Although this column will appear sometime in March, the editorial lead time necessitated its writing on the heels of the Christmas season. As such, I had occasion recently to sit down for my annual viewing of the movie "A Christmas Story."
"I want an official Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle!" the movie's protagonist proclaims to all who will listen. The resounding response "No . . . you'll shoot your eye out!" has become the battle cry of concerned mothers everywhere.
Projectile-based military and law enforcement training is the modern equivalent of the BB-gun war. Aside from conventional paintballs and marking cartridges, Airsoft guns now replicate the dimension and function of operational weapons. They have all but replaced the BB gun in today's adolescent arsenal, but even with the change from copper BBs to plastic Airsoft projectiles, these tools can still seriously damage or destroy the eye. The fact remains that any form of projectile-based training is dangerous unless the trainees employ the correct protective equipment.
This article will address the protective-equipment basics for training involving projectiles. The protective-gear field is crowded and discussing all the gear available for all types of training would require more room than space allows, so I will focus primarily on eye/head protection. First, though, a few words on basic, overall protective gear.
How Much Protection?
At a bare minimum, training participants (those taking an active role in a scenario) should wear throat protection, groin protection and gloves in addition to face protection. And beyond the basic protective gear, it's a good idea to cover any exposed flesh with a tight-weave garment.
A lot of agencies and organizations use less gear than this for training, especially those that use Airsoft for force-on-force training. This is one of the fallacies proffered by many sellers of Airsoft equipment, often as a means of selling the "benefits" of Airsoft over cartridge-based technologies. "You don't need as much protective equipment," I've heard some in the industry say. I strongly disagree I think this line of rationalization is dangerous. Airsoft projectiles travel upwards of 400 feet per second (fps), and you can adjust the air pressure on some weapon patterns to achieve even higher velocities. The projectiles are solid plastic and can penetrate soda cans.
Also, Airsoft is an evolutionary technology still in its infancy and likely to change. New manufacturers enter the realm on an annual basis. New weapon patterns emerge as firing systems/reliability continue to ruggedize and improve. Velocities are limited only by design considerations that had, until recently, been driven by the recreational/gaming community. Now that the military and law enforcement have started seriously looking at Airsoft as a viable training technology, it's only a matter of time before some manufacturer gets talked into producing higher and higher velocities for unconventional purposes. Then what? If the norm for protective gear was established for lower-velocity projectiles, the consequences could prove dire for some hapless schlub who believes all Airsoft is created equal.
The standard for projectile-based force-on-force training should be basic and universal. Face, throat, groin, gloves if you see skin, cover it up. All projectile-based systems can break skin, cause serious welts and bruises, and produce serious swelling that could prove life-threatening near the airway. Airsoft is on the threshold of this trauma potential, and I believe we should err on the side of caution.
A lot of the protective gear sold by the manufacturers e.g., pants, shoulder covers, body covers, etc. are largely a waste of money. Too much padding might even actually reduce much of the training value possible using projectile-based technologies. However, while you can take a Spartan approach with much of the excess protective gear, do not skimp on the basics. When you find yourself at the financial crossroads thinking, "I only have enough money to get a couple of conversion kits, Airsoft guns, training guns, etc., and I've got a couple of old paintball masks kicking around, so that'll have to do for now," just remember, it's dangerous to skimp on basic safety gear. Buying it is part of the admission price to this training realm. If you can afford training weapons but not protective gear, you can't afford to do this type of training yet.
Entering into projectile-based training obliges an agency to provide participants with proper protective equipment. It also means you must provide knowledgeable and qualified instructors specially trained in the complexities of safe and effective reality based training (RBT). Properly trained instructors help to reduce some of the potential dangers proper protective gear is merely an extension of proper safety protocols.
I have seen some training projectiles induce injuries and scarring that, in some legal circles, could fall into the pricey "permanent disfigurement" category. As such, the prudent risk manager will ensure the use of adequate protective equipment for RBT.
Enough caveats, onto the gear. Clearly, head protection remains the most important piece of equipment. Avoid the temptation to use only eye protection. Full-face gear is mandatory for any active participant (student or role player) when projectiles are involved. Training staff can get away with only eye protection if the scenario is tightly scripted and the role players are properly trained. If that's the case, training staff (who typically should stand behind and close to the student) should be able to avoid any errant shots fired by the role player.
Some of the available head protection is better than others, but all have limitations. Some of the main limitations of protective headgear include:
- Reduction in line of vision (i.e., up, down and/or peripheral);
- Muffled sound, which affects hearing and speaking; and
- Obscured facial expressions/facial recognition.
Because of these limitations, some trainers are tempted to use less protection. Some have even used full-face clear visors, or flip-up face shields on helmets. While these appear to be good choices, anything currently on the market with a full or partial face visor has proven hazardous under field conditions, and all methods of attempting to reduce the amount of facial protection suggested have both proven dangerous and resulted in serious injuries.
You can overcome or at least reduce some of the limitations listed above. First, try purchasing properly fog-proofed helmets. If, however, a mask fogs up, never permit a participant to lift the mask in an effort to wipe the fog while a scenario is in progress people have lost their eyesight as a result of this dangerous behavior. Limit the heat problem by choosing a venue that can lessen student exposure to heat, or otherwise limit the amount of time participants remain in the gear. As for facial recognition, well, that's just one of the casualties of this type of training.
Some limitations can actually benefit training. To a certain extent (if the helmet isn't a complete echo chamber) the reduction in the ability to hear and be heard necessitates the use of short, clear commands. The reduction in the ability to see up, down or side-to-side requires students to turn their heads and look around, which simulates the visual narrowing that can occur during a high-stress event. For gloves, the reduction in tactility will simulate the fumble-fingers officers often experience in stressful conditions.
One hidden hazard: Some of the helmets I've seen do not have a complete eye seal to eliminate the possibility a projectile could enter the eye area at an oblique angle. Such helmets could allow a phenomenon called "rear-entry ricochet" to occur, in which a projectile enters from behind, hits the inside of the visor and ricochets into the wearer's eye. If participants can't purchase head protection with a complete eye seal, training staff must be extremely aware of the potential firing angles during a gunfight and be prepared to stop a scenario if the possibility exists the firing angles could jeopardize the integrity of the head protection.
Although there is an increasing number of protective gear manufacturers, there are two major sources with a third just now entering the arena. SIMUNITION has a complete line of protective gear. While the company's gloves, throat protection and new groin protector are quite good, its FX 8000 helmet leaves much to be desired, and I refuse to allow people to use it in my training.
PDT Technologies, the other major supplier of protective gear, was recently acquired by ATK, the owner of Federal Cartridge/Speer/CCI, so it is sure to remain a large player in this market. The PDT helmet is currently my personal favorite and the main helmet I use in my training. PDT's throat protector is probably the best on the market, and the company has some new gloves that are excellent.
The third company, a Canadian firm called Vision2, has a new mask out that actually mates with a ballistic helmet, filling a gap in the protective gear market. For special operations and military units, it's the best mask currently available if you wear a ballistic helmet in conjunction with the mask because it was specifically designed for that purpose.
Whichever mask you choose, make sure you cover any gaps that might allow projectile penetration. To that end, if you use any of the DT suits available from companies such as FIST, Red Man or Blauer Tactical Systems, you must follow their guidelines for projectile-based training to ensure you properly install any additional components necessary for this type of training.
If the headgear you choose does not have full head protection, give some thought to providing at least some measure of protection against projectile impact. PDT, for instance, makes a padded hood that works nicely and fits well with most half-head protective masks that evolved from the recreational paint-ball community.
Regarding conventional paintball masks, I must address the velocity limitation placed on virtually all masks on the market. Most paintball masks come with a label that restricts the permissible velocity of a conventional .68-caliber paintball to 300fps or slightly above. Impact energy is a function of the square of an object's velocity: energy = mass x velocity2. Therefore, it's safe to say the impact energy of any of the currently available marking cartridges, paintballs or Airsoft projectiles all of which measure .40-caliber or below is less than that of a .68-caliber paintball. Now, a .223 .40-caliber training projectile exerts its energy over smaller surface area than a .68-caliber paintball, and that factors into the impact-resistance equation, but extensive testing has shown that a mask rated for a .68-caliber paintball can handle our training projectiles if the mask remains in serviceable condition.
Cleaning & Maintenance
Cleaning and maintaining eye shields is a whole other issue. Some popular cleaning products (as well as much of the inert chemical agents available) can destroy polycarbonate lenses.
All in all, trainers entering the world of projectile-based training appear to have many head-gear choices many of them dangerous but not obviously so. It's a complex question that unfortunately looks as though it has an easy answer. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to contact me it's just that important. But if you choose to go it alone, make sure you do the research and test, test, test before putting your equipment into action. Vision is an amazing gift, and a hell of a thing to lose foolishly.
Until next time, train hard and train safe.