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How to Buy: Ballistic Shields

By The Staff of Corrections1

Shields have been around since the beginning of combat. As gladiators stood in front of their combatants holding their shield, law enforcement officers encounter threats while holding the modern equivalent. Ballistic shields have proven to be a very valuable asset to any special operations team and even the patrol officer. These ballistic shields have gone from heavy, cumbersome shields (like the body bunker made of hard and heavy materials) to lightweight versions offering the same physical protection from many different types of life threatening projectiles.

To ensure that officers are as safe as possible while on the streets, patrol use of lightweight and portable ballistic shields should be considered – similar to the philosophy incorporated when concealable body armor was first introduced for daily patrol wear. Because humans have used shields to protect themselves from a wide range of weaponry for several centuries, as more powerful guns become more widespread, the extra protection provided by shields could become a necessity for daily patrol usage.

Most of the ballistic shields available today are rectangular in shape and share much in common with ancient shields. Typically, one arm and hand is dedicated to carrying the shield, while the other arm and hand manipulates a weapon. But with advances in technology over the past several centuries, today’s warriors are faced with more options than in the past.

Some of the questions that are often raised during the process of researching ballistic shields are: What is the handle and carry system used in this ballistic shield? How heavy is it? Is it easy to operate with one hand or do I need two hands? Does the NIJ ballistics specification of this shield match the threat level I will encounter? The following is a list of important aspects to consider before purchasing a ballistic shield:

1. Use: Will the ballistic shield be needed for patrol use, tactical use, or both functions? If used for patrol only, will it be used in an observational or defensive role, or during the aggressive pursuit and approach to an armed individual?

When researching ballistic shields, the buyer must first determine the mission and logistics of how and by whom the shield will be used, and the type of situation that the ballistic shield may be required.

2. Storage: Will the shield be stored inside the patrol vehicle, kept in a supervisor’s vehicle, or stored back at headquarters (or some other remote location)?

Being that shields are wieldy, you want to make sure you can store them in the facilities provided. Once the logistics of ballistic shield storage and transportation are determined, the type of shield to be purchased becomes clear.

3. Strength: All modern day ballistic shields are portable protective barriers between the shield bearer and a ballistic threat. As is true with all ballistic protective armor products, the thicker and heavier the armor, the higher the protective level against greater penetrating ballistic threats.

If used for tactical purposes, is center-fire rifle caliber protection (NIJ Threat Levels III & IV) a requirement? When the ballistic capability is required to defeat center-fire long-guns (such as an AK-47), is the agency prepared to transport and assemble the ballistic shield (with wheels) prior to deployment at the scene?

Also, like personal and tactical body armor, most ballistic shields are warranted and insured to defeat rated threats for a period of five years following delivery. However, when properly cared for, ballistic shields should continue to defeat bullets for many years after the original manufacturer’s warranty has expired.

4. Weight: When considered for an observational or defensive protective role, is lack of armored viewing window a possible trade-off in order to save the weight and cost of an armored observational viewing port?

Any armored, transparent viewing-window incorporated into the shield design adds considerable weight and support structure to the shield, and must be evaluated in the context of mobility and weapon accuracy required to complete the intended mission.

5. Ballistics: The following list of categories and specifications will help match the right ballistic shield to the proper mission:

a. Active Shooter or IARD type response by patrol first responders – Portable foldable lightweight Level IIIA composite ballistic shield, 10 to 13 lbs, allowing 2 hands on the weapon (handgun or long-gun) and shield, readily stored inside the patrol vehicle’s passenger compartment or vehicle trunk.
b. Patrol establishment of defensive perimeter and observation to potential shots fired situation – Traditional NIJ Threat Level IIIA rectangular windowed ballistic shield, 15 to 30 lbs. (depending upon size), or non-windowed ballistic shield, 8 to 20 lbs. (depending upon size) allowing defensive use of handgun only, possible storage in vehicle trunk (depending upon available space), or at remote location.

c. Tactical response against handgun, shotgun and sub-machinegun threats – Traditional NIJ Threat Level IIIA rectangular windowed ballistic shield, 15 to 25 lbs., allows the shield bearer the ability to one hand fire a handgun around the shield with limited effectiveness while aiming through the armored view port. Second officer in line, (preferably carrying a long-gun) can be trained to step out from behind the shield bearer and engage a threat.

d. Tactical response against center-fire rifle – NIJ Threat Level III or IV threats, non-windowed NIJ Threat Level III composite ballistic shield, 18 to 35 lbs. Ballistic steel and/or ceramic NIJ Threat Levels III and IV available larger sized ballistic shields available requiring assembly onto wheeled dolly and supportive framing, 150 to 400 lbs.

Do you have any other suggestions for officers purchasing and evaluating handguns? Please leave a comment below or email with your feedback.

Police1 special contributors Rick Armellino and Dave Young contributed to this report.