How Do You Choose the Right Body Armor?

It is an unfortunate reality that many public safety personnel and military operators must rely on ballistic body armor.  Body armor has advanced tremendously since the days when people thought of them as just "bulletproof vests" and just for police officers.  Today, in addition to military and police, they may be worn by all types of first responders and public safety personnel, including sheriff's deputies, EMS and EMT personnel, and more.  (Corrections officers may also wear ballistic vests, but they usually are more concerned with stab-proof armor - which we'll talk about in another blog post.)

There are a number of factors that impact body armor effectiveness, including the type of body armor, the fit, and conditions.

The number of body armor options available for the modern first responder can be overwhelming; with an array of variables from soft armor inserts to ceramic plates to carriers, which ones are right for your needs? To gain a proper understanding of the information involved in making a decision, you need to know more about the types of armor involved, the definition of threat levels, and the certification processes involved in confirming an armor layout to a particular threat level.

What types of armor are there?

Modern body armor is typically broken into two main types, known as "soft armor" and "hard armor." Soft body armor is commonly used in concealable armor, meant to be worn underneath a uniform shirt. The panels used in soft armor are made out of either tightly woven aramid threads of Kevlar or other similar material, laminates such as Dyneema, or a combination of the multiple types of these fabrics. Soft body armor does not deflect or repel bullets, but the material's weave catches the bullet to help dissipate the kinetic energy of the impact and prevent it from penetrating through to the officer.

Hard armor plating is harder and thicker, commonly made from either steel or ceramic, and usually backed with pressed laminate. While soft armor is designed to catch the bullet, hard armor plating is designed to shatter the round upon impact, thus dispersing the energy and preventing penetration. Many hard armor plates have an extra layer on the outside to reduce the risk of harm from fragmentation of the round. While soft armor is fairly lightweight and suitable for everyday wear, hard armor is heavier, bulkier, and more cumbersome, and is typically reserved for external tactical vests and any application where the wearer will have it on for a relatively short period of time.

What types of hard plating are used in 'hard armor'?

The hard plates used in body armor are usually made from one of three basic materials - steel, ceramic, or polyethylene - or combinations of these materials. Each of them is highly effective, with the reasons to choose between them coming down to the question of cost versus weight.

Steel plates are the heaviest type of armor plating available, but is also the least expensive. Unhit areas remain intact after an impact, preventing further rounds from penetrating the vest. However, bullet impacts can send fragments in all directions as the round shatters on impact, threatening the wearer or others in close proximity. This makes it the least popular form of armor plating when other options are available.

Ceramic plates cost slightly more but offer significant advantages by comparison. First and foremost, the weight of ceramic plates is significantly decreased, which means that officers with heavy loadouts will be less impacted by the weight of their armor. Ceramic plates also have excellent initial stopping power and cause less fragmentation upon impact. However, ceramic armor is susceptible to damage both from bullet impacts and from other damage sustained in daily activity if caution is not taken, and damage reduces the ability of the armor to protect against subsequent impacts.

Polyethylene plates are the most expensive common option available, and there are no level IV polyethylene plates currently available on the market. However, the material of the plate is very lightweight, and it greatly reduces the potential for round fragmentation and ricochets by using the bullet's own friction to partially melt the plate before entrapping the round within the material.

How are body armors rated against threat levels?

Any modern body armor, whether soft or hard, is designed to stop only certain types and calibers of bullets. The standards for ballistic protection are set by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), which measures stopping power based on the caliber and velocity of the projectile that can be stopped with the armor, and assigns a "threat level" based on the degree of protection thus provided. Modern threat levels are sorted into five categories: IIA, II, IIIA, III, and IV. Each higher category protects against higher-level threats than the previous one. Concealable soft armor typically rates up to level II or IIIA, and is designed to stop pistol rounds. Hard armor plates can be rated as high as IV, and have been tested to stop certain types of armor-piercing rifle ammunition as well as smaller firearms.

What's the difference between NIJ-Certified and NIJ-Compliant?

In addition to setting the standards for ballistic armor, the NIJ runs extensive testing and certification programs and encourages manufacturers to submit their soft and hard armor panels for thorough testing. In addition to ballistic tests to help determine threat level, the NIJ performs endurance tests to see how the armor holds up under extensive wear, such as immersion testing to see how the armor withstands a 30 minute immersion in water, and high humidity/high heat testing to see how the fibers hold up under adverse conditions. NIJ testing is extremely thorough and is a long and expensive process, but any armor that passes official NIJ laboratory testing is labeled as "NIJ-certified."

However, manufacturers may also opt to manufacture armor that satisfies the NIJ written standards but are not actually tested by the NIJ in order to reduce the final cost of the armor. This armor is label "NIJ-compliant," and may stop bullets just as well as NIJ-certified ballistic armor, but the National Institute of Justice does not verify that the armor will perform to the claims of the manufacturer.

What can reduce the effectiveness of body armor?

Modern body armor is designed to be rugged and durable, but even the best armor is not impenetrable under all conditions and circumstances. There are several additional factors that can cause limitations in armor effectiveness.

Moisture: Soft armor is vulnerable to moisture; wet fibers may relax, spread apart, and weaken the overall structure of the weave, causing gaps in coverage or lowering the effective protection provided by the armor. Soft armor is typically housed in a waterproof outer carrier to protect against moisture.

Multiple Impacts: NIJ standards provide ratings for multiple impacts across the face of the armor, but in practical terms, most body armor is designed to take one to two shots in a specific area at a time. Depending on the proximity of impacts, multiple shots can compromise the overall integrity of the armor as bullets tear into structure weakened by previous impacts. The force of a first strike can compromise the strength of fibers or plating in a particular area, reducing protection if subsequent shots strike in the same location.

Coverage: Even the toughest armored vest can't stop a bullet that hits an area not covered by the vest or paneling. For optimum protection, vests should be sized appropriately to the user and any gaps should be closed before wearing, particularly in two-panel clamshell configurations that can leave vulnerable side areas if not sized correctly to the wearer.

Normal Wear: The strongest armor still suffers from the ravages of time. Soft armor in particular can break down over time, and armor worn in daily use may suffer accelerated deterioration depending on the conditions of use. The National Institute of Justice advises that in-use body armor undergo inspection at least once per year in order to rotate out vests that may no longer provide sufficient coverage.

So what body armor do I need?

First and foremost, your employer should tell you basically - if not exactly - what you need. And there are standards that you should be aware of and follow.  However, here are some general guidelines or things to consider.

Typically, patrol officers who wear armor on a regular basis prefer to wear soft armor due to its light weight and slim profile, allowing it to be concealed under a uniform. Tactical shooter teams, SWAT teams, and others who need to value maximum protection over concealability tend to wear soft armor underneath a plate carrier fitted with hard armor plating to provide the best protection available for the price.

Whatever armor you choose, you need to make sure that it fits properly, as body armor in general can be uncomfortable either because of its bulk or because it has been poorly fitted. Armor that doesn't fit properly may limit the abilities of the wearer, or worse, be left behind. Armor that is properly fitted will encourage officers to wear it, which in turn will help to ensure that it will protect them when they need it most.

Whatever your choice, Anchortex Corporation has a broad selection of mission-critical body armor solutions for your department or facility from GH Armor, High Ground, Super Seer, and other manufacturers. Contact us today to learn more.

Anchortex Corporation thanks Propper Uniforms, precision manufacturers of military and tactical uniforms for over 50 years, for their assistance with this article.

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