Back­pack Armor Buyer’s Guide

RECOIL OFFGRID - - Front Page - By Robert Harbin

We have our EDC and SHTF gear list for ev­ery­thing from go­ing to the store to a dooms­day in­ci­dent. But what prepa­ra­tion have you made for your kids as you send them off to school? With main­stream me­dia set­ting the stage for de­ranged in­di­vid­u­als to get their claim to fame by go­ing into so-called “safe zones” and harm­ing the in­no­cent, we’re forced to start look­ing at ways to pro­tect our fam­i­lies in all facets of their daily life. Body armor is more eco­nom­i­cally ac­ces­si­ble than ever, so you can wrap your loved ones, or even your­self, up in the lat­est Kevlar pro­tec­tion in case ev­ery par­ent’s night­mare be­comes your re­al­ity. With the in­flux of me­dia at­ten­tion, to­day’s mar­ket is packed with op­tions for back­pack armor. Some of these we’d lit­er­ally stand be­hind, while oth­ers need some re­fin­ing be­fore they’re ready to catch rounds in the real world. We hit the range with sev­eral test sam­ples to ex­am­ine some op­tions for ar­mor­ing up our kids’ back­packs or even our own EDC bags.

The Test­ing

To sim­u­late a re­al­is­tic test, we looked at how most users would wear the bags dur- ing a shoot­ing in­ci­dent. The bags would likely ei­ther be held as a shield or worn as a vest. To that end, we ar­ranged the fol­low­ing test pa­ram­e­ters to best sim­u­late these sce­nar­ios with­out the ben­e­fit of a fully-ap­pointed bal­lis­tics lab:

Each bag was sus­pended by a tar­get stand and shot in its cen­ter mass from a range of 15 me­ters.

Level IIIA bags were shot with an S&W M&P 2.0 Com­pact 9mm loaded with CCI Blazer 115-grain FMJ.

Level III+ were shot with an AR15 us­ing a 20-inch bar­rel and .223 Remington 62-grain FMJ.

Note that a level III+ rat­ing isn’t an ac­tual NIJ stan­dard, de­not­ing that the man­u­fac­turer as­serts the armor will meet the NIJ level III stan­dard in ad­di­tion to other threats (see side­bar to the right). We tested them with .223, given the ubiq­uity of the round in Amer­ica. The two III+ plates in this guide are ad­ver­tised to de­fend against .223.

Ini­tially, each bag was shot with a 500page ream of 20-pound pa­per, 2 inches thick, in front of it. This sim­u­lates the ap­prox­i­mate thick­ness of two text­books to see how much, if any­thing, a back­pack’s nor­mal con­tents would do to stop a bul­let on its own. Sur­pris­ingly, this was enough to stop a 9mm round. Of course, we wouldn’t rec­om­mend us­ing pa­per reams alone as body armor, but the ex­per­i­ment pro­vides some em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence about how well it might stop a bul­let. We re-tested each IIIA panel with­out the pa­per to see how well they’d hold up alone to de­fend against a cal­iber they’re rated for. As ex­pected, the reams alone didn’t stop the .223 rounds at our test­ing dis­tance.

Armor Con­sid­er­a­tions

Weight: Look for the high­est-level pro­tec­tion with the most rea­son­able weight. We all want the high­est level of pro­tec­tion, but it comes at the cost of weight and bulk­i­ness. With some plates weigh­ing more than 10 pounds, it can be­come al­most im­prac­ti­cal for daily carry and may very quickly be the first item re­moved when the back­pack needs to be light­ened up.

In­de­pen­dent Test­ing: Look for plates or pan­els that are in­de­pen­dently tested. Any man­u­fac­turer can im­ply all of their prod­ucts meet NIJ stan­dards, but a rep­utable man­u­fac­turer will have an in­de­pen­dent lab put each spe­cific prod­uct through the paces. Don’t just check if the com­pany’s other prod­ucts are tested, look for a re­cent test­ing re­port for the spe­cific prod­uct you’re buy­ing.

Big­ger is Bet­ter: Get the panel that will cover the most real es­tate in­side your bag or back­pack. This pro­vides the most pro­tec­tion and most cover as a shield. While the bad guy is sling­ing rounds and not aim­ing for a small panel, you would be sur­prised how small you can make your­self be­hind even a 10-by-13-inch panel.

Train and Ed­u­cate: Teach­ing loved ones how to re­act in an ac­tive shooter in­ci­dent is just as im­por­tant as fire drills or any other dis­as­ter plan­ning. De­velop the mind­set that a bal­lis­tic back­pack isn’t a per­sonal ef­fect to be left be­hind — it’s a de­fen­sive tool to grab and take with you in an emer­gency.

Po­ten­tial Is­sues

Don’t Place and For­get: Es­pe­cially if you’re in­te­grat­ing a soft panel into your pack, check the panel place­ment fre­quently. We all get in a hurry and cram books, com­put­ers, and other items into a pack. If not lo­cated in a snug com­part­ment, soft armor pan­els can eas­ily get stuffed to the bot­tom of the pocket and won’t do much good in that po­si­tion.

Hu­mid­ity: You might think that Mi­ami hu­mid­ity only turns women’s hair into a bad ’80s al­bum cover, but in hu­mid con­di­tions, Kevlar fibers puff up and create sep­a­ra­tion be­tween the weave. This re­sults in a re­duc­tion of the armor’s stop­ping abil­ity. The same ap­plies to wet armor — that stop­ping abil­ity is re­duced much more. NIJ test­ing in­di­cates that armor’s ef­fec­tive­ness re­turns once it’s dried out com­pletely.

ICW: “In Con­junc­tion With” sys­tems are a hard plate and soft armor backer that are de­signed to be used to­gether to pro­vide the rated pro­tec­tion. The plate de­grades the pro­jec­tile to a safe ve­loc­ity to be cap­tured by the sec­ond layer of soft armor. If you use the plate or soft armor by them­selves, you won’t re­ceive the listed pro­tec­tion, though some may in­di­cate an­other rat­ing when used stand­alone.

New and Im­proved!: The new­est high­tech armor choices may sound ap­peal­ing, but at times it’s best to wait. Give some sub­ject-mat­ter ex­perts an op­por­tu­nity to put the prod­ucts through their paces and see what stands the test of time.

Ex­pi­ra­tion: The NIJ states that body armor must have an ex­pi­ra­tion date listed by its man­u­fac­turer. Most man­u­fac­tur­ers put a five-year ex­pi­ra­tion date on their pan­els, but look at the tag to be cer­tain.

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