One of the most important aspects of choosing body armor is preparation; knowing the different varieties of body armor, and being aware of the threats they are designed to stop. In the same way that weapons are designed to use certain types of ammunition and cannot work otherwise, body armor is designed to protect against certain calibers of ammunition, and will not protect against higher levels of ammunition. Body armor is not simply a ‘one size fits all’ product, in terms of protection or fit, and it is very important to be aware of what exactly each level of body armor can protect against.
How Body Armor Works
Bullet proof, or bullet resistant vests, mainly utilise materials made from plastic, like Kevlar or Dyneema. These materials are para-aramids that are plastics woven into flexible yet strong fibers with a high strength-to-weight ratio. These are then layered to make the ballistic plates used in body armor. Their flexibility and strength allow them to ‘trap’ bullets and knives within a ‘web’ of fibers, slowing them down by dispersing energy across the entirety of the vest. With each successive layer the weapon is slowed further, and bullets are flattened, coming to a complete stop long before they can penetrate the vest. Vests that utilise products like Kevlar are known as ‘soft’ armors, because of their low weight. Carriers- the part of body armor into which protective materials are inserted- can carry these soft plates, or harder plates of ceramics, steel or titanium. These plates are used to protect against higher caliber ammunition and even armor piercing rounds, in addition to common handgun ammunition. These are known as ‘hard armors’, and are naturally much bulkier and heavier.
The Different Types of Bullet Proof Vest
The materials used in body armor are tested and graded by internationally recognised institutions, ensuring that bullet proof vests can be standardised and easily accessible. The US National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is recognised as the world leader in the ballistics testing of body armor, and grades body armor accordingly. Body armor is available in levels I-IV, with Soft Armors available in Levels I-IIIa. A Level IIIa vest will protect against the vast majority of handgun ammunition, and as handguns are the most common weapon used in crime in the USA, and the most commonly owned, Soft Armor is ideal for the majority of people. It is important to note however that the threat of firearms extends to any weapon you may be carrying, and the FBI reports that 33 Law Enforcement Officers have been killed with their own weapon in the last decade. Even if it is only a slight risk, ensuring that the body armor you wear is suitable to protect against the ammunition you carry will mitigate any chance of being injured by your own weapon.
The higher the level of a bullet proof vest, the more and stronger ammunition it will protect against. However, it will also protect against any ammunition outlined by lower levels. For example, a Level IV vest- the highest level available- is designed to stop armor-piercing rounds, but will also protect against any smaller caliber ammunition. The minimum recommended protection according to the NIJ is a Level IIa bullet proof vest. This will protect against 9mm and .40 S&W caliber bullets. For increased protection without investing in ‘hard armor’, a Level II or IIIa vest is needed. A Level II vest, will offer protection against .357 Magnum Jacketed Soft Points, and a Level IIIa vest will stop .44 Magnum Jacketed Hollow Points. These ‘soft armors’ are much lighter and thinner than their hard counterparts, and have the benefit of being available in both covert and overt styles.
Covert armor is simply armor that is designed to be worn underneath clothes, making it ideal for those who do not wish to have their armor displayed. Being thin and lightweight allows it to be worn comfortably under a uniform, for example, without restricting movement. Some manufacturers incorporate temperature regulating technologies into vests, helping to draw moisture away from the wearer. However, in some situations it may be beneficial to be seen wearing body armor, in which case an overt style is preferable. Making it known that you are protected will certainly deter some from attacking.
As opposed to ‘soft armor’, hard armor is only available in an overt style due to its extra weight and bulk. This however has the advantage of protecting against high caliber and armor-piercing rounds. These vest function in the same way as vests of Kevlar or Dyneema, but utilise Ceramics, Steel or Titanium. Hard armor is available in two levels; a Level III vest protects against 7.62mm Full Metal Jacketed Bullets, or M80 as they are designated by the Military, and a Level IV vest protects against .30 caliber armor piercing rounds (Military designation M2 AP). While these armors offer the maximum protection, and can often defend against explosives and fragmentation, they are naturally very heavy because of the materials used, and so are not recommended to be worn for extended periods. They are reserved only for the most extreme situations, but are certainly suitable in these scenarios. Furthermore, because of the way the materials protect against ammunition, certain hard armors are not suitable use after taking a bullet, and should be replaced immediately.
It is important when choosing body armor not only to be aware of the different types available to you, but the situation you will find yourself and the likely threats being faced. This is vital in choosing the correct body armor and ensuring that you are properly and completely protected.
Joshua Nash has written a number of articles as part of SafeGuard Armor. He uses his expert knowledge of ballistics and body armor to provide information for people in a wide range of occupations.