Archive for May, 2014

This is the first of a series of posts that will focus on specific armor from specific manufacturers. You asked (and asked quite frequently) for a resource that would help end users locate best-in-class or best value-for-cost armors.

In the first post, I will be looking at the newest offering from those good folks at Midwest Armor. MA has gained a devoted following by making no-nonsense, high grade armor spanning the entire price range. Not content to rest on their laurels, their most recent innovation is the Venture series, comprising the FM3 and FM4. The FM3 is a level III plate, while the FM4 is rated for AP Black Tip (IV). While the FM3 is impressive in its own right, and will be examined at a later date, we are going to look at the FM4.

Disclosure: I have not received any remuneration from MA or Appalachian Training for this post, and will be purchasing my plate at full price. This post is based on the publicized statistics from MA.

The Venture FM4 is the first of a new generation of plates to achieve areal densities far below what was previously thought possible. Combining a thin strike face of ultrahard ceramic and a backing of Dyneema SB50 (the most advanced rigid UHMWPE currently available), the FM4 is the current best-in class for weight and thickness in level IV plates.

UHMWPE-focused rifle plates have never been known for their thin profile, but the FM4 comes in at a little over three quarters of an inch (.90″) thick. Weight for the medium plate size is right at 5.5 lb (which is a mere 1 lb. over the gold standard/tried and true TAP GAMMA+ which are level III).

As mentioned before, the known issue with UHMWPE is heat exposure. Rigid UHMWPE appears to be somewhat more tolerant of elevated temperatures (which I speculate is due to the thicker section), but it is still critical to keep the plates below 190 Farenheit (the transition temperature for rigid UHMWPE). If this precaution is taken, these plates are nothing short of incredible.

*UPDATED* The most incredible part about these plates is that they *are*, in fact, multi-hit. The specification for level IV is for stopping a single round of M2 AP. The designers at MA built the plates in such that plate integrity is not compromised with successive hits, meaning these plates should soak up several AP rounds that would have turned previous ceramic-focused IV plates to rubble.

These characteristics do not come cheaply. MA offers very affordable level IV multi-curve plates at the low-end of the price range, while the FM4 is their high-end offering. With an MSRP of about $940 a plate, start saving your pennies now.

Midwest continues to push the limits of the possible, and it is exciting to think about what they will come up with next!

If you are looking for the best place to purchase, look no further than Appalachian Training:

Ask for Mike, he is a great guy to deal with, and will make sure you get the armor you need.

If you have not checked out Jerking The Trigger, it is well worth your time. D-Rmor Gear Spall Guards were featured this week. Matt does a great job reviewing the latest and greatest gear, tools, and tactics. Careful, you will probably spend hours surfing all the pages back to the beginning!

It is no big mystery that I am at best a reluctant advocate of UHMWPE in soft armor. While the material itself *does* have incredible properties, these properties come at a steep price if the end user is not aware of the limitations and weaknesses inherent in the material.

These limitations and weaknesses are exacerbated by (in MY OPINION, ahhh, I promised you would see that word hurled around here!) a tendency to “softball” the armor test protocols. Even the current “best practices” protocols (The FBI and DEA tests for soft armor), have this same inherent kid glove treatment when it comes to UHMWPE containing vests.

“How can this be?” you may ask. Well, let’s review:

UHMWPE (“Ultra High Molecular Weight Poly Ethylene”) is an exceedingly strong material made up of long chains of ethylene molecules. The tensile strength is astounding, exceeding para-aramid (Kevlar/Twaron) and steel easily. It is positively buoyant, waterproof and does not degrade with exposure to UV light (three of the Achillies heels of aramids). However, as has been mentioned before, UHMWPE (regardless of brand- both Spectra and Dyneema are at their root the same basic molecule) will denature when exposed to temperatures exceeding ~168 F.

Think of it as exposing hardened steel to it’s normalization (annealing) temperature. The hardness disappears, and it becomes soft again. Unlike steel, it is impossible to change the UHMWPE back to its “super” state. In its denatured state, the material is identical to the stuff used to make milk jugs.

This denaturation temperature is well-known.

In the real world, temperatures often climb to well above this temperature, in both storage and incidental use (especially hotter regions of the world where .Mil users often find themselves). Why then are the test protocols seemingly designed to AVOID this issue?

Take the current NIJ 06 protocol. It incorporates many new rigors that an armor must pass in order to be certified (a GOOD thing, no doubt), including environmental conditioning. However, the temperature does not exceed the KNOWN denaturation/transition temp of the UHMWPE (highest temp in the conditioning phase is 149 F):

Even the FBI protocol, which excels the NIJ 06 standard in many ways, still only exposes the armor to a MAX temp of 140 F:

Quite frankly, this is a ludicrous state of affairs. Since temperatures can *regularly* reach 200 F in a car trunk or APC on hot days in CONUS or OCONUS, to not expose armor to these realistic circumstances could be perceived as softballing.

Even recent tests done by DSM which supposedly showed that their UHMWPE material did OK in elevated temperatures STILL tiptoed around the transition threshold temp:

In the paper, “temperatures up to 90 C (194 F)” were used. However, these temps were *only* applied to hard/rigid armor, which does not experience the same sensitivity as soft armor, most likely due to an insulative effect of the material in thicker section. The soft armor samples were still only exposed to 70 C (which is 158 F, 10 degrees BELOW the known transition temp). The test should have applied the same max temp to ALL samples, regardless of whether they were hard or soft.

In conclusion, test protocols should be designed to apply REAL WORLD rigors to life saving equipment. The current protocols SEEM TO incorporate temperature threshold requirements that allow the limitations and weaknesses of a specific material (UHMWPE) to pass. Designing tests with less rigorous standards so as to avoid excluding a material does not live up to the purpose of testing in the first place. Providing the absolute best lifesaving gear, regardless of any other considerations, should always be the goal.