Seven Things You Don’t Know About Body Armor

My friend John Johnston (host of the excellent radio program Ballistic Radio) suggested that I write an article about body armor and fitness. He was doing some PT while wearing plate armor in order to improve his fitness for an upcoming firearms training class and thought that a post concerning the realities of wearing armor would be useful.

Like most cops, I wear soft armor every day at work. I’m proud to say that I’ve never worked a single patrol shift without wearing armor. I also have rifle plate armor that I occasionally (but not often) wear. I guess putting the stuff on every day for the last 23 years makes me a reasonable authority to speak on the subject.

First, a few clarifications…

There are two basic classes of body armor. The first is known as “soft body armor” and is what most cops wear under their uniform shirts. This armor is reasonably light and flexible and made of synthetic materials like Kevlar and Spectra Shield. This type of armor is classified by threat level (the type of bullets they protect against). Current NIJ threat levels are (in order from least protection to most protection) Level IIA, Level II, and Level IIIA.

These vests stop pistol and shotgun rounds reliably, but they generally won’t stop centerfire rifle rounds. It’s a velocity issue. The faster the bullet, the harder it is to stop. Most level IIIA vests have a velocity threshold somewhere around 1600 feet per second. If a bullet traveling faster than that hits the soft armor, it usually penetrates.

In order to stop rifle rounds, you’ll need “hard” or “plate” armor. This armor is made of ceramic, a solid composite, or steel. It is rated with the NIJ classifications of Level III and Level IV. See the chart below from Howard’s Uniform Supply to see the particulars for each type of armor.

I’m guessing that most of you reading this don’t currently own any body armor. I think this is a hole in your self defense preparations. If you acknowledge the possibility that you might get into a gunfight, you should be thinking about protecting yourself as well. Body armor will save your life. If you are a prepper or anticipating some type of economic or societal collapse, I think that a ballistic vest will likely be a better investment than yet another case of ammunition. You won’t be able to fire that ammo or eat all that stored food if you get shot and die because you didn’t have body armor.

Personally, I think armor is so important, that I have a couple sets under the bed in my “safe room” right next to the long gun I will use for home protection. If you have enough time to grab your rifle when an intruder breaks into your house, you also likely have enough time to throw a vest over your chest. I believe it’s a sensible and necessary piece of equipment for any home defense plans.

Here are some facts that you need to know to be an informed body armor consumer:

1) Body armor is heavy and hot. The soft armor isn’t much more than about five pounds, but it will wear you out if you aren’t used to having it on. Plate armor is really heavy. You won’t be able to move as quickly or get in and out of shooting positions easily while wearing it. Both are REALLY hot. I think the heat is even more difficult to handle than the weight. Make sure you stay hydrated while wearing it. A casualty is a casualty, whether it comes from a heat stroke or a bullet.

2) Body armor will make breathing under exertion more difficult. You will want your vest to fit you snugly so that it doesn’t move around when you start taking rounds. That snug fit will make it more difficult to expand your chest when breathing hard. will have to take shallower, more frequent breaths if your heart rate is elevated while wearing a vest.

3) Body armor will alter your shooting stance. The hard plates are the worst offenders in this regard, but even soft armor will interfere with your shooting stance. I normally shoot a handgun with my elbows locked, but I am unable to fully straighten my arms when wearing my soft armor.

Armor may also necessitate the adjustment of the length of pull on your rifle or shotgun stock. Having anywhere from 1/2 ” to 2″ of extra thickness alters how you mount your long gun. You’ll need to practice with both pistols and long guns to get used to these differences.

4) You can be choked out on your body armor. If you are in a physical fight with an opponent and you end up on your back with your attacker straddling you (the “mount” position), his body weight will drive your vest high up under your chin. If your opponent cups the back of your head and drives your chin into your chest (the MMA “can opener” move), you will be choked unconscious on your own vest.

It is for that reason that I don’t wear the supplemental steel “trauma plate” often included with soft armor. It makes it too easy for a skilled opponent to choke you. There’s no way to avoid this problem with the hard armor plates. If I’m wearing my plates, I’m also probably carrying my rifle. Getting into a ground fight with a long gun presents many more problems than just being choked by my vest.

5) Water and Ultraviolet light will cause soft armor to degrade. Heat, moisture, and UV light are body armor’s worst enemies. They will make a soft vest degrade more rapidly than it should. Be cautious about how you store your armor and purchase a moisture resistant carrier Don’t buy used armor if you don’t know how it was stored.

6) Body armor has an expiration date, but it often isn’t all that important. Most soft body armor has an expiration date approximately five years after its manufacture. The armor will slowly lose some of its protective abilities over time, but it won’t suddenly “go bad” at the magical five year mark. When I was the training officer at my department, I regularly shot old vests that our officers turned in once they got their newly issued armor. I never had a single vest fail to stop a round it was rated to protect against, regardless of age. I shot dozens of vests, some going back to the 1970s and never had a round penetrate.

7) Soft body armor offers adequate protection against most edged weapons threats. Although most soft armor isn’t rated to protect against edged weapons, it usually does a pretty good job.Soft armor will protect against all slashing attacks. It will stop many stabbing attacks as well. The only attacks that it won’t protect against are stabs from knives with a very thin profile (think “icepick”) or stabs when the wearer is stabilized against a wall or the ground. Even then, usually only a small amount of the blade (1/2″ or so) penetrates.

Think about buying some armor. I would recommend that you start out with concealable soft armor in Level II or Level IIIA. It will provide protection from almost all handgun and shotgun rounds and can still be low profile enough to be worn under a loose shirt. The soft armor also wraps around the body and provides more coverage than plate armor.

Once you get some soft armor, take a look at supplementing it with some plates. I generally don’t recommend the coated steel plates. Even with the rubber coating, there is a chance that a rifle round that hits the plate can break up, sending fragments into your throat. I’d only recommend the steel plates if money is a serious issue. Spalling from a rifle round that hits your steel plate is certainly more preferable to taking a full round in the chest. If you have some more disposable cash, the ceramic or composite plates are usually lighter and offer a little better protection with less chance of spalling.

When you get your armor, make sure you train in it. It WILL alter many of the things you do with your firearm. You should be aware of how that works before you actually wear your armor in combat.

Greg Ellifritz is the full time firearms and defensive tactics training officer for a central Ohio police department. He holds instructor or master instructor certifications in more than 75 different weapon systems, defensive tactics programs and police specialty areas. Greg has a master's degree in Public Policy and Management and is an instructor for both the Ohio Peace Officer's Training Academy and the Tactical Defense Institute.

For more information or to contact Greg, visit his training site at Active Response Training.

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