GunMag 101: Bulletproof Backpacks

When fall rolls around, parents focus on gathering school supplies, among other things. In today’s climate, parents are often also focused on safety and various additions to their kid’s school supplies. Questions come up such as whether it’s time to get a cell phone and if the child is old enough to be told more information about staying safe at school. For the latter topic, the option of bulletproof backpacks sometimes arises. We’re going to take a look at the effectiveness of these backpacks and consider whether they’re a logical option.

bulletproof backpack with unicorns
Bulletproof backpacks come in a variety of styles, including this unicorn pattern. (Photo credit: Atomic Defense)

What’s a bulletproof backpack?

Bulletproof backpacks began making a more frequent appearance on the market several years ago. These backpacks typically have panels inserted into them to create some level of resistance to penetration. The level depends on the specific backpack and panel or panels being used. Some are marketed from a broader perspective, meaning that rather than being listed as specifically rated for certain calibers, they’re labeled as providing some protection from a platform. This is an important detail to be aware of because in reality there are wide ranges of calibers within each platform, and all bulletproof/bullet-resistant plates and panels are not created the same.

What are bulletproof ratings?

While the ratings for various bulletproof panels can vary somewhat by company, there’s a formula for it. Officially, body armor — bulletproof vests and such — is rated by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). The most recent Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor NIJ Standard — 0101.06 states:

  • Type IIA (9mm; 40 Smith & Wesson)
  • Type II (9mm; 357 Magnum)
  • Type IIIA (357 SIG; 44 Magnum)
  • Type III (Rifles, “tested in a conditioned state with 7.62 mm FMJ, steel jacketed bullets (U.S. Military designation M80)”)
  • Type IV (Armor Piercing Rifle, “e tested in a conditioned state with .30 caliber armor piercing (AP) bullets (U.S. Military designation M2 AP)”)

Testing of panels is always carried out on brand new panels with the number of shots fired and how many panels are tested depending on the specific rating. Generally speaking, what this means is that a panel is only tested and rated as being capable of resisting a certain number of shots fired. A panel isn’t going to stand up to endless impacts, and not all panels can withstand all calibers. Taking this a step further, there’s a difference between body armor ratings for ballistic and stabbing resistance. However, for the average bulletproof backpack, ratings are for ballistics.

backpack being tested
A gun owner shoots a bulletproof backpack at the range. (Photo credit: cnbc)

Do bulletproof backpacks work?

From a literal perspective, correctly tested and rated bulletproof backpacks do work. Keep in mind the size of the panels is limited and that the backpack — and its panel(s) — might not be at hand during a time of need. The concept behind these backpacks is a relatively sound one and their existence does make some sense. Their actual usefulness is a bit different than whether or not they work.

Are bulletproof backpacks useful?

It is possible that a backpack with a ballistic-rated panel could provide some degree of protection during a violent attack. The challenges you’re facing when it comes to using a backpack for this include:

  • The limited size of the ballistic panel.
  • The location of the backpack (they’re typically in cubbies or lockers in a hallway).
  • Where to hold the backpack or panel in case of an attack.

Whether or not you find a bulletproof backpack useful depends on personal preference and need. They can be useful, but their usefulness is limited to certain situations and applications.

how to use a backpack
Suggested methods of use for a bulletproof backpack from a manufacturer. (Photo credit: Guard Dog Security)

How do you use a bulletproof backpack?

In the context of gradeschool-age children, the use of these backpacks can be challenging. All kids are different and you’ll have to take the understanding and needs of the specific child into consideration when you talk to them about the use of such a backpack.

The following recommendations come from the team at Premier Body Armor regarding the use of their backpacks with ballistic inserts:

  • Try to escape and get to safety – with some situational awareness, you’ll know where the exits are and can quickly get out of the situation safely. It’s always best to assess your environment and have a plan so you can move quickly if necessary.
  • Turn your backpack around and cover your head and chest with your bag if the threat is in front of you. You can use the straps to carry the backpack in front of you or slide your arm through the straps and use the bag as a shield.
  • Cover your vital organs. The most important thing is keeping your vitals (heart, lungs, etc.) protected by the armor.
  • Use common sense.

Should you get a bulletproof backpack?

It’s impossible to advise someone regarding whether they should get a bulletproof backpack. This is a highly personal purchase. If you’re going to get one, stop and consider how you will explain its use to your child, and how you’ll have them practice with it. This type of tool is only as useful as the skills and understanding of the person using it. Take that into consideration.

ballistic panels for backpack
Not all bulletproof backpacks are made the same so it’s important to do your homework before purchasing one. (Photo credit: Pivotal Body Armor)

How do you choose a bulletproof backpack?

Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to get a bulletproof backpack — one with a ballistic panel — from a reputable company that abides by the NIJ testing and rating system. Some sell the backpack and panel separately while others market them together. There are too many manufacturers out there simply marketing these backpacks as being rated for pistol or rifle, or just as bulletproof. Do your homework. A backpack with a tested, rated panel will cost more, but that cost is well worth the investment to ensure the product you’re getting will perform as promised. This is not a place where it’s a good idea to cut corners.

Are bulletproof backpacks a gimmick?

It’s rather common to hear that bulletproof backpacks are nothing but a gimmick, which implies they’re not useful at all. These backpacks do have their uses. Yes, those uses require access and, preferably, practice regarding where and how to hold them, but that doesn’t change the fact that they do have their uses.

Aside from adding a bulletproof backpack to your back-to-school list, it can be a good idea to have honest discussions with your kids about school safety. While the “run, hide, fight” concept has evolved enough to be more realistic, it remains somewhat lacking. Take the time to come up with a plan tailored not only to your child’s age and abilities but to their school’s layout. Make a plan, including an off-campus location where they can meet you or another trusted adult in the case of an emergency (this includes things like fires or other disasters). The bulletproof backpack would only be one part of the whole. It’s a tool in the toolbox and one that should be neither discounted entirely nor depended on by itself.

Your experience and needs are unique to you and your family and should be treated as such. It’s ultimately your choice as to whether or not a bulletproof backpack is worth having on hand.

Kat Ainsworth Stevens is a long-time outdoor writer, official OGC (Original Gun Cognoscenti), and author of Handgun Hunting: a Comprehensive Guide to Choosing and Using the Right Firearms for Big and Small Game. Der Teufel Katze has written for a number of industry publications (print and online) and edited some of the others, so chances are you've seen or read her work before, somewhere. A woman of eclectic background and habits, Kat has been carrying concealed for over two decades, used to be a farrier, and worked for a long time in emergency veterinary medicine. She prefers big bores, enjoys K9 Search & Rescue, and has a Master's Degree in Pitiless Snarkastic Delivery.

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