Body Armor for Dummies
by Jesse James, Editor-at-Large
No doubt, the vast majority of you are aware of the fact that our federal government seems intent on violating our inalienable right to self-defense, among others. It is entirely possible that we will cross the line where “from my cold, dead hands” ceases to be a metaphor. Body armor is a necessity for those who wish to initiate or survive being a party to a two-way range. The discussion following is intended to be a simple primer on body armor for those less familiar with the actual product and guide you in selecting proper armor for yourself. Generally, body armor is made from three materials: Kevlar, ceramic, and steel. The various levels of commonly available protection range from level IIA-IVA and are rated by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). The NIJ standard rates armor by its ability to stop certain rounds (generally of a standard grain and ft/s) from penetrating the armor.
Dupont created Kevlar in 1965, and it is the most commonly used material for soft armor. It is an aramid, which is a polymer chain that orients parallel to the fiber. The extremely strong chemical bonds allow the fiber to have incredible tensile strength to weight ratio. The fibers are woven into a dense cloth, which create the layers used in modern Kevlar vests.
What Kevlar does:
Stop bullets…most of the time. Kevlar is much lighter than any other bulletproof material and excels at stopping handgun rounds. Available IIIA armor can stop up to a .44 Magnum round from penetrating it. Kevlar is bendable and can essentially conform to your body when worn. The armor is fairly concealable and can be worn on a regular basis.
What Kevlar does not do:
Kevlar does degrade with age. The majority of manufactures recommend that the vest be replaced every five years. The fibers are sensitive to UV rays and extended exposure to them will cause degradation faster. Kevlar will NOT perform as intended while wet, and care should be taken that the vest remains dry, and that it is kept in as low humidity environment as possible when not being worn. Kevlar can be defeated using rifle rounds and AP rounds. Kevlar can also be cut. Bullet-resistant does NOT mean you are stab resistant. Inserts to exist that have a stab-resistant component to the vest, but Kevlar alone does not provide sufficient protection against stab wounds.
Aside from your own ventilation by a high-speed projectile, the major concern of wearing a soft vest is blunt trauma. The transfer of energy by the bullet can severely impact the wearer of a soft vest. While not as bad as ventilation, the impact can break bones, create severe contusions, and possible organ damage. Results may vary, but the consensus is that while soft armor may save your life, it by no means makes you invulnerable, not do bullets go pinging off your body. Getting shot still sucks and possible life threatening injuries can result even if the projectile fails to penetrate the Kevlar.
Most ceramic plates (often called trauma plates) are made of a boron-carbide compound. It has a crystalline structure and excels at absorbing the energy from the bullet in addition to being extremely hard.
What Ceramic does:
Ceramic plates are generally rated either IIIA or IVA by the NIJ and defeat projectiles ranging from a .308 up to a .3006 (thirty-aught six). The trauma under the plate is greatly reduced by the armor essentially breaking up and absorbing the impact by fracturing. Ceramic is not affected by heat or moisture and does not degrade significantly over time. Ceramic is also significantly lighter that steel, and having ¾ inch plates on adds roughly 10-12 lb. versus 14-16 lb.
What ceramic does not do:
Ceramic is relatively brittle. Drop your plates and they can crack or break. When a round impacts the ceramic, the plate fragments slightly. The fragmentation is due to the absorption of the energy and protects the wearer. Multiple rounds may defeat the armor after it has cracked. The chief drawback of ceramic plates is that once a plate has been shot, the integrity is gone and you need to discard it (preferably after the shooting has stopped).
Steel needs little introduction, and the only thing worth noting is that vast, vast majority of steel trauma plates are made of AR500 steel.
What steel will do:
Steel plates are the most resilient type of hard armor available. Multiple strikes on the plates will not compromise the integrity of the armor. Steel is not brittle and will not crack when dropped or shot. Steel also is cheaper than ceramic and available from a wider range of manufacturers.
What steel will not do:
The worst problem with steel is spalling. Spall is created when a round impacts the plate and fragments.[see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6hFu8vgwos] Pieces of the bullet and the steel plate create a shrapnel-like effect. While not truly life-threatening, the spall tears the plate carrier and can cut the wearer on the neck, chin and face. Several methods have been tried to eliminate or reduce spalling, but aside from commercial methods I have yet to discover a satisfactory DIY solution.
Steel is also heavy. While not a huge concern for many, be aware of the fact that it will add 4-6 lb. over comparable ceramic plates. Using ceramic, one could carry an additional 2 Pmags and 100 rounds of 5.56 ammunition with the weight savings.
Should I get body armor?
I recommend it, but with several caveats. In a WROL or SHTF situation, a bullet wound will likely be a death sentence. Aside from a clean flesh wound, it is HIGHLY unlikely that the majority of individuals would posses the skills or implements required. Bullet fragments, bone, organs and muscle tissue would need to be removed or repaired to prevent sepsis or death from hemorrhaging, let alone restore function to an organ or limb. Slow moving ammunition (think .22LR, .00, .0, birdshot ect.) tends to tear clothing and bring it into the wound, further increasing chances of infection. How many people own a shotgun with a few shells? Add that to the fact that the guy treating you may be your buddy with limited first-aid knowledge who may miss a few of those hundred or so birdshot pellets in you. Lead is NOT on your list of daily vitamins you need for increased brain function. All of the above are ample reason to obtain armor if financially feasible.
I do not recommend obtaining armor before buying food, ammunitions, firearms and medical supplies. Square those areas away, and then invest your money on quality armor only after achieving your goals in that area. Armor might be a wise investment before you reach your goal of 100k rounds of ammunition, but not before you obtain ample amounts of the essentials. Keep your priorities straight. You cannot eat Kevlar, nor does it make very good bandages. Armor falls into the category of a peripheral goal that reinforces the main goals of survival.
Kevlar is easily worn by women, children, the elderly and those wishing to avoid strapping an extra 20lb. on their body. It can be bought for $150-$300+ depending on the manufacturer, and what type of carrier it comes in. All used Kevlar should be checked to determine when the date of manufacture was.
Hard armor allows the more physically robust to carry serious protection and most carriers have MOLLE webbing. Ceramic plates run approximately $200/plate, making a set of them $400+ in addition to the cost of the armor carrier, which runs $75 and up. NIJ certified steel armor runs generally around $100/plate, making them about half of the cost of ceramic. The majority of those sold do not have spalling protection.
What armor should I get?
No magic armor exists that turns you into a bulletproof killing machine. The ideal body armor is one which maximizes your resistance to incoming fire, while enabling you to move and return fire as quickly as possible. Consider the area in which you live and the likely firearms that could be encountered.
In urban areas one may choose to wear soft armor for the concealability and mobility of it, where the risk of being shot at with a larger caliber rifle is minimal. In a rural area where a large hunting population exists, the likelihood of larger calibers and rifles being used increases may make hard armor a better option. I would recommend it for stationary security or a firefight in which you are unable to disengage. Reconnaissance over flat terrain or in a hostile environment would also make hard armor ideal.
Wearing your armor
Regardless of your choice, it is paramount that the armor fit correctly. Most carriers or vests are designed to fit slightly below or at your collarbones and end an inch or two above the waist. The armor you wear should enable you to draw your weapon effectively as well as aim your weapon correctly. The wrong time to find out that your Serpa holster hangs up on your vest is when you need your weapon. Adjust your carry method accordingly. Hard armor does take some getting used to, not only does it add appreciable weight, it also can effect the firing position you take. Practice shooting with your armor on to ensure that proper techniques and a correct setup can be achieved.
For those getting hard armor, I recommend running in it. As much as that sucks, it works. Train heavy, fight light. The Romans used rudii, wooden swords, to train with that were DOUBLE the weight of the swords they fought with. Take a cue from the pros. You plan on wearing armor or a load-bearing vest, weight it down in training. Use sand, concrete or extra crap and make it 5-10 lb. heavier than your fighting kit. Run and train in it, and learn to use it effectively. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to become familiar with and train with any armor you purchase.
What type of carrier should I get?
Kevlar vests almost always come with a carrier. Some are concealable, and feature a design that can be worn under a shirt. Others are designed to be worn over the clothes and feature side panels to protect fire from 00 and 1800 of the wearer. Some Kevlar vests have trauma plates (foam or steel) to minimize blunt trauma from a round, and others have stab-resistant inserts. Both options add weight and bulk to the vest, as well as increase expense.
Hard armor almost always comes separate from the carrier. Carriers come is a plethora of styles and choosing one is largely a function of individual taste. Blackhawk, Condor, Rothco, and Voodoo Tactical all make affordable, decent quality rigs. Tactical Tailor, Crye Precision and SKD all make top quality carriers, that will last though hard, everyday use. Expect to pay $75-$100 for decent quality rigs and $250-$1000+ for top quality. I prefer the design utilized by Jumpable Plate Carrier by Crye Precision. The cut down carrier minimizes weight and still retains the essential function of the armor. Others may prefer to get a large vest with side panels and strap 20+ mags on. Your mileage may vary.
In closing, I highly recommend getting armor for those financially able to. A time is coming where it will become illegal for the serfs (you and I) to purchase or unobtainium because everyone wants it. Rourke spoke of the Minuteman concept and I think those interested in such an idea absolutely need armor. You do no service for your cause by dying for it, you do service to it by making the other guy die for his. Make yourself harder to kill. Those with specific questions please shoot me an email and I will do my best to answer it.
Should you decide to look on Amazon/Ebay or other online retailers, make sure you are buying real armor. Many retailers advertise “body armor” that is designed for use in Airsoft. Many of the products are significantly cheaper than actual armor. Clearly these are NOT suitable for use in combat…unless your enemy is using an Airsoft gun. Even then, why not use real plates? Overkill does not exist in combat. Just read the description of what you are buying, and make sure you are buying the real thing.
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