When it comes to safety equipment terms like ‘body armor,’ ‘bulletproof vest,’ and ‘bulletproof armor’ are often used interchangeably. However, while these terms are related, they do not mean the same thing. It’s important to understand the differences and what each piece of equipment is designed to do to ensure you’re adequately protected in dangerous situations.

What is Body Armor?

Body armor is a broad term that refers to any protective covering designed to deflect or absorb physical attacks. Body armor can come in many forms depending on its intended use. Hard armor plates are designed to stop rifle rounds; whereas soft body armor like a “Bulletproof vest” is designed for law enforcement to stop pistol and shotgun blasts. Further armor exists in the form of a stab-resistant protective vest to keep the user safe from sharp objects.

Members of the Portland Police Departments wearing bulletproof vests - Tacticon Armament

Body armor is typically categorized into two main types, soft and hard armor. Soft armor is designed to absorb and disperse the energy of a bullet by catching it, while hard armor uses rigid material, like ceramic or steel, to shatter the bullet and stop it.

What is a Bulletproof Vest?

A bulletproof vest is a specific type of body armor that is designed to protect the wearer from handgun fire. The term ‘bulletproof’ can be a bit misleading, as no vest can guarantee complete protection from all types of bullets, and most vests of this category are not made to stop rifle rounds. Instead, bulletproof vests are rated based on their ability to stop specific calibers at certain velocities.

The vest works by using layers of a strong, web-like fabric, often Kevlar or UHMWPE, to catch and deform a bullet, spreading its force over a large area. Some bulletproof vests also include hard armor plates for added protection against high-caliber rounds.

What is Bulletproof Armor?

Bulletproof armor refers to body armor designed to resist bullet penetration, it is somewhat of a “catch all” term. This can include bulletproof vests, hard body armor plates, and other protective gear like helmets or shields. Bulletproof armor is rated based on the types of bullets it can stop.

Additionally, bulletproof armor can be either soft or hard depending on the threat level individuals need protection from.

While body armor, bulletproof vests, and bulletproof armor provide valuable protection they are not all the same. Understanding the differences can help you choose the right equipment for your needs, remember, no armor can provide 100% protection against all threats.

Different Types of Bulletproof Vests

Bulletproof vests come in many forms and styles each designed for specific uses, threats, and environments. Understanding these different types can help you select the most suitable protection for your needs.

Concealable and Tactical Vests

Concealable vests or covert bulletproof vests, are designed to be worn under clothing. They’re often made of flexible, lightweight materials that can easily be worn on a daily basis by law enforcement. These vests offer protection up to the NIJ Level IIIA, making them effective against most handgun rounds.

Tactical vests on the other hand are worn over clothing. Overt vests are usually used by law enforcement officers or the military when identification is important. Tactical vests often have pockets or attachment points such as MOLLE for additional equipment and can incorporate hard armor plates for added protection against rifle rounds.

Plate Carriers

Plate carriers are a type of tactical vest designed to carry hard armor plates. These plates offer protection against rifle rounds that soft body armor can’t stop. Plate carriers are designed to be equipped with MOLLE allowing the user to attach accessories like mag pouches, holsters, and comms.

Tattooed man placing soft body armor into a plate carrier - Tacticon Armament
Soft body armor

Choosing the right type of bulletproof vest depends on your specific needs, including the level of threat you’re likely to face, the environment in which you’ll be operating, and your comfort and mobility needs. Always remember to maintain your vest properly and replace it when necessary to ensure its effectiveness.

Female Specific Vests

Female specific bulletproof vests are designed with the female anatomy in mind to provide a more comfortable and secure fit. They offer the same level of protection as unisex vests but are tailored to better accommodate the female form. This attention to fit and comfort can improve the wearability and effectiveness of the vest and help it to remain in place.

Different Types of Bulletproof Armor

Bulletproof armor refers to various types of protective gear designed to prevent bullets or other threats from penetrating and causing injury. The different types of bulletproof armor are usually designed for specific threats or scenarios.

Soft Armor

UHMWPE (Ultra-High Molecular Weight Polyethylene) soft body armor plate - Tacticon Armament

Soft armor like what is commonly referred to as a “Bulletproof vest,” is made of layers of high-strength fibers like Kevlar and Ultra high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE). It is designed to absorb the impact of a bullet by spreading its force over a large area. Soft armor is flexible and lightweight, making it ideal for concealable vests and everyday use. Soft armor typically offers protection up to the NIJ Level IIIA, making it effective against most handgun rounds.

Hard Armor

Level 3+ body armor plates - Tacticon Armament
Tacticon cermaic armor

Hard armor uses rigid plates made of materials like ceramic, steel, or polyethylene. This type of armor is used in tactical vests and plate carriers and offers higher levels of protection than soft armor. Hard armor generally comes in NIJ level III and level IV, which will be discussed later, although special threat plates are also made to cut weight and protect against specific and common threats. Ceramic is the most advanced form of hard armor and is comprised of a ceramic strike face to break the bullet, and a UHMWPE backer to absorb the impact. Steel armor is a classic, it presents a hard barrier that shatters incoming rounds fragmenting the bullet, which is why most steel plates utilize a frag mitigation coat.

Stab/Spike/Edge Armor

While bulletproof armor is designed to stop bullets, stab proof armor mitigates stabs, spikes, and attacks from edged weapons (like knives) or spiked weapons (like ice picks). These types of armor use materials and designs that can catch or deflect the weapon, preventing it from penetrating. This is particularly important for correctional officers and deputies.

Multi-Threat Armor

Multi-threat armor is designed to protect against a variety of threats. For example, a multi-threat vest might include both bullet-resistant materials and stab-resistant materials, offering protection against both types of attacks.

Helmets and Shields

Bulletproof helmets and shields are designed to provide protection to the head and body, respectively. Helmets are used by military and law enforcement in certain situations, while shields can be used in a variety of scenarios, including riot control or active shooter situations. Most helmets are NIJ level IIIA due to weight, though some companies make rifle-rated helmets.

Full Body Armor (EOD Suits)

Full body armor such as Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) suits, provides comprehensive protection to the wearer. These suits are designed to protect against the blast and fragmentation effects of an explosive device. They include a helmet, visor, torso protection, arm and leg protection, and gloves.

Each type of bulletproof armor has its own strengths and weaknesses and is designed for specific threats and scenarios. When choosing the right bulletproof armor for your needs, it’s crucial to consider the types of threats you’re likely to face, your mobility needs, and your comfort.

Body Armor Threat Levels

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) sets standards for body armor performance in the United States. These standards are meant to ensure that body armor will provide a consistent level of protection. The NIJ’s threat levels help to categorize and communicate the protective capabilities of different types of body armor. 

Ballistic Resistance Levels for Body Armor

NIJ (National Institute of Justice) levels IIA, II, IIIA, III, IV - Tacticon Armament
NIJ Levels
  1. Level IIA: This level is designed to protect against 9mm full metal jacketed round nose (FMJ RN) bullets and .40 S&W caliber full metal jacketed (FMJ) bullets.
  2. Level II: Provides protection against 9mm FMJ RN bullets and .357 Magnum jacketed soft point (JSP) bullets.
  3. Level IIIA: Level IIIA protects against .357 SIG FMJ flat nose (FN) bullets and .44 Magnum semi-jacketed hollow point (SJHP) bullets. This level is often used by law enforcement officers.
  4. Level III: Level III is the entry-level for hard armor plates and protects against 7.62mm FMJ steel jacketed bullets (U.S. Military designation M80).
  5. Level IV: Level IV protects against .30 caliber armor-piercing (AP) bullets (U.S. Military designation M2 AP). It is the highest level of protection currently available and is typically used in tactical situations by military and law enforcement.

See our Comprehensive Guide to Body Armor Levels for a thorough explanation of body armor levels.

Stab Resistance Levels for Body Armor

The NIJ also rates armor for its ability to resist stabs and slashes:

  1. Level 1: Protects against low-level threats from small knives.
  2. Level 2: Protects against medium-level threats from larger knives.
  3. Level 3: Protects against high-level threats from larger knives and spikes.

Please note that these descriptions provide a general guideline. The actual threats each level protects against can get quite specific, especially when it comes to the type of bullet, its speed, and its mass. For the most accurate information, refer to the NIJ’s official standards.

How To Choose The Right Body Armor Vest or Armor

Choosing the right vest or armor depends on a variety of factors. Here are some considerations that can guide you:

1. Understand the Threat Level

The first thing to consider is the level of threat you might be facing. This will dictate the level of protection you need. If you’re in an environment with potential rifle threats, you’ll need higher level protection, such as NIJ Level III or IV rifle armor. For more common threats like handguns, a Level II or IIIA vest may be sufficient.

2. Comfort and Mobility

Comfort and mobility are key considerations. You’ll want a lightweight vest and armor that fits well, is comfortable to wear for extended periods, and doesn’t restrict your movement. Remember, the best armor is the one you’ll actually wear.

3. Covert or Overt:

Do you need to hide your armor, or can it be visible? Covert armor is designed to be worn under clothing and is typically softer and more flexible. Overt armor is usually bulkier and worn over clothing, often offering higher levels of protection by using rifle plates and the ability to add extra equipment and accessories.

4. Soft vs. Hard Armor:

Soft armor is lighter and more flexible but doesn’t offer protection against rifle rounds like hard body armor. Hard body armor is heavier and more restrictive but can protect against rifle rounds but with less overall coverage. Your choice will depend on the balance of mobility, coverage, and protection you need.

5. Multi-Threat Protection:

Do you need protection against threats other than bullets, such as stabs or spikes? If so, consider multi-threat armor that offers protection against multiple types of threats.

6. Price and Quality:

While price is a consideration, remember that you’re investing in your safety. It’s generally better to pay more for high-quality, reliable protection. It is important to buy from a reputable manufacturer that has armor listed as certified and listed on the NIJ website, such as Tacticon. 

7. Size and Fit:

Body armor needs to fit correctly to provide the best protection. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s sizing guides and consider professional fitting if possible.

8. Care and Maintenance:

Consider the care and maintenance the armor will require. Some materials like Kevlar, can degrade with exposure to sunlight or water, so they need to be properly cared for to maintain their protective properties.

Your ideal vest or armor will depend on your individual circumstances, including the threats you’re likely to face, your physical needs, and your personal preferences. Always ensure you are trained in the proper usage and maintenance of any protective equipment you choose.

Frequently Asked Armor and Vest Questions

How many types of bulletproof vests are there?

There are many types of bulletproof vests, but they can generally be categorized into two main types: soft and hard armor. Soft armor is usually made of layers of high-strength fibers and is typically used in concealable vests for everyday wear. Hard armor uses rigid plates made of materials like ceramic, steel, or polyethylene to protect against rifle rounds. Within these categories, you’ll find variations like covert and overt vests, female specific vests, plate carriers, modular vests, and multi-threat vests.

What is the best type of bulletproof vest?

The “best” type of bulletproof vest is the one that you will actually wear. This depends on the specific threats you’re likely to face, your physical needs, and your personal preferences. For general-purpose civilian use, a Level II or IIIA soft armor vest might be sufficient. For situations where a rifle threat could be present, or military use a tactical vest with Level III or IV hard armor plates might be needed.

Can an AR-15 penetrate a bulletproof vest?

An AR-15, which typically fires .223 or 5.56mm rounds, can penetrate soft armor and some lower levels of hard armor. However, a bulletproof vest rated at NIJ Level III or IV should be able to stop these rounds.

Will a bulletproof vest stop an AK-47?

An AK-47 fire 7.62×39 and can penetrate pistol-rated armor. Soft armor will not stop these rounds, but a hard armor plate rated at NIJ Level III should be able to. A Level IV plate is needed to stop armor-piercing variants of this round.

What is the difference between a ballistic vest and a bulletproof vest?

The terms “ballistic vest” and “bulletproof vest” are often used interchangeably, but they don’t necessarily mean the same thing. “Bulletproof” suggests that the vest can stop all bullets, which is not accurate. No vest is completely bulletproof against all types of rounds and velocities. “Ballistic” is not that much different, remember that all armor has ratings for a reason, and it is important to understand the limitations of armor before you decide on what to purchase.

Can civilians own bulletproof vests?

In most places in the U.S. civilians can legally purchase and wear bulletproof vests unless they have been convicted of a felony. However, the laws vary by state and county, so you should always check your local laws before purchasing a bulletproof vest.

Final Thoughts 

Body armor, be it a bulletproof vest or other protective gear serves a critical role in personal protection, particularly in dangerous situations. Understanding the different types of body armor, their capabilities, and their limitations is key to selecting the right armor for your specific needs.

Whether you’re a civilian living in a dangerous environment, a law enforcement officer, or military, wearing the right type of body armor can significantly protect you from a serious injury. It’s crucial to remember that no body armor can offer 100% protection against all threats, but it can drastically reduce the risk of serious injury.

Remember that owning and wearing body armor carries with it a responsibility. It’s essential to maintain your gear properly, understand the laws surrounding its use, and, most importantly, get the proper training to know how to respond effectively when faced with a threat. Your body armor is just one tool in your safety toolkit, and it’s your knowledge, awareness, and preparedness that ultimately make the difference.

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