When an officer is on duty, there is no room for doubt about whether their bullet-resistant vest is going to protect them. They need to have confidence that their armor will perform as expected. They need to know that after every shift, they get to go home to their families.
At Safariland, our mission is “Together, We Save Lives®.™” It’s an idea that drives our purpose and the performance of every product, and when it comes to body armor, our ability to provide confidence begins inside the ballistics lab at our Ontario, California headquarters.
Frank Smith, Director of Engineering at Safariland, has 20 years of experience in personal protective equipment and medical device design, and leads a team of technicians in Safariland’s rigorous testing program. The lab is one of a few in the country certified by the National Institute of Justice for the U.S. Department of Justice
Smith and three other engineers are constantly researching and developing the next generation of body armor, with the goal of improving upon previous generations of armor in the areas of performance, cost, and comfort.
“We are the starting point of that in terms of creating products that will actually save lives,” Smith says. “They have to be done right. We have to have absolute confidence in them.”
For a glimpse inside the lab’s operations, check out the above video to see how markings are made of a shot pattern and placed on the armor. The technician uses a .357 magnum bullet shot at 1,430 feet per second—numbers that coincide with real world situations.
“Here we want to be as consistent as possible,” Smith says. “We want to get that same velocity.” After the shots are made, Henry Bolin, a Level 3 engineer technician, checks the outside and inside material. The outside does not see much breakage. The inside is very rope-like. “It’s kind of a thick weave and that’s what we like about it. To capture the bullets and get them entangled; to stop them from turning, and to slow them down,” Bolin says.
Smith says that, for the first layer of armor, lab technicians are looking for materials that have the property to entangle the bullets and transition the kinetic energy they produce into thermal energy and dissipate the heat.
“Different types of material are used in our armor models to improve bullet engagement, entanglement, deformation, and energy dispersion,” Smith says. “The goal is not only to stop the round, but to minimize trauma effects and to provide high stopping power compared to the lesser velocities typically seen out of handguns.
STANDARDS OF EXCELLENCE
Safety is top priority at Safariland. Even after the armor has gone through the official certification process with the National Institute of Justice testing protocol, the lab continues to conduct vigorous lot testing for every roll of the materials that go into making the vests in production.
“What we offer at Safariland is more than just body armor, but the trust that comes with wearing the armor, and for the officers to safely go home to their families,” Smith says.
“In addition, we have a Vest Check program that allows law enforcement agencies to submit used or worn vests that are two years or older for us to shoot and analyze performance. This allows us to, first, ensure that the department is taking care of the armor and, second, ensure that materials in the designs are indeed holding up to the performance standards we expect.”
TESTING SAVES LIVES
Safariland has 1,969 reasons and counting as to why we put so much effort into ballistics testing, and we established the SAVES Club to feature the officers who are still alive because of their body armor.
Jacksonville, Florida police officer Matt Hanlin is one of those reasons. He was doing a “knock and talk” warrant on a drug suspect in February 2012 when the suspect fired at him and his fellow officers. The bullet pierced Hanlin’s arm and traveled to his torso, where it was stopped by his body armor. Even though he was shot five times, he survived.
Hanlin is reason number 1,792 as to why Safariland officials are so vigilant about the tests they run inside their ballistics lab. He has that number tattooed on his arm above the scar where the bullet hit him. Watch his full story.
“To know it was your design, your product, and your team that helped create this product that saved someone’s life and allowed them to continue living their life to the fullest, and be around family members – for me that’s what gets me up every day,” Smith says. “It’s knowing I have a chance to make someone’s life better.”