Historically, armored masks have popped up on and off from the fourth century BC.
Perhaps most famously, the samurai men-yoroi (literally ‘face armor’) of feudal era Japan.
It’s job was to protect the warrior’s face from a murderous arsenal comprising katana (swords), sai (daggers), shuriken (throwing stars), and houroku-hiya (hand grenades). But also to strike fear into the heart of enemies by being crafted with a menacing look.
Since then, firearms became far more of a thing so the protective capability of face armor had to be stepped up – - enter the Bulletproof Mask.
Among the earliest attempts at such were assorted steel-plated face guards worn by allied troops during WWI.
Later, in the '80s, American Body Armor brought out the TAC-100R bullet proof mask. For years, it was deployed in the field by a variety of elite military and law enforcement units.
Compared to body armor, bulletproof masks haven’t seen mainstream adoption by dint of their niche applications.
But with world events of late, the bullet proof mask is enjoying a renewed interest.
EXACTLY WHAT IS A BULLETPROOF MASK?
AKA a ballistic mask, it’s a kind of facial armor as distinct from body armor and protective headgear.
Put simply, a bullet proof mask is engineered to protect the face from ballistic and other physical attacks.
WHAT TYPES OF BULLETPROOF MASK ARE THERE?
There are a couple sorts of bulletproof mask which differ according to the amount of facial coverage:
HALF-FACE BULLETPROOF MASK
Extends over most of the face from below the chin to just under the hairline.
Whereas some of the forehead is left exposed, these masks are meant to be paired with a ballistic helmet.
FULL-FACE BULLETPROOF MASK
Encloses the entire face from beneath the chin to the top of the head.
Worn stand alone when a helmet isn’t necessary or convenient.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN FEATURES & SPECS OF A BULLETPROOF MASK?
No doubt about it, a ballistic face mask presents a downright frightening and formidable image. They’re supposed to intimidate an adversary and give the impression the wearer is not to be trifled with. So, within short range, it gives the guy or gal who’s masked a tactical advantage.
What’s more, the mask hides the wearer’s identity to safeguard the individual and their loved ones from backlash.
Lastly, the mask gives the wearer a confidence boost when having to engage in a dicey situation.
Often, there’s compression padding positioned on the inside of a bulletproof mask - - both to maximize comfort and to soften the impact when the mask is struck.
At the same time, the foam wads create a space in between the face and the mask. This helps air to circulate so heat build-up and fogging are minimized.
A bulletproof mask is secured to the face via multiple elasticated straps - - these are attached at as many points around the edges of the mask and converge at the back of the head.
Whether or not a balaclava, comms, or glasses are worn underneath the mask, each strap can be tightened or loosened so that it fits snugly.
Thanks to the fully adjustable headband, the single size and curved shape of a bulletproof mask is a perfect fit for most faces.
As to how heavy is a bulletproof mask, they run anywhere between 1.2lbs and 2.2lbs.
Nearly all come black in color and unpatterned.
The final, but arguably most important, spec of a ballistic face mask is its protective makeup. And on that very topic...
WHAT IS A BULLETPROOF FACE MASK MADE OF?
Some 10mm thick, bullet proof masks consist of a wafer-thin outer coating with an inner shell of soft armor - - largely constructed from densely woven and multi-layered para-aramid materials such as DuPont Kevlar or Teijin Twaron.
The ultra strong yet flexible synthetic fibers of the soft armor are structured like a web. Designed not only to ‘catch’ an incoming projectile, but also to ‘mushroom’ the tip making it far less damaging.
In the process, robbing the bullet of most of its energy and spreading what’s left over all of the mask. That way, comparatively little of the force gets transferred to the face; plus it’s not all focused in one small spot.
Cutting to the chase, let’s find out just how well bullet proof masks hold up to ballistic and other assaults...
DO BULLETPROOF MASKS WORK?
First off, no body armor on the planet is 100% impenetrable to bullets and a ballistic face mask is no different. Really, they’re bullet resistant.
The soft armor in a bulletproof mask is rated for ballistic performance as per the United States National Institute of Justice’s 0101.06 Standard. In order of increasing protection from gunfire, it’s classified as NIJ Level IIA, NIJ Level II, or NIJ Level IIIA.
Of the 3, the vast majority of ballistic masks nowadays are Level IIIA. Tested under lab conditions, they're capable of stopping roughly half-a-dozen hits from most handguns including a .44 Magnum and lesser ballistic threats.
All well and good, but what about in real life?
Even with zero penetration, bullets pack immense energy. And sure, most is ‘absorbed’ by the soft armor upon impact. But even the relative fraction that’s not is normally enough to cause the armor to deform backwards into the face.
Precisely how much the armor deforms, and thus how bad the injuries to the wearer depends on scores of factors - - the speed and size of the bullet, distance from the shooter, angle the bullet enters, and whatnot.
Remembering too that the face can’t handle nearly as much blunt force trauma as the body and that the soft armor surface area of the mask, over which the residual force of the bullet is dispersed, is rather less than that in, say, a bulletproof vest.
At its mildest, the wearer would sustain a concussion, one almighty headache, bruising, and perhaps one or more facial fractures.
Still, ballistic masks have been proven reliable at defeating light blast debris and lower velocity, smaller caliber handgun rounds (shotgun pellets especially).
Anything more powerful though would, from the impact alone, almost certainly be a one-way trip to the morgue.
Oh, and rifle rounds punch straight through the toughest bulletproof face mask. To defeat such calls for hard armor materials like steel or ceramic; and a mask made out of this stuff would be impossibly cumbersome.
SO WHO WEARS BULLETPROOF MASKS?
Bullet proof masks may not be staple armor, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their place.
They’re donned in specific scenarios or circumstances by those most susceptible to taking bomb fragments or shots to the face:
Turret gunners riding shotgun outside the wire; or those stationed on sentry duty, on overwatch, or those on point (entry detail). But not, in general, soldiers on foot patrol.
Bullet proof masks have been issued to select military groups:
U.S. Special Operations Command [SOCOM] operatives during the Global War on Terror campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Republic of China (Taiwan) Army Special Forces.
In the resolution of riot control, narcotics busts, hostage rescue, high-risk warrant execution, active shooter and other critical incidents. But not, in the interests of public relations if nothing else, used by community peace officers.
Bullet proof masks have been in service with key law enforcement agencies:
U.S. Special Weapons And Tactics [SWAT].
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA].
U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms [ATF].
U.S. Department Of Justice [DOJ].
The former Tactical Crisis Resolution Unit (UTARC) of the Bolivian National Police Corps.
As the latest bit of ‘tacticool’ kit, bullet proof masks are popularly used by airsoft and paintball gamers.
Though unless you want to cause widespread panic and ten to one get yourself detained, it wouldn’t be your finest moment strolling into Walmarts wearing one!
WHICH ARE THE BEST BULLETPROOF MASKS?
In our professional opinion, here’s our pick of the best reviewed bullet proof masks out there:
ATOMIC DEFENSE LEVEL IIIA+ BULLETPROOF MASKS
Anti-reflective finish prevents glare from giving away the wearer’s position
Kevlar armor offers NIJ Level IIIA graded bullet resistance. Not to mention, unofficially, a degree of protection against stabs/slashes from a knife or spike
High Density Polyethylene [HDPE (PEAD)] moulds to the contours of the face so feels naturally comfortable to wear
A trio of shock-absorbing pads on the inside of the mask cushion the entire forehead/temples/brow and cheeks
Improved EverLast holding bands good for thousands of uses without losing elasticity
All fabrics and paint are water and flame repellent
A duo of models up for grabs:
2 lbs in weight
1.75lbs in weight
WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVES TO A BULLETPROOF MASK?
Absolutely no different to any other type of armor, even the best ballistic face mask has its limitations:
The eyes of the wearer are unprotected. And, even in half face masks with their bigger eye openings, will lessen the wearer’s peripheral vision; which therefore affects their situational awareness.
Masks dehumanize the wearer in the opponent’s mind. So could, emotionally, make the decision to target them a whole lot easier.
Depending on mission requirements, there are separate armor solutions which provide facial protection against small arms fire, fragmentation, and hand-thrown objects:
Usually when there’s little or no cover, bulletproof shields are used by police, and on occasion military, tactical crews.
Whether defensively or offensively, they’re mobilized if setting up a perimeter or advancing down a narrow corridor towards a barricaded armed suspect/felon, for example.
Normally worn in combo with a combat helmet, welder style bulletproof face shields are employed by military and police alike.
Commonly for when detecting, neutralizing, or disposing of explosive ordnance.
A bullet proof face mask can be a life-saving asset in particular settings. Most valuably during close-quarters combat to protect against lesser caliber, slower moving pistol rounds, bullet splatter, and minor shrapnel.
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