Soft Body Armor Statistics — Level IIIa vs. Level II, Body Armor Cuts, and Rifle Plate Selection
The FBI keeps statistics on police officers murdered or assaulted in the line of duty, and they’ve recently released a number of reports which cover the past ten years, from the beginning of 2008, through the end of 2017.
71% of officers were killed with handguns. 22% with rifles. The remainder with shotguns or multiple weapons. (Interestingly, nearly 10% of those rifles — representing just over 2% of total fatalities — were firing pistol calibers, like the .22 or 9mm.)
In terms of ammunition types used, the 9mm leads the pack by a mile, followed by the .40 caliber, the .45 caliber, and the .38 caliber, then the .223 rifle round, the 7.62x39mm rifle round, and back to handguns with the .380.
This is extremely interesting data. Particularly because the difference between Level II and regular Level IIIa soft armor systems is smaller, more marginal, than most people assume: Level IIIa vests are rated to stop the .44 Magnum SJHP at muzzle velocity with less than 44mm backface deformation (BFD); Level II vests are tested against the .357 Magnum instead. That’s essentially the entire difference. And I’d add that the vast majority of Level II vests will also stop the .44 Magnum SJHP, but with more than 44mm BFD.
This performance differential is insignificant for all practical intents and purposes.
The .44 Magnum saw use in less than 1% of fatal officer shootings with handguns from 2008-2017. Level II threats or below — Level I or Level IIa threats, for the most part — were encountered by officers over 99 percent of the time. This also holds true when non-fatal shootings are also taken into consideration.
Which brings me to another matter: There has never been a single recorded death due to body armor backface deformation. This is true for hard armor, and it’s true for soft armor. The FBI’s own statistics confirm it.
There are instances on record where officers wearing Level IIa vests were shot with heavy rounds, resulting in backface deformation estimated to have been in excess of 80-100mm, and those officers all survived, without exception. There was even a case where an officer wearing a Level IIa vest was hit at close range with buckshot from a 12 Gauge shotgun, resulting in an estimated 131mm of backface deformation. That officer survived with minor injuries. This was reported in a paper by Bir et al., titled “Behind Armor Blunt Trauma: Recreation of Field Cases for the Assessment of Backface Signature Testing.”
So, clearly, for most police and security personnel, Level IIIa armor is too much. Too thick, too heavy — ultimately, simply overbuilt for improved BFD performance against a threat that they’re very unlikely to ever face.
Level IIIa armor also has serious shortcomings. Most worryingly, handgun rounds that can easily defeat most Level IIIa armor panels are becoming more and more common, and in very mundane calibers to boot. I’m talking about rounds like the solid copper 9mm Fort Defense SCS and the Lehigh Defense Xtreme Penetrator series. Sufficiently fast rounds fired from the 7.62x25mm Tokarev, the FN Five-SeveN, and the HK 4.6x30mm will also easily penetrate most soft armor panels that are rated to Level IIIa. The latter two, in particular, were designed specifically to penetrate soft armor, for military purposes.
The Diamond Age Forcefield armor system was designed to address all of the shortcomings of standard Level IIIa armor; it is a soft armor panel that will do much, much more than merely display less than 44mm BFD after stopping a .44 Magnum hollow-point. It’ll stop fast-moving solid copper handgun rounds, and it’ll stop high-penetration submachine gun rounds like the 7.62x25mm Tokarev, the 4.6x30mm FMJ, and the 5.7x28mm FMJ, all at well over submachine gun muzzle velocities — in some cases at over 2500 feet per second. The Forcefield also exceeds, by a significant margin, the US military’s most stringent fragmentation requirements for their IOTV Gen III soft armor. Lastly, it offers very good protection against knife and spike threats.
If you need enhanced protection, the Forcefield will do what other IIIa panels can’t. And it’s not significantly heavier or thicker than other products in its class — at just 6.5mm thick and 1.17 pounds per square foot.
As mentioned previously, this level of protection isn’t always needed or warranted, so we created the Liberator to address the daily-wear needs of police and security personnel. It offers unparalleled comfort, concealability, and mobility in daily wear. At just 3.5mm thick, it is the thinnest Level II armor package in the world, and it’s as flexible as a regular article of clothing. And, most importantly, if offers a degree of protection that is beyond merely adequate. Level II armor is more than sufficient to stop the ballistic threats that police officers and security personnel face in the streets. Your average street criminal isn’t rocking a 5.7x28mm PDW, and isn’t going to use fairly exotic solid copper rounds that cost more than $1 apiece. No, your average street criminal is using 9mm jacketed hollow-points straight off the shelves of Walmart — or, in Europe, whatever old rounds turn up on the black market.
A Level II for daily wear, and a IIIa+ for SWAT, military, and crisis response. I think that with just these two products, which were both designed to be as thin and as light as possible, we’ve got our soft armor bases covered.
There are two other takeaways from the FBI’s statistics.
First, nearly 100 officers — a large fraction of the FBI’s data set — received fatal torso wounds despite the fact that they were wearing a body armor vest. In 22.5% of cases, this was because they were wearing soft armor and were struck by a rifle round that their armor wasn’t rated to handle. (In one instance, this was a 5.7x28mm round, possibly fired from a handgun.) The rest of the time — that is, in the overwhelming majority of instances — the vest would have stopped the bullet, but it entered through a gap in armor coverage; either above the vest, or below it, or, in most fatal cases, through the side/armpit area. The FBI’s analogous non-fatal injury statistics show the exact same thing. For this reason, we recommend the use of BALCS-cut armor panels. The larger BALCS armor cut offers significantly more protection around the collarbone, the lower torso, and the sides.
In light of the above, it seems safe to assert, and with confidence, that the use of BALCS-cut Level II vests would save many lives. At the same time, the FBI’s data strongly indicates that moving from Level II, or even Level IIa, to thicker and heavier Level IIIa vests would probably make no difference at all in terms of lives saved.
Second, the .223/5.56mm rifle round is the most dangerous rifle threat that officers encounter, and by a very wide margin. If you’re going to go to the trouble of wearing rifle plates, wear something that can stop M855. It’s wildly abundant, available in bulk at your local Walmart, and it’ll go through polyethylene-only Level III plates like a hot knife through butter.