Body armor has saved many lives and prevented countless tragedies over the course of its use. Simple plate armor worn by knights in the Middle Ages involved a complex process of metallurgy and was then heated and hammered into shape. Today’s processes for making modern armor can be somewhat mysterious, with proprietary manufacturing, ITAR regulations, and material processes, patents, and a general lack of available information. If you trust your life to something, aren’t you at least a bit curious about how body armor is made and the materials used? Instead of cutting your expensive plate and trying to reverse engineer it, today we will just tell you how different types of body armor is made.
How Is Body Armor Manufactured?
The production of body armor involves several steps, beginning with the careful selection and testing of raw materials. High-strength, tightly woven fibers are generally used as the core material in the manufacturing process. These fibers are then coated with resin and encased in plastic for increased durability and protection against penetration. The overall thickness of the armor is also an important factor, as more material will have better ballistic capabilities, but also hinder the wearer. Tacticon implements strict quality control measures to ensure that its products meet the highest standards of performance and durability.
Hard Body Armor
Hard body armor is designed to protect against rifles and other powerful ammunition. It consists of rigid plates that can be inserted into a vest or carrier. Hard body armor is used in professional fields that regularly face rifle threats like the military, SWAT teams, etc. The determining factor in selecting to use hard armor is the likelihood of rifle fire.
What Materials Are Used In Hard Body Armor?
Hard body armor is typically composed of either steel, ceramic, or UHMWPE plates. Steel armor is made from a combination of iron and carbon, making it both sturdy and malleable. On the other hand ceramic armor consists of materials like alumina, boron carbide, and silicon carbide. These substances are chosen for their high strength-to-weight ratio and exceptional hardness which allows them to effectively dissipate the kinetic energy of incoming bullets.
Ceramic Body Armor
Ceramic body armor plates represent the highest ballistic threat protection currently available. It is lightweight yet exceptionally hard, making it ideal for rifle threats and other difficult to stop rounds.
The manufacturing process for ceramic body armor begins with the preparation of advanced ceramics. These ceramics are often combined with ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE), fiberglass or other type of thermoplastic that has a high strength-to-weight ratio.
Next, these materials are pressed and shaped according to precise specifications. This ensures an exact fit when they are inserted into the body armor carrier or vest.
After shaping, high quality plates will undergoes a process known as autoclaving. This involves subjecting the material to intense heat and pressure in an autoclave chamber. During this process, the ceramic and UHMWPE materials are bonded together, creating a single cohesive composite structure. This structure has exceptional strength and durability, providing reliable protection against a variety of ballistic threats.
Pros and Cons of Ceramic Body Armor
When considering ceramic body armor it’s important to weigh both its advantages and potential drawbacks. This type of body armor offers unique properties that make it highly effective in certain scenarios, but like all body armor types, it’s not without its limitations.
Pros of Ceramic Body Armor
Ceramic body armor offers several key advantages that make it a popular choice for rifle armor.
- Rifle-Rated Protection: Ceramic armor offers protection up to Level IV, the highest level on the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) body armor performance standards. This means Level IV ceramic can stop armor piercing rifle rounds that lower level armor cannot. By providing superior protection against a wide range of ballistic threats, ceramic armor is often the go-to choice for military and law enforcement who face such dangers on a regular basis.
- Thinner Than UHMWPE: Ceramic armor plates are generally thinner than other types, such as polyethylene. This makes the armor less bulky, allowing for greater mobility and comfort, especially during prolonged wear.
- Lightweight: While ceramic body armor provides high-level protection, it doesn’t have to weigh you down. It’s significantly lighter than steel armor, which can make a significant difference in a wearer’s mobility and speed. In threatening situations, being light on your feet and able to maneuver quickly can be lifesaving.
Cons of Ceramic Body Armor
While ceramic body armor is highly effective in many situations, there are certain aspects that may limit its suitability for some users. Here are some potential drawbacks to consider:
- Edge Protection Issues: Ceramic body armor is typically constructed with a backing of PE (polyethylene) to catch fragments and splinters from the ceramic plate when struck by a projectile. However this introduces potential vulnerabilities. The edge of the plate, where the ceramic material meets the PE backing, can be more susceptible to damage. Therefore, the outer edge of the plate may not offer the same level of ballistic resistance as the center. As per NIJ standards, the level of protection advertised for body armor only applies to the center of the plate, not the edges.
- Risk of Cracking: Ceramic plates face the risk of cracking if dropped repeatedly, or roughly on the corners and edges.
- Shorter Lifespan: Another consideration is the relatively short lifespan of ceramic body armor. While it offers high level protection, it generally only lasts around 5-10 years, depending on the usage and storage conditions. This is in stark contrast to most steel armor, which can last up to 20 years. This could mean frequent replacements for active users, making ceramic armor a potentially less cost-effective option over the long term.
Steel Body Armor
The world of body armor has seen numerous innovations, and steel body armor plates stand out as a testament to the melding of ancient techniques with modern technology. At its core, the manufacturing process of steel body armor revolves around creating a material robust enough to provide the user with protection against potential threats.
Mining & Preparation
The journey of crafting steel body armor commences deep within the earth. Essential elements, predominantly nickel, chromium, and molybdenum, are meticulously mined. Accompanying these are minor elements such as phosphorus, sulphur, and more. Following extraction, these elements are set to undergo a fiery transformation as they’re smelted in an ultra-hot furnace.
Within the blazing confines of this furnace, the extracted elements undergo a purification process. Impurities are diligently removed, and the carbon content is amplified, converting the elements into a more robust version of their former self. Post-refinement, the molten metal is cast into billets, forming long, slender rods of iron, awaiting further transformation.
Rolling & Forging
The billets are then subjected to rolling, wherein they’re transformed into thin yet sturdy sheets of metal. These sheets undergo forging or cutting to meticulously be sculpted into the shape of armor plates designed to seamlessly fit within protective vests.
The culmination of this intricate process is heat treatment. It’s here that the steel plates are endowed with their ballistic resistant properties. By regulating temperature in a controlled environment, the steel undergoes changes at a molecular level, ensuring it stands as a formidable barrier against external threats.
Steel body armor is incomplete until it has a proper fragmentation coat, that is why all Tacticon Armament steel body armor is sold with a complete fragmentation coat to protect the wearer from secondary injury coming from the shattered projectile. This is most often a sprayed Polyurea layer roughly .25 inches thick, that will encapsulate the bullet fragments if the plate is shot.
Pros and Cons of Steel Body Armor
Steel armor is a classic and has been in use for a long time. While there are many benefits to steel armor there are also some drawbacks, some of which are easily mitigated, others not so much.
Pros of Steel Body Armor
Steel body armor offers several advantages that make it a reliable and popular choice for many.
- Longevity: One of the primary benefits of steel body armor is its longevity. This type of armor can last up to 20 years if properly maintained, outlasting other types of body armor by a considerable margin. This makes it an economical choice for long-term use.
- Durability: Steel body armor is also highly durable. The armor lacks visible weak points, which are often found in other types of body armor, thereby ensuring comprehensive safety.
- Edge-to-Edge Protection: Unlike some armor materials that may crack or provide inconsistent protection, steel armor offers thorough edge-to-edge coverage. This means that threats are effectively neutralized across the entirety of the armor plate, providing enhanced security to the wearer.
- Low Backface Deformation (BFD): Backface deformation refers to the armor plate’s inward deformation on the body side after a projectile strike. A high degree of BFD can lead to severe injury, even if the armor successfully stops the projectile. However, steel body armor excels in this regard, showing minimal BFD upon impact.
Cons of Steel Body Armor
Despite its advantages, steel body armor may not always be the ideal choice for everyone due to certain limitations.
- Weight: One of the primary drawbacks of steel body armor is its weight. Steel is the heaviest among body armor materials, which can impede mobility and cause quicker fatigue in the wearer. For prolonged or highly active operations, the weight factor may make steel body armor less ideal.
- Risk of Fragmentation: Steel body armor has a risk of causing fragmentation upon impact. Unlike ceramic or other types of armor where the plate itself shatters, the steel causes the bullet to fragment upon impact. This fragmentation can create dangerous shrapnel, which could potentially cause injury to the wearer or those nearby. That is why Tacticon AR500 and AR600 plates come standard with a full fragmentation mitigation coating, to eliminate this risk.
- No armor piercing protection: Steel body armor is not capable of defeating armor piercing rounds, and rounds where velocity exceeds 3,300 FPS.
Therefore, while steel body armor provides strong protection and remarkable longevity, these benefits need to be weighed against its drawbacks such as weight and fragmentation risk. Depending on the specific needs and circumstances of the wearer, other armor types such as ceramic might be more appropriate.
Soft body armor is a type of body armor that utilizes flexible, soft materials to provide protection against pistol and shotgun threats, this is what is commonly known as a bulletproof vest. Unlike hard armor, which is designed to stop rifle rounds and shrapnel, soft armor is primarily designed to protect against handgun ammunition, which travels at lower speeds.
Soft armor is commonly used by law enforcement as it is lighter and more comfortable to wear for extended periods compared to hard armor. Military personnel also often wear soft armor to mitigate shrapnel in addition to their hard armor.
Other situations where soft armor may be used include security work, personal protection, or any scenario where the wearer might face threats from hand guns.
What Materials Are Used In Soft Body Armor?
Soft body armor is typically made from materials like Kevlar and high-strength polyethylene fibers. These materials are synthetic in nature, which means they are man-made using complex chemical processes.
Kevlar Body Armor
Kevlar body armor is an excellent example of a soft armor system. The production of Kevlar involves intricate chemistry and manufacturing processes to create a material that’s exceptionally strong yet relatively lightweight and flexible.
The manufacture of Kevlar begins with a compound known as poly-para-phenylene terephthalamide. This compound is created by instigating a chemical reaction between terephthaloyl chloride, an acid, and p-phenylenediamine, a chemical solution containing nitrogen and hydrogen. The reaction forms a polymer liquid, which can then be spun into fibers.
Once the fibers are created, they’re used to produce sheets of Kevlar fabric. These sheets are then layered together, typically between 20 to 50 layers, to form the body armor. The number of layers used in the armor can be adjusted according to the level of protection needed. More layers provide greater protection, with higher numbers being effective at stopping more potent threats.
This layered structure provides a high degree of flexibility and breathability, making Kevlar body armor comfortable to wear for long periods. The layered design also effectively disperses the energy of a bullet upon impact, reducing the likelihood of injury to the wearer.
Soft body armor offers a balance of protection, comfort, and mobility. While it may not provide the same level of protection against high-velocity threats as hard armor, it is an essential tool for those facing pistol threats in their line of duty.
Pros and Cons of Kevlar Body Armor
Kevlar body armor is a popular protective gear option, appreciated for its ability to absorb and disperse the energy of ballistic threats effectively. Like all protective materials, however, it has its advantages and disadvantages, which should be carefully considered before making a purchasing decision.
Pros of Kevlar Body Armor
There are several compelling reasons to choose Kevlar body armor in certain situations.
- Cut and Slash Resistant: Kevlar body armor exhibits exceptional resistance to cuts and slashes due to its tightly woven plastic composite structure. This makes it particularly effective against attacks with sharp objects, such as knives.
- Comfort & Flexibility: The high flexibility of Kevlar material allows for ease of movement in high-threat situations. It can be worn for extended periods with relatively low discomfort, making it an excellent choice for professions requiring prolonged use of body armor.
- Heat Resistance: Kevlar is highly resistant to high temperatures, enhancing its durability in various operational environments and preserving its protective qualities even under extreme conditions.
Cons of Kevlar Body Armor
However, there are also several drawbacks to Kevlar body armor.
- UHMWPE is Superior: Kevlar had a long run being the premier soft body armor choice as it is 5 times stronger than steel. However UHMWPE has surpassed Kevlar, and is 15 times stronger than steel overall.
- Vulnerable to Rifle Threats: Being soft armor Kevlar is not capable of stopping rifle rounds. While this is a ‘con’ Kevlar has its purpose, and rifle rounds are not the reason to wear kevlar.
Kevlar body armor provides a good balance of comfort, flexibility, and protection, especially against cuts and slashes. However, its bulkiness, limited moisture resistance, and reduced effectiveness against multiple impacts in the same area are factors that should be taken into account when deciding whether it is the best choice for a particular set of needs.
Polyethylene/UHMWPE Body Armor
Ultra-High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE) body armor is another example of advanced protective technology. The manufacturing process of this material results in a strong, lightweight protective armor.
The process starts by bonding unidirectional UHMWPE fibers over a high-density polyethylene (HDPE) sheet. These UHMWPE fibers are incredibly strong, contributing to the overall strength of the finished armor.
Molding & Shaping
Sheets of bonded fibers are then placed in a mold and cut into the desired shape. These sheets can then be subjected to high pressure and heat in a process known as consolidation, which results in a cohesive hard armor plate. Or if left without the heating process, can be used to form soft body armor.
Pros and Cons of Polyethylene/UHMWPE Body Armor
Like any protective material, Polyethylene body armor has its strengths and weaknesses, which should be considered before making a purchasing decision.
Pros of Polyethylene/UHMWPE Body Armor
UHMWPE body armor offers several advantages that make it a preferred choice in certain situations.
- Lightweight: UHMWPE is significantly lighter than other materials used for body armor, such as Kevlar or steel. This decreased weight allows for increased mobility and reduced fatigue during prolonged use.
- Low Backface Deformation (BFD): UHMWPE armor effectively reduces the transfer of energy from a ballistic impact to the body, which significantly reduces the chances of injury. This is also the reason it will be paired with ceramic to form ceramic composite armor.
- High Moisture Resistance: Unlike some other materials, UHMWPE has a high resistance to water absorption. This means it maintains its protective properties even when exposed to prolonged wet conditions.
Cons of Polyethylene/UHMWPE Body Armor
However, there are also some drawbacks to consider.
- Low Cut and Slash Resistance: UHMWPE is less effective than Kevlar when it comes to protecting against knife strikes and edged weapons.
- Lower Heat Resistance: While UHMWPE is excellent at resisting water, it is less effective at resisting heat. Prolonged exposure to high temperatures can reduce its ballistic performance.
Hard Armor Vs. Soft Armor
When choosing between hard and soft armor, it ultimately comes down to the specific needs and circumstances of the wearer.
Hard body armor provides protection against rifle rounds and is more durable in terms of multi-hit capabilities. However, it is heavier and less flexible, potentially reducing mobility and comfort during prolonged use. It also offers less coverage due to the ridged nature of the plates.
Soft armor is made from materials like Kevlar or UHMWPE, is lighter and more comfortable to wear. It allows for greater mobility and is often more resistant to environmental factors like moisture. However, it offers less protection against high caliber threats and may have less multi-hit capability.
The decision between hard and soft armor should be based on the balance between the level of threat expected, the need for mobility and comfort, and the specific operational environment.
Body Armor Manufacturing FAQs
Body armor is made by combining a variety of materials to create a protective layer that can absorb and dissipate the energy from a bullet or other ballistic threats. The type of materials used can range from metals (such as steel), ceramics, and synthetic fibers (like Kevlar and UHMWPE). The choice of material depends on the level of protection required, weight constraints, and other factors.
Body armor plates are commonly made from steel, ceramics, or polyethylene. Steel plates are durable and cost-effective but heavier than alternatives. Ceramic plates are lighter but may be less durable. Polyethylene plates are lightweight and effective but can be expensive.
Soft body armor is typically made using layers of strong synthetic fibers, such as Kevlar or UHMWPE. These layers can absorb and distribute the energy of a bullet, reducing its penetrating power.
Bulletproof armor is made by combining layers of ballistic-resistant materials, such as steel, ceramics, and synthetic fibers. The exact construction depends on the level of protection needed. For example, higher-level armor designed to stop rifle rounds may include a hard armor plate in addition to several layers of fabric-based ballistic materials.
The raw materials for body armor include steel, ceramic materials, and synthetic fibers like Kevlar and UHMWPE. The choice of material depends on the desired level of protection, weight considerations, and cost.
The strongest body armor material would be composite ceramics incorporating a polyethylene backer. This leads to a composite offering a high level of protection while being relatively lightweight. However, the “strength” of the armor depends on factors such as its design, the type of threat it’s designed to stop, and its condition.
The inside of body armor contains layers of ballistic-resistant material. Depending on the level of protection required, this can include layers of steel, ceramic, or synthetic fibers, or a combination of these.
The chemistry of body armor involves the interaction of the ballistic with the armor material. Different materials react differently when struck by a bullet. For example, steel and ceramic plates use their hardness to deform or shatter the bullet, while Kevlar and UHMWPE use the tensile strength of their fibers to absorb and distribute the bullet’s energy.
The physics of body armor involve principles such as energy transfer and momentum. When a bullet hits the armor, the goal is to absorb and distribute the energy in a way that prevents the bullet from penetrating. This is achieved through deformation of the bullet, spreading the energy over a larger area, or a combination of both.
Yes body armor can break or become damaged, especially if it’s subjected to impacts that exceed its design parameters. For example, ceramic plates can crack if dropped, and both soft and hard armor can be degraded by exposure to certain chemicals, moisture, and UV light.
In conclusion, the manufacturing of body armor, whether hard or soft, involves a series of complex and meticulous processes. These include the use of diverse materials such as steel, ceramics, Kevlar, and UHMWPE, each of which offers unique protective properties. This results in a range of body armor products that can cater to various threat levels and user requirements.
Hard body armor is made from steel or ceramic composites which is designed to stop rifle rounds. However, the trade-off comes in the form of increased weight and decreased mobility. Conversely, soft body armor, made from materials like Kevlar or UHMWPE, provides a balance of comfort, flexibility, and protection, particularly against lower-level threats.
While the manufacturing process ensures that body armor is designed to offer the best possible protection, the ultimate decision rests on the end users. Their personal needs, the nature of threats they may face, and their comfort preferences play a pivotal role in determining the most suitable body armor for them. Thus, it is paramount that potential users evaluate the available options thoroughly and make informed decisions when it comes to personal safety and the use of body armor.
The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Tacticon Armament.