September 28, 2022

Body Armor Basics, by Raskolnikov

It’s always struck me as odd that we often think of defensive preps almost exclusively as involving firearms. Don’t get me wrong, I love guns. I’ve taken courses and train regularly so I can use them effectively if the need should ever arise. But in a gunfight, the bullets don’t just go in one direction. Often, they come back at you as well.

Today, we’re going to talk about how we can protect ourselves with various types of body armor or ballistic protection. We’ll talk about some of the basics of body armor, how it works, what options are available, and a few considerations when buying your first armor set. Unfortunately, if you see ads for body armor online, the comments reveal that many folks believe misinformation about body armor. I’m hoping to provide you accurate, verifiable information to help you get started. I’m not an expert by any means, so do your homework and verify what I say (after all, your life is at stake, so take this seriously). In this article, I may also mention specific companies, but that’s just because they’re the ones I know. I’m not affiliated with any of them, I don’t benefit from sending business to them, and I don’t have any specific inside-the-industry knowledge. I’m just a regular guy hoping to share a bit about one of his interests, and hopefully help out those who feel overwhelmed by all the options.

One additional disclaimer: Some jurisdictions restrict use and possession of body armor, so know and follow your local laws (and consider moving to a free state!).

The Basics

Body armor usually comes in the form of a vest, with either a flexible material like Kevlar or a hard material like steel or ceramic serving to absorb the force of an incoming round. By distributing the force over a wider area, the vest lowers the likelihood that the round penetrates the chest area. Today’s ballistic vests are just the latest iteration of the armor worn by combatants for thousands of years, except that instead of protecting yourself from the swords of the Huns, you’re protecting yourself from the guns of the lawless. It’s tested and rated according to a scale from the National Institute of Justice, which rates body armor based on the rounds it’s capable of stopping.

When body armor is “soft,” it’s flexible and usually covers more of your chest; however, it’s limited to protecting you from pistol rounds and some shotgun shells. “Hard” body armor comes in the form of plates that are inserted either into a plate carrier or into a pocket in a soft vest. They cover less of your chest, and cover from fewer angles, but can provide higher levels of protection to the most essential areas.

At the outset, you have to recognize that buying body armor is about tradeoffs. You can exchange coverage area for flexibility, protection level for weight, and so on. No armor system can protect all of your body from every round you might face, so you have to identify the threats you’re likely to face, the activities you’ll need to perform while in armor, and the amount of time you expect to be in your armor. Armor that doesn’t protect against the threats you expect to face is useless. Armor that doesn’t allow you to perform tactical activities readily is useless. And armor that you’re not wearing when you’re faced with a threat is useless.

Twin myths surround body armor: That it renders you invincible from the golden horde darkening the skies with lead aimed your way, and, conversely, that it’s useless because even if it can stop incoming rounds, it can’t stop the blunt force trauma bullets bring with them. As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Commercially-available body armor doesn’t cover all of your body. It primarily protects your upper chest (and the vital organs located there), which means you’ll still be vulnerable to being shot in the arms, legs, pelvis, and head (I won’t delve into ballistic helmets in this article, but it may be a topic of a future article if readers enjoy this one). And while body armor panels are tested to survive multiple hits, if rounds start impacting in the same spots, the vest will be less effective and can fail. Body armor is not a substitute for proper use of cover and concealment, and it’s not a talisman that wards off all incoming rounds.

However, that doesn’t mean body armor is useless. I’ve lost count of the number of unintelligent internet comments that the blunt force trauma will kill you. It always seemed to me that I’d rather take a broken rib or two than a couple rounds in my chest. These critics also don’t understand backface deformation testing. When body armor is tested by the NIJ, that testing doesn’t just include whether the round penetrated, but also the ability of the vest to spread the force around the body to minimize injury. When the round impacts a test vest, it creates a dent in the clay backing material behind the vest. The shallower the dent, the more effectively the vest absorbed and spread the blunt force of the impacting round. For the vest to pass, this dent (the backface deformation) must be within acceptable levels. Most armor systems go even further by making trauma pads available for purchase. As the name implies, they are an extra layer of padding that helps to absorb and diffuse the force even more to avoid blunt force trauma. Now, would it be fun to be shot while wearing a ballistic vest? No. Most compare it being hit with a hammer or a hard-thrown baseball. But I’ll take that over the alternative.

Available Levels of Armor

The NIJ armor scale runs from level IIA up to level IV. Levels IIA, II, and IIIA are available in soft armor, while levels III and IV (required for rifle protection) come as hard steel or ceramic plates. The ones you’re likely to see are levels IIIA, III, and IV.

Level IIIA will stop most pistol rounds. A vest rated IIIA by the NIJ has been tested to stop 6 rounds of .357 SIG at 1470 ft/s or 6 rounds of .44 Magnum at 1430 ft/s. IIIA vests can also stop 9mm rounds fired from longer barrels (think 9mm AR-pattern modern sporting rifles or an MP5 submachine gun) and most 12 gauge shotshells and some slugs. If you’re concerned primarily with pistol threats, a level IIIA is usually your best bet. (Lower ratings, like level II, can also stop many common pistol rounds, but they’re not easy to find anymore, since ballistic technology has progressed to the point that those vests are nearing obsolescence.) The NIJ doesn’t rate vests as IIIA+, but some companies (most notably Safe Life Defense) market vests as having this rating to indicate that they provide additional protection against special penetrating rounds like Liberty Civil Defense or the FN 5.7.

Level III rifle plates can be worn either alone in a plate carrier or in combination with a level IIIA soft vest. They’re rated for up to 6 rounds of 7.62×51 NATO/.308 Win. at 2780 ft/s. They’ll usually stop 7.62×39, but caveat emptor! Because the NIJ rating doesn’t test 7.62×39, if you’re concerned about your neighbors with AKs, read the manufacturer’s specifications. Better safe than dead because you didn’t read the fine print. Cheaper level III plates are often made of steel, while lighter and more expensive plates are usually made from ceramic or sometimes polyethylene. As before, some companies market vests as level III+. Because this isn’t an NIJ rating, what it means depends on the company. For some, it means that it will protect against common military surplus/contract overrun 5.56 rounds, like XM855 and XM193 rounds (an example here is AR 500 Armor). For others, it means the plate was tested with 7.62×51/.308, but at a velocity higher than 2780 ft/s. You’ll need to read the fine print to be sure what you’re getting.

Finally, level IV plates are rated for 1 round of M2 armor piercing .30-06 ammunition. Some manufacturers have their plates tested with more than one round, but the NIJ rating only requires 1 round, so you’ll need to read the fine print to be sure.

Considerations When Choosing Armor

When deciding the level of body armor you need, consider your threat environment and your intended use for the armor. Do you plan to wear it as part of your EDC kit? You probably want level IIIA soft armor for maximum comfort and concealability. Do you only plan to use it for training and if things Schumerize? You can probably trade a bit of comfort and concealability for the greater protection of hard rifle plates. Does everyone near your farm have rifles? You definitely want some rifle plates. As part of this, consider the firearms that are part of your defensive plan, since they’re probably a part of someone else’s too. Consider working your way up to having protection against the firearms you’d use to protect yourself. (Personally, with AR pattern modern sporting rifles being nearly ubiquitous, I’d look for rifle plates that can stop XM855 and XM193 rounds.)

The level of protection you need will dictate whether you purchase soft body armor or hard rifle plates. Remember, soft body armor will generally give you more coverage, but hard rifle plates protect against more threats, at least within their coverage area. Soft body armor weighs less and allows you to move more easily than a heavy steel plate carrier system, so consider the degree of activity you plan to do when defending your homestead: Soft armor might be better suited to bugging out on foot, while a stationary defense plan suits plate carriers far better.

It’s also worth noting that soft body armor is much easier to conceal (at least if it’s not too tropical where you live), while a full plate carrier is nearly impossible to conceal except under a winter coat. While this debate largely mirrors the arguments of the open or concealed carry debate, I try to avoid openly wearing armor for a couple reasons. First, it’s provocative and can make you a target for aggression that would otherwise go elsewhere, when the entire point of armor is to protect you from armed aggression. Second, it mitigates a big advantage armor gives you, and that’s protection your adversary isn’t expecting. If someone who intends you harm knows you’re wearing a ballistic vest, they can just aim for your head instead of wasting time shooting at your chest. In normal times, be the gray man. That said, external wear of plate carriers in a true without-rule-of-law situation will likely be more expedient, since it will give you access to whatever MOLLE equipment you’ve attached to your plate carrier, including spare magazines for your favorite carbine or battle rifle.

Ceramic, or Steel?

If you opt for hard rifle plates, consider whether you want ceramic or steel. Steel is usually the choice for the more budget-conscious (AR 500 Armor regularly has BOGO sales), and it’s more likely to withstand multiple hits. However, it’s much heavier (8-10 pounds per plate). Additionally, it can be prone to spalling, which is essentially shrapnel from a round impacting the steel and breaking apart. That’s a major problem if you’re wearing the plate, so look for plates with an anti-spall coating (Infidel Body Armor was a pioneer on this design feature, though most major manufacturers now offer anti-spall coatings). Ceramic plates are lighter weight (3.5-6 pounds per plate, depending on the manufacturer) and very unlikely to spall, but they’re usually thicker and more easily damaged by rough handling. They can also get much pricier than steel very quickly.

For those on an extremely tight budget, companies like Bulletproof Me offer police surplus soft vests for substantial discounts. While I’d obviously suggest buying new if you can afford it, an old vest seems better to me than no vest, as long as you know the risks.

Body armor can be a big investment, but if you do your research and only buy something when you understand what it does, it can save your life. It deserves to be a part of your defensive plan. Without it, you’re only accounting for outgoing fire, not incoming fire.

What body armor have you decided best suits your preps? How did you reach that conclusion? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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