BACKPACK ARMOR BUYER’S GUIDE
Backpack Armor Buyer’s Guide
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.
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.
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.
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.