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Technology and market demand usher in a new age in ballistics protection

January 1st, 2021 / By: / Feature

TurtleSkin Metal Flex Armor combines soft and hard armor via a mosaic of interlocking metal tiles within an aramid fabric. Photo: Warwick Mills Inc.

Once confined to the military and law enforcement, body armor sales are growing in new markets. 

by Debra Cobb

The market for ballistic protective clothing has traditionally functioned as a small slice of the military and law enforcement protective markets. Today, however, demand for such apparel is growing at an unprecedented rate across the globe, reflecting changing political and social circumstances. Factors including the modernization of military forces in developed and emerging nations, international and domestic terrorism, and civil unrest have combined with breakthroughs in technology to expand the market for both tactical and concealed body armor.

According to The Global Body Armor and Personal Protection Market 2020–2030 on ReportLinker, North America will spend a cumulative $12.4 billion on body armor over the next 10 years, a 34.5 percent share of the global market. The soft armor segment will account for 28.2 percent of global sales, according to the report, with enhanced ballistic textile technologies engendering increased interest in lighter, more comfortable, concealable protection for the military, law enforcement, first responders and private citizens. In fact, the recently published report may already be old news, with U.S. body armor suppliers currently adding personnel and reporting long lead times for customers. 

Dyneema® UHMWPE is used in stronger, lighter body armor for law enforcement. Photo: DSM Dyneema.

Protection tomorrow and today

Working in partnership with the government, tech industry and academia, the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) is the incubator for the research and development of ballistic protective apparel. Tested and worn successfully by members of the military and law enforcement, these new technologies may eventually find their way into end uses for civilians.

Focusing on 2040 and beyond, the CCDC Army Research Laboratory (ARL) at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., deals with scientific discovery, technological innovation and knowledge transfer, while the CCDC Soldier Center (SC) at Natick, Mass., optimizes the combat readiness, survivability, sustainability, mobility, combat effectiveness and quality of life for the person in uniform.

“Soldiers carry over 100 pounds of body armor and kit, which reduces their mobility,” says Dr. Chris Hoppel, program manager at ARL. “We are looking at the mechanics of kinetic energy, and the integration of materials, in order to increase protection while reducing weight. Warfare is moving more quickly, so there is an increased emphasis on the ability of the soldier to move and react.”

“At Soldier Center we are trying to increase soldier survivability by ultimately making the soldier less vulnerable to ballistic and blast threats to be encountered in the future operating environment,” adds Robert DiLalla, ballistic and blast protection team leader. “We need to better understand the trade-off between performance versus protection across all potential operating environments and how to best balance protection over the body using the latest in materials technology.”

The CCDC is investigating protective materials for the soldier of the future, including next-generation aramids, gel-spun ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE), solid-state extruded polyethylene film, shear-thickening fluids, graphene composites, super-hard ceramics and new additive manufacturing techniques.

For users today, all body armor marketed in the U.S. is certified by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), which has developed standards related to threat level. There are important trade-offs between weight, mobility and levels of protection in hard versus soft body armor.

Levels IIA, II and IIIA are considered soft armor; the latter will stop bullets from handguns up through a .357 Sig or a .44 Magnum. They are typically made from aramid fibers and/or UHMWPE and stop bullets by deforming them and absorbing their energy. NIJ IIIA is the standard for the growing category of concealable body armor.

Levels III and IV hard armor are generally composed of steel, ceramic or UHMWPE plates, which are worn in carriers or in conjunction with soft armor backers. They’re engineered to protect against rifle calibers and armor-piercing bullets. Although UHMWPE is lighter in weight, it is bulkier than other hard-plate options, making it more difficult to conceal. 

Fit is also critical, and many body armor suppliers offer made-to-measure options—including body armor designed specifically for women—to improve comfort while ensuring that the critical torso area is protected.

The U.S. military has redesigned body armor for female soldiers to improve comfort while ensuring protection. Photo: David Jordan, military.com.

Light and concealable 

Taking advantage of its expertise in felting and needlepunch, global technical textile manufacturer Tex Tech Industries Inc. of Portland, Maine, developed its Core Matrix Technology™ some 20 years ago. Layers of ballistic fabric are needlepunched together with Z-directional, staple-length fibers, creating a loose structure that disperses the energy of a ballistic strike. 

“The Core Matrix Technology stabilizes the structure without locking it down,” says Eoin Lynch, the company’s executive director of sales and marketing. “We are able to combine different deniers to provide better performance—almost like one-plus-one equals three.” The structure reduces back-face trauma while increasing ballistic and fragmentation performance.

The technology’s latest iteration for combat shirts and pelvic protectors has been developed to meet current specs with 20 percent less weight, according to Lynch. “This gives us the opportunity to provide additional ballistic protection to other parts of the body and protect the soldier’s extremities against fragmentation from IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and blasts at lighter weights, while not jeopardizing the soldier’s mobility,” he says.

Working to NIJ standards, the company prototypes and tests in-house at its own ballistics range. The Core Matrix Technology is sold as roll goods to body armor manufacturers.

Warwick Mills Inc. launched its TurtleSkin® SoftPlate™ NIJ IIIA-rated technology in 2008, offering improved concealable ballistic and blunt trauma protection. Founded in 1870, the New Ipswich, N.H.-based company specializes in weaving protective and technical textiles and in developing and integrating complex fiber composites.

Warwick developed TurtleSkin Metal Flex Armor (MFA) to solve the need for a knife, spike and slash product. It combines soft and hard armor via a mosaic of interlocking metal tiles within an aramid fabric. Combining its SoftPlate with MFA technology offers ballistic, spike and knife protection in a single concealable vest. It’s the best way to maximize performance while optimizing for weight, thinness and comfort, according to Amanda Battisti, segment manager.

The company’s newest development, TurtleSkin Limber, offers flexible slash protection in a concealable undershirt or comfortable polo. 

“It is often assumed that ballistic, stab and cut-resistance protection are provided by the same materials, when in fact these are all very different threats which require different materials,” Battisti says. “Both Limber and MFA can be combined with ballistic material sets to maximize performance all around, solving this unique set of problems to fully protect our soldiers, police and security personnel.”

U.S. Armor’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ) level IIIA-rated concealable body armor is a top seller. Photo: U.S. Armor.

Market potential

Like many manufacturers of body armor, family-owned U.S. Armor Corp. offers custom-fit, concealable and tactical protective apparel for law enforcement, security guards, military and other branches of government. 

“It’s trying times out there, but it’s really good for us,” says David Miller, director of engineering for the 35-year-old company based in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. Product offerings at NIJ level IIIA, the top rating for soft armor, are the biggest sellers. 

“We are all about sending the person home to their family,” says Miller. 

But unlike some of the competition, U.S. Armor won’t sell to just anyone. While body armor can legally be purchased in the U.S. by anyone who is not a convicted felon, U.S. Armor requests a police letter of qualification from potential buyers. “You are not our client base if we can’t check your background,” Miller says.

The company is not looking to sell body armor to street demonstrators. “You can buy body armor off eBay all day long, but we won’t sell it that way,” states Miller.

Direct-to-consumer sales of “ballistic fashion” is on the rise to undercover law enforcement, security guards, politicians, executives and celebrities. Options range from form-fitting bullet-resistant undershirts, referred to as “Under Armour on steroids,” to high-end tailored clothing, to streetwear and accessories featuring bullet-resistant panels. And it’s not cheap.

Purveyors of pricey antiballistic protection clothing include MC-Armor, founded in Colombia during the drug wars in 1992 and brought to Miami in 2017; Aspetto, which offers tactical gear as well as custom, bullet-resistant clothing for men; and Bullet Blocker, which features a wide range of protective clothing, outerwear and backpacks for men, women and children.

Innocent Armor of Los Angeles, Calif., is a new entry in this genre. “We have a whole spectrum of buyers, including a 71-year-old grandmother going to the grocery store,” says founder and CEO Mike Wang.

While the military, partnering with academia and the tech industry, continues to lead the R&D of new technologies for soldiers, first responders and government agencies, the market for ballistics apparel textiles and apparel is certainly changing.

As lighter weights make body armor more practical and more concealable, there is growing interest in protective clothing for essential workers—from delivery drivers and post office personnel, to teachers, retail workers, the press and increasingly anxious members of the general public. 

Debra Cobb is a freelance writer with extensive experience in the textiles industry. She is based in North Carolina. 


SIDEBAR: Filling a void

Innocent Armor’s Discreet Body Armor™ is designed to look like streetwear. Photo: Innocent Armor.

Innocent Armor is a recent addition to the growing roster of direct-to-consumer brands specializing in ballistic fashion, or as the company has termed it, “Discreet Body Armor.”

Founded in 2019, the company offers streetwear-inspired, bullet-resistant outerwear and gear for men and women featuring ShieldTec®, the company’s own brand of lightweight, soft armor panels made of UHMWPE or aramid uni-directional fabrics. The garments meet NIJ IIIA standards.

The Los Angeles-based company has hired a designer to work up a new collection, which will offer a more comfortable fit using four-way stretch fabric with water resistance and UV protection. Everything will be made in the U.S. While Innocent Armor initially targeted law enforcement, undercover law enforcement and executive protection, founder and CEO Mike Wang believes that everybody in the U.S. is a potential customer. 

“Everyone is afraid of civil unrest,” he says. “We are trying to do what we think is the right thing.… It’s a void that needed to be filled.”