3 considerations for buying body armor

Once you've decided with level of ballistic protection best meets your working environment, consider comfort, camouflage and cost


By Andrew Butts, C1 Contributor

Body armor vests, often incorrectly called "bullet proof" vests, are a necessity for today's law enforcer. Offering protection against firearm attacks, body armor can also protect the wearer from slash and knife assaults and even blunt force trauma caused by impacts with steering wheels during automobile accidents.

The levels of ballistic protection offered are established by the National Institute of Justice, or NIJ for short. The NIJ is somewhat akin to Underwriter Laboratories and sets standards and monitors quality for many items related to law enforcement.

An officer displays a newly re-issued stab and ballistic vest. These vests are worn by all of the officers at the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility. (Angela Carone/KPBS)
An officer displays a newly re-issued stab and ballistic vest. These vests are worn by all of the officers at the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility. (Angela Carone/KPBS)

NIJ ballistic protection standards are broken down into levels with level II and III-A being commonly used to categorize protection levels offered against many of the more common handgun rounds and some loads of 00 buck. Basically, the higher the number, the higher the level of ballistic protection.

So how should officers choose the vest that best meets their professional needs? The first consideration should be the minimal ballistic protection available, which protects against the wearer's duty carry ammo. Having a vest that will offer protection against the ammo in your service weapon is critical and should not be overlooked. After this selection is made, the next level that should be considered is that which is likely to be encountered in your locale. An officer working in an inner city environment will likely have differing ballistic protection needs than a game warden in a rural setting. Be realistic with your most likely encountered threat and purchase accordingly.

Once you've decided with level of ballistic protection best meets your working environment, consider comfort, camouflage and cost. 

Comfort ties in directly with ballistic protection. The more protection offered, the heavier and thicker the vest. A Level III-A vest might offer an extremely high level of protection but such a vest is worthless if it’s so heavy and uncomfortable it gets left hanging in the station locker room. Talk to your local uniform supply store and ask some coworkers what they're wearing and how uncomfortable the vest is after a long day on patrol.

In addition, a vest should be measured to fit your body type and weight and when properly measured, will also affect comfort. Comfort not only includes the bulk and weight of the vest but the comfort in inclement weather. I've found a vest to offer little warmth and insulation in cold weather but one can certainly make for an uncomfortable work day when temps climb into the 90's!

In such weather, you'll have to make the conscious decision to either wear the vest, be hot and try to acclimate or not wear it at all and take the chance. I personally don't want to take the chance.

Camouflage is the vest's ability to blend in with uniform wear. A vest worn under a uniform shirt is the best choice for camouflage as long as the cover shirt is tailored correctly. A current trend is to wear the vest in some type of exterior carrier that makes the vest easy to don and doff. If you go this route, make sure the vest cover closely matches the color of your uniform. Don't advertise the fact that you're wearing body armor just in case a potential attacker gets the idea that a head or pelvic shot might be his first course of action! Ideally, I would recommend wearing the vest underneath the shirt as much as possible, unless working in an area of high heat, when being able to remove the vest is paramount for comfort.

Cost is last on my list because, in a perfect world, an officer would be provided with a vest by the department or would receive an allotment to spend on such a purchase. But that's not always the case. If your agency doesn't offer some type of vest purchase program, ballistic protection can still be found for a fairly reasonable price. Just remember the NIJ standards outlined above and make sure a private purchase offers protection from your duty ammo.

Lastly, keep in mind that ballistic vests have only a five year service life. Chances are the vest will still perform long after the five year lifespan but there's no point in spending money on something that's going to expire in five years if you aren't going to use it! Buy wisely. Wear it daily!

For more information on body armor or ballistic protection, visit the National Institute of Justice website.

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