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Going ballistic: body armour, part one
Feature: 3/6/2006

Mankind's relationship with weapons is one of the oldest in history. From Stone Age spears to modern day sniper rifles, through centuries of swords, slingshots, arrows and explosives, man's urge to fight and kill has been ever present.

But even stronger than the compulsion to kill is the desire to live, and as weapons have become ever more powerful and elaborate, methods of defence have been adapted and created to catch up.

Now, with ground war conflicts raging in the Middle East and growing violence at home, the demands placed upon the British body armour industry are greater than they have been for some time.

But what options are available to the buyer? How badly do we need protecting? And what are the risks for anyone who wants to invest in protection?

Stronger than a speeding bullet

Enlarge Image click hereFor many, the term 'body armour' is synonymous with 'bullet-proof''. But not all armour is designed to protect against bullets and even those that are won't ever guarantee absolute protection from gunfire.

To make things even more complicated, different kinds of ballistic armour will only protect against certain types of gunfire.

This is due to the way that ballistic vests are made; the traditional 'soft armour' is typically constructed using layers of an extremely strong material such as synthetic aramid fibres (the best-known of which is DuPont's Kevlar).

These stop handgun bullets well, since most bullets of this type have soft lead cores in a harder metal jacket such as copper (full metal jacket bullets cover the core completely; hollow-points leave the lead tip exposed). However they have trouble with rifled ammunition.

Cathriona Frawley, sales manager of body armour manufacturer Sioen, explained: "When a lead core bullet hits the armour pack, the impact causes the bullet to deform.

"The nose of the bullet is flattened and this spreads the trauma over a wider area as well as slowing it down. As it passes through the layers of fabric, the bullet becomes slower and more deformed, until it is caught within the remaining layers of the pack."

The result - whether it had an exposed lead core or a copper or steel jacket - is something that looks more like a flat press-stud than a bullet. But this method is useless against rifled ammunition, which spins in the air to maintain stability and speed, and can easily penetrate soft armour.

Better plate than never

Enlarge Image click hereFor this kind of attack, hard armour is needed to take the spin off the bullet and knock the power out of it. Such armour comes in the form of plates that can either be worn separately or inserted into upgrade pockets on a carrier that already contains soft armour to increase its level of protection.

Teal SafetyThese are usually made of one of two materials: 'ceramic' plates use aluminium oxide (also called alumina) that cracks on impact but stops the bullet, while the lighter but more expensive polyethylene plates are formed from compressed polyethylene material, such as Dyneema from the Netherlands-based company DSM.

Armour manufacturer Teal Safety offers both options for its customers, as Christine Berry, the company's director, explained: "We actually make our own plates from Dyneema polyethylene, but we also have to offer ceramic plates backed with aramid fabrics because some people demand a lower price.

"Dyneema has a better multiple-hit capability, since it is made from multiple layers that do not fragment when hit by bullets. Ceramic tends to crack unpredictably, so you can't tell how many hits it will take." (To contact Teal Safety, call Christine Berry on +44 (0)1706 638855 for the UK or Stephen McCully on +44 (0) 7092 346824 for Ireland. Or e-mail sales@tealsafety.com)

Safety through design

Enlarge Image click hereOf course, the usefulness of a piece of ballistic armour doesn't depend entirely on how well it stops bullets - sometimes comfort for the wearer can be just as important.

After all, although modern body armour is lighter and more comfortable than it has ever been, it can still be bulky and hot to wear for extended periods of time, especially when the wearer is undergoing a period of exertion.

Of course, the hotter and less comfortable armour is, the more distracted the wearer becomes. If it becomes particularly uncomfortable, he or she may even take it off, despite being open to attack.

Thankfully, some companies have used cutting-edge technologies to avoid such situations. Both Sioen and relative newcomers to the armour market TW Kempton offer phase change technology in their armour to aid cooling.

T W KemptonSteve Martin, representing TW Kempton's new armour brand, Fortis, said: "The material is designed to absorb heat, especially during periods of exertion.

"When the wearer's body temperature drops again, the phase change material allows the heat back out, helping to maintain a comfortable body temperature." (To contact TW Kempton's Fortis Armour division, call Steve Martin on +44 (0)116 261 0001 or e-mail smartin@twkempton.co.uk)

Comfort is important for everyone, but sometimes the wearer may have unique requirements that can mean the difference between life and death. Naturally, armour companies will do their best to fulfil them.

Cathriona of Sioen said: "We offer the option of carriers that are petrol-shedding and flame retardant for public order use.

"There are also materials that absorb infra-red radiation so that the wearer cannot be detected when camouflaged – this is usually required in military applications. We also offer additional upgrade protection for groin, shoulder, underarm and throat areas."

It's not always the material that's important, though. Believe it or not, the appearance of body armour can change its effectiveness as well, as Christine of Teal Safety explained: "Most of our customers are journalists working abroad in war-stricken countries, and although they aren't taking part in direct combat, they need protecting too.

"We design their armour so that it doesn't look like military equipment. Some journalists go out in standard body armour and from a distance it's hard to tell whether they're in the media or the military and that just makes them a target too."

Stopping close-range danger

Enlarge Image click hereBut as clever as ballistic armour can be, it's just not safe for anyone who is more likely to be attacked with a knife than a gun.

This is because hard blades, unlike lead-cored bullets, do not deform on impact with ballistic armour and so can pierce it with relative ease.

For these people, then, it makes more sense to invest in anti-stab armour than to splash out on a plated ballistic vest. But how can a stab vest stop a sharp blade?

According to Finbarr Harkin, who works in the body armour development and sales department of Verseidag, there are three main methods.

He said: "You can use chain mail, which forces the tip of the knife through a ring. As it goes through the ring, the ring moves and expands to accommodate the blade, increasing the area of resistance and slowing it down. When testing, they use specific levels of energy.

"You only need to have one layer of chain mail in the vest. If one ring breaks, there may be a failure of up to five millimetres of penetration into the wearer, which is still acceptable.

"If two rings break, it may go above the maximum penetration level allowed for a specific level of energy, causing it to fail. "

The second method uses just two layers of wire at right-angles to one another to form a tightly-drawn mesh.

When the knife tries to penetrate it, the gaps in the mesh stop the knife in much the same way that the chain links do, by stretching to accommodate the blade and in doing so slowing it.

Finally, there is the laminate weave method, in which protective fibres similar to those found in ballistic armour are woven together and given a laminated backing.

This backing holds the fibres together so that they don't split easily when penetrated. This slows the knife's passage to a halt, although it takes about 23 layers of laminated fabric to do so.

Of course, this only really applies to knives. For other bladed or pointed attacks, other methods need to be used: "For hypodermic needles, you would have to use materials like Dyneema or one of the laminated fabrics because the point of pressure is so small," Finbarr said. "A spike like an ice pick would be quite a bit more severe and would require closely-woven or laminated materials."

As with ballistic armour, then, it is important for the buyer to assess the most likely risks that the wearer will have to face before ordering any armour.

Heads up for protection

Enlarge Image click hereBody protection is one thing, but anyone entering a warzone or any area where there is a great deal of conflict will also need a helmet for maximum protection.

Steve of TW Kempton said: "Fortis's ballistic helmets use aramid or polyethylene to provide protection from shrapnel and bullets. However, it's difficult to provide point-blank protection, because the trauma caused by the impact of a bullet could break your neck."

Teal's Christine agreed: "Depending on how you're hit and at what speed, you could be left with brain damage or spinal injuries, but the speed of a bullet decreases with distance and you're more likely to survive with a helmet on than without one."

As with body armour, variations in style and durability are often available to suit each individual's needs.

Teal Safety offers a helmet designed specially for war cameramen, to make it easier for them to hold the cameras up to their eyes, while the Fortis range includes riot helmets that provide the police with protection from baseball bats and other non-ballistic weapons.

Guaranteeing safety

Enlarge Image click hereBut all of these options would be useless if the armour did not do its job. That's why reputable companies such as those featured in this article make sure that their products are fully tested and certified before sale.

Testing can be done by the companies themselves if they have their own testing equipment.

This generally involves a firing range for ballistic armour and a specially calibrated stab rig for anti-stab armour. The latter raises a weight with a pointed edge several feet into the air before dropping it down onto the test vest.

However, as much as it might be tested internally, armour cannot be sold for police or military use without Home Office approval, so it must be sent it in for official certification.

This involves it being tested against Home Office Scientific Development Branch (HOSDB) standards, which sets out a series of armour classes, from the lowest, HG1/A (which provides protection from 9mm handguns and .357 magnum bullets) to the highest, RF1 (which protects from 7.62mm rifle shots).

However, if a company is planning to sell its armour abroad it would do well to look at more than just the Home Office standards, as many overseas buyers prefer to use the standards set down by the United States' National Institute of Justice (NIJ).

These are subtly different from the UK standards, because of the difference in available ammunition between the two countries.

For example, one of the highest US standards ensures protection against .44 calibre magnum rounds, while its UK equivalent protects against shotgun fire.

As a result, some companies, such as Fortis from TW Kempton, enter their equipment for dual testing. Thankfully, the Home Office can now provide certification for both HOSDB and NIJ standards so sending test packs all the way to America is no longer necessary.

End of part one
So the options for protecting from body armour and many and complicated. Thankfully, any reputable armour company will give advice to its customers to help them choose the armour that best suits their needs.

Sadly, not all armour companies are quite so ethical - and there are dangerous loopholes in the law that will allow such organisations to sell on useless armour, despite the risk of injury or death for the wearer.

Next week we'll take a look at this loophole, what it means for the customer and whether anything can be done about it. We'll also discover where the growth areas are for the industry today and what the future may hold. Until then, stay safe.


Author: James Wilkinson
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