Guide to Ballistic Shields: [Design and Features]

Weight

In the early 2000s, many shields on the market were rectangular with flat fronts (and sometimes with curved edges). This simple, straightforward design stopped select bullets and saved lives. While effective, they were heavy, which made them challenging to hold for extended periods of time. As a result, operator speed and mobility slowed significantly, especially when the situation required the user to cover a lot of ground. 

In the past, some departments chose not to use ballistic shields because of this reason. Advancements in materials, however, (including the use of composites, hybrid composites, carbon fiber, Kevlar and ceramic) have significantly reduced shield weight.

In some cases, Level III shields went from 50 lbs (23 kg) to 14 lbs (6 kg) in 10 years. This allows the officer to move around much faster in dynamic threat scenarios while still maintaining the same level of ballistic protection. Essentially, departments can purchase soft armor Level IIIA shields that perform just as well as hard armor Level IIIA shields from 20 years ago with better maneuverability due to their weight and design.

Size

Shields can come in a variety of sizes (Photo Credit: MARS Armor)

Ballistic shields are available in a variety of sizes and shapes to best protect against specific threats. Depending on the manufacturer, shields can come in a variety of sizes. Some ballistic shields are as small as 16 x 20 inches (41 x 53 cm) for use when there is additional ballistic protection (trees, walls, etc.) nearby. These are designed to protect the torso (vital organs), face and neck while being easy and fast to deploy. They make a lot of sense for patrol officers to have in their car for establishing and maintaining perimeters or entering questionable scenes.

Certain shields are significantly larger at 24 x 48 inches (61 x 122 cm) to offer full body protection. The most common shield sizes tend to be between 20 x 30 inches (51 x 76 cm) and 24 x 36 inches (61 x 91 cm). These offer a combination of protection and mobility. Finally, there are large Level IV rolling shield systems that bring maximum ballistic protection. These provide overhead protection and can protect multiple officers at the same time. The tradeoff here is increased protection for increased weight along with decreased mobility and speed.   

Shape

Each unique shape, each unique shape has its own inherent advantages and limitations.

  • Flat shields are cheaper to make for manufacturers and have potential to be linked together horizontally or vertically, providing a better, tighter fit.
  • Curved shields provide better side protection and angle shot protection from incoming rounds than flat shields. They also dissipate energy more efficiently and are more comfortable for an operator to utilize a wraparound technique.
  • Rectangular shields are more traditional. They are basic black rectangles that offer ballistic protection. An officer extends the arm around to hold or fire a weapon when needed. 
  • Dynamic shapes vary on style, but these shields feature a mounting platform that enable the officer to engage a weapon. These ambidextrous weapon rests are optimal for the fastest and easiest handgun and long gun deployment. 
  • V-shape shields have a tapered bottom portion of the shield. They are designed for linear assaults and to divert fire away from the center. 

Design

All ballistic shields are designed to stop or deflect bullets fired at their carrier. The materials used impact the weight and protection.

  • Soft armor: tactical blanket systems or roll up shields are composed of soft armor and can fit compactly in a vehicle. These are lighter weight than hard armor and provide increased maneuverability. These shields are great for SWAT medics and tactical EMS. Pictured at left above: Safariland IIIA Summit Strike Shield (20 x 28 inches).
  • Hard armor: most level IIIA and III shields are composed of hard armor for maximum protection. While not as lightweight as a tactical blanket, there are several options that are remarkably lightweight. Pictured above at center: United Shield MXV Ballistic Shield (20 x 34 inches)
  • Rolling / mobile shields: these larger ballistic shields are equipped with wheels and can roll as the officers need to advance, retreat or move laterally. They are sometimes referred to as wheeled trolley shields and can protect multiple officers at the same time. They are especially valuable at security checkpoints, border crossings, schools, embassies and warehouses. Rolling shields tend to weigh more (100+ lbs) but some offer modular or collapsible options. Pictured above at right: Pro-Tech SOB Sentry (54 x 32 x 75 inches | width x depth x height)

Viewport

Officer looks through viewport on ballistic shield (Photo Credit: Patriot3)

Viewports are the clear windows in shields that allow the operator to see. Like the rest of the shield, the viewport needs to be ultra-durable and bullet resistant. For this reason, viewports are made of stronger materials like polycarbonate. 

Technological advancements have resulted in different sized and shaped viewports. In some cases, a small viewport is sufficient to get the job done. Some of the newer shields have viewports that are wider and taller so that the operator can see straight ahead, laterally and up and down. This added visibility increases the officer’s safety and provides them with the tactical advantage of having eyes on the threat at all times. 

Not all ballistic shields have a viewport. In some cases, the viewport can be the heaviest part of the shield. In addition, any scratches or damage to the viewport will limit vision.

Color and Finish

Up until recently, most ballistic shields were only available in black so as not to draw much attention. Recently, additional colors have become available in select shields including Tan, Coyote, Ranger Green, Multi Cam and Multi Cam Black. Some shields have Kevlar-looking finishes. Some shields are painted so as to refract NIR (near infrared), which prevents some night vision goggles (NVGs) from being able to see the shield (and user behind it).

Some manufacturers introduced transparent ballistic shields made of polycarbonate laminate. These include the Blue Ridge Armor Clear-Guard , Safariland Hi-VIZ Type IIIA Shield and METT-T LLC TAC Shield that offer Level IIIA protection. Their transparent design minimizes visual obstructions and helps the officer better see trip hazards and identify threats.

Handle

Handle systems determine how a shield is carried. This critical design feature therefore impacts the firearms and shooting styles used. Departments have different carrying carrying methods and some unique handle designs can accommodate multiple preferences.

The best handle design will vary based on each agency's SOP (standard operating procedure) for training and shield carrying method. Many of the handle systems have a solid 2 position or 3 position carry method that allows for single and dual handed operation. An ambidextrous handle design allows right and left handed operators to carry a shield without having to make adjustments on the handle. Ergonomic additions like high density forearm pads add comfort when carrying the shield and reduce backface injuries to the forearm.

Different handle options are available:

  • Assault
  • Horizontal handle
  • Tri Grip
  • Tri Grip ERT (Emergency Response Team) handle: a cross between Horizontal and Tri-Grip
  • Adjustable Grab handle: features a forearm strap

Handles used to be simple plastic or metal attachments. Nowadays, these handles are made of aluminum, polycarbonate or composite materials. In some cases, handles are even integrated into components like lighting systems for a more streamlined design. 

Like anything else, sometimes handles break and need to be replaced. Select manufacturers offer replacement handles. Consult the manufacturer recommendations and warranty before purchasing or installing a unique handle system to an existing shield.

Other Sections

Resources

Thanks so much to Tracey Willmott, Mario Cugini, Phillip Spencer, Mark Cardey (The Safariland Group), Paul Banducci (United Shield International), Mike Ott (Point Blank Enterprises), Chris Sfedu (EDI-USA) and HighCom Armor for their assistance with this article. 

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