After all the advances women have made in American law
enforcement, after all this time, the fit of body armor for female officers is
still less than ideal. Much like other gear such as duty belts, uniforms,
tactical pants, etc., women are stuck with a design created for men. That is
like fitting a square peg in a round role—it doesn’t work.
Men and women obviously have very different bodies—the chest
and torso being one of the biggest areas of differentiation. But even among
women, the body shape differs greatly. Body armor should reflect all the
anatomical differences. Otherwise, the body armor will fit improperly, will be
uncomfortable, or just won’t be worn.
Don’t fret. Armed with a little knowledge of body armor, you
can make a more informed decision when requesting, selecting and purchasing
soft body armor. Fit, comfort and protection are the most crucial factors to
Body armor is far too important to take a ballistic panel
designed for a male torso and try to fit it onto a female. Often times, men’s
panels are drastically cut down to fit a female—an extremely poor solution.
This leads to the “sports bra” size vest that most female officers wear today.
These are clearly much too small and do not provide the protection a properly
sized vest would.
Vests can be ordered “off the shelf,” meaning the vests are
already cut and you get the closest match to your size. This is NOT recommended
for women. Instead, go for the custom-fitted vest that is made based on YOUR
measurements. The vest should cover the majority (but not all) of your torso.
The vest should start just below the neckline (about 2 inches). There should be
about a 1½- to 2-inch gap between the bottom of the panel and the duty belt.
The extra space allows for bending and movement and prevents the vest from
riding up when sitting.
If the vest is too large, it will slip and be cumbersome. If
it is too small, it will expose vital organs to injury. Don’t settle for an
off-the-shelf solution. A custom vest may cost more but it is worth it.
The best soft body armor you can have is the one you will
wear and if it isn’t comfortable, you won’t want to wear it. If the vest fits
properly, it will be more comfortable and offer better protection. There are
now more options for women, such as the Savvy line of female soft body armor
from Safariland, which offers a contoured bust with darts. This is a significant
improvement especially for large-busted women.
Historically, the panels were flat and heavy, which can be
extremely uncomfortable. Again, don’t settle for the off-the-shelf or cheapest
solution. Research your options and find the best and most comfortable fit for
your body and job.
Soft body armor is comprised of a fabric carrier vest that
holds a front and back ballistic panel. The ballistic panels are made of very
strong fibers, like aramid or ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene. These
fibers are interlaced, inter-layered, tightly woven like a basket weave,
netting or webbing. The combination of fiber strength and weave absorbs the
impact energy of the bullet.
Ballistic armor is classified into soft body armor (Threat
Levels IIA, II, IIIA) and hard plate armor (Threat Levels III, IV) based on the
bullets they are rated to stop. Type IIA armor is rated to stop many 9 mm, 40
S&W and 45 ACP bullets and is the thinnest available. Type II armor delivers
the same ballistic protection as the Type IIA, stops higher energy 9mm and 357
Magnum bullets, and is a bit thicker. Type IIIA armor offers the same
protection as the Type II and IIA as well as protection against the 357 SIG and
Threat Level II vests are the most commonly worn soft body
armor for patrol officers. They can either be worn concealed under a
loose-fitting shirt or over clothing. You don’t need to be an expert at the
National Institute of Justice (NIJ) standards for soft body armor to know which
Threat Level is the right one. At the minimum, select the level of protection
that stops your own gun. There is always one gun at every scenario you respond
As more and more women join the ranks of law enforcement,
better and better gear is becoming available. Just in the last 10 years, there
have been significant improvements. It is important not to settle for what is
available if it doesn’t work or is unsafe. Many times the manufacturers are not
aware of the issues. If you have any ideas on how to improve gear for women,
contact the author directly.
Karen Bartuch has been
in law enforcement since 2002, working a variety of assignments including
patrol, gang patrol, gang team, undercover, narcotics, policy advisor and
intelligence. She is the founder and current president of the Women’s TacticalAssociation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo courtesy
of Point Blank Enterprises.