Ballistic Shield Technologies
In Part One, we covered the characteristics and construction details of ballistic shields and reviewed general “best practices” for their use.
Emerging trends in ballistic shield development look like they’re soon going to lead to improved tactics and more widespread shield use. With that, there are a number of emerging shield technologies which are worth highlighting.
The first advance on the horizon is the most general and the most straightforward: New ballistic materials are enabling lighter body armor plates – and, by extension, lighter shields.
Advances in UHMWPE materials can now make for Level III body armor plates as light as 1.6 pounds for 10″ x 12″ – this translates directly to shield development and implies that, if everything is optimized and all fat is trimmed to the bone, the rifle-rated Level III shields of tomorrow could be very nearly as light as the handgun-rated Level IIIA shields of today. Similarly, advances in next gen ceramics and amorphous materials are beginning to facilitate armor rated for steel core rifle threats at a lower weight than is currently possible with the “legacy” ceramic materials. What’s absolutely certain is that shields are going to decrease in weight over the coming few years, at least on the high-end of the market, via the use of advanced new materials.
Another possible near future advance is in the development of new mounting systems for ballistic shields. The US Army has been researching a steadicam-style mounting system which they call “Third Arm” (3ARM). This was developed as a weapons platform “with the intention of reducing the physical demands of marksmanship. Specifically, 3ARM was designed to mitigate fatigue development associated with firing military weapon systems while also providing improved weapon stability and shooting performance.”
3ARM was evaluated by the military and that evaluation was released in a publicly available 2020 report titled, “Evaluation of a Prototype Body-Borne Weapon Mount System during Live Fire,” which is available via DTIC.mil. Ultimately, the prototype system was well received by the personnel tasked with evaluating it, but they commented that it makes it difficult to quickly drop into a prone firing position and that the Q-arm can potentially obscure the sight picture when the user is prone.
Ballistic shield operators, as a general rule, very rarely go prone. Prone ballistic shield use is practiced, but I’ve never heard of a dynamic situation when a shield operator had to drop into prone. Ballistic shields are also considerably heavier than most rifle systems. It should therefore be apparent that a 3ARM-style platform could reduce operator fatigue and increase performance with no obvious drawbacks. There may be further benefits in that the shield operator will be able to keep one hand or both hands free which could facilitate the use of an offensive weapon and would surely make reloading much easier. With reduced physical strain, user situational awareness, reaction time and mobility will improve.
Although the military’s evaluation did not mention the use of 3ARM as a shield-bearing platform, the system’s developers at the US Army Research Labs have publicly commented that it can be used to mount shields and they have already developed a custom mounting bracket for ballistic shields. So, it’s safe to say that the shields of tomorrow will not only be lighter, but may also benefit from improved ergonomic mounting hard points modeled after 3ARM.
Another shield support system was created several years ago in a joint effort between Baker Ballistics and Advanced Accuracy Solutions, LLC. “The Reaper™” is an exoskeleton device which enables a ballistic shield operator the ability to carry a heavy ballistic shield (such as Level IV), while maintaining mobility, and delivering accurate firepower from a long gun.
As mentioned in the tactics section of Part One, many ballistic shields feature ballistic viewports. These are small windows, made of a thick glass-polycarbonate or glass-acrylic laminate which are generally built to stop the same ballistic threats as the main body of the shield.
Transparent armor materials are not weight efficient and small ballistic shield viewports can be heavy. Take one example: A rifle-rated 24″ x 36″ shield with a viewport weighs 46 pounds. That same shield with the same ballistic rating, and in the same size (24″ x 36″), weighs 30 pounds without the viewport. In other words, that viewport is adding 16 pounds to the shield.
But, viewports are tactically useful and make it much safer to aim and engage targets from behind a shield. So, what can be done?
An answer is emerging and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it leans heavily on smartphone camera and screen technologies.
It’s possible to mount small, energy efficient cameras or sensors to the external surface of the shield. These can be of any type – NIR, UV, Vis, thermal, etc. – and can be used in any combination. The external cameras can connect to a tablet-type or phone-type LED screen on the inner surface of the shield, thus approximating, for all practical intents and purposes, a multispectrum window with enhanced functionality.
The benefits of such a strategy are obvious: You’re able to view through the shield and, if so equipped, are able to switch from, e.g., IR to visual at the push of a button. The screens and cameras also add no appreciable weight to the shield – in all, about half a pound or less. The drawback is that it can be difficult or impossible to aim “through” a simulated viewport composed of cameras and screens – it can be disorienting unless it’s set up perfectly and it’s much less intuitive than a viewport. Proper use shall doubtless require a great deal of practice on the part of the shield operator with a lot of trial and error surrounding camera placement and viewing angle.
The Shield Bearer of the Future Is a Robot
There are two trains of thought here: the very light and the very heavy.
Light autonomous armor has been conceptualized in a 2016 MIT paper titled, “Toward Ambient Armor: Can New Materials Change Longstanding Concepts of Projectile Protection?” The idea, in brief, is to mount very lightweight composite and fabric armor materials onto small aerial drones or autonomous ground vehicles. These small bots would move around and in front of the people they’re tasked with guarding, placing themselves along the expected trajectories of incoming threats. This, termed “ambient armor,” could be extraordinarily useful. Do you need to turn a dangerous corner? A drone with a Kevlar® curtain will fly in front to both conceal your presence and disrupt or destabilize incoming threats. Is there suspicious roadside debris? Small drones with UHMWPE-polyurea panels will screen it as you pass.
A particularly interesting characteristic of these systems, and something that hasn’t been lost on the people who first conceptualized them, is that armor deformation simply doesn’t matter if the standoff between the armor and the projectile’s target is large enough. There’s no need to set backface deformation limits. What’s more, projectiles don’t need to be stopped cold, as it may be enough to destabilize them or increase their drag coefficient.
So, by that token, the number of potential ambient armor materials is much broader than the small palette of traditional armor materials used in shield construction. Aramid felt – a lightweight, very soft, fleece-like fabric – appears to be particularly effective as a large standoff barrier material. And, of course, lightweight nanomaterial composites which are not yet feasible have been the research focus of ambient armor designers on account of their potential for incredible performance.
With all of that said, the other way to make a drone-mounted shield is to improvise on current trolley-mounted heavy shields/barriers. Already, the heaviest ballistic shields have wheels and are pushed into conflict situations. It’s very simple to imagine, with off-the-shelf technologies and tools, that these wheeled barriers can function much as drones do – via simple controls or even autonomously.
Before they were acquired by Textron 2019, Howe and Howe Technologies had developed armored “SWAT Bots” as an unmanned ballistic shield solution. The SWAT Bot was extremely large and heavy and seems to have been deployed only a handful of times. It’s highly plausible that similar technologies, likely streamlined and with a reduced noise and signature profile to facilitate their use indoors, will emerge over the next few years.
The first ballistic shields were flat rectangles. Up to the early 2000s, shields which weren’t flat rectangles were rare. Today, the flat rectangle is far less common and curved shields with cutouts and other design advances are increasing. As methods of shaping and molding UHMWPE composite materials advance, shield design will eventually converge on a small number of optimal forms.
Some would argue that the shield had already been ergonomically “optimized” by the bygone generations of men who fought with them and that new materials and technologies will simply enable shield designers to take more inspiration from the shield designs of the past.
The buckler, for instance, was a small handheld shield extremely popular throughout the medieval and renaissance periods. Bucklers were designed to be used with arms outstretched and were very light and mobile. Adept Armor is building a ballistic buckler designed to be held away from the body. As such, it can protect a significantly larger area than its size would otherwise indicate. Though just 12.2″ in diameter, if held properly at arm’s length, it should offer a much larger area of protection than most armor plates or vests and would protect areas which are typically unarmored, like the neck and face.
Interlocking shields modeled after early shield walls are another possibility which could make for modular barriers.
The shield will continue to evolve in materials – there’s considerable room for improvement with current ballistic materials – and it’s a fair assumption that shields will keep getting lighter and more capable with time, indefinitely. But, there are only a handful of ideal shield forms, even in principle, and current materials and processing techniques are allowing them to come to light. Between advances in materials, mounting platforms, optics, robotics, and human factors optimization, the future of the ballistic shield is very bright.
Jake Ganor is a materials scientist, armor engineer and a designer of ballistic shields. His company, Adept Armor (www.ade.pt), is pioneering next generation armor systems. His book, Body Armor and Light Ballistic Armor Materials and Systems is now available on Amazon.