Choosing the right body armor
Choosing the right body armor can be overwhelming, with so many choices of great quality options on the market. With all the information out there, you could spend months researching before knowing exactly what you are looking for. So here is a little guidance to shorten the amount of research needed to make a good decision.
There are three primary factors to consider when determining what armor is best suited to your requirements: weight, threat Level, and cost.
Among the three, threat Level is the most complex. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) manages a certification program that can give buyers some idea of what to expect from their armor. The NIJ’s system breaks armor into various threat Levels, ranging from II to IV. Although the threat Levels are numerical and give some indication of an armor’s ability to stop a higher ballistic threat, it is more complicated than simply saying “Level IV is better than Level III,,” because that statement overlooks other details. You have to look at the other two requirements to determine what is “best” for your needs.
Level II armor is typically soft armor composed of woven or fibrous materials such as Kevlar, Twaron, Dyneema, and others. This is typically worn concealed under a uniform shirt or in a light external carrier. Level II is designed to protect from 9x19mm FMJ traveling at up to 1,175 feet per second and .357 Magnum Jacketed Soft Point traveling at 1,400 feet per second. Level II is usually very flexible and comfortable to wear, at least as “comfortable” as can be when wearing body armor. Level II armor can typically withstand multiple spaced hits, but you should always verify multi-hit capability and threat specific stopping power with any model, Level, or brand of armor.
Next up is Level III-A. This rating is meant to stop up to .44 Magnum Jacketed Hollow Points traveling at up to 1,400 feet per second. Level IIIA is often a bit thicker than II but not different enough to make a huge difference when wearing. And the peace of mind it carries often makes it worth the slight extra bulk.
Level III on the NIJ’s Level system is where we enter the world of rifle plates, sometimes referred to as hard inserts. Level III plates are designed to stop six spaced hits of 7.62X51mm NATO (Full Metal Jacket) traveling at up to 2,750 feet per second. This is roughly equivalent to the common .308 Winchester hunting round. With all NIJ armor ratings, it is important to understand that a plate rated to stop a particular threat may not stop a bullet that is smaller caliber. There are situations where a bullet traveling slower might penetrate some armor types while the same bullet at a higher speed may not. Without getting too technical, this difference in performance comes from the way the spinning motion and speed of the round interact with the plate materials. Some slower rounds do not spin fast enough to engage the ballistic-stopping material in the way it is designed to stop the round. This applies to all threat levels, not just Level III. Issues like this are what can make selecting armor more difficult but buying a product without fully understanding its true capabilities is even worse.
While the 7.62x51mm NATO used in testing Level III armor might generally be thought of as “bigger” than the 5.56mm round fired by AR-15s and other rifles, there are varieties in the 5.56mm caliber which pose problems for some armor materials. For instance, the M855 “Green Tip” can penetrate pure polyethylene plates while the M193 variety can penetrate steel such as AR500. Bullet velocity plays a role in penetration, but these are well-known vulnerabilities. As a result, some manufacturers use a III+ designation to rate their plates. The NIJ does not recognize the III+, but most manufacturers use it to indicate protection from NIJ threat Level III plus M855 and M193 threats. Although a III+ plate covers the majority of threats at a moderate weight and cost, making it a very attractive selection, you should beware of the rating because some less scrupulous companies will use the “+” designation in an attempt to increase the perceived protection level of a plate. Verify what threats a III+ plate is rated to stop with the manufacturer before purchasing.
The highest rifle plate rating under the NIJ personal body armor specs at this time is Level IV. A Level IV must stop a single hit of 7.62mm AP “Black Tip,” which is effectively a .30-06 Armor Piercing bullet. Note the difference in shot count between a Level III (6 shots) and Level IV (1 shot) certification. Depending on the situation, Level IV is therefore not automatically better than Level III, despite the higher numerical ranking.
OUTSIDE OF NIJ/SPECIAL THREAT
Outside of the NIJ, other testing protocols have been established. These “special threats” are often requested by the military or federal agencies and fall outside of NIJ test parameters. Most of these requirements augment NIJ requirements. The NIJ does not test or recognize these special threats.
Level IIIA Hard Armor
Most Level IIIA armor is soft and can be easily concealed like Level II, but some rigid armor plates can also be III-A rated. Sometimes referred to as ”speed plates,” these offer one of the lightest possible solutions but sacrifice some of the coverage areas that you would normally find in soft armor rigs because they do not cover the sides and shoulders like soft armor. As of this writing, there is no NIJ certification program for III-A rigid plates.
The US military has the SAPI (Small Arms Protective Insert) program that features plates designed to military specs. They first applied this to the Interceptor carrier system, followed by the IOTV (Improved Outer Tactical Vest) and MTV (Modular Tactical Vest). In 2005, the military moved to the ESAPI or “Enhanced SAPI” program. Sizes for any E/SAPI designated plate range from Extra Small (7.25 x 11.50 inches) to Extra Large (11.00 x 14.00 inches).
The DEA and FBI maintain their own separate “special threat” testing protocols for hard plates, such as the Venture FM-STX, which is designed to stop all of the most common threats you might encounter domestically (AR-15, AK-47, and pistol rounds) while being thin and economical. Such plates are not certified by the NIJ because there is no testing protocol for them, yet they still fill a very vital area of need.
STAND-ALONE VS. IN-CONJUNCTION
Once you have decided on the threat level that meets your requirements, you may also want to consider whether you need Stand-Alone or In-Conjunction plates. Most body armor is considered Stand-Alone, meaning it does not need a soft armor backer to meet its threat rating. In-Conjunction plates are designed to meet their rating only when worn over soft armor. For example, some plates may be listed as “Level III/IV ICW,” which means the plate is rated as a Level III without a backer and Level IV with a backer.
No matter what type of hard insert you choose, always wear a soft armor backer to help reduce blunt force trauma. While a plate might stop a bullet, it would be a mistake to assume that you will be injury-free afterward. Bullets create a lot of energy that is transferred into the plate and then into the wearer’s body. Plate backers can help mitigate some of this force, reducing the chance of severe injury.
All armor types have pros and cons, each of which falls under the three selection categories mentioned earlier: weight, threat level, and cost. It always comes back to those. Because of the variances in performance, no armor should ever be referred to as “bulletproof,” and you should beware of a company that uses the phrase. Only “bullet-resistant” is truly applicable.
There are several different materials used in the manufacture of hard plates. Among them are compressed laminates including high-density polyethylene, ceramics, and Kevlar. The laminate materials usually differ from those found in soft armor. For instance, Kevlar used in soft armor will likely be a different variety than what you would find in a hard plate. Laminate materials used in hard armor manufacturing are almost always thermally molded and/or compressed.
With different materials come different performance metrics. Perhaps the most significant difference is weight: lighter weight means higher cost, often to a significant degree. When you want the lightest materials and construction technologies currently available, the costs will reflect this.
During the decision-making process, you will always balance weight and cost. In summary, establish your requirements before you begin shopping for armor. What factor is the most important to you? Do you need the lightest weight possible? Do you expect to encounter pistol or rifle rounds? Is there a particular or unusual round that is common in your theater of operation? Do you need a multi-hit plate? Do you need a plate that floats in water? And of course, there is the issue of how much you can spend. While there are solutions to fit most budgets, whether an individual or agency, be very careful not to sacrifice so much for the sake of saving money that the product does not meet your needs.
And remember, it’s good to stop a bullet, but it’s much, much better to avoid getting shot altogether.