Updated: Oct 10, 2019
Today's body armor offerings are more plentiful and complex than ever before. So how can you know which vest, plate, carrier, or combination thereof is right for you? We'll discuss the fundamental knowledge necessary to help decide which options are right for you.
I recently read an article that had some really vague and useless information about the "best" body armor on the market. All 1000 words of the piece claimed to describe "everything you need to know about body armor." I assume this was only to get affiliate link sales from the piece since the recommendations were all over the place and didn't make any sense at all.
The truth is that there is no "best" body armor out there; only different systems with different application advantages and disadvantages.
You won't find affiliate links and bias here. We carry Survival Armor, Armor Express, Safariland, Gator Hawk, Point Blank Enterprises, and United Shield soft armor panels and hard armor plates.
We're not dedicated to a brand. We're dedicated to making sure you have the right armor for you.
After selling thousands of vests, plates, and helmets, I've learned that there is no one piece of armor that is right for everyone. Considering a number of factors such as agency policy, style of wear, protection level, coverage preferences, threat assessment, thickness, weight, and price can help narrow down the thousands of possible combinations into a personalized armor solution for each individual.
First of all, what is body armor? Body armor is a garment or piece of equipment specifically designed to deflect, absorb, or disperse kinetic energy. We can do this in a variety of ways described in this piece.
Body armor generally works on the dispersion principle. Think of it as turning a knife point into a bowling ball. Relativity comes into play here. Energy equals mass times the square of the velocity. Any amount of energy applied to a small area will have a more dramatic effect than the same energy applied across a broader area.
Let's look at an example.
A hockey puck with a mass of 0.165 kilograms hit at 54 meters per second has a kinetic energy equivalent of 241 joules at impact.
A .380 caliber pistol bullet with a mass of 0.0006 kilograms fired at 286 meters per second has 245 joules at impact.
Both of these have a nearly identical energy equivalency, but nobody carries a hockey puck in a holster. Soft armor works by using ultra-strong fibers to disperse and absorb the kinetic energy over a wider area. It works by turning the bullet into the hockey puck.
Concealable armor takes a variety of shapes, but its application is to provide ballistic or spike protection underneath traditional garments like shirts. This is the primary style of body armor worn by law enforcement and security officers today outside of tactical and special teams.
Most manufacturers have also created external carriers to house concealable panels, commonly known as overt or crossover carriers. Most people find external carriers to be more comfortable than wearing a vest under a shirt, and some agencies have adapted their policies to accommodate this. Modern soft armor concealable vests come in level II and IIIA, designed to defeat pistol threats such as 9mm, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP. Many models from top-tier manufacturers also offer additional protection from less-common special threat rounds such as the 5.7, .357 Sig, and Tokarev. Some are even DOD fragmentation rated.
Soft armor is not designed to protect against rifle fire such as 5.56, .300 BLK, or 7.62X39, 51, or 54R. There are concealable rifle options, but we'll get to that later.
Soft armor isn't as 'concealable' as you might imagine. Even the thinnest and lightest vests add bulk to an individual's torso, and it can nearly always be spotted by a trained eye.
External armor is commonly seen on tactical teams and military personnel. External armor also takes a variety of shapes, from BALCS/SPEAR to SAPI, concealable-cut, and other custom shapes designed to fit a specific purpose. Some styles will be minimalist. These are usually designed to be plate carriers only for hard armor to defeat rifle fire. Some carriers will be a hybrid, designed to carry rifle plates and soft armor coverage in areas just outside rifle plate coverage. Others go all the way to what can be called an 'entry vest', which can cover the throat, shoulders, neck, biceps, groin, and more.
When heavier items like magazines are chest-mounted, the weight is closer to inertial neutrality on our bodies, making us able to run faster over longer distances since we are getting less muscle fatigue dragging along heavy gear that is moving in an opposite direction.
Most people prefer the external style of armor for duty since it adds utility and comfort. External carriers will often come with MOLLE/PALS, Swift Clip placard, or other methods of attaching pockets/pouches to hold various equipment to the outside of the vest. This does a couple of things. The first and most obvious is easy accessibility to commonly-used or speed-critical items, such as tourniquets, ammunition, tasers, or similar equipment. It can also hold larger rifle and special threat hard plates than concealable carriers.
The other is weight redistribution. The first aspect is the actual distribution of weight over a larger area. Your torso is larger than your belt and hips. The second is center of gravity. Particularly in men, belt mounted gear is offset from the male center of gravity located in our chest and shoulders. This makes our belt-mounted gear work against us when we run. When heavier items like magazines are chest-mounted, the weight is closer to inertial neutrality on our bodies, making us able to run faster over longer distances since we are getting less muscle fatigue dragging along heavy gear that is moving in an opposite direction.
Until recently, off-body armor was pretty rare. Outside of armored vehicles and buildings, there weren't very many applications at all. With the number of threats being presented in non-typical locations today, off-body armor has become an increasingly popular choice for plainclothes/off-duty officers and civilians alike.
These are usually taking the form of backpack/purse style inserts, but can also be found in clipboards, desk chairs, car seats, and more. While limited in practical application and scope, this can often be the answer in non-permissive environments where external or even concealed armor vests aren't an option.
Standards of Protection
There are several standards by which we measure the efficacy of body armor. The National Institute of Justice administers federal testing of body armor, the baseline standard by which law enforcement at federal, state, and local levels select their armor. Currently, these levels are IIA, II, IIIA, III, and IV.
Because level II vests offer substantially better protection over IIA vests while still being ultra light and thin, IIA vests have largely ceased commercial production. You won't find this now obsolete and irrelevant level available from nearly anyone, and coming the NIJ 0101.07 standard is removing this level entirely while integrating level II vests with new testing standards into "HG1" and level IIIA vests with new testing standards into "HG2".
The current NIJ 0101.06 soft armor standard includes measuring ballistic efficacy against a standard set of rounds commonly encountered by law enforcement, including 9mm, .357 Magnum, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, and .44 Magnum.
A vest without these ratings doesn't mean that it will not defeat some or all of these threats. It may be that it has never been submitted for testing, or it failed a certain aspect of the test or the entire test. There simply isn't any certainty without certification.
Armor that has been "certified" to meet the standard means that it is rated to defeat the rounds it was tested for when worn in a manner consistent with manufacturer design at its advertised level of protection, either II or IIIA. Defeating a round means not just stopping the bullet, but also allowing only a certain amount of 'push-back' from a strike, known as back face deformation. You can imagine soft armor deforming under a strike in a manner consistent with a finger poking through a plastic sandwich bag. There must be a limit to this in order to ensure survivability. Many modern level II vests will actually 'stop' a .44 magnum bullet, but the back face deformation is beyond 3 inches--a dangerous amount that can cause catastrophic organ damage despite the bullet itself being caught in the vest.
Certified armor also carries a warranty of fitness and protection for 5 years of every day wear. This is a requirement in order to be certified, and the certification process includes simulating 5 years of normal wear and tear on each vest and ongoing inspections at manufacturing facilities to ensure compliance.
Some manufacturers will undergo additional testing of their products to meet even higher standards set by the DOD, FBI, and DEA. These agencies have specific requirements that go beyond NIJ testing to include 'special threat' options such as fragmentation or rounds with higher velocities and different shapes or materials.
A vest without these ratings doesn't mean that it will not defeat some or all of these threats. It may be that it has never been submitted for additional testing, or it failed a certain aspect of the test or the entire test. There simply isn't any certainty without certification.
There are many fly-by-night internet dealers selling very cheap imported ballistic vests. More often than not, these manufacturers will describe their products as "NIJ Tested". These tests are performed outside of the NIJ, and these products carry no official certification. There is no real way to verify that what you're getting will work to the same standard as NIJ-certified armor. Each product certified by the NIJ will be accompanied by a certification letter. If they cannot produce an NIJ certification letter for the individual product, the product is not guaranteed to work. You can find the always-updated list of NIJ-certified armor here.
If your agency participates in the federal BVP funding program and reimburses your expenses on a ballistic vest, you cannot be reimbursed if you buy a model that is not NIJ approved.
Hard armor is a little different.
Hard armor takes a few shapes such as curved shoulder and chest plates, cuts to allow better ergonomics and body movement on front and back torso plates, groin coverage, and more.
Hard armor is generally available in level IIIA, III, and IV.
IIIA hard armor plates offer the same protection as soft armor rated to IIIA, but may physically appear to be very similar to rifle plates. It's important to remember to pay attention to the certified rating instead of the physical appearance. There is soft armor that will be cut to similar shapes and have similar product names and SKUs as hard armor plates, such as SAPI-cut 'plate-backer' IIIA armor designed to be worn in conjunction with hard armor plates.
Level III plates are made with a variety of materials and come in a number of sizes for different applications. Generally-speaking, level III plates are designed to defeat most common non-armor-piercing rifle rounds such as .223, 5.56, 7.62X39, and others. Because level III does not require the ability to defeat armor-piercing founds, these plates can be made from a variety of materials. Level III plates can range in price from $200-$1000 each, depending on their construction. Most plates on the lower end of the price spectrum will be made of steel or ceramics with a mix of aramid or polyethylene fibers mixed together to achieve certain results. We'll talk about what that means a little later. Level III plates toward the higher end of the price spectrum will usually be made entirely of laminated polyethylene and/or aramid fibers, allowing extremely lightweight protection and neutral buoyancy in water when compared to much heavier and denser steel and ceramic options.
Models created with all-fabric construction will generally have the ability to survive and defeat more total rounds than the NIJ standard requires, and more than ceramic level III and IV plates. Because of this, many manufacturers have started to use '+' and '++' designations to indicate the ability of the plate to both meet and exceed the NIJ level III certification standard. Plates labeled 'III+' or 'III++' may defeat a higher number of rounds, special threats such as 'semi-AP' green tip 5.56, or meet some combination of a variety of factors that go beyond protection levels required for level III, but that don't meet specifications for level IV. It is important to remember that III+ and III++ are not NIJ designation ratings.
Level IV plates are--generally speaking--designed to defeat "armor-piercing" and more powerful rounds. These plates are inevitably relatively heavy compared to other armor options, but are the only solution to defeating AP threats. Level IV plates come in steel, ceramic, or combination construction. There are pros and cons to each, and both tend to be less expensive than high-grade fabric level III plates.
Steel plates work similar to a baseball bat. They do a better job of reflecting/deflecting kinetic energy than absorbing and dispersing it. Most modern steel plates are coated or wrapped with something like truck bed liner to mitigate 'spalling' hazards, where a bullet and/or jacket may fragment and/or deflect in a way that is dangerous to the wearer and their surroundings. The benefit to reflecting instead of absorbing energy is that steel plates can typically withstand a higher number of total strikes versus their ceramic counterparts. Steel plates are typically the heaviest option among all types of body armor.
Ceramic plates do a better job of absorbing and dispersing energy, which me