Body armor has been used for centuries to protect individuals from various threats, such as knives, arrows, and bullets. In this article, we will discuss the purpose, history, types, materials, and legality of body armor, as well as how to choose the right body armor and its benefits and drawbacks.

What Is Body Armor?

Body armor refers to protective clothing designed to absorb or deflect the impact of projectiles or other weapons, reducing the risk of injury or death. It is commonly used by military personnel, law enforcement officers, security personnel, and civilians in high-risk situations.

How Body Armor Works

Body armor works by dispersing the energy of an impact across a larger surface area, reducing the force on the wearer’s body. It usually consists of layers of ballistic-resistant material, such as Kevlar or steel, designed to catch and deform a bullet or other projectile, decreasing its penetration capability.

Body Armor Background

Body armor has been used for centuries, with early examples made from materials like leather, chainmail, and plate armor. Modern body armor began serious development in the 1960s, with advancements in materials science leading to the creation of bullet-resistant fibers like Kevlar. Ceramic armor which paved the way for modern rifle plates first saw action in Vietnam. As science continues to advance, we now have Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE) which is lighter and stronger than Kevlar. Modern ceramic rifle plates can be produced as low as four pounds and stop armor-piercing high-powered hunting rounds. 

Different Types Of Body Armor

There are two main types of body armor, soft armor and hard armor. Soft armor is made from flexible materials like Kevlar, and now UHMWPE, while hard armor utilizes rigid materials like steel or ceramic plates. Soft armor is generally lighter and more comfortable but offers less protection than hard armor.

What Is Body Armor Made From?

Body armor can be made from various materials. The effectiveness of body armor depends on the materials it’s made from, and the construction of the vest itself. Different materials have different properties that make them suitable for stopping certain types of threats.

Soft armor

Soft armor or pistol armor is soft and flexible. The first widely used form of soft armor was made of Kevlar. Kevlar has a high tensile-to-weight ratio. It was used in flak jackets, bulletproof vests, and helmets for decades. 

As technology progressed UHMWPE began seeing use in soft armor as it has an even higher tensile strength ratio than Kevlar. UHMWPE forms soft body armor by consecutive layers added together. 

UHMWPE configured as hard armor, and used in soft armor - Tacticon Armament
UHMWPE configured as hard armor, and used in soft armor

Hard body armor

Hard body armor incorporates ridged materials like steel, UHMWPE, and ceramic to create a ridged plate strong enough to stop rifle rounds. Soft armor alone will not stop rifle rounds due to their velocity, but hard armor plates are specifically designed to.

Steel

Steel armor plates are still one of the most popular forms of hard body armor in civilian use today. AR500-AR600 plates are generally the most common, in an effort to achieve a balance of weight and stopping ability. Steel armor must utilize some sort of fragmentation coating to prevent secondary injury to the user. 

UHMWPE 

UHMWPE are the lightest rifle plates to date. They are made of compressed layers of UHMWPE specially treated and pressed to stop certain rifle rounds. Because they do not have a hard ‘strike face’ like steel or ceramic plates, they are limited on the rounds they can stop. See our post on UHMWPE vs Kevlar to learn more about the capabilities of UHMWPE.

Ceramic 

Ceramic armor plates are composed of a ceramic strike face used to stop the bullet, and a soft backer generally made of UHMWPE to give the ceramic support. They stand a mild risk of breakage if dropped/mistreated, but are fairly durable. One of the benefits of ceramic plates is that they are the only variation of hard armor to reliability achieve NIJ’s level 4 rating.

Types of hard armor plates - steel, UHMWPE (ultra high molecular weight polyethlene, UHMWPE + ceramic - Tacticon Armament
Types of hard armor plates

NIJ & Different Threat Levels

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) sets standards for body armor performance, including different threat levels based on the type of ammunition they can withstand. These levels range from Level IIA (protection against lower-velocity handgun rounds) to Level IV (protection against armor-piercing rifle rounds).

For a complete review of NIJ’s current standards check out our Comprehensive Guide to Body Armor Levels

Comprehensive Guide to Body Armor Levels

In short, NIJ has five levels currently.

  • Level IIA is soft armor rated to stop 9mm, 40S&W, and 45ACP.
  • Level II is rated to protect against everything Level IIA will, but with the addition 357 magnum.
  • Level IIIA is the strongest of the soft armor levels, stopping 44 magnum and 357 Sig at velocities of 1,450 FPS and slower.
  • Level III is the entry level hard armor plate, coming in a variety of materials such as steel, ceramic, and polyethylene. This level is responsible for stopping 6 shots of M80 ball 7.62×51 with no penetration, and less than 44mm of backface deformation on the first two shots.
  • Level IV is the strongest hard armor plate, rated for 1 shot of armor piercing 30-06 and a ‘lesser threat.’
NIJ Threat levels chart - 3A, 3, SRT, SRT+, 3+, 4 - Tacticon Armament
NIJ threat levels

SRT and Level 3+ are industry ratings, not official NIJ ratings. Level 3+ was created because some level 3 plates failed to stop certain 5.56 rounds, such as the “Green tip.” 

SRT plates such as Hesco L210s and Tacticon SRT and SRT plus plates are designed to stop 5.56 and 7.62×39 rounds, as these are the most common threats. However they fail to meet the NIJ standards of a Level 3 because they will exceed the backface deformation. Don’t be dissuaded by this, these plates are designed to stop threat specific rounds, namely the most common, and man are they lightweight and comfortable. 

No Body Armor Is Bulletproof

It is important to note that NO body armor is entirely bulletproof. The term “bulletproof” is often used colloquially, but even the highest-rated body armor can be penetrated by certain projectiles or under specific circumstances.

Factors That Determine A Bullet’s Ability To Penetrate Armor

Several factors can influence a bullet’s ability to penetrate body armor. 

  • Bullet velocity: Faster bullets are more likely to penetrate armor, this is why steel armor often has difficulty with the M193 5.56 round. The greatest enemy of body armor is velocity. 
  • Bullet shape/design/materials: Pointed or armor-piercing bullets are more likely to penetrate, especially certain rounds that have steel in the tip of the round like 5.56 “Green Tip” M855, and the new M855A1. Bullet shape and design have an impact as well, but not to the degree of velocity, there are cases of fast 5.56 rounds penetrating some level 4 plates if their velocity far exceeds that of a normal round. 
  • Angle of impact: Bullets striking at a 0 degree angle are more likely to penetrate, a straight-on shot with no deflection is the worst case.
  • Material degradation: Armor can become less effective over time or due to damage. This is the nature of synthetic fiber like polyethylene and Kevlar, etc. They have a shelf life and generally are only recommended for five years. Law enforcement generally follows this guide, because they live in their body armor. This includes wearing their vests in the rain, the summer sun, body heat, and oils. It makes sense for Law enforcement to swap it out rigorously as soft armor tends to be more prone to degradation. 
  • Expiration: Keep in mind, body armor is sold with a “Warranty period” not an expiration date. This is generally more for liability reasons, there are stories of 30 year old body armor standing up to several shots. However, please, please, do not cheap out on materials designed to save your life. 

Ballistics and Trauma Pads

Trauma pads are placed behind armor plates to help reduce blunt force trauma caused by the impact of a projectile. They can help minimize injury and give the user greater comfort while wearing armor because of the additional padding. Keep in mind, trauma pads provide no additional ballistic protection, they are made of Non-Newtonian Foam, a protective material designed to protect from blunt force trauma. For a more in-depth look and the benefits of trauma pads you can learn more in an article dedicated to this topic. 

What You Need to Know About Body Armor Trauma Pads

How To Choose The Right Body Armor (Fit/Size/etc)

Selecting body armor is a personal decision that should be made with knowledge and careful consideration. 

When selecting body armor, consider many factors. 

You need to make a realistic inventory of the threats you could face, and select body armor that will meet those threats. Not everyone needs level IV body armor, but others will. 

Comfort is also important, if it’s too uncomfortable it will not be worn. This comes down to knowing your purpose for purchasing armor, do you need to wear it for long hours? Or just in case?  If you can afford lightweight body armor and multi-curve body armor and will be wearing it for extended periods than this will be the best option. 

Soft vs hard armor is another consideration. Do you only expect pistol or shotguns threats? Soft armor will offer more coverage on the body and can be concealed easier. 

Mobility: Consider the weight and bulk of the armor and how it will affect your movement. Don’t overload yourself, especially if you are new to body armor.

Price: Higher-quality armor often comes at a higher cost, so balance your budget with your protection needs. Be realistic, don’t miss a car payment to buy cool gear. 

Benefits Of Body Armor

Body armor is cool, and it’s fun to wear at the range, in your basement, when you’re home alone and bored, etc. But it’s important to weigh the benefits and drawbacks. 

Body armor is not for everyone, and there may be instances where you choose not to wear it. 

Pros

  • Life-saving protection against bullets, shrapnel, and other projectiles
  • Increased confidence and security in dangerous situations
  • Customizable options to suit individual needs

Cons

  • Can be heavy and cumbersome, especially more affordable options such as steel. 
  • Certain states have additional restrictions on body armor, always follow local laws.
  • Expensive initial investment if you purchase lighter gear. 

Common Body Armor Questions

Body armor is an essential piece of equipment for anyone who may face danger in their line of work or daily life. It provides a layer of protection against a variety of threats, from handguns to knives and even rifle rounds. However, with this increased level of security comes a lot of questions. In this FAQ section, we will address some of the most common body armor questions, such as whether it is legal for civilians to purchase and wear body armor, what backface deformation is, and whether body armor can stop a knife or an AR-15.

Yes, in most US states, it is legal for civilians to purchase body armor. However, some states have restrictions on the sale and possession of body armor, so it is essential to check your local laws.

Is It Illegal To Wear Body Armor In Public?

In general, it is not illegal to wear body armor in public. However, certain states and localities may have restrictions, so it’s essential to be aware of your local laws and regulations

Who Cannot Buy Body Armor Legally?

Convicted felons are prohibited from purchasing body armor under federal law. Additionally, some states may have specific restrictions on who can purchase body armor.

What Is Backface Deformation?

Backface deformation refers to the indentation or bulging that occurs on the inside of body armor when a bullet or projectile strikes it. Excessive backface deformation can lead to injury, even if the armor prevents the projectile from penetrating.

Is Body Armor Bullet Proof?

While body armor provides significant protection, no armor is completely bulletproof. The performance of body armor depends on factors such as the type of projectile, its velocity, the angle of impact, and the armor’s initial NIJ threat rating.

Can Body Armor Stop an AR 15?

Some body armor, particularly Level III and IV hard armor plates, can stop AR-15 rounds. However, it is important to note that no armor is guaranteed to stop all projectiles in all situations, or all variations of a given caliber.

Can Body Armor Stop a Knife?

Some body armor is specifically designed to protect against knife attacks. This type of armor, known as stab-resistant or stab-proof armor, uses materials and construction methods that resist punctures from sharp objects like knives.

Why Do Most Bulletproof Vests Only Last 5 Years?

Most bulletproof vests have a recommended service life of approximately 5 years due to the gradual breakdown of the materials used in their construction, particularly the ballistic fibers. This degradation can compromise the vest’s protective capabilities over time.

Are Armor Plates Worth It?

Armor plates provide additional protection against high-powered rifle rounds that soft body armor cannot stop. Whether armor plates are worth it depends on the individual’s specific needs and the potential threats they may encounter. Some of the factors to consider when deciding on armor plates include:

Threat level: If the individual is likely to face rifle rounds, armor plates are essential for adequate protection.

Mobility and weight: Armor plates can be heavy and cumbersome, which may affect mobility and comfort. Users should weigh the benefits of increased protection against the drawbacks of reduced mobility.

Cost: Armor plates can be expensive, so individuals must consider whether the added protection is worth the investment.

Ultimately, the decision to invest in armor plates comes down to the individual’s risk assessment and personal preferences.

The Future of Body Armor

The future of armor is ever-evolving and continues to advance. We can count on continued advancement in material science finding lighter and stronger composites. Per the historical trends, we see armor weighing significantly less than early generations, and becoming more effective as threats evolve. Rumors have circulated about the possibility of nanotech-built armor could potentially one day be issued to the military.

There are many possibilities for the future of body armor, we will have to be patient and see! 

Final Thoughts

As cool as body armor and tactical gear is, it’s rarely worth breaking the bank… Speaking for a friend. There is a lot of body armor on the market and it is very accessible. That said, it makes purchasing from a respected and certified company even more important, because there are a lot of companies making body armor who don’t take the same care and consideration. Tacticon Armament makes all body armor in house to ensure quality control, and only uses ballistic rated steel to guarantee uniformity in quality. Every batch is tested in our replicated NIJ lab to make sure each batch stops what we say it will. 

The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Tacticon Armament.

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