The Evolving Role of the Ballistic Shield

Since times of antiquity the shield has been a critical component of personal protection, although like other types of armor it faded into history with the advent of firearms.  For centuries thereafter combatants were left to face the guns and blades of their enemies with nothing more than their skin to protect them.  It took the shell splinters of World War I to bring helmets back into common use, and the invention of Kevlar™ in the 1980s to restore body armor into a general issue item for soldiers and law enforcement.  Now, in the early years of the 21st century, shields are evolving into a regular piece of kit for law enforcement, security, and even military professionals.

The first shields to reappear in the modern world came in the form of large panels made from Kevlar™ cast in resin for rigidity and usually featuring a window of bulletproof glass.  Typically about 24”x48” (60×120 cm) in size and sometimes weighing north of 30 lbs (14 kg), these first generation ballistic shields were mainly used only by specialist law enforcement teams tasked with assaulting an armed and barricaded subject.  Tactically the team member in the lead would carry the shield and provide cover for himself and the rest of the team bunched up close behind him as they advanced through the potential field of fire.  Once at the point of entry the shield would often be abandoned as the team breeched the building, since it was too large to maneuver easily indoors and use of the window dangerously restricted situational awareness in close confines.  These first generation ballistic shields also suffered from other liabilities – they were too large and bulky to be stored conveniently anywhere other than at the police station or in the SWAT van, they required significant training to use effectively, and they were quite expensive.  As a result shields remained a niche piece of equipment for decades.

More recently, changes in threats, tactics, and technology have driven a rapid evolution in the design and employment of shields.  While the large legacy armor companies continue to sell traditional first generation shields to SWAT officers, numerous other offerings are now available. 

From a threat standpoint, criminals and terrorists are increasingly using AK-47s, AR-15s, and other military-grade weapons which can easily pierce the pistol-rated first generation shields and their windows.  Some shields have been reinforced with extra material to make them rifle resistant but at the cost of almost unbearable weight (and acquisition expense).  In response the trend has been to shift from the use of a single large shield meant to shelter an entire team to the use of smaller shields intended mainly to protect their individual bearer.  These shields, for example 15”x25” (38×64 cm) in size and weighing under 20 lbs (9 kg), still provide greatly improved protection than that of a body armor torso panel.  The smaller size reduces the weight to a much more reasonable level, reduces cost, and increases options for storage.  These medium-sized shields can also be used effectively indoors, as the shield-bearing operator can move through doorways and around furniture with reasonable ease and rapidly turn to face threats.  Many of the shields omit windows to maximize situational awareness and facilitate accurate deployment of sidearms or similar non-lethal devices, which practice has shown are very hard to use effectively by reaching around the shield and sighting through the window.

The lower cost and increased utility of modern medium size ballistic shields have greatly increased their prevalence among law enforcement officers and other security personnel.  In addition to their use in traditional applications, in many countries shields are purchased and pre-positioned for use by the facility security team or other first responders in the event of an active shooter incident.  They can be discreetly stored in a cabinet, box, or duffel bag in the lunchroom, copy room, front lobby, or other locations at the facility considered to be at risk, whether a courtroom, school, hospital, church, or office building.

In countries with active insurgencies, terrorist cells, and/or violent drug cartels, shields are being increasingly used by law enforcement and even military personnel during raids on suspected drug and bomb factories and other sites of illegal activity, where the first operator through the door may well be met with a full magazine of AK-47 fire.  In a few cases shields have been carried along jungle trails during patrols and search-and-destroy missions.

Civilians are also increasingly purchasing shields for their own personal protection.  A shield can be stored in the closet or under the bed and readied instantly in the event of a burglary or home invasion.  Unlike body armor, a shield can be rapidly and instinctively used by anyone in the family.  Even in areas where civilian ownership of firearms is legal, many families with children choose not to have any guns in the house, and purchase a shield to offset that disadvantage should they ever have to face an armed intruder.

The most recent trend in shields is the use of even smaller shields on the order of 8”x16” (20×40 cm) in size and weighing only 5-8 lbs (3-4 kg).  These compact shields are small enough to be stored in the front seat or passenger footwell of a patrol vehicle and are immediately accessible if needed.  Even if a pending law enforcement encounter seems like it will be peaceful, the little shield can be carried to the discussion with the person of interest without making the officer appear unnecessarily confrontational or defensive.  Yet in the event the officer is suddenly attacked he or she is not without substantial protection.  In particular a compact shield can be instinctively and rapidly employed to block surprise attacks by bladed or bludgeoning weapons.

Technologically, Dyneema™ and similarly UHMWPE polymers have mostly replaced Kevlar™ and other aramid fibers in resin-cast shields due to their better strength to weight ratio.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, a few shields of ballistic fiberglass are available which provide a much cheaper alternative to Dyneema™ at the cost of increased weight.  Similar to the evolution of body armor torso plates, some shields use a ceramic facing to enable them to resist armor-piercing projectiles which would otherwise slice through the fibers.  Some companies offer fully transparent shields of pure polycarbonate, like the large shields used by riot control officers but thick enough to stop bullets and small enough to still be of a reasonable weight. 

Lastly and perhaps surprisingly, steel has been a very successful material option for shields.  The spectacular performance of modern steels allows plates as thin as 2-3 mm to stop handgun bullets, and 4-5 mm to stop rifle bullets.  Since Dyneema™ shields require much greater thicknesses to provide equivalent protection, a modern steel shield is only modestly heavier than a ballistic fiber shield of the same size and protection level.  Furthermore a steel shield is a fraction of the cost of a ballistic fiber shield, and it has no shelf life and can be used indefinitely.  In comparison, Dyneema™ and other ballistic fiber shields degrade with time and need to be replaced every 5-10 years.  For an active shooter defense use where a shield may rest unused for years or decades. the shelf life of a product is a significant concern.

Whether large shields with windows meant for SWAT use, medium shields for general law enforcement, active shooter defense, or even civilian use, or compact shields meant for daily interactions, shields have evolved significantly over the last few decades and have rejoined helmets and body armor as essential items of personal protection.

Brett Cryer holds a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University and is Founder and President of Hardcore Defense LLC, a ballistic shield manufacturer in the United States.  Hardcore Defense offers a variety of medium and compact ballistic shields made from steel and steel/titanium laminates.  Learn more at www.hardcoredefense.com.

If you would like full details and pricing on any Hardcore Defense Ballistic Shields and Body Armor in the UK, please get in touch with Doug Sear, Director of Sales, Emergency Protection Limited via sales@emergencyprotection.co.uk or +44(0)7786040502.