For those seeking body armor, especially for the first time, it’s helpful to understand what options are available and the purposes for each. 

The unpredictability of the world we are in, ease of access to affordable gear, and online shopping have been driving the growth of a diverse range of body armor options tailored to unique circumstances. Many companies have emerged in the market, each offering a wide array of choices ranging from soft armor, renowned for its flexibility and ease of concealment, to hard armor, known for its high level of protection.

Such a vast spectrum of options can be an overwhelming challenge for potential buyers. A most important point to consider is that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution in body armor; it’s often specific to the circumstances and scenarios where it will be employed. This article aims to provide you with an in-depth guide on navigating this complex market and making the right choice tailored to your individual needs and circumstantial requirements.

Everyday armor 

Few people have to wear armor every day outside of the military, law enforcement, and security. Law enforcement and security wear soft armor almost exclusively because soft armor such as NIJ level IIIA is designed to stop most common handgun rounds. Soft armor has the advantage of weight, flexibility, and concealment, with the benefit of stopping nearly all likely threats.

The military generally wears hard armor in addition to soft armor. Hard armor is not flexible, it’s heavier, but has the advantage of stopping rifle rounds when in the specific rating threshold of the armor. Armor purchased for these professions is generally done through a selection and bid process. Those working in these fields may have multiple sets as well depending on their area, and the threats they will face in that area.

Civilian Armor

Civilian armor is a different story, most people buy armor ‘just in case,’ for training, or based on the desire to protect themselves for a number of reasons. Most of the time this armor will not be worn very often by comparison. That said, civilians have much more freedom to choose what armor to purchase, which is part of what makes this a daunting task.

Soft Armor

Soft armor is designed to stop pistol rounds and some shotgun rounds. It has the benefits of flexibility, conforming to the wearing and covering the torso on the front, back, and part of the sides. Depending on the NIJ threat level of the armor, it will stop the threats pictured below.

NIJ Level IIIA Handgun Protection Threats - Tacticon Armament
NIJ Level IIIA Handgun Protection Threats

Soft armor is thin, light weight (ranging from 2-6 pounds) and relatively easy to conceal under heavy and baggy clothing.

The major downside, and why some elect to wear hard armor is that soft armor cannot stop rifle rounds more powerful than a .22LR. For this hard armor is required.

Why You Might Choose Soft Body Armor

Soft armor may be ideal for you if you plan to wear it often and in public due to your job duties, location, or threat presented to you. In an urban environment, soft armor may be all that is needed, as roughly 90% of violent crime involving a firearm is committed using a handgun. If you want to cover as much of your torso soft armor such as a bulletproof vest will do so, keeping you light and agile in the process. And importantly, you do not believe rifles are a likely or prominent threat to you.

Hard Body Armor

Rifle threats
Rifle threats

Hard body armor is constructed as a hard plate, the most common size being 10×12″ plates worn on the front and back. Side plates, either 6×6″ or 6×8″ are also fairly standard. Hard armor is made utilizing either steel, ceramic composite, or UHMWPE (Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene).

Body Armor
Hard body armor

Steel Armor

Steel armor is the most common form of rifle plates for civilians. The most common steel used is AR500 and AR600, which denotes the hardness of the steel on the Brinnells Hardness scale which is a widely used metric to measure how hard a material is. Steel armor has many upsides, namely price. It is easy for companies to make steel plates, and produce steel armor with a lower cost of raw materials compared to the other options. Steel armor is fairly thin, typically .50-.65 of an inch, meaning it will be the easiest hard armor to conceal.

Downsides of steel

The first downside is often the most obvious, steel is heavy, and the heaviest option for rifle plates. By using AR600, we have been able to get the weight down to 6.6 pounds per plate for a 10×12, however AR500 will be about 8 pounds for the same size.

Not all companies certify their body armor with the NIJ, the independent testing facility. This has been a common problem with steel armor, giving it a bad reputation. Many companies have produced plates for very cheap, without fragmentation mitigation, and without certification.

Steel body armor is a viable, affordable option for rifle armor, especially if purchased from a reputable company such as Tacticon whose plates are NIJ National Institute of Justice certified, sold with a full fragmentation coat, and backed by a 20 year warranty.

Steel is a good option for the budget minded buyer, and people who don’t want to replace their armor often as steel has a 20 year shelf life. A good frag coat will protect the steel beneath, keeping it safe from the elements for years. If you plan on having body armor ‘just in case,’ want something durable, and don’t expect armor piercing rifle rounds, then steel may be for you.

Ceramic Composite

Ceramic rifle plates are made by bonding a ceramic strike face and UHMWPE backer, forming a tight bond where the ceramic acts by breaking apart when struck, and the UHMWPE absorbs the energy while further slowing any of the rounds’ remaining energy.

Ceramic plates have become very common and affordable in certain configurations. The weight of a ceramic plate has a lot to do with the type of ceramic used for the strike face, the three most common are boron carbide, silicon carbide, and aluminum oxide.

The heavier the ceramic the cheaper it is to produce and make armor out of, which is why the more affordable plates tend to be quite heavy. Ceramic plates are the most diverse when it comes to threat ratings. There are SRT plates, NIJ level III ceramic plates, and Level IV, the NIJs highest level which is capable of stopping armor piercing 30-06 rounds. Whatever threat you may face there is a ceramic plate that will address it.

Downsides Of Ceramic

Ceramic plates are a great option, and while their “fragility” has been exaggerated, they can still break or crack with enough abuse. If you are seeking lightweight armor in a high threat level such as level IV then expect to pay several hundred, even a thousand dollars per plate. Ceramic plates have a posted warranty period of 5-10 years depending on the manufacturer and model, this is something we will get into in another article, however this means they will not last the way steel plates will.

Why Choose Ceramic?

Ceramic plates offer a variety of threat levels. If you don’t expect high caliber rifles and are more concerned with 5.56 and 7.62×39 then you can get an SRT plate that may only weigh 4 pounds. That is a huge weight savings. Conversely, if you expect to encounter high calibers or armor piercing rounds then you are able to select a Level IV ceramic plate that will fit your budget. Ceramic body armor gives a lot of options for all budgets, all threat levels, and weight.

UHMWPE

Ultra-High-Molecular-Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE) hard armor has been gaining considerable attention due to its impressive features. This lightweight material offers remarkable strength, making it an ideal choice for those seeking a balance between protection and mobility. Furthermore, UHMWPE armor possesses a buoyant property, meaning it doesn’t sink in water, a unique feature that can prove beneficial in certain scenarios.

However, it’s important to note the limitations of this material. UHMWPE armor tends to be significantly thicker 1.3-1.6 inches than other types of hard armor, which means you will have a hard time concealing it, and may have difficulty wearing it with certain plate carriers. Also, it shows a vulnerability to steel tipped ammunition, indicating that the level of protection can vary based on the type of threat faced.

Lastly, UHMWPE armor is generally priced higher than its counterparts, making it a significant investment. UHMWPE has a warranty period of years, meaning that it will need to be replaced more often than other alternatives. However, one that could be justified by its advantageous features for the right user.

Final thoughts

To bring this all back into focus, there are many armor options about, not every option is right for every situation. 

If you plan to conceal the armor and wear it regularly then soft armor will be your best option, unless you expect rifle threats where you may want to look into steel armor based on how thin it is. If you will be in a marine environment or on a boat then UHMWPE armor may be best in the event you go overboard, or need to be able to move in water. 

Are you budget conscious? Steel armor is the overall most affordable option, just make sure the plate you are buying is certified, from a reputable manufacturer, and has a full coating. 

Are you looking to make an investment because you wear your gear regularly or for work? Lightweight ceramic armor may be your solution, your wallet might hate you at first but your back will thank you. If you expect armor piercing threats level IV ceramic is really the only option. 

Take a realistic inventory of your environment, the threats you are likely to face, and your needs. From there prioritize their importance and use this as a guide to select the armor that will best fit your needs. From us at Tacticon, we are always happy to help, don’t be afraid to reach out. 

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