Armor Test Standards: A Brief Comparison

Posted: March 4, 2014 in Armor Testing
Tags: , ,

Ever since the late 15th century, with the advent of powder-propelled projectile weapons (and indeed, pre-dating that time with crossbows), armor smiths have sought a way to ensure their product will resist (within reasonable limits) the injurious tendencies of fast moving bits of metal.

Smiths making plate armor would often shoot the finished product (with crossbow bolts prior to lead muzzle loader round balls arriving on the scene), and upon visual confirmation of a successful “stop,” would engrave their maker’s mark, showing the armor had passed. This methodology was (and is) referred to as “bench testing” or “proof testing.” An article of protective gear is subjected to one or more ballistic events, and when it either passes or fails, provides the maker, and the end user, with evidence that it is effective, or “proofed.” Many modern firearms bear similar proof marks after being subjected to equivalent testing.

Bench testing is still used today, and while it has certain advantages, it also has some notable drawbacks. For instance, if large numbers of finished articles need to be produced, it becomes ungainly to batch test each lot (a neccesary requirement to verify efficacy of the finished product). It is also subject to the whims of either the maker or the end user. Bench testing is much more suited to custom, or small-batch manufacturers of armor.

Bench testing remained the norm until the 70’s, when it became necessary to certify large numbers of concealable vests. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) scrambled to come up with a way of testing and certifying large quantities of vests. The “NIJ Rating” methodology was created, which should be familiar to everyone with any exposure to armor. The rating levels go from I to IV, and are directly proportional to what threats are stopped. I-IIIA are for soft armor, while III and IV relate to hard (rifle) armor. The tests, in a nutshell, subject a batch of test armor articles to successive rounds of ballistic testing. This ranges from 2 to up to 240 rounds fired, and newer iterations of the tests have become more stringent. However, there are some issues with NIJ testing, which will be discussed in a later post.

In just the past few years, two new test protocols have appeared on the scene: the FBI and DEA test protocols. Publicly released in 2006, the FBI protocol was a vast improvement over the NIJ protocol, subjecting the armor to much more realistic and useful tests. In addition to simply shooting the armor, the FBI/DEA protocols subject the armor to extreme heat, cold, immersion as well as conditioning the armor and subjecting it to flash/flame. While there are still some issues (one in particular that is shared by the NIJ tests), they are far superior to the earlier protocols.

Moving forward, there is still room for improvement regarding armor test standards. This has been a brief overview of the most typical test protocols for modern body armor. In future posts, more detailed analysis of each protocol will be given. Thanks for reading.

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