Breaking Down the Different Types of Soft Body Armor

In an increasingly unpredictable world safety is of paramount importance. For many, this means turning to personal protective equipment, in particular body armor. Body armor in many forms provides critical protection for law enforcement officers, military, security, and citizens in a variety of situations. This article will focus particularly on soft body armor as the predominant type of everyday armor. 

Fully understanding the different types of soft body armor can be confusing and overwhelming to some. But what exactly is soft body armor? How does it compare to hard body armor? What different types of soft body armor are available, and what materials are they made of? How can you maintain your soft body armor?

This article aims to answer all these questions, providing a comprehensive overview of soft body armor, its uses, benefits, limitations, and maintenance. Whether you’re law enforcement, security, or a civilian interested in protection, this in-depth overview will give you the knowledge you need to understand and effectively use soft body armor.

What Is Body Armor

What is body armor?” you may be asking. Body armor is protective gear designed to absorb or deflect physical damage, especially in dangerous environments where ballistic, or stab threats are prevalent. The use and history of body armor date back to ancient times when warriors used shields, breastplates, and helmets made from bronze, iron, and other metals. In the modern era, body armor has evolved significantly, employing sophisticated materials and technologies to provide effective protection against a wide range of threats.

What is Soft Body Armor

Soft body armor is a type of body armor that is flexible, lightweight, and comfortable for the wearer. It is typically made from high-performance fibers such as Kevlar, Twaron, or Dyneema. These fibers are woven together in a dense network that acts like a net to catch and deform a bullet, spreading the impact over a larger area to reduce the force of the blow. While soft body armor is most commonly used to protect against handgun and shotgun projectiles, different types of soft armor can provide protection against stab, spike, and edged blade threats.

Soft Body Armor vs Hard Body Armor

The main difference between soft body armor and hard body armor is the level of protection they offer and the types of threats they can withstand. Soft body armor is designed to be lightweight and flexible, making it ideal for everyday use by law enforcement for protection against common street-level pistol threats. However, it is not effective against rifle rounds.

Hard body armor, on the other hand, incorporates rigid plates made from materials like ceramic, steel, or ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE). These plates can stop rifle rounds and lesser threats. However, hard body armor is generally heavier and less comfortable than soft body armor. It also covers less of the body due to weight and the rigid nature of the armor. 

Soft Body Armor strikeplate vs Hard Body Armor strikeplate - Tacticon armament
Soft Body Armor vs Hard Body Armor

Different Types of Soft Body Armor

Not all soft armor is concerned with stopping bullets, some forms are just concerned with stopping hand-to-hand attacks. This is often seen worn by Correctional officers where knife attacks are their biggest concern. However, other varieties are purely ballistic, and only stop ballistic threats. Finally, some forms of soft armor will protect against ballistic threats and stab attacks. Let’s review the various types of soft body armor available today.

Stab-Resistant Armor

Stab-resistant armor is designed to protect against knife attacks. These often incorporate layers of tightly woven fabric like Kevlar, along with materials like laminate, to prevent the blade from penetrating the armor.

Spike Armor

Spike armor is designed to protect against attacks with sharp, pointed objects like ice picks or needles. It typically includes layers of very dense fabric that can catch and deform the spike, preventing it from reaching the wearer’s body. This is particularly important for corrections officers. 

Edge Blade Armor

Edge Blade armor is designed to protect against attacks with bladed weapons such as machetes, axes, and swords. It may combine layers of high-performance fabric with materials like laminate to provide effective protection.

Bulletproof (Soft) Armor

Bulletproof armor is a type of soft body armor designed to protect against bullets. It incorporates layers of high-performance fabric that can catch and deform a bullet, spreading the force of the impact over a larger area. 

Multi-threat Armor

Multi-threat armor is designed to provide protection against multiple types of threats, such as bullets, knives, and spikes. It often combines different materials and technologies to provide comprehensive protection. This has become popular in urban law enforcement where threats come in many forms. 

Ballistic Blankets

Ballistic blankets are versatile pieces of soft body armor that can be used to provide temporary cover against ballistic threats. They can be draped over windows, doors, or other openings, or used to protect individuals in an active shooter situation.

Ballistic Shields

Ballistic shields are handheld shields made from high-performance materials that can stop bullets. While they are not technically “soft” armor, they can provide an additional layer of protection in conjunction with soft body armor.

Inflatable Armor

Inflatable armor, yeah it’s a real thing. This is a relatively new design thanks to the Navy and Coast Guard who need armor to be buoyant but still protective. It’s kind of like bulletproof floaties. 

Concealable vs Tactical

Soft body armor really comes down to the vest or carrier. Concealed soft armor is specifically designed to be discreetly worn underneath clothing, ensuring it remains hidden from view while providing protection. Tactical soft armor is armor placed in a tactical vest or carrier designed to carry other accessories and identify the individual (as law enforcement for example). 

Soft Body Armor Threat Levels & NIJ

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is an independent organization that sets the standards for body armor performance in the United States, and tests armor accordingly. The NIJ Standard 0101.06 is the current standard that classifies body armor by levels of ballistic performance. 

NIJ Body Armor Levels IIA, II, IIIA, III, IV - Tacticon Armament

Each of these threat levels as discussed below has been thoroughly tested to stop the specific calibers and types of bullets as described. However, no armor is 100% bulletproof these ratings indicate that the specific armor is able to stop the specific threats tested. Here’s an overview of the different levels of protection as per NIJ Standard 0101.06. 

Level IIA Armor

Level IIA is the lowest level of protection currently available for body armor. Armor at this level is capable of protecting against 9mm, 40 S&W, and 45 ACP. 

Level II Armor

Level II Armor is designed to protect against .357 Magnum Jacketed Soft Point (JSP) bullets. 

Level IIIA Armor

Level IIIA protects against .357 SIG .44 Magnum and all lower threats. This is the most common level of protection for soft body armor. 

Level III Armor

Level III is designed to protect against 7.62×51 M80 for 6 shots, with less than 44mm of back face deformation from the first two.  Please note that Level III refers to hard armor or plate inserts that can stop rifle bullets. Soft body armor does not offer protection against rifle rounds.

Level IV Armor

Level IV is the highest level of armor and provides protection against 30-06 M2AP armor-piercing rounds for one shot, and then a shot from a lesser threat. Please note that Level IV refers to hard armor or plate inserts that can stop rifle bullets. Soft body armor does not offer protection against rifle rounds.

Soft Body Armor Materials

There are several materials commonly used in the production of soft body armor, each with its distinct advantages and disadvantages. 

Soft Body Armor strike5plate - Tacticon Armament
Soft Body Armor

Kevlar

Kevlar is a synthetic fiber developed by DuPont in the 1960s. It’s a type of aramid fiber, similar in structure to nylon but with far superior strength and heat resistance.

Kevlar is five times stronger than steel on an equal-weight basis, making it extremely effective at stopping bullets. It’s also resistant to heat, cold, and moisture, making it suitable for use in a wide range of environments.

However, Kevlar can degrade over time, especially when exposed to light and certain chemicals. It’s also relatively expensive compared to some other materials.

Twaron

Twaron, a remarkable aramid fiber, emerges as another notable player in the field of ballistic protection. Developed by the renowned company Teijin, Twaron shares similarities with Kevlar in terms of its composition and properties. This high-performance synthetic fiber is renowned for its exceptional strength, making it an ideal candidate for applications requiring reliable resistance against impact and penetration. 

Twaron is highly resistant to bullets, heat, cold, and moisture. It boasts remarkable tensile strength and impressive energy absorption capabilities, rendering it suitable for use in soft body armor. Its unique molecular structure grants it the ability to effectively dissipate and disperse the energy generated by projectiles, providing enhanced protection to the wearer. 

Like Kevlar, Twaron can degrade over time, and it’s also on the more expensive side.

Spectra

Spectra is a high-density polyethylene (HDPE) fiber produced by Honeywell. It’s similar to Dyneema, which is also an HDPE fiber. Spectra is incredibly strong and lightweight, making it ideal for use in body armor. It’s also resistant to moisture, UV light, and chemicals. 

However, Spectra is less effective against blunt force trauma compared to Kevlar or Twaron. It can also be more expensive than other materials.

Dyneema

Dyneema is a type of ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) fiber produced by DSM. It’s similar to Spectra in terms of its properties. 

Dyneema is the world’s strongest fiber, with a tensile strength 15 times greater than steel on a weight-for-weight basis. It’s also highly resistant to moisture, UV light, and chemicals. 

However, like Spectra, Dyneema is less effective against blunt force trauma than aramid fibers. It’s also relatively expensive.

UHMWPE

Ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE), is a type of polyethylene with extremely long chains, which gives it high strength and toughness. UHMWPE is incredibly strong and lightweight, making it highly effective at stopping bullets. It’s also resistant to moisture, UV light, and chemicals. 

Again, however, UHMWPE is less effective against blunt force trauma compared to Kevlar or Twaron. It can also be more expensive than other materials. Discover the differences between UHMWPE vs Kevlar and make an informed decision for your enhanced protective gear.

Which Soft Body Armor Material Is The Best?

All these materials provide effective protection against bullets, but they have different properties that make them more or less suitable for certain applications. The choice of material for a particular piece of body armor depends on a variety of factors, including the intended use, the environment, and the budget.

Maintenance & Durability

Proper care and maintenance are essential for preserving the integrity and longevity of body armor, particularly soft body armor. By following standard care recommendations, individuals can ensure that their protective gear remains in optimal condition, ready to provide reliable defense when needed. 

General Care

  • Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions, each type of soft body armor may have specific care instructions based on its materials and construction. Always refer to these instructions for the best advice on maintaining your armor.
  • Store in a cool, dry place, heat and moisture can degrade the materials used in body armor, reducing its effectiveness. Store your armor in a place that is dry and cool to preserve its integrity.
  • Avoid folding or creasing the armor as this can damage the fibers and reduce their ability to stop bullets. Always store body armor flat to avoid creases.

Cleaning

  • Do not wash or dry clean, the chemicals used in washing and dry cleaning can degrade the materials in body armor, reducing its effectiveness. Instead, clean body armor by wiping it with a damp cloth and mild soap if necessary.
  • Do not soak or submerge in water, this will damage the fibers and reduce their ability to stop bullets. If your armor becomes wet, let it air dry completely before storing it.

Lifespan and Expiration

Body armor does not last indefinitely. Most manufacturers recommend replacing body armor every five years, although some manufacturers may suggest a longer lifespan on some specific products. This is because the materials used in body armor can degrade over time, reducing the armor’s effectiveness.

Soft Armor Maintenance Tips

Maintenance is important beyond just general care of armor to prevent unnecessary problems down the road. Here are a few additional tips to keep your soft body armor in top condition.

  • Inspect the armor regularly. Look for signs of wear or damage, such as fraying fibers or cracks in the outer shell. If you notice any damage, replace the armor immediately.
  • Avoid unnecessary exposure to sunlight as UV light can degrade the materials used in body armor. Store your armor out of direct sunlight whenever possible.
  • Avoid exposure to harsh chemicals. Certain chemicals can damage the fibers used in body armor. Avoid storing your armor near cleaning supplies, automotive fluids, or other sources of harsh chemicals.
  • Do not make alterations to the armor, please. Soft armor is made of intricate fibers forming a net, what happens when you cut a net? Any alterations to body armor can reduce its effectiveness and will most likely void the warranty. Always use body armor as intended by the manufacturer.

Remember, the maintenance of body armor is crucial to ensuring its effectiveness. Always adhere to the care instructions provided by the manufacturer and replace the armor if it shows signs of wear or damage.

Benefits of Soft Body Armor

Soft armor has many benefits, but like everything in life, has drawbacks as well. 

Pros of Soft Body Armor

  1. Lightweight: Soft body armor is typically much lighter than hard body armor. This makes it more comfortable to wear for extended periods of time.
  2. Comfort: The flexible materials used in soft body armor conform to the body, providing a more comfortable fit than hard body armor.
  3. Flexibility: Soft body armor allows for a full range of motion, which is critical for law enforcement officers and others who need to move freely.
  4. Cost-effective: Soft body armor has become increasingly more affordable due to the increase in demand and companies manufacturing it, making it a more affordable choice for individuals or organizations on a budget.
  5. Low-profile: Soft body armor can be worn discreetly under clothing, making it ideal for situations where covert protection is necessary.
  6. Easy to maintain: As discussed earlier, soft body armor requires minimal maintenance and can be easily cleaned with a damp cloth and mild soap.
  7. Trusted by law enforcement: Soft body armor is the standard for law enforcement officers across the country and has a proven track record of saving lives in the line of duty.

Cons of Soft Body Armor

  1. Limited protection: While soft body armor can stop bullets from handguns and shotguns, it’s not designed to protect against rifle rounds.
  2. Durability: Soft body armor can wear out over time, especially with regular use. It is recommended to replace body armor every five years, although the lifespan can vary depending on the specific product and usage.
  3. Shelf life: Even with proper care and storage, the materials used in soft body armor can degrade over time. This means that unused body armor still has an expiration date. 
  4. Heat retention: The materials used in soft body armor are not very breathable, which can lead to overheating in hot environments or during strenuous activity. 

While soft body armor has its limitations, it’s a valuable tool for anyone who needs protection against common threats. Its benefits often outweigh its drawbacks, particularly for law enforcement officers and others who require lightweight, flexible protection.

Legalities of Buying and Wearing Soft Body Armor

In the United States, it is generally legal for private citizens to buy and wear body armor. However, there are some exceptions. Convicted felons are prohibited from purchasing or possessing body armor under federal law unless they obtain written permission from their employer or a court.

Some states also have their own laws regulating the purchase and use of body armor. For example, in Connecticut, body armor can only be purchased in person, not over the Internet or by mail order.

It’s also worth noting that while it’s legal to wear body armor in most places, using body armor in the commission of a crime can result in additional charges.

Always check your local and state laws before purchasing body armor to ensure you are in compliance.

Man with tattoos sliding soft armor plate into plate carrier - Tacticon Armament

Soft Body Armor Common Questions

We have answers to some of your most frequently asked questions about the different types of soft body armor, features, capabilities, and more. Whether you are new to the concept of soft body armor or seeking specific information, we’ve got you covered.

What is soft body armor?

Soft body armor is a type of body armor made from flexible materials, like Kevlar or Dyneema, that can stop bullets from handguns and shotguns. It is designed to conform to the body, providing a comfortable fit that allows for a full range of motion.

What is soft body armor made of?

Soft body armor is typically made of synthetic fibers like Kevlar, Twaron, Spectra, Dyneema, or UHMWPE. These materials have a high tensile strength and are capable of dispersing the energy of a bullet, reducing its ability to penetrate the armor.

Does soft body armor expire?

Yes, soft body armor does have a shelf life. Even with proper care and storage, the materials used in soft body armor can degrade over time. The National Institute of Justice recommends replacing body armor every five years, although the lifespan can vary depending on the specific product and usage.

How to clean soft body armor?

Soft body armor should be cleaned by wiping it with a damp cloth and mild soap if necessary. It should not be washed or dry cleaned, as the chemicals used in these processes can degrade the armor’s materials. If the armor becomes wet, it should be allowed to air dry completely before being stored.

What does soft body armor stop?

Soft body armor is designed to stop bullets from handguns and shotguns. The specific types of bullets it can stop depending on its level of protection as defined by the National Institute of Justice. However, soft body armor is not designed to protect against rifle rounds or high-velocity projectiles.

What soft armor stops 9mm?

All levels of soft body armor (Levels IIA, II, and IIIA) are designed to stop 9mm bullets, as per the NIJ standards.

What is the highest level soft armor?

The highest level of soft body armor is Level IIIA, as per the NIJ standards. Level IIIA armor is designed to protect against .357 SIG FMJ Flat Nose (FN) bullets and .44 Magnum Semi Jacketed Hollow Point (SJHP) bullets.

What is the most flexible bulletproof material?

The most flexible bulletproof materials are typically aramid fibers like Kevlar and Twaron. However, UHMWPE fibers like Spectra and Dyneema also offer a good balance of flexibility and protection.

Is UHMWPE better than kevlar?

UHMWPE and Kevlar both have their advantages and disadvantages. UHMWPE, such as Spectra or Dyneema, is lighter and has a higher tensile strength than Kevlar. However, Kevlar is more effective against blunt force trauma and has a higher melting point.

Is there a rifle rated soft armor?

Soft body armor is not rated to protect against rifle rounds. For protection against rifle rounds, you would need hard body armor, typically made from materials like ceramic or polyethylene. These materials are capable of stopping higher velocity projectiles that soft body armor cannot. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) classifies hard armor into Level III, which can stop most rifle rounds, and Level IV, which can stop armor-piercing rounds.

Yes, it is generally legal for private citizens to buy and wear soft body armor in the United States. However, there are exceptions. For instance, it’s against federal law for convicted felons to purchase or possess body armor unless they have written permission from their employer or a court. Some states also have additional laws regarding the purchase and use of body armor. For example, in Connecticut, body armor can only be purchased face-to-face, not online or through mail order. It is advised to check local and state laws before purchasing body armor.

Final Thoughts on Soft Body Armor

In conclusion, when it comes to the various types of soft body armor, this essential protective gear finds wide applications among law enforcement, security personnel, and civilians alike. Its benefits include its lightweight nature, comfort, flexibility, cost-effectiveness, and low-profile design. However, it has its limitations, such as providing limited protection against rifle rounds and potential heat retention issues.

The various materials used in manufacturing soft body armor, such as Kevlar, Twaron, Spectra, Dyneema, and UHMWPE, each come with their unique advantages and disadvantages. Understanding these materials and their properties can help users make informed choices about the type of body armor that best suits their needs.

Maintenance and care are crucial to preserving the protective capabilities of soft body armor. While regular inspection, correct cleaning methods, and proper storage conditions can extend the lifespan of body armor, it’s also important to remember that body armor doesn’t last indefinitely and should be replaced according to the recommendations of the manufacturer or the National Institute of Justice.

While it is generally legal for private citizens to purchase and wear soft body armor in the United States, certain legal restrictions apply, particularly for convicted felons. It’s always a good idea to check the laws in your state or country before purchasing body armor.

Soft body armor has undoubtedly saved countless lives over the years, and advancements in materials and design continue to improve its effectiveness and comfort. Whether you’re law enforcement, security, or private citizen, understanding the benefits, limitations, and proper maintenance of soft body armor can help you make the most of this essential protective gear.

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