are knives and needles the most severe risk? Obviously, if you believe you'll need enough defense to cover you from the most lethal ammunition, you'll have to wear level IV vests, regardless of the visibility-issues this will cause; on the other hand, if you expect low-level risks, you'll be able to wear a level II or IIIA vest underneath your clothing.


Working in counter-terrorism teams may expose you to certain risks. While a portion of your role may involve studying intelligence reports and collating data in the office, you'll also need to perform field operations (performing surveillance on suspects, raiding locations). When preparing to confront potentially dangerous suspects, you may need to wear level III or IV bulletproof vests, which will obviously negate any attempts at a stealthy approach.

Mountain Bike Police

A strong form of policing in low-crime urban areas, bike police are typically required to confront and pursue suspicious individuals, but are unlikely to enter into a volatile situation in which heavy-duty guns pose a threat. As you will wear lightweight biking clothes, you may find low-level vests offer suitable protection for any minor risks you could potentially face.

State Troopers

As your duties cover a broad range of areas – from training new officers to protecting the state governor – your main role is policing America's highways, a job posing various risks from time to time. Pulling a dangerous, armed individual or group over – whether for this reason or, say, speeding – can expose you to severe danger. Wearing ballistic armor of a high level may be essential, whether wearing your uniform or operating in an unmarked vehicle. Should you be asked to provide support to police departments, be sure you know which threats you may face in your assignments.

Correction Officer

Providing security in prisons is no easy job: working in this role can take a significant physical and psychological toll. While inmates are unlikely to access guns outside of a riot, or unless they seize control of your firearm, wearing ballistic vests is still essential (ensure they offer protection against your own ammunition). The most significant threats, however, are sharp objects: ordinary domestic items (toothbrushes, cutlery) may be sharpened into shivs, while inmates may get more creative, and craft spikes from chair-legs. Adding stab and spike protection to your ballistic vest could prove vital.

Border/Highway Patrol

Policing borders can be a dangerous job, given the desperation individuals may feel to cross into the States. While most people attempting to cross borders will pose no threat, any asylum-seekers, fugitives, or criminals may attack with extreme prejudice if they feel you are trying to stop them. Ballistic vests are recommended, given the protection they also offer against blunt trauma (in the event of unarmed assault), while you may also want to add stab protection. Highway patrols may also encounter dangerous individuals on the run, or harboring goods they want to keep hidden – similar levels of protection are best, accounting for the various types of ammunition people may carry.

Federal Officers

Federal law enforcement covers multiple departments across the States, including the FBI and the DEA. Federal officers may face dangerous individuals across diverse situations, and each branch will have its own most-common threats and risks. Your biggest danger will generally be gunfire, though certain drugs-related assignments may expose you to an attack with knives or needles. Wearing ballistic protection, at the highest level possible, with additional blade/spike defense, is highly recommended.


Choosing the right protection for the risks you face in the line of duty is essential, to ensure your own personal safety. While there is a huge range available, we hope this guide will help you stay as safe as possible, whatever situations you encounter. Looking for more information? Please contact

SWAT news from P1 to your inbox

Thanks! You've been successfully signed up for the Police1 SWAT

Copyright © 2022 Police1. All rights reserved.