Army ban puts Dragon Skin in the line of fire
Fresno firm's president backs armor sought by police, U.S. troops.
Fresno police like Pinnacle Armor's new Dragon Skin so much that the department ordered 26 of the bulletproof vests to outfit its SWAT officers.
And a military defense industry analyst claims Dragon Skin, which is made by a small company with 30 employees in a nondescript building near Fresno Yosemite International Airport, is the best anti-rifle body armor on the market.
But the U.S. Army has been a tougher sell, banning its soldiers from wearing gear it hasn't issued. The Army, which shields its soldiers with Interceptor body armor, issued the edict in March because soldiers and their families were buying commercial armor from private companies, including Pinnacle.
Murray Neal wants a piece of that business. But the chief executive of Pinnacle has had to go to war with the Army to defend the reputation of his product.
"Put one Interceptor vest on a post and one Dragon Skin body armor on a post and shoot them both the same way," he says.
The Army claimed Pinnacle's body armor was not proven to be effective and that some failed an Air Force test and were recalled. However, Pinnacle, in a press release prepared in cooperation with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and released this week, says Dragon Skin met Air Force specifications.
"The tests ... did not fail any written contract specifications with the Air Force," the statement says. It went on to say the Office of Special Investigations needs high-quality protection in a lighter-weight system and that "Pinnacle is meeting that requirement."
Pinnacle voluntarily took back vests to address a manufacturing issue,
"But that issue did not affect the vests' performance during testing," according to the statement approved by the Air Force.
Army spokesman Col. William Wiggins says his branch's ban will remain in effect until the Army can conduct its own tests.
Pinnacle's chief executive says the reason given for the ban is just a smokescreen. Officials in the Army, Neal says, want to discredit Pinnacle because he won't let the Army control the intellectual property rights to Dragon Skin.
Mark Crosse / The Fresno Bee
Neal says other manufacturers have sold their patents to the Army for a royalty: "But we won't do that for Dragon Skin. Why would I want to give up my intellectual property?"
Wiggins responds: "Those questions should best be answered by the legal folks, not me. We never ran up against that issue in the past."
Pinnacle says the Dragon Skin shipped to the Air Force actually exceeded expectations because it repelled 55% of the rounds it was not even designed to stop.
"The Air Force said they wanted a certain level, and that is what we shipped," Neal says. "The vests passed at that level, but they were looking for a higher threat-level system and thought our system would fit."
The only reason the armor didn't pass additional tests was because a vest was tossed twice out of a two-story window and run over twice by a military truck and then was shot, says Paul Chopra, assistant to Neal. That was done simply to see what the armor could handle, he says.
An Air Force spokesman wouldn't say how many vests the agency bought.
Pinnacle's armor is comprised of 2-inch ceramic discs laid out in an interlocking pattern like scales on a fish. The company says they are more difficult to crack than the existing single large ceramic plate that makes up traditional vests. Some of Pinnacle's armor is so strong it can stop armor-piercing incendiary rounds that burn at 2,700 degrees, Chopra says.
Dragon Skin also is reported to be 4 pounds lighter and provides more coverage because it wraps around the torso.
"It exceeds what the Army's newest model does," Neal says.
Military defense analyst David Crane agrees: "It is hands-down superior body armor for protection against enemy rifle fire."
Crane, editor of DefenseReview.com, who writes frequently on military weaponry and is considered an expert by those in the industry, says unclassified data support his contention: "I saw the unclassified ballistic test data from three different facilities that are respected ballistic test labs. They show beyond a doubt that Pinnacle Armor could take a velocity of rounds and more hits on the Dragon Skin versus what is being used now."
He says, "It would appear that certain organizations within the U.S. Army are trying to protect their own body armor program."
Army officials say they have asked Pinnacle to supply 30 vests to be tested in mid-May.
"We will test them and if they pass standards we will move on from there," Wiggins says.
But Neal says the Army is trying to change the conditions of an oral agreement reached during a recent meeting at the office of Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.
"We agreed during our meeting to do a ballistics test to prove we could meet or beat the specifications," Neal says.
But he says Army representatives now want Pinnacle to ship the armor a week or two before the scheduled test.
"Now, they want to hang onto it a week or two before the test, and that is not a transparent test," Neal says.
Crane says Pinnacle has reason to worry: "The Army has a long and distinguished history of playing around with testing to get the results they want in small-arms procurement and adoption."
Wiggins' response: "The Army has independent testing laboratories, so concerns they might have would be mitigated. We just want to test the equipment."
Dragon Skin has been bought by the U.S. Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Navy and other federal agencies. More than 3,000 of the vests are in war zones and other hot spots around the world, Chopra says.
Fresno police and other law enforcement agencies have ordered Dragon Skin. Fresno officers ordered it after a vest stopped all the bullets fired during a test, including 308 rounds from a sniper rifle and 30 rounds from a fully automatic weapon fired from 5 feet away, says Tim Tietjen, a police department training sergeant.
"We found Pinnacle to be high quality, and it fits with the needs of all of our officers. It also is comfortable and wears well," he says.
Neal says 98 federal, state and local law enforcement officers witnessed the SWAT test. He says the armor also stopped 40 rounds from an AK-47 and 150 9 mm bullets fired from a submachine gun.
In another test for the History Channel's military show, "Mail Call," the vest repelled nine rounds of pointed steel ammunition from an AK-47 and 35 rounds of 9 mm, all fired into a 10-by-12-inch configuration on the vest.
The House Armed Services Committee has offered to be an independent witness at the May test if it goes forward.
"Our goal is to get the best equipment out there," says spokesman Josh Holly. "Hopefully, we can get Dragon Skin into the test center to test it."
The controversy actually has been good for business, Neal says. "The greatest spike has been since the Army put out the safety-of-use message. People can see through the smoke."The reporter can be reached at email@example.com or (559) 441-6495.