By Anthony McGrath

When the subject is body armor, you can’t avoid the topic of Kevlar. This synthetic fiber has completely changed the way of development of body armor, once it appeared on the market. Kevlar is incredibly lightweight, while five times stronger and harder than steel. It doesn’t corrode or rust, while effectively absorbing vibration. Kevlar is expensive, though, due to the work with concentrated sulfuric acid that’s used in its production. Only a few online websites such as www.safeguardclothing.com offer soft Kevlar panels in their armor to the public nowadays . . .

But be warned: when exposed to ultraviolet rays in sunlight, Kevlar breaks down. Other factors that negatively affect Kevlar include bleaching, dry cleaning, and repeated washing. In order to protect Kevlar from these issues, its layers in bullet proof body armor are coated in fabric to prevent exposure to moisture and sunlight.

There are three common grades for Kevlar: standard Kevlar, Kevlar 29, and Kevlar 49. The first grade of is usually used in tires, another great example of Kevlar’s strength. Kevlar 29 is employed in body armor, asbestos replacements, brake linings, and industrial cables. Kevlar 49 is usually used in such applications as plastic consolidations for bicycles, airplanes, and boat hulls.

Bullet-Proof Kevlar Body Armor

The majority of police officers in North America and Great Britain in front-line law enforcement are now wearing bullet proof body armor. Nevertheless, as the name indicates, bullet-proof armor doesn’t protect from injuries from blades and edged weapons that police officers can face as well (ice picks, arrows, knives, etc.). Since the force from these weapons striking is concentrated on a very small surface, edged and pointed weapons are able to penetrate many Kevlar layers and this may cause serious injuries and even death. There are, however, specially-designed armors that protect from edged weapon attacks and they’re frequently worn by jailers and prison guards.

Bullet-proof Kevlar body armor supplies protection from the majority of low and medium velocity pistol rounds, but not high-velocity rifle calibers. Hard body armor that uses a metal or ceramic plate inserted into the front pocket of a carrier vest essentially increases the protection provided by a body armor set.

These metal and ceramic trauma plates are smaller than the vest’s front panel and are usually surrounded by a few Kevlar layers, which don’t allow projectile pieces ricochet from the trauma plate after collision. The extra protection is helpful in avoiding injuries to the ribs, lungs, and heart, which can occur from blunt force trauma (a kind of injury caused by the sudden bullet force that hits the vest, but not actually penetrates it). Blunt force trauma may result in bad bruising, cracked or fractured ribs, or even lethal outcome.

Body armor that have higher protection levels usually have heavier trauma plates and supplementary layers of Kevlar, but these types of hard body armor are bulky, heavy, and rigid. They aren’t really practical for routine employment by patrol officers in uniform. Members of tactical forces usually wear these kinds of body armor over short terms, when they need to deal with high-risk cases that involve the use of rifles.

Anthony is online marketing director for Safeguard Clothing.

43 Responses to Body Armor Primer: Guns and Bullets vs. Kevlar and Plates

  1. It’s a quibble (magazine/clip, etc., etc.,) but I don’t think you’ll find the consecutive words “bullet proof” in any body armor manufacturer’s literature/description/lexicon. Yeah, yeah, I know it was mentioned that most concealable body armor is limited in what it will protect from, BUT, “bullet proof” implies something that it isn’t. I believe most body armor companies will tell you that their armor isn’t 100% guaranteed to stop even those rounds that an individual type is rated for. For example, from Safariland’s warranty: “Components are sold “as is” without any warranties for ballistic protection.”

    • I love this site and continually cringe when certain articles come up. This site more than most should be certain that they are detting gun terminology right, yet I see “silencer” instead of Supressor, Tank instead of Armored Personnel Carrier, Etc.. The one most grinding though is the Supressor one. One cannot completely “silence” a gun therefore all you can expect is a supressed sound, or noise reduction thus Supressor. I don’t mind so much in the comments when it is used but main articles are for “silencers” ^cringe^.

        • Also, “silencer” is what it is called legally, even if it is not a good description of what it really does

      • Here in the US we use “shock absorber” rather than the UK “dampener”. In the Truth about Cars, the car’s springs are the real shock absorbers, the dampener only dampens the spring motion after the impact so you don’t drive like a slinky. I guess we just need to get over these pet peeves.

      • Concealable body armor, ballistic panels, bullet resistant, and a number of other descriptive terms. Bullet proof? Not so much. Surprising coming from the marketing director of a body armor company.

        • I hear you, man… I was just trying to have some fun.

          Yeah, “bullet proof” is terrible terminology– the author could have been a lot more accurate.

  2. While Kevlar vests have been the most common types of vests available for quite some time, there are more affordable options out now like carbon nanotube panels. There is also more affordable hard plates like AR500 steel with spall resistant coatings which is much more durable than ceramics. How about an article comparing all of the offerings on the market for those of us who are looking for protection in these unsure times to come.

    • Not all are made of Kevlar, there are other materials used- Spectra, carbon tubes, and ceramic scaling to name a few. Stab vests usually have a backer to the kevlar, like fiberglass, “semi- volatile non-Newtonian ferric silicon fluids” (fluid that gets very hard very fast when poked- a treated level III spectra vest withstood 20, 320 PSI stabbings)

      • Interesting. I went to this company’s site, and all they said about their stab vests were that they were Kevlar. Then again, not a whole lot of detail on that site. I also wondered if Kevlar could be fused into a solid that would be stab resistant, and perhaps more able to absorb/disperse impact. My thinking is along he lines of earlier chain mail armor. Chain mail alone was effective against most swords of the day, but not arrows–but add a thick padded vest underneath it (made of various materials including flaxen, woolen, linen and silk in multiple layers–strangely similar to Kevlar vests), and it would withstand point blank shots with a long bow. Solid armor plate came along when stiff, very pointed swords designed for stabbing (and breaking links) were developed and deployed.

        • We are back to terminology nazi. It is chain or mail. Calling it chain mail is like calling me Matt Matt.
          I have been building medieval armor for 25 plus years. Mail was only good against a slashing attack. Any moderate thrust from a sword with a point would go straight through. Does not mater if the rings are riveted or welded. Nothing from the time would stop a point blank shot from a long bow. A hard hack with a sword edge or mace might not part rings but would break bones under the armor. The best use of mail was under plate to protect joint areas that were not otherwise covered. It was better than nothing. I saw a test on titanium rings, every thrust went through. Arrows went through both sides.
          One great modern material for stopping a knife blade is Kydex plastic or it’s generic. I have faced my AR500 plates with it to stop spall.

  3. There is soft armor that is both stab and bullet resistant. I have been issued it at one point. And currently ceramic plates are being issued that are stand alone and require no soft armor that are rated to take hits up to 7.62

  4. Incidentally, whatever happened to DragonSkin? Lots of hype, last I heard there were delamination issues in high heat environments that caused the ceramic pieces to spread apart and fall down inside the vest?

    • I didn’t follow it very closely, but the concept was a joke from what I saw. Apparently Army SF guys were obsessed with it for a while. All the manufacturer’s claims were ridiculous and ignorable. That it could withstand more direct impacts than convention armor? As long as the shooter is a sharpshooter who makes sure to hit a different point with every shot. The grenade claim? as long as future impacts are on the side opposite where the grenade exploded.

      I’d rather wear my flack vest.

    • IIRC the idea was overlapping ceramic disks that would share the impact, with one disk giving getting sacrificed per hit. There’s some merit to the concept, but the problem was securing these incredibly hard disks to some sort of backing to make them a sheet, and keeping the orientation so the disks would overlap. The glue apparently didn’t hold up well.

      The concept might see use in the future, in essence it offered a near-360-degree trauma plate with redundancy. Your opponent would have to be a marksman to get two rounds on the same 1-2″ disk, one assumes you would be moving to prevent a second hit, and if the first disk didn’t get hit again your armor was just fine. Conventional ceramic trauma plates apparently decompose to gravel after a hit or two.

      The other problem would be you have to dump the vest if you can’t find and replace the damaged disk(s) after a firefight. A busted trauma plate just gets replaced, possibly after being bronzed and mounted.

      Materials sciences will make this a potentially viable option at some point, but the question is whether by the time a mounting process that makes the DragonSkin concept realistic is developed, will someone come around with a carbon-nanotube/shear-thickening fluid combo (or something that hasn’t been invented yet) that offers equivalent protection at less weight and equal or greater flexibility? I tend to believe STFs and carbon will win out in the end.

  5. How is this a “Body Armor Primer”…??? The article gives virtually no information on body armor, just some blather about three types of Kevlar, and some ancillary information…perhaps next time you’d care to list some body armor levels, now that would be a “Body Armor Primer”…

  6. Interesting, I usually would put a soft kevlar pad in front of the ceramic plate for the purposes of catching anything… wonder if that’s unnecessary.

    • Kevlar is amazing stuff, and so are ballistic ceramics. I’ve helped rehab a chainsaw the bit hard into saw chaps, and it was a mess (but the sawyer wasn’t even scratched). Keep the Kevlar behind the ceramic, as a backup. If nothing else, it should be more comfortable in the event of impact. Remember the entire point of the stuff: your body is going to absorb ever bit of kinetic energy the bullet has, you want to spread that out over as much area as possible. Ceramic plates can only do that once.

    • You got that completely backwards. You want the Kevlar next to the skin. Rifle bullets will go right thru it, but earlier ceramic plates needed the Kevlar to catch anything that made it thru. And ceramic plates are capable of stopping multiple impacts not just once. Saw a plate that onced stop 20 rounds of AK(while being worn).

  7. Body armor is important but remember if you are shot anywhere else the body armor is not you still run the risk of death. Such as major arteries in arms and legs. I believe there is armor that fully protects the body just not available to citizens.

    • The point of modern body armor is to stop rounds center mass. While other pieces can be added to offer some protection, full fledged body armor really only exist in the EOD suits and are not practical for anything other than bomb disposal. Ceramic plates are designed to pretty much stop wounds that are hard are next to impossible for a battlefield medic to stabilize, specifically the chest area cavity. Extremity wounds are not as worrisome anymore due to touniquet use.

  8. This is, of course, one of the oldest plays in the book. We don’t want to be hurt or killed by the very things we use to hurt or kill others. Rocks, pointed sticks, swords, guns,…and even words. We want to enjoy the benefits without having to pay the cost for our actions. Basically, we would all like a suit of God Armor, like in the old video game, Doom…impervious to everything. Even as we comment, there are clever minds at the DoD and D.A.R.P.A. that are trying to put together a working Iron Man suit. All of the benefits, but none of the costs. Has that ever worked?

  9. The majority of Police Officers in the UK are NOT wearing bullet resistant vests; they’re wearing “anti stab” vests.
    Only those performing certain duties wear bullet resistant vests.

  10. Has anyone considered making and testing their own? Design, testing to production. It doesn’t seem that it would be impossible.

  11. There is a product on the market currently available to renforce body armor and keep out moisture it’s called flex shield spray as seen on tv products the first thing i noticed it stiffened the kevlar and waterproofed it at the same time

  12. From what I understand Kevlar is stab resistant as well as flame resistant, which is what also separates it from its competitors.

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