Known simply as NIJ O6, this standard establishes minimum performance requirements and test methods for the ballistic resistance of personal body armor.
The key ingredients in the NIJ 06 testing recipe are: providing adequate protection for all officers; safeguarding against a variety of ballistic threats; and designing armor that offers complete and consistent protection over its lifetime. But this benchmark omits one key ingredient: officer comfort. And this is a hurdle today’s body armor manufacturers have strived to overcome since the standard’s release in 2008.
“Comfort, heat and weight are all things that affect officers’ decisions to put on their vests,” says Matthew Davis, CEO of Central Lake, Mich.-based Armor Express. “We are constantly evaluating new materials and designs to make armor lighter and more comfortable without sacrificing the ballistic protection required by NIJ.”
Fiber manufacturers and body armor companies have met the challenges NIJ 06 presents and have kept comfort top of mind through the use of new materials, hybrid vest designs, and carrier innovations.
Less is more
When it comes to body armor, less is certainly more. The lighter the vest, the more likely it is to be worn. Yet the 06 standard, meant to afford officers better protection, hampered manufacturer’s abilities to keep weights down.
“The changes to the standard—the water testing, the higher velocities, the new ballistic threats, the more aggressive shot patterns, the accelerated aging—all compounded to make for a much more aggressive standard,” says Davis. “As a result weights did increase.”
While initial NIJ 06 offerings weighed 10 to 15 percent more than earlier vests, more significant weight reductions have been achieved by partnering with material suppliers such as DSM Dyneema, DuPont, Honeywell and Teijin. “We now work with new engineered materials that help us achieve better ballistic performance, heat and conditioning resistance, and all while decreasing weight,” says Angela Milligan, director of global marketing at Diamondback Tactical. “As a result, we saw a less than a five percent increase in weight, which is also noted by our Synergy IIIA vest, one of the lightest armor vests with tri-compliance testing available on the market today,” she says.
These new materials aided manufacturers in producing vests at weights near those possible under the previous standard. Armor Express’ The Razor vest, for instance, is constructed out of a proprietary blend of Kevlar and Dyneema and weighs 0.81 pounds per square foot.
“We’ve been able to remove weight pretty quickly,” says Mark Smith, vice president of sales and marketing at Point Blank Solutions Inc. of Cincinnati, Ohio. Today’s ballistic packages, he says, typically average 1 1/2 pounds per square foot, with some coming in at less than one pound per square foot. Point Blank’s Vision Level II concealable vest weighs just 0.98 pounds per square foot and is 0.3 inches thick, but it protects against 2-, 4-, 16- and 64-grain RCC bullets.
“Innovation usually catches up to anything that changes in the standard, and that’s exactly what has happened,” says Bob Weber, director of ballistic development for Safariland of Ontario, Calif. “The difference is that the lighter, midline, lightweight vests have more nonwoven products in them than they had previously.”
He explains today’s vests incorporate aramid and polyethylene nonwovens in their designs, and utilize hybrid designs that enable manufacturers to achieve lighter weights and greater flexibility. “I sometimes have three to four materials in a single product,” he says.
Manufacturers like Safariland are also adding materials like Unequal’s DEFCON technology, a trauma sports material found in helmets and umpire vests, in order to keep weights down. This composite material enables Safariland to produce thin and flexible vests. The proprietary formulation absorbs and dissipates more energy per square inch than traditional trauma products and reduces more blunt force trauma in one panel than several layers of ballistic materials combined, notes Weber.