How to Choose the Body Armor

For law enforcement officers, policemen, security guards, and military body armor is life-saving equipment. And for civilians who shoot at range or hunt body armor is a necessary safety measure. However as obvious as this may seem, selecting proper body armor is a more complex task than it seems. There’s a lot of information around and many factors to consider, so feeling overwhelmed is only normal, especially if you are new to protective equipment.

Let’s try to connect the dots and to get a clear understanding of what you need to pay attention to when choosing body armor.

Body armor types

Body armor vest

This type of the armor also comes under other names: ballistic armor, bullet-resistant or bulletproof armor. The main purpose of the body armor vest is to protect the torso of the wearer and vital organs from firearm projectiles, piercing damage, and ricochets.

Body armor vest comes in two variants: with body plate armor already incorporated into the vest, or just ad a plate carrier with no plates for body armor included.

Tactical vest

Unlike combat vests with inserted armor plates, tactical vests are merely carrier vests designed to attach equipment thanks to tactical MOLLE webbing and Velcro fasteners. Since there are no armor plates inside, a tactical vest does not provide any bullet resistance.

Fill-body tactical armor

This type of body armor includes protective plates on the front, back, and sides of the armor. It provides superior protection compared with other types of armor and can also be completed with a helm, a bullet-resistant shield, and arm and leg armor plates too.

Concealed armor

Sometimes you may not want to display to everyone that you are wearing body armor. This is the case of security guards or FBI agents or police officers working undercover. Concealed armor can be worn beneath the clothes or a normal uniform, so it remains hidden, but still protects its wearer. 

Soft and hard armor

Aside from the above classification, armors are also broken onto two categories: hard armor and soft armor.

Soft armor is flexible plates made of woven synthetic materials. Soft armor is rarely certified higher than NIJ Level IIIA, although Level III plates can be found on the market sometimes.

Hard armor is what it sounds – a harder, weighty, non-flexible armor plate. Hard armor can with stand more serious threats (see below), but restricts movement of a wearer.

Here is what you need to know about choosing body armor

The main factors you need to assess when looking for protective equipment include the proposed threat levels, materials of the body plate armor, and size of the vest.

Threat levels

First things first – the threat level is a core notion in understanding the efficiency of the ballistic armor. National Institute of Justice (NIJ) standardizes threat levels and splits them onto several levels, namely:

  • NIJ Level II. This threat level includes such common rounds as 45 ACP, 9mm, .40 S&W, .357. If armor is NIJ certified as Level II it is guaranteed to withstand multiple shots from hand guns firing these bullets.
  • NIJ Level IIIA. The threat level encompasses higher velocity bullets of such calibers as .44 magnum or 9 mm. A soft armor plates certified as Level IIIA can stop several shots of such ammo types.
  • NIJ Level III. More serious threats include rifles and shotguns. The NIJ recognizes 7.62X51 mm NATO FMJ and .308 Winchester as Level III threats and requires the armor certified at this level to stop such bullets unless they hit the same point. In some online shops you can often see Level III+ or Level III++ body plate armor. Manufacturers of such ballistic armor claim it to stop more powerful or higher speed projectiles, than those NIJ Level III is capable of dealing with. However, note that this is not NIJ certified levels, because there are no such NIJ testing protocols. We recommend buying Level III+ armor only from trustworthy dealers.
  • NIJ Level IV. Maximum danger threats are classified as Level IV. This level includes sniper rifles and armor piercing bullets. 

The threat level is indicated with numbers, but in fact the real protection level is not linear. Bigger number does not necessarily mean better protection. The threat level gives customers a point of reference to compare armor plates by different manufacturers, but in reality some slower bullets can penetrate armor plates certified as Level III, for example.

This is extremely important to understand: you should always select body armor plate based on potential threats you may face on your duty, not just the highest NIJ certification number armor plate. 

Material of the armor plate

When it comes for the material of armor plates we recommend sticking to contemporary ones such as synthetic fibers, composite materials or ceramic. Steel plates are also an affordable option if you are tight on budget. 

However, modern composition of the plate means lower weight and thickness, so if mobility is crucial you should prefer polyethylene or Kevlar plates for soft armor, and various laminates or composite materials for hard armor. Unfortunately, lightweight body armor plates come for a price as contemporary materials are more expensive to manufacture, so you ought to be ready to spend a lot.

Examples of body armor materials include:

  • Aramid fibers found in such brands as Kevlar or Twaron
  • Dyneema soft and hard armor panels
  • Ultrahigh molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE), for example Spectra Shield
  • Ceramic armors such as the renowned Dragon Skin armor

Sizes and cuts

The next thing you should take into consideration is the size of the body armor plates. The standard sizes of armor plates found across the market are:

  • XS SAPI (18×29 cm)
  • S (8×10 in or 20×30 cm)
  • Small SAPI (22×30 cm)
  • L (10×12 in or 25×30 cm)
  • Medium SAPI (24×32 cm)
  • Large SAPI (26×34 cm)
  • XL (11×14 in or 27×35 cm)

It is vital to select the plates for body armor and the plate carrier so to make it fit your body the best. A too big armor plate will hinder your mobility, while a too small plate may not provide enough coverage of your organs.

Armor plate cuts are important too, as they have effect on agility of a wearer. “Shooter” cuts and “swimmer” cuts are designed for agile shooters, while guarding missions may stick to standard sized SAPI cuts.

What else to consider?

One thing you should pay attention to when choosing body armor is whether it is a standalone armor plate or a ICW (In-Conjunction With) plate. While standalone plates do not require a soft armor backer beneath to meet the requirements of the NIJ standard. While ICW plates do need such a backer. So if you see a plate marked as, for instance, Level III ICW, this means that you will need put it on over soft armor to get the specified protection level.

How to choose the body armor plates?

Now that you know the specifics of body armor you can make an informed decision when purchasing an armor plate.

First of all, figure out the purpose you need the body armor for. Is it law enforcement operations? Hunting? Security missions? Your activity and duties shape the potential threats you may face, so the armor must provide enough protection from them. Then, there is your mobility. Would you expect to move a lot like during dynamic entry operations? Or is you duty is mostly about staying firm and looking around? The answer defines whether you need a soft lightweight armor or should go for harder solutions.

Then, you need to tape measure yourself. The National Institute of Justice specifies a special measurement procedure to find the most accurate numbers and select the best fitting armor. But here a simple rule of thumb you can use to find the right size of the plate: the width of the plate is the nipple-to-nipple distance, and the height is the distance from just above your belly button to the suprasternal notch. Select the preferred cut of the body armor plate. 

Based on your goals and activity, select the material of the plate.

Finally, look for other options of the plate carrier and body armor: MOLLE webbing, Velcro fasteners, emergency release switches and so on. Color is also of some importance. Black is universal; white and nude colors are perfect for concealed wear; and camo is all time favorite of military and law enforcement officers.

Wrapping up

In conclusion, choosing the right body armor requires submerging into the topic and getting some knowledge first. On the other hand, you can always consult experts and ask for an advice if you cannot make up your mind yet.

BattleSteel is a team of body armor experts who knows every single detail about testing, choosing and wearing armor plates and can suggest you the best options.


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