Body armor has been an essential part of personal protection for centuries dating back to ancient warriors who wore metal plates to defend themselves in battle. We still wear steel body armor today with great effect, however, older technologies are heavier than modern methods.
Advancements in ballistic technology and the need for improved protection in modern warfare and law enforcement, have led to advancements in body armor. As technology has evolved from metals to synthetic fibers and ceramics, body armor has become more effective, lighter, and more comfortable.
Lightweight body armor is very sought after and can be expensive. In this article, we will explore the evolution of lightweight body armor, its materials, applications, and the future of personal protection.
History and Evolution
The development of lightweight body armor can be traced back to World War II, when flyers jackets made from ballistic nylon and 2″x2″ metal squares were introduced to protect airmen from shrapnel. In total, this system could range from 20-35lb depending on attachments for extra coverage.
Modern rifle plates made of a ceramic strike face and soft backer are a product of air crew armor from the Vietnam War.
In the 1970s the emergence of Kevlar, a high-strength synthetic fiber, created the era of accessible personal body armor. Kevlar allowed for the production of flexible and lightweight vests capable of stopping handgun bullets
Over time additional lightweight materials such as ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) and advanced ceramics, have been introduced to further enhance the protective capabilities of body armor.
Materials and Technologies
Kevlar is a synthetic fiber known for its high tensile strength and resistance to heat. It is woven into layers to create a flexible, lightweight fabric capable of stopping bullets and providing protection against slashing attacks. Kevlar is the forefather of pretty much all modern body armor except steel.
UHMWPE has a higher strength-to-weight ratio than Kevlar, and is now the primary material used in soft pistol armor. It provides increased ballistic protection and is less susceptible to degradation from environmental factors such as moisture and ultraviolet radiation.
UHMWPE can also be used in rifle plates, but has a limit to its protective capabilities without a strike face.
Advanced ceramics were created to stop high-velocity rifle rounds and armor-piercing bullets.
These materials are used in conjunction with a fibrous backing material to create composite armor plates that are both lightweight and effective.
Steel armor is a classic form of ballistic protection used to create vehicle, building, and body armor. Steel often comes in the form of AR500, AR550, and AR600 steel plates as measured on the Brinell hardness scale. Higher hardness steel is more brittle, but lighter, thinner, and stronger. Steel is generally an inexpensive and heavier option for body armor. Steel also comes with the risk of bullet fragmentation and spall, but this is easily resolved with a few modern innovations.
Modern Armor Design
Soft Body Armor
Soft body armor used to be primary Kevlar, now UHMWPE is the predominate material used. These fibrous materials create soft armor by layering sheets of this woven material. Despite the many layers, these sheets retain their flexibility, allowing for easy form fitting. Armor panels made of this material can be larger than rifle plates due to their lightweight and flexible nature. Once the armor panels are made, they are placed into a specialized soft armor carrier.
Hard Body Armor Plates
Hard armor plates are ridged protective plates typically coming in SAPI or Swimmer cuts.
They may be made of UHMWPE such as the level III plates and SRT plate from Tacticon Armament which are layered sheets of UHMWPE designed to stop certain rifle rounds. UHMWPE plates are generally thicker and weigh almost nothing making them an excellent choice for lightweight body armor.
Rifle plates also come in the form of a stand alone steel strike face coated in anti fragmentation coating. Steel armor plates typically come in NIJ level 3 or level 3+ depending on the rounds they stop.
Ceramic composite plates are the premiere option for modern rifle plates. These utilize a ceramic strike face in conjunction with a soft (generally UHMWPE) backer to provide additional support. Ceramic composite plates are various NIJ levels, such as level IV, Level 3(+) and SRT+. Ceramic composite is used in light weight armor such as Tacticon Armaments SRT+ plate, weighing only 4.1lb. It is also used in the light weight level 4 armor plate that weighs only 6lb but can stop armor piercing rounds.
Why Own Light weight body armor?
Light weight armor is very popular among civilians, law enforcement, and the military because it’s overall better for the user for several reasons.
First and foremost, because it’s light. Most people don’t realize when characters in movies and TV shows wear a plate carrier, they are generally empty. Actors appear to be entirely unencumbered by the armor, and that’s because they generally aren’t wearing any. So sometimes people buy an affordable ‘active shooter kit’ on sale featuring 8-9lb per plate level 4 plates, and are stifled under the additional 20lb they didn’t expect to be wearing.
Now to be far, I’ve worn heavy plates for hours on end with minimal complaining, because it does get easier as you get used to it. That said, how much more comfortable would that plate carrier be if it weighed 10lb less? Especially once you start adding magazine pouches and hydration gear. Light weight body armor is less of a shock to wearers, and is much for comfortable for extended wear. The military knows this, and military body armor is often 4-6 pounds per plate. That said, the military has plenty of tax payer dollars to afford these plates, which many companies charge a premium for.
As a civilian, light weight armor is less attainable because it is generally more expensive. This is why the Hesco L210s are so popular. They are around $300 per plate and weight about 5.5lbs. However, they are not even level 3 and in a recent Buffman Range armor test video failed to stop .308.
Why Light Weight Body Armor Excels
Long durations wearing body armor will be taxing and exhausting in general until someone becomes accustomed to it. This is inherent with all protective equipment across the board in any profession. If you ask a contractor how long it took to get used to a heavy tool belt, or a cop how long it took to get used to a vest they will likely say it took a week. You can get used to wearing heavy plates, but lightweight body armor will be more comfortable, period.
Mobility is key in tactical situations and combat. Heavy body armor (especially if the user is not used it) is added weight that the user must overcome as they move. This can mean slower movements, taking more time to change shooting positions, and more time in the open. All these things are bad in combat for obvious reasons. Heavier plates have a generally more cumbersome feel to them. This can be magnified by the thickness of the plates as well, and the plate carrier you are wearing. And again, after hours, and when you become tired, all of this is magnified.
As previously mentioned, it doesn’t take too long to get used to heavy plates, or body armor in general, but the adjustment is faster with light weight armor plates.
Who Should Buy Light Weight Body Armor
Light weight body armor is a better alternative in certain situations despite costing saving for heavier alternatives.
Military use demands lightweight body armor as soldiers will likely wear their armor 6-18 hours per day multiple days a week. Similarly, in modern times soldiers also typically have a large amount of other gear on their bodies adding weight as well. The old saying goes “Ounces equal pounds, and pounds equal pain.” In this sense it makes sense to shed an extra 7-10 lbs by choosing lightweight armor. That said, the military can afford this.
Law enforcement pretty much live in soft body armor and at times hard armor. For soft armor law enforcement should seek the lightest possible that meets the level of protection required. If hard armor is only used ‘as needed’ light weight armor will be best, especially if not worn often.
Civilian’s armor needs depend more on an individual basis. If this armor is going to be a ‘just in case’ purchase, it may not be as important to buy light weight armor. You may be better off buying steel lightweight AR600 armor. Either way it is important to wear your carrier with armor every so often so the first time you wear it isn’t the time you need it. If you are actively training, shooting, and using your armor then light weight body armor will certainly be more comfortable, but not as important as for the military.
It also comes down to what you’re willing to spend vs what you’re willing to put up with.
Keep in Mind
A couple important items to keep in mind. The plate carrier you select will make a big difference in the perceived/felt weight of your gear. Plate carriers such as the Battle Vest and Elite Plate Carrier are designed with more padding. They are also designed to better disperse the weight of the plate carrier via the shoulder straps and cumberbun.
Other plate carriers such as the Battle Vest Lite and Battle Vest V2 are made to be light and low profile. As such, these plate carriers are less comfortable with heavier armor because they are designed to be sleek, light weight, and minimalistic. Personally, I prefer these types of plate carriers, and make my armor decisions accordingly.
The future of lightweight body armor will likely see further advancements in material science and manufacturing techniques. Researchers are currently investigating the potential of nanotechnology and novel materials like graphene to create even lighter and more effective body armor.
Lightweight body armor has come a long way since the days of metal plates and flak jackets. With ongoing research and innovation, the future of personal protection is brighter than ever, offering enhanced safety and mobility for military personnel, law enforcement officers, security, and civilians alike. As technology continues to advance, lightweight body armor will undoubtedly play a critical role in the evolution of personal protection.
Advances in materials and design have led to the development of lightweight armor that offers superior protection without sacrificing mobility or comfort. One such innovative solution is Tacticon Armament’s SRT+ Plates, a cutting-edge body armor designed to address predominant threats from AR15 and AR variants and provide maximum protection in a lightweight package.
Whatever armor you choose, the most beneficial thing you can do is wear it, practice in it, and get used to it. Don’t let the first time you need it to be the first time you wear it.
The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Tacticon Armament.