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Getting America's Best?
DefenseWatch | Nathaniel R. Helms | October 19, 2005

See NIJ Ballistic Standards at bottom of story.

bodyarmorIt is good enough body armor that nine American generals in Afghanistan are wearing it in place of the standard "Interceptor OTV" armor issued to the troops they command. It offers such great protection that the U.S. Secret Service agents guarding the President of the United States wear it, and it is good enough that a civilian contractor in Iraq was shot eight times in the torso at close range and survived without even suffering soft tissue trauma. But the same armor, already in mass production, is apparently too expensive to provide to the men and women fighting and dying in the Global War on Terror (GWOT) every day.

The armor is called Dragon Skin and there is nothing particularly new about it. Dragon Skin has been made since 1997 by Pinnacle Armor, a small Fresno, California company with 30 employees. It is called Dragon Skin because it is manufactured from small overlapping armor plates that lay atop each other like ancient chain mail, explained Pinnacle spokesman Paul Chopra, "or like fish scales, but my boss didn't think it sounded too sexy calling it "Fish Skin."

Regardless of what it is called every military service, many federal police agencies, local police departments, and the U.S. Army's ballistic testing facility at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland have purchased small quantities of the unique armor. Among its owners and users it has a sterling reputation, numerous sources told DefenseWatch.

Outside the government parents, spouses and church groups who heard about its superior qualities through word-of-mouth are also purchasing the high-tech chain mail for their knights going in harm's way. Chopra said Pinnacle has privately sold hundreds of the armored vests and ancillary equipment to service members. Despite the well known qualities of Dragon Skin, in 1999 the Department of Defense inexplicably chose the Interceptor armor for the Armed Forces two year after Dragon Skin became available on the open market.

The crux of the issue Dragon Skin presents is discovering the measure the Department of Defense used to decide why the merely good Interceptor OTV armor was good enough for America's warriors when the best body armor has been available for purchase since the Global War on Terror began. So far the Department of Defense has declined to respond to numerous DefenseWatch requests to answer the question.

Pinnacle Armor representative Charlene Chessum said part of the reason Dragon Skin is not being issued to every service member going into battle is overcoming the inertia endemic in huge institutions like the military, and in part because of the laws of economies of scale say that the more product  a manufacturer can make,  the cheaper a product is to produce. 

When it comes to body armor the Department of Defense apparently looks more at cost than quality.

bodyarmorL., Dragon Skin Body Armor. Photo: Pinnacle Armor

A complete suit of Dragon Skin armor, at more than $5,000 per copy, currently costs about five times as much as Interceptor OTV body armor being issued to the troops. Inceptor armor is primarily produced by two giant companies, Armor Holdings Corporation, the current darling of the Defense Department that has more government contracts than a junk yard dog has fleas, and Point Blank Body Armor, the flagship company of DHB Industries that is currently in the dog house. They can both afford to make it cheap.

Several armor experts, who design, manufacture and sell body armor to individuals and police agencies said that size, cost, and accessibility is what drives the Pentagon's decision on what to buy and whom to buy it from. The same explanation begs the question of how much the lives of America's fighting men and women are worth, they said. Granted, Dragon Skin does have a hefty price tag, but it also save lives, they unanimously agreed.

The basic Dragon Skin vest for torso protection costs about $2,000 and the entire getup, which includes a protective collar, optional  lightweight SAPI plates, an optional weight bearing rig, backpack plates, and an armored, take-it-with-you anywhere protective blanket, can run an individual more than $5,000. The basic Interceptor body armor issued to American troops costs about $1,100, although the wearer receives far less protection, ballistics information provided by both the manufacturers and the U.S. Army showed. According to the statistics provided by Pinnacle, in Army-supervised ballistics tests Dragon Skin's protective qualities "far exceeded" anything available anywhere else, Chessum said.

Unfortunately, the Army decided to classify its specific findings recorded in ballistics tests recently concluded by the US Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Aberdeen, Maryland on Pinnacle's Level IV body armor system except to say it "surpassed all current industry standards" and "set standards" leading to a "classified protocol," according to the Army.

Fortunately David Crane, a military defense industry analyst and the editor-in-chief of, got to check out Dragon Skin before its superior qualities became a national secret. He called Dragon Skin the "future of armor" in an article he wrote called Body Armor Times 10:  Pinnacle's Innovative, Flexible Body Armor  

In it Crane said, 

"Understand, again, that we're talking about a unique and superior version of level IV body armor/ballistic protection, not your conventional, run-of-the-mill NIJ [National Institute of Justice] level IV SAPI protection. Pinnacle Armor's unique Level IV "+" flexible ceramic hard armor will successfully take many more hits than conventional/standard NIJ Level IV SAPI plates, and provides coverage over a much greater surface area. In other words, it provides for more complete torso coverage, all the way up to total coverage." 

bodyarmorL., Ceramic Stopper: Section of SOV-1000/Dragon Skin disc/panel with M80 ball round stuck in it. M80 ball is a Level IV ballistic threat, and Pinnacle's SOV-1000 Level III "+" system has stopped it. Backface Deformation Signature is only 9mm (just over 5/16"). Photo: Pinnacle Armor

Crane also discovered that Pinnacle's titanium composite and ceramic composite flexible hard armor system ballistic vests are "significantly superior, ballistically and durability-wise" to the Interceptor's inflexible, conventional ceramic hard armor plates. Army scientists at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center-Natick, in Natick, Mass, where Interceptor body armor was created, are currently dealing with breakage problems with the Interceptor's ceramic armor plates including unconfirmed reports that up to 60 percent of its hard armor sent to the field has broken when its gets slammed around, a source close to the situation said.

Breakage is never a problem with the Pinnacle products because its SAPI plates are a very durable composite material and so-called "soft" Dragon Skin armor consists of silver dollar-sized circular ballistic ceramic or titanium discs that are configured like fish scales, explained Chopra, a tireless Dragon Skin promoter and a retired Army CW4 who flew choppers for 21 years in the famed 160th "Nightstalkers" Aviation Brigade.

"If somebody needs complete front, rear, and side protection over the entire area of the vest, we can provide it," he said. "Any combination or configuration is possible."

bodyarmorR., The future of armor: Pinnacle Armor Inc. SOV-1000 Level III "scalar" body armor shot with multiple 7.62x51mm M80 ball steel-jacketed rounds at 2850-2900 fps, at a distance of 15ft (muzzle to body armor). The rounds were all successfully stopped with minimal backface deformation signature. Photo: Pinnacle Armor

In the simplest terms it means the wearer's entire upper torso, including the neck area, can be protected by body armor superior to any Level III and Level IV body armor made in the world. Ballistics tests made on a standard vest showed it capable of defeating most common military ammunition and many of the armor piercing and super hot specialty rounds including the super-hot 7.62 x 63 mm 166 GR, M2 AP slamming into it at an incredible 2850 ft per second. Inceptor OTV body armor cannot claim that distinction, Chopra said.

Crane agreed, calling Dragon Skin "simply the best armor out there right now for our guys. That being the case, he added, "Pinnacle has a technology that can better keep our guys alive. End of story."

The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. An operator working for a private security contractor dressed in Dragon Skin survived a firefight he claims he would have died in wearing any other armor. In a June 24, 2005 letter to Pinnacle provided to DefenseWatch, he said,

"... we were involved in a IED (improvised explosive device) attack and small arms fire on  (deleted)  2005.

After the contact, when I removed my tactical vest, I saw that I had taken hits in the back of my vest. They were 7.62x39mm (AK-47) and they were inches apart. I was hit in the back (and we checked, if I was wearing any other body armor, I would not be writing this to you), as it were both low hits (below the typical 10"x12" plate coverage). In terms of bruising, nothing whatsoever. I did not even KNOW that I was hit twice until I took off my tactical vest (this was after about 2 hours after the contact) and saw the damage. It was only then that we took a close look at my body armor that we realized I was hit twice by an AK-47. I had another ricochet hit around the top end of my back that may have caused serious injury to my lower neck."

Perhaps testimonials like the operator's letter - Pinnacle has received many - is why nine American general officers bought Pinnacle armor on July 5 2005 to "evaluate" it during their tours in Afghanistan.

"They are trying to find out just how good Dragon Skin really is," Chopra said.

On October 5 Pinnacle announced it had received a $4.7 million federal contract to provide the US Air Force and "other federal agencies" more of its body forming, virtually impenetrable product. Dragon Skin can be wrapped around a basketball, its manufacturer says. The most notable of the federal agencies included in the modest contract was the US Secret Service, which guards the President. Even before it was official issue several of the President's men were already wearing it, an industry expert said.

While $4.7 million is a princely sum to most folks it is a pittance compared to the money being paid to body armor giant Armor Holdings, Inc. by the Department of Defense. This year Army Armor Holdings received nine contracts to make Level III and Level IIIA capable Interceptor OTV body armor, associated accessories and helmets including: 

·Sep 20, 2005 - $17 Million Order for Individual Body Armor Outer Tactical Vests

·Aug 31, 2005 - $17.4 Million Order for Individual Soldier Load Carrying Equipment

·Aug 25, 2005 - $291 Million ID/IQ Contract By U.S. Army For Advanced Combat Helmet

·Aug 08, 2005 - $14.4 Million Order for Ceramic Body Armor Inserts

·Jul 13, 2005 - Armor Holdings, Inc. Selected As Exclusive Provider To Replace Up To 156,000 Vests Manufactured By Second Chance Body Armor

·Jul 05, 2005 - $45.2 Million Order for U.S. Army Ceramic Body Armor Inserts

·Apr 14, 2005 - Receives Awards Totaling $11.4 Million for Individual Soldier Load Carrying Equipment and Helmets

·Apr 04, 2005 - Armor Holdings, Inc. Awarded $16 Million for Individual Body Armor Outer Tactical Vests

·Mar 01, 2005 - Awarded an Incremental $31 Million for U.S. Army Body Armor Inserts

Armor Holdings took its lead from Point Blank Body Armor, which also manufactures the Interceptor OTV armor. Point Blank operates three factories in Broward County, FL and is currently the largest supplier of body armor to the U.S. government until its contracts run out.

In 1999, Point Blank was the weak daughter of parent company DHB Industries that lost $22.3 million on $35.1 million in revenue. Things were only marginally better the next year and then 9/11 happened. Subsequently DHB/Point Blank's profits soared. In 2001 and 2002 a Department of Defense desperately seeking to fill body armor shortages provided the Florida-based company contracts that boosted its profits to $10.1 million and $16 million respectively on a combined $228.3 million in revenue, according to industry sources.

It was too bad for Point Blank that its armor wasn't completely bullet proof. Soon after the company received another $9.2 million contract in 2002 to produce body armor for Army engineers charged with disposing of landmines a labor dispute erupted that landed Point Blank in a Florida Federal Court. Evidence and testimony offered during the dispute revealed the company was allegedly putting profits before quality.

Attorneys for the labor union involved (UNITA) in the dispute submitted 150 pages of evidence that alleged quality problems with Point Blank's body armor. Among the documents were Department of Defense reports from American soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The DOD documents showed 43 percent of soldiers in Operation Enduring Freedom complained that Point Blank's body armor "hindered their mobility,"  court records show.

As early as July 19, 2004, according to memos originally obtained by the Army Times newspaper, the Marine Corps found "major quality assurance deficiencies within Point Blank." One month later, on August 24, 2004, the military rejected two orders from Point Blank after tests revealed that the vests did not meet safety requirements.

Faced with a severe shortage of body armor the Army decided that nine Point Blank orders that did not meet safety requirements would be sent to troops overseas anyway, according to the court records. On May 3, 2005 Point Blank hired retired four-star Army Gen. Larry Ellis to lead the beleaguered company. On May 4, 2005, the U.S. Marine Corps recalled 5,277 Interceptor vests manufactured by Point Blank Body Armor. On July 20 Point Blank received an additional $10.1 million contract from the U.S. government.

"It is always about money or politics," Crane said.

Meanwhile America's warrior fight on, facing death every day wearing clearly inferior body armor when the best is only dollars away.

In Part II DefenseWatch explores what "the best there is" really means, including protection levels, materials, and how such things as cost, political connections, and cronyism affect an American warrior's ability to survive on the modern battlefield.

DefenseWatch Editor Nathaniel R. "Nat" Helms is a Vietnam veteran, former police officer, long-time journalist and war correspondent living in Missouri. He is the author of two books, Numba One – Numba Ten and Journey Into Madness: A Hitchhiker's Account of the Bosnian Civil War, both available at He can be reached at Send Feedback responses to­


National Institute Of Justice Body Armor Standards– >click to download .PDF

The classification of an armor panel that provides two or more levels of NIJ ballistic protection at different locations on the ballistic panel shall be that of the minimum ballistic protection provided at any location on the panel.

Type I (22 LR; 380 ACP)
This armor protects against .22 caliber Long Rifle Lead Round Nose (LR LRN) bullets, with nominal masses of 2.6 g (40 gr) impacting at a minimum velocity of 320 m/s (1050 ft/s) or less, and 380 ACP Full Metal Jacketed Round Nose (FMJ RN) bullets, with nominal masses of 6.2 g (95 gr) impacting at a minimum velocity of 312 m/s (1025 ft/s) or less.

Type IIA (9 mm; 40 S&W)
This armor protects against 9 mm Full Metal Jacketed Round Nose (FMJ RN) bullets, with nominal masses of 8.0 g (124 gr) impacting at a minimum velocity of 332 m/s (1090 ft/s) or less, and 40 S&W caliber Full Metal Jacketed (FMJ) bullets, with nominal masses of 11.7 g (180 gr) impacting at a minimum velocity of 312 m/s (1025 ft/s) or less. It also provides protection against the threats mentioned in section 2.1.

Type II (9 mm; 357 Magnum)
This armor protects against 9 mm Full Metal Jacketed Round Nose (FMJ RN) bullets, with nominal masses of 8.0 g (124 gr) impacting at a minimum velocity of 358 m/s (1175 ft/s) or less, and 357 Magnum Jacketed Soft Point (JSP) bullets, with nominal masses of 10.2 g (158 gr) impacting at a minimum velocity of 427 m/s (1400 ft/s) or less. It also provides protection against the threats mentioned in sections 2.1 and 2.2.

Type IIIA (High Velocity 9 mm; 44 Magnum)
This armor protects against 9 mm Full Metal Jacketed Round Nose (FMJ RN) bullets, with nominal masses of 8.0 g (124 gr) impacting at a minimum velocity of 427 m/s (1400 ft/s) or less, and 44 Magnum Semi Jacketed Hollow Point (SJHP) bullets, with nominal masses of 15.6 g (240 gr) impacting at a minimum velocity of 427 m/s (1400 ft/s) or less. It also provides protection against most handgun threats, as well as the threats mentioned in sections 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3.

Type III (Rifles)
This armor protects against 7.62 mm Full Metal Jacketed (FMJ) bullets (U.S. Military designation M80), with nominal masses of 9.6 g (148 gr) impacting at a minimum velocity of 838 m/s (2750 ft/s) or less. It also provides protection against the threats mentioned in sections 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, and 2.4.

Type IV (Armor Piercing Rifle)
This armor protects against .30 caliber armor piercing (AP) bullets (U.S. Military designation M2 AP), with nominal masses of 10.8 g (166 gr) impacting at a minimum velocity of 869 m/s (2850 ft/s) or less. It also provides at least single hit protection against the threats mentioned in sections 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, and 2.5.

U.S. Army - Level V

7.62 x 54R mm 187 GR, steel case, armor piercing incendiary BS40 - Classified

7.62 x 51 mm GR, M948 - Classified

7.62 x 51 mm 126.5 GR, M993 - Classified

5.56 x 45 mm 52.5 GR, M995 - Classified

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