This article will inform the ballistic-shield operator how to safely and effectively deploy a shield. But first, a caveat: The tactical element is responsible for effective and safe tactical decision-making. The shield should not dictate your tactics. The shield is a tool. An option. You and your situation, balanced against the totality of your circumstances, determine the tactics.
The shield may offer a tactical advantage. If it does, and if the tactical element decides to deploy the shield, then and only then will the 10 shield factors you must wear, bring, take, think, decide or perform whenever you deploy a ballistic shield come into play.
These factors include:
1. Soft body armor;
2. Ballistic helmet, eye/face protection and leg armor;
6. Shield retention;
7. A plan;
8. Physical fitness;
9. Attitude; and
10. A mission-specific shield.
Soft Body Armor
Never deploy a ballistic shield without wearing body armor to protect yourself from ballistic threats directed from areas not protected by the shield, ricochets and in case you are permanently or temporarily separated from your shield.
Most ballistic-shield deployments are carried out in tactical-type missions, so wear tactical style and model body armor. Wear armor meeting at least the National Institute of Justice s Threat Level IIIA protection level, and match the armor s minimum protection level with that of the shield itself. Specify side, upper arm and full waist protection in an over-the-clothing tactical vest.
Ballistic Helmet, Eye/Face Protection & Leg Armor
Five main purposes exist for wearing a ballistic helmet with optional eye and face protection. First, it protects against elevated ballistic threats or ballistic threats directed from areas other than those faced by the shield (such as through the floor or ceiling).
Second, ballistic head protection protects a shield operator when they inadvertently or mistakenly lower the crown of the shield, thus exposing the top of their head to a facing threat. Such situations can occur when fatigue sets in or when threats are not immediately visible to the operator, such as when a suspect, unseen by the shield operator, discharges a firearm through a door.
Third, the helmet protects the head from hard, sudden contact with the shield s backface or edge. Close proximity with aggressive or hostile subjects may result in an unwanted or unexpected shield strike to an operator, as can rapid advance through narrow openings in which the shield may suddenly stop while the forward motion of the operator does not. Unhelmeted operators will likely incur serious injury to their head in such situations some will require sutures.
Fourth, the forward portion of the helmet can serve as an ideal weld point or landing area for the interior crown of the shield. The operator pulls the shield in tight to the helmet, thus stabilizing bunker-type shields while also allowing their weaponed hand to enjoy fuller distance away from the shield s strikeface, minimizing pistol-slide stoppage. Eye protection is, of course, desirable in any tactical setting, and ballistic eye/face protection is even more desirable, depending upon the mission.
And fifth, with a Batshield or bunker-type shields not equipped with transparent view ports, or perhaps in tactical operations in which the shield operator desires the expanded field of vision offered by a ballistic face visor, the ballistic helmet and face shield is a requirement.
Leg armor remains one of the most neglected and overlooked considerations in shield deployment. Trauma to the leg(s) can bring down a shield operator quite rapidly, regardless of whether the trauma sustained comes from a ballistic strike or from hard contact with obstacles, kicks, blows or other unforeseen events.
The shin area, where the bone surface is not only located at the leading edge of the lower leg but just under the skin, is vulnerable to injury. Many teams utilize non-ballistic, sporting-type lower leg protection. These devices are fine for protecting the shin from an inadvertent encounter with a heavy coffee table, but they will not stop bullets.
Several body armor manufacturers offer various types of ballistic shin guards, and while a shield-needs discussion need not promote any particular style, product or brand, the shield operator should nonetheless consider the importance of ballistic protection to their lower legs. Adapting out-of-service vest armor is one rather inexpensive way of protecting the lower leg, but I would strongly urge the insertion of soccer-type plastic and foam inserts inside the sock before strapping on the ballistic panels. This is an easy, low-cost way to protect your lower legs from either bullets or blunt trauma.
The shield operator must consider which accessories to deploy along with the ballistic hand shield to maximize tactical efficiency and minimize loss of protection when knowingly entering into a high-risk environment while either limited to the use of one hand for firearm manipulation or some other tactical function. I've listed some suggested accessories below, but the individual shield operator, in coordination with the team, must decide which accessories are best suited to a particular mission:
- Door wedges/wooden or rubber chocks;
- Rear-view, automotive, stick-on type mirrors affixed to the shield s backface to allow the operator to detect/observe movement from the rear;
- A length of utility rope, webbing or line;
- Tactical slings/tethers and/or quick-release devices;
- Extra magazine pouch(es), both strong and support-side accessible;
- A backup handgun (support-side accessible for bunker-type shield operators);
- A support-side holster/weapon rig with support-side reload capability for bunker operators;
- Extra carabiners;
- A snap-ring lanyard; and
- Rubber shield-lip edge guards for bunkers for more effective pistol-slide activation.
An absolute shield need. You can purchase various types, sizes, weights and levels of intensity on the retail market, get them installed as OEM on manufactured shields or have them self-fabricated by talented, resourceful, professional users.
In the early days of shield development, and to an extent in today s deployment of rifle-threat bunkers and in situations where operators must use both hands to deploy the shield, a light-bearing agent or team member may opt to deploy a light source independently from a position behind the shield. One drawback of this technique: Lights shined from behind transparent view ports tend to produce a non-transparent glare on the inside surface of the lens (this can also occur in direct sunlight).
Generally speaking, teams should evaluate the following features or functions when considering the various options for delivering a source of light in conjunction with the ballistic shield:
- Brightness and focus or dispersion patterns;
- Weight and size;
- Battery run time, rechargeable vs. replaceable batteries, and battery weight. Some shield systems offer belt-mounted power supplies to reduce shield weight the obvious disadvantage is a wire connection from the operator to the shield;
- Light location. Shield edge or top-mounted flashlight systems prove quite effective and extremely light. One drawback: From an adversary s perspective in an otherwise dark environment, the light provides a focus of aim, potentially drawing gunfire over the top of the shield or around a side or lip, which can endanger backup personnel stacked behind a bunker, especially if the operator suddenly drops in profile while under fire. You can reduce this disadvantage by mounting lights closer to the central mass of the shield s strike face to gain a wider radius of safety;
- Integrated light systems. Some shield manufacturers offer extremely bright light systems integrated into the shield, including the power supply and recharging capability. Such systems provide optimal illumination and distraction effects, but they can weigh a lot;
- Lighted weapon systems, which don t weigh down the shield and may offer more rapid target acquisition in certain tactical situations; and
- A combination system. Combining a streamlined, durable, dependable, lightweight, centrally mounted shield-mounted light system with a weapon-mounted light option is the ideal.
Note: Another potential problem with shield-mounted lighting systems is a tendency on the part of operators to use the shield as if it were a flashlight, directing the shield away from a potential threat in order to illuminate some other area, possibly exposing the team.
Accurate, timely, efficient and complete communication remains the true essence of safety and success in all tactical operations, and with shields, good communication is even more imperative. First, shield operators hands and arms are preoccupied when deploying the shield and the weapon, which significantly impairs the use of non-verbal hand/arm signals and the ability to work a radio. Additionally, voice commands may be muffled or distorted when given from the interior space behind the shield, which in effect becomes a sound barrier. And because most shields are opaque, operators or team members may not be fully visible to their tactical cohorts.
Certainly volumes could be written and endless illustrations developed on shield communications; here s a brief list of basic communications needs:
Body contact, the first dimension of communication because teams typically stack behind the bunker;
Radio communications, including state-of-the-art headsets and mike/key features;
Non-verbal signal systems, such as the hand pat, the finger count, the abbreviated leg squat, the hand squeeze, etc.; and
Coordinated, shield-specific terminology. These terms should be brief, simple and highly practiced everybody must speak and understand the same language.
Operators must develop a state of mind that ensures the team s ballistic protection does not inadvertently get transferred to the adversary. Unfortunately, there are real-world incidents in which the suspect has gained control of the shield. The real world, however, is quite unpredictable, and the need to dispose of ballistic protective equipment in certain emergency situations can be an essential tactic.
In other words, if the situation calls for dumping the shield, have a strategy for that possibility going in. Make every effort to dispose of the shield in an area your opponent is least able to access. If you must discard the shield, consider using it as a form of bait to lure a hostile subject out into the open or to a more tactically favorable location. Generally speaking, ballistic protection should not be on the table for trading, bargaining or donating to an adversary during standoffs or hostage-barricade situations.
Perhaps second only to communication in importance, planning or the lack of it can determine the success or failure of any mission. Have a plan even a minimal one is better than none.
- Set up a mock entry drill in a duplicate, remote location;
- Do a walk-through of a similarly structured environment;
- Always familiarize raid members with each other, especially when undercover operators may be present, or when different agencies or elements operate the same mission jointly;
- Consider perimeter control. Examples: Notify routine patrol units, place ballistic blankets, cover escape routes, etc.;
- Determine the optimum shield for the mission. Slow and controlled may require bigger, greater-coverage type shields (e.g., bunkers), while more rapid deployment may benefit from lighter, more dynamic shields (e.g., the Batshield); and
- Long-term planning should include frequent and repetitious firearms drills with shields, including both primary and backup personnel.
Operators must develop muscularity specific to the mission of shield deployment. Areas of the body where strength and conditioning are most relevant to shield operation include the hands, wrists and forearms; the upper arms and shoulders; and upper leg muscles.
Operators should not perceive a shield as an encumbrance; the ballistic shield should be controlled, dominated, deployed, managed and effectively directed toward your primary angle of threat.
Furthermore, a shield operator has multiple priorities. While body armor protects the individual, the ballistic shield protects an entire stick, fan, wedge or other configuration of the advancing element. If a bullet strikes a number two or other backup person, a post-incident critique could easily ask, Why was the injured party not protected by the shield? And while the cause may not be negligence, the issue is valid due to the expectation that the shield protects the column or the raiding party.
The success or the failure of a mission is often laid directly at the feet of the team leader or the agency itself. There have been some very public active-shooter incidents in recent years in which multiple homicides proceeded unimpeded and where tactical elements were all but blamed. Those of us who have spent decades in the business might know differently, but published accounts and public opinion can be brutal, and right, wrong or indifferent, tactical operators of most stripes will agree that we signed on for success at every mission, no matter its sometimes impossibility.
So, in shield work, we proceed along three elevated priorities:
1. Individual safety;
2. Team safety; and
3. Mission efficiency.
Attitude also requires shield operators to remain keenly aware that they are deploying to a high-threat environment and mentally prepare for a ballistic strike. A persistent question arises at virtually every shield school: Will the shield knock me down or toss me around if it takes a hit? The short answer is no. But the reality is many shield operators go to the ground after taking a bullet strike even though the energy level of a ballistic projectile striking a shield is not sufficient by itself to knock down the operator. Bad posture, surprise, moving back and away from the projectile source, belief in having been shot, etc. are some reasons shield operators go down when hit.
Newton's law taught us that the energy created by the exploding bullet could not have increased after it left the muzzle, and it was not sufficient to knock down the shooter. Attitude, combined with posture and confidence in the shield and the tactic, will keep an operator on their feet. Shield operators must maintain a winning mind, a true understanding of the threat potential and a balanced and ready posture.
What a ballistic shield can't do can prove as important as what it can do. One thing for sure, no shield has a big S for Superman on it. It can be a lifesaver, but the wrong shield for the wrong threat or the wrong mission can prove disastrous.
Not every mission may be enhanced by the insertion of the shield. A fundamental question, in a given operational plan, should address the possibility that if the shield will hamper the tactic, then reconsideration may be in order.
Once you ve determined you need a shield, consider the type, size, shape, coverage, function and threat rating you need. Generally, size and weight are proportional to speed: Bigger shields are heavier and therefore slower, and smaller shields are lighter and therefore faster. Of course, that's not to assume that it's an either/or situation let the mission determine the resources. Maybe small, fast Batshields go in first, then once a perimeter is determined, officers deploy bigger, slower bunkers or barriers.
One of the original tenets of ballistic shield use held that the basic shield should offer the adversary the smallest exposed area possible while still retaining an element of tactical efficiency. This rationale further held that thanks to the protection provided by the shield, speed of the advance or the clearing process can be reduced to a more slow and controlled progression. That's precisely what the founders of the bunker had in mind, and it was sound.
But SWAT has certainly evolved in the ensuing decades, and divergent tacticians have created ways to integrate more dynamic types of shields into raid operations. My advice: Engage your people, involve your teams, open up communication about your players and your missions, and then seek, specify, acquire, train and deploy mission-specific equipment.
Flexibility guides our tactics. Law enforcement has been said to be nine parts art to one part science expect the unexpected, but prepare for anything.
Rifle-rated vs. handgun-rated shields
The reason a rifle-rated shield weighs at least five times heavier, measures five times thicker and probably costs up to five times more than the average handgun-rated shield is because rifle rounds penetrate handgun-rated shields with relative ease. In fact, after a rifle round exits a handgun-rated shield it will likely cause more damage to the operator than if there were no shield at all because the projectile is now yawing and tumbling with only minor loss of velocity, resulting in more tissue-damage potential than a straight and true trajectory.
I can't overstate the warning here: When intelligence suggests the presence of a rifle threat, leave the handgun-rated shields behind!
Tactical deployment of ballistic shields takes determination, commitment, practice and, perhaps the most elusive of all shield attributes, endurance. Many in law enforcement tend to overlook the need to hone skill sets when adding the shield tactics. The 10 shield needs described above were developed over several decades of deployments, training and, unfortunately in some cases, tragedy. The lessons learned and the experiences measured by these 10 tips should lend safety and mission accomplishment to the serious ballistic shield operator.