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Verco Materials: NIJ-Certified Flexible Rifle Plates That Actually Work?



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Way back in the early days of OIF, a new type of armor was making waves. Dragon Skin promised greater protection than the issued Interceptor OTV, doing so by means of recreating medieval-scale armor with modern materials. 

Unfortunately, it soon became mired in controversy after making a big media splash, then first passing and then failing Army and Air Force testing protocols. There was also the little matter of the parent company getting its pee-pee slapped for claiming NIJ certification when they didn’t actually have the official piece of paper. 

The resulting sh*t show left a bad taste in the mouths of those tasked with armor procurement, and as a result, no flexible rifle-rated armor has ever been adopted by a significant player. That could be about to change.

Verco Materials claims to have developed a system of overlapping ceramic plates that’s multihit capable and will stop all commonly encountered rifle threats, without the 47.5-pound weight of the original Dragon Skin vest.

SCIENCE!

Ceramic armor is effective because it’s hard. When bullets impact ceramic material, they deform, making their previously pointy, hard-to-stop shape able to be caught by layers of aramid fiber behind them. Without this kind of deformation, rifle rounds plow straight through Kevlar, guaranteed to ruin the wearer’s day. 

OK, so you can’t tie it in a pretzel shape, but Verco’s panels offer a surprising amount of flexibility.

As a bonus, when these deformed bullets push on through the shattered ceramic, bits fly off them like a Mustang hitting a bus stop, making the lighter projectile even easier to catch.

Commonly encountered ceramic materials include aluminum oxide, silicon carbide, and boron carbide — the first two are also used as common abrasives for the same reason they’re used in armor. 

While boron carbide isn’t found in sandpaper because it’s comparatively expensive, it is, however, used in extreme wear applications such as sandblasting nozzles. Boron carbide also has the attractive property of low density, which anyone unfortunate enough to be issued steel armor will tell you is a good thing. 

Because these materials are so hard, they’re MFers to machine, so additive processes are usually used to make anything from them. They’re typically cast in a mold as either powder or slurry, then sintered to fuse the particles together. 

Verco Materials claims to have perfected a means of creating interlocking boron carbide tiles free of internal voids and pores, making them extremely bullet-resistant and capable of flexing as they shift over each other. From an end-user perspective, this provides greater comfort and coverage. 

Ceramics have another drawback, quite apart from the difficulty of forming them into anything useful, that’s a serious problem when used as armor. When hit at their edge, they experience a significant reduction in strength. Because a system of interlocking tiles has an order of magnitude more edges than a single plate, this becomes a significant challenge to overcome. When you pick up one of these 2-inch Verco tiles, you quickly appreciate how much thought, engineering, and science has gone into them. 

This isn’t a simple system of ceramic discs, like in the failed Dragon Skin; instead, these complex tiles are designed to taper at the edges, yet still offer a thicker layer of boron carbide where they overlap. Due to their design, the tiles rock as they flex, and the curved surfaces prevent gaps from opening up as the armor conforms to the contours of your body.

Composed of boron carbide tiles wrapped in carbon fiber, the secret sauce is in the way the tiles overlap without creating weak spots.

To increase the tiles’ impact resistance and to keep them all spiffy, despite being dropped off locker shelves by knuckle draggers, that sweet boron carbide is wrapped up in a carbon-fiber envelope. When a bullet hits, this carbon wrapper keeps the pulverized boron carbide together, rather than letting it fly off into the ether, forcing the bullet to smash its way through and further degrading the projectile.

PUTTING IT TO THE TEST

Overlapping, or imbricating, armor is tested differently than that made of a single plate. Perhaps due to the scandal surrounding Dragon Skin, the National Institute for Justice (NIJ), which handles armor certification, requires almost five times more imbricating armor panels to be shot, without penetration, than their SAPI-style counterparts. In addition, oblique shots are required, in order to rule out the possibility of rounds sliding between tiles. 

One of the downsides of ceramic armor is that cracks tend to propagate once it’s been shot. As a result, it may be easier to penetrate with follow-up shots, so in order to pass NIJ Level III certification, plates must withstand five hits from 7.62 NATO ball with a muzzle velocity of a nominal 2,850 fps. Because of its individual tiles, Verco’s armor isn’t susceptible to cracks spreading across the width of the panel.

If you’re thinking, “Isn’t a 5.56mm rifle firing M855 ball a more realistic problem these days?” congratulations, you’re ahead of the curve. Draft NIJ Standard 0101.07 has been kicking around for about five years now, seeking to update armor testing to incorporate more current ballistic threats, as well as assess backface deformation and resistance to environmental degradation. 

Individual tiles are a little over 2 inches wide at their widest and feature ridges and recesses to keep each one in the correct place in relation to its neighbor.

It was due to be rolled out last year, but so far bureaucratic inertia has yet to be overcome. All that said, any armor company worth its salt is already testing to the new protocol. Verco’s flexible hard armor has been tested with this in mind, withstanding up to 30 impacts from M855 at 3,100 fps. 

As you can probably tell, we were impressed with the combination of protection and comfort offered by this system, so we decided to field test it. In Ukraine.

Fortunately, we never had to rely on its ability to stop projectiles, but we can say it was more comfortable than the ceramic plates we usually wear. It’s not like putting on your favorite old T-shirt, but there’s enough flexibility to avoid edges digging into your ribcage, especially when bending down or leaning around cover. 

Is it expensive? You betcha, but like iPhones, having the newest and best comes with a price. As it sees wider adoption, we expect the bill to come down into the range of the average consumer. 

Verco Materials Urban Shield 

  • MH MEDIUM SAPI 
  • Weight: 5 pounds
  • MSRP: $1,190

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