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Ballistic Shields: Features, Functions and Considerations

Written by Al Baker

Among the primary ballistic shield considerations for any law enforcement agency are policy, costs and training. The first measure of ballistic shield deployment in an organization must be commitment from upper management to a fully supportive attitude toward operational personnel.

Spending money on gear is a harsh reality, but in shield purchasing, you get what you pay for. Buying an economical shield that never gets used is, in the end, costlier than buying a more expensive one that is used and abused while contributing to the life-saving purpose it was intended to serve.

Ballistic shield training is an important asset. Can the law enforcement agency’s shield operator work their gun and a shield effectively at the same time? Theories abound on this topic. Early shield manuals maintained that a “shield-bearer” had a singular function during which “others” supplied firepower.

Such thinking may not work with the more offensive, rapid deployment techniques experienced in the new, mass-killer milieu. Shield skills are simple yet harder work. It is critical that a shield operator can work the shield and gun together in liberal, live-fire, range evolutions and establish basic qualification performance. And remember: Slow is Smooth; Smooth is Fast.

To Shield Or Not To Shield

From the Roman tactic where warriors were weighting their spears so when they pierced the enemy’s shields they would become too heavy to lift, to today’s high-speed, urban warrior tactic which holds that “the shields will slow us down,” the deployment of the shield remains a sometimes mystifying command decision.

To help reduce the uncertainty of its use, the question can be approached using three different perspectives: logistics, ballistics and realistics. Once these basic elements of shield deployment are taken into account, the decision of whether or not to deploy will follow, and it will be a decision solely made by the operators with regard to lives and safety.

Logistics

Will the agency’s shield “fit” the mission? Cover and concealment can be fairly easy to evaluate, but matching the equipment to the mission can be tricky. In a dynamic tactic, the operator would probably choose smaller, more easily maneuvered and certainly lighter shields than the larger, heavier models designed for the slower, more controlled objective of contained clearing.

Often a team will use the excuse of “that’s the shield we have,” even when the shield they have may not apply to the large number of mission variables. For example, one after-action critique in a northeastern city found that the suspect had stood at the top of a circular staircase armed with a pistol. When the shield operator led a slow ascent, the larger, heavier shield had to be turned sideways to fit the passageway limitations of the stairs. This allowed an incoming round to miss the shield. Fortunately, it was stopped in the operator’s body armor. That shield did not match that mission.

Ease of deployment should be linked to the totality of response. A more time-consuming deployment process, for example, works against a hurry-up-offense, yet does not factor significantly with shields fulfilling a backup or a reserve function. So if a law enforcement agency is purchasing an erector-set for a run and gun situation—or the converse—the agency might end up with a mismatched resource.

With many ballistic shields available, there may not be a single shield to precisely match every future mission. Forecasting the next mission is not possible and the next mission may not quite match the last. Therefore, it’s best to assess the overall probabilities for a particular community or region, and then select one or more shield models based on the confluence of predictions.

The traditional rectangular shields, with their fuller coverage, are primarily designed for defensive operations, typically slow, methodical clearing. On the other hand, the Batshield models are more streamlined and lighter, and when combined with head, face and leg armors, lend themselves to rapid deployment while also combining optimum firepower. Bunkers typically deploy in stack or column formations while Batshields offer fan, wedge or diamond patterns.

Despite the fact that shields don’t promise a one-size-fits-all capability, many agencies deploy only one type for both offensive and defensive tactics. However, as in any profession, more tools in the toolbox usually produce a nicer finished product.

Ballistics

Ballistics can be even more confusing than logistics. Simply stated, the decision to deploy the shield often rests with two constants: What will the shield operator’s ballistic shield stop, and what threat does the adversary pose?

Officers might wonder if they are okay if they have a vest and a shield. The answer is probably not. It is like comparing apples and oranges. In contrast to armor designed to defeat high-energy handguns, rifle caliber projectiles require the ballistic component of the shield to weigh a multiple of at least four to five times more than that to safely stop a center-fire rifle bullet. Counting on a Level IIIA-rated, handgun-capable ballistic shield to “slow down” a rifle round enough to capture it by soft body armor is not a realistic or safe proposition.

In addressing threat level protection, ballistic capabilities are critical in shield selection. Because shields are positioned in front of the body and not in direct contact with the user’s torso, ballistic capabilities of shield armor configurations are tested while securely clamped in the freestanding position, without any measurements of backface trauma.
The National Institute of Justice ballistic standard NIJ 0108.01 provides a laboratory-conducted, five-shot test sequence for determining compliance for Threat Level Type IIIA, which protects against almost all handgun calibers. Sub-machinegun and 12-gauge OO buckshot and rifled slug threats are considered among the Type IIIA protective ranges.

Threat Level Type III protects against most lead cored, center-fire rifle threats, including the AK-47 round and the 223 ram/5.56 NATO. Threat Level Type IV protects against most steel core, armor-piercing, center-fire rifle threats—and a lot of steel core AK-47 ammo is out there. So, it is IIIA for handgun ammo, III for most rifle ammo and IV for armor piercing rifle ammo.

The IIIA rating has consistently been the minimum protection level of choice for most patrol and special teams in the U.S. For the nominal increase in weight over lesser levels, prevailing wisdom remains to select the highest handgun rating. Rifle threat selections remain more complex, with Level III occupying the minimum priority.

Realistics

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld summed this one up rather succinctly when he said: “You go to war with the army you have. You fight with the army that you have.” This basically contradicts the previous two considerations of logistics and ballistics. However, while not disagreeing with such a frank statement, as law enforcement tacticians we need to deal in a level of certainty that often belies our limited resources.

In other words, we choose our shields, our tactics and our level of proficiency based on the mission, or we suffer the wrath of the agency, the government, the citizenry and the media.

Like weaponry, lethality, training and planning, there are many kinds of ballistic shields. Therefore we must study the playing field, equip the mission, and train the operators in a way that best corresponds to the threat types and functionalities of all available ballistic shields. Then proceed to fight with the resources you have, which should be nothing less than the best possible for America’s finest.

How to Select a Shield

The handle system should afford balance, not top heaviness, and should be intuitive, not complicated. It should never allow the hand or arm to be trapped or locked to the shield. A handle may increase or decrease carry fatigue, which is typically a function of muscle versus bone structure support. Handle systems are also a function of coverage, as some extend the shield away from the operator and may reduce angled cover.

For example, most rectangular shields require full use of the hand while Batshield designs permit the hand to perform other functions. Manufacturers’ handle instructions should be followed, then tested according to intended purpose to allow informed evaluation.

Light

The use of lights is a necessity for most deployments, however, a shield-mounted light is optional for shields. The question then becomes how and where illumination is achieved. Light from non-shield sources such as ambient light, weapons mounted systems, night-vision optics or perhaps designated lighting devices can satisfy the need, but shield-mounted light selections will require several specific objectives.

One fundamental fact is that an adversary facing a shield-mounted light sees only the light and aims more directly at the source. The lights on a shield attract a bad guy’s gun fire. Lights mounted in a central area of the shield will thus attract hits to a larger radius of safety than edge-mounted lights, especially when incoming threats may tend to aim lower than the shield operator’s profile. In these cases, the shield operator tends to drop down causing the incoming rounds go to any officer in the stack behind the shield operator. Central mounted shield lights therefore are better.

Then there’s the decision of how much light versus how much weight. Bigger headlights offer better domination at a cost of battery bulk and weight. Smaller shield lights are less cumbersome, so should be evaluated as navigational versus distractional.

There’s also the durability function. Mounted forward of the ballistic strike face means greater vulnerability for the light, yet adding transparent armor to protect it may significantly raise both weight and cost beyond potential fatigue or replacement concerns. Another light consideration is that wider-angle LED arrays, as opposed to bright spot lights, are less destructive of vision loss for the shield operator.

One last caveat regarding shield lights is that they are maintenance sensitive. Disposable batteries may eliminate recharging functions, but any light system will require regular care and feeding. Finally, shield light options are more mission integral than most shield selection features, therefore a review of light sources needs to be mission balanced in a macro sense.

Size

From clipboards to blankets, size selection of ballistic resources must take many things into consideration, such as nature of the mission, individual versus team coverage, vehicle space and deployment speed. The average size for any handheld shield is about 20 inches wide and 34 inches high.

The shield should enhance coverage beyond body armor minimums, thus operator size and combat posture will also be selection factors. Force-on-force gunfire simulations during active killing training scenarios routinely show that ballistic shield-equipped first responders are much more capable of aggressively moving toward and engaging a threat when the shield provides adequate visibility, unlimited mobility, groin/femoral region ballistic coverage (outside the coverage of their soft body armor), and the ability to deliver accurate firepower upon the threat.

If a shield is selected for speed, speed is what the shield should enhance. Road test shields in designs fitting the most predictable call-ups, then consider selection of multiple size and model options.

Speed

Like the cargo van versus the sports car, shields possess intended design features, typically engineered for either offense or defense. The ideal would be to have sufficient units to match each deployment speed. Immediate-action, rapid-deployment shields, by nature, fit higher speed criteria more completely.

However, police work is more a matter of adapting and overcoming, as history so starkly reminds us. Thus reality teaches us to multi-task our resources to adjust for unexpected change. More and better kits may not

Storage

While every piece of responder equipment competes for real estate in the cruiser, none may be needed as instantly as when that responder comes under hostile gunfire or must intervene in an event of active killing. Simply put, store the shield as close to the operator as possible, preferably in the cabin. In team deployment vehicles, in addition to access, shields also should be kept free from clutter, not mixed with heavy equipment, and inside durable cases or covers. In selecting a lifesaving shield, consider its most accessible place in the fleet.

Suspension

Ever since the warriors of ancient Troy carried their shields on their backs, shield suspension systems have undergone countless setups. Fatigue reduction is still the leading function of a shield’s suspension feature. Bunkers typically come with shoulder straps for weight management in extended deployments. Rifle threat units are heavier, making support slings more of a necessity than an option. Batshields are equipped with bungee straps intended for buoyancy and tethering in tandem with weight reduction and weapons assistance.

The take-home point here is for the shield selector to fully understand the mechanics of the suspension specifications. Experience has shown that these features are seriously overlooked.

Visibility

Seeing is a function of processing one’s environment. To the extent the shield system contributes toward a fuller field of view is optimum. For example, view port size in Bunkers will factor vision limits. Ballistic helmet-mounted transparent face visor armor worn in conjunction with a Batshield is a vision and safety enhancement. Visibility requirements are also altered by clearing speed, usually determined by offensive versus defensive shield missions. No matter the shield or popular opinion, ballistic head and vision protection in high-risk environments is a must for this old shield dog.

Weapons Compatibility

Perhaps even more important than the shield itself is the efficiency with which the weapons system integrates, functions and performs with it. Those selecting shields for their agencies should note that every weapon will work better or worse with every shield. Rifles, for example, may not work as well with rectangular shields, which seem to work better with handguns. Pump shotguns don’t get along as well with the Batshield as does the M4 rifle, for which the shield was primarily designed.

The homework assignment here is to make the best match of mission, guns, deployment tactics, and appropriate accessories for weapons management for your shield types—which is another argument for considering more than one shield tool for the kit. You will need to stay focused and determined as these are life-and-death evaluations. You may also need to be assertive with your purchasing people.

Weight

is the final frontier. It’s the ultimate equalizer. It makes or breaks the ability for mobility, decides one’s endurance and separates theory from practice. It limits coverage, threat protection, efficiency, speed, and of course, cost. Typical IIIA shield products range from just under 11 pounds to more than 20 pounds. The weight of hand-carried shields is based on size and threat levels, from just a few pounds up to as much as 60-plus pounds for most rifle-capable shields.

For defensive applications, the NATO models are still quite viable, whereas on the offensive side, the new MRAPS offers AK-47 protection at less than 18 pounds and still mounts with an entry long gun.

Mission-specific resources make for safer, more efficient outcomes, so the take-home message is to carefully consider lessons learned within the range of reasonable options, then select as many as your shield operators and agency can handle.

Jim Weiss is a retired lieutenant from the Brook Park, OH, Police Department and a frequent contributor to LAW and ORDER. Mickey Davis is a California-based writer and author.

Published in Law and Order, Dec 2011

Rating : Not Yet Rated


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