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By Chris Taylor

Body armor has existed in various forms for many years, yet the past few decades have seen significant improvements made to protective clothing. This has helped make armor thinner, lighter, and stronger. This makes for increased protection, but also much more variety in the available products. So what does it all mean? . . .

Body armor incorporates a wide range of products, but there is certain information you need to know regarding body armor; what weapons is it designed to protect against? What strength of attack can it stop? What is it made from? How can it be worn? Knowing the answers to these questions and understanding why they are so important will help you make the correct decision when choosing body armor.

Body armor is designed to protect you to the best of its ability, but it can only protect against the threats it is designed against. Bullet proof vests made of Kevlar, for example, work by ‘trapping’ a bullet and displacing its energy through tightly woven fabric, slowing it to a complete stop before it can penetrate the vest. However, higher calibre rounds require ‘hard’ armor protection, utilizing plates of ceramic or polyethylene and stopping bullets in the thicker and stronger material.

Soft Armor

Soft armor usually uses materials like Kevlar or Dyneema, tightly woven fabrics with an incredibly high strength-to-weight ratio that disperse the energy of a bullet. These soft armors are available in different levels depending on the speed and strength of a bullet they can protect against. Extra layers are needed to increase ‘soft’ protection, and while this will increase size and weight, body armor remains lightweight and comfortable to wear.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) tests and grades bullet proof vests accordingly, and all body armor sold should meet these standards. The Level IIa bullet proof vest can protect against 9mm full metal jacketed round nose and .40 S&W full metal jacketed ammunition, which are commonly found in most handguns. Level II armor offers the same level protection as the IIa, with the added benefit of stopping .357 Magnum jacketed soft points. The highest level of soft armor is the Level IIIa, which not only provides the protection offered by the lower levels, but also protects against high velocity 9mm full metal jacketed round-nose bullets and .44 Magnum jacketed hollow points. All these soft armors are available in covert as well as overt styles, meaning the vest can be worn underneath or over clothing respectively. 

Hard Armor

Hard armor offers all the protection of soft armor, with hard panels to protect against higher caliber bullets. These bullet proof vests usually use polyethylene, ceramic or a mixture in inserted plates to protect against these types of ammunition. These plates can even be inserted into covert armor, offering the highest level of protection in a discreet style. Hard armors are necessary when facing rifle and armor piercing (AP) rounds; the Level III hard armor protects against 7.62 full metal jacketed rifle rounds, and the Level IV can protect against .30 caliber AP bullets. These are naturally heavier and bulkier than their soft counterparts, but still remain comfortable to wear. In high-risk situations where high caliber ammunition and even armor-piercing rounds are prevalent, hard bullet resistant vests are vital.

Covert/Overt

In addition to different levels of protection, bullet proof vests are also available in different styles, affecting how they’re worn. This includes covert and overt vests, designed to be worn underneath and over clothing respectively. There are advantages and disadvantages to each style of armor, though both are as lightweight and flexible as possible.

Covert vests are designed to be worn underneath clothing or a uniform, and allow you complete freedom of movement without sacrificing protection. Many are also available with temperature-regulating technologies to help keep the wearer cool. Covert vests are ideal for discreet protection, and some have argued that concealing armor will avoid making you more of a target for potential attackers. Similarly, when dealing with the public or indeed in any situation where discretion is necessary, a covert vest is ideal. However, an overt vest may be the better choice in some environments. Some argue that overt protection, i.e. a vest worn over clothing, can deter potential attackers. It can certainly act as a statement of authority, and with the addition of extra pockets and quick release systems it can form a more complete protective option.

There’s a great deal of choice available to those who need protection; from the style of the vest, to its level of protection, it is important that you understand just what is available to you, and how each suits certain situations. Whatever the choice, provided you have prepared properly, you can ensure you remain as protected as possible without sacrificing comfort and mobility.

Chris Taylor is Communications Director for Safeguard Armor.

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41 Responses to A Taxonomy of Body Armor and Bullet Resistant Vests

  1. Nobody needs body armor except a bad guy. If everyone is allowed to have body armor, how will we tell the bad guys from the innocents? Think of the children! /sarc

      • They actually have bullet resistant backpacks for kids now. I’m not sure how long they’ve been on the market , but I remember first seeing them in the Sandy Hook aftermath.

        There’s also a briefcase or maybe a day planner, with bullet resistant plates, which in an emergency can be opened wide and worn to provide some upper body protection front and back.

  2. 1. No comment on how Level II and IIa vest stand up against hollow point rounds.

    2. What about Level II vests with removable chest plates?

    3. What is the most common armor worn by police agencies, and why do they choose that type/style?

    4. It would seem logical at some point that a police agency would modify their legacy uniform style to something that incorporated the bullet resistant vest rather than trying to squeeze the vest in underneath a uniform shirt. Has any research been done on this option?

    • One other thing I’ve been curious about, and since they always seem to be white I suspect this is the case – is it not possible to dye the Kevlar any other color? Is that why these vest are always worn under a shirt or in a carrier cover?

      • The kevlar’s color is immaterial. The ballistic material is in panels or plates that are inserted into a vest garment that has no bullet-resisting capabilities of its own. And yes, it can be made into any color. But some people think police wearing external vests looks too “military.”

        • I appreciate your response, sir, but my question was not about the carriers, but if the Kevlar itself could be dyed in different colors.

        • In that case, I don’t know- I have only seen kevlar panels in one color. One wonders why anyone would bother trying to dye it, however, as it would make no difference per my previous response.

      • They’re worn in a carrier because the fabrics are susceptible to breakdown due to bodysweat, high temperatures and UV radiation (sunlight). So even if they’re in a carrier, they’re still inside a shell to prevent sweat from reaching the material.

      • Kevlar being a trade name, I think I’ve only seen it in yellow, but I haven’t seen everything. The more generic aramid fibers can be dyed. I see them in black on a daily basis.

    • 1. Hollow points are typically easier to stop than fmj.
      2. If you add plates the rating would be the same as the plates.
      3.police wear at a minimum enough armor to protect against the weapon they carry.
      4. There are integrated uniform vests that are worn over the standard uniform.
      5. The vest color is determined by the carrier, not the material it is made from.

      • Hey, we have a Constitutionally protected right to bear arms and most of the vests I’ve ever seen leave the arms entirely bear.

        Damn, forgot to spellcheck.

  3. Should test all against a 40 grain HBT HV 22 WMR at 10 feet from rifle and then revolver with 10 inch. bbl.
    I have seen these pass through uncompromised II a stuff

  4. High caliber? Don’t you mean high velocity? All of those pistol rounds are larger caliber than most rifle rounds, but can be stopped by soft armor.

    • Well certainly. This is why you need to purchase 40lbs of AR500 spall-free, shooter’s cut, curved 10″x12″ plates to put into your Banshee plate carrier for when the zombies come. You’re not going to go down when that armor-piercing AK round hits and if you can’t carry plate steel body armor on top of a 100lb load, well then you’re just not man enough.

  5. I noticed the MINIMUM distances for the protection of the level II and IIA vests, and the others, were not mentioned. Shots from inside those distances still have a chance of penetrating the armour.

    But you prepare for the most likely outcome, which would be a standard caliber handgun at 5-10 metres.

  6. >> the Level III hard armor protects against 7.62 full metal jacketed rifle rounds, and the Level IV can protect against .30 caliber AP bullets

    It’s worth noting that this doesn’t imply anything about protection against 5.45 and 5.56 ammo (many people incorrectly assume that 7.62×51, in particular, is better at punching through armor than 5.56; and companies making armor advertising “protection up to 7.62mm” does not help matters). Most level III armor will not protect against at least some kind of 5.56.

    • Are there any somewhat more generalized “what will it stop” calculators available? Instead of just very specific caliber/bullet type ratings? You’d think knowing bullet weight, caliber, sectional density, velocity, bullet hardness, bullet “sharpness” and perhaps a few other variables should allow for a reasonable estimate.

      One thing about .223, even if it penetrates, if it’s slowed down significantly, it’s not much in the way of a man stopper. Heck, even against bare flesh, in fmj form, an individual round of .223 is more of a man killer than a man stopper. With increased prevalence of armor, and more and more states allowing for open carry, perhaps Dirty Harry gets the last laugh in the end…..

  7. Great article! Thanks so much. I’m still looking for a perfect larger overt rig, but I love US Palm and SEO for minimal rigs that fit smaller chest plates.

    I’ll be hones though, I don’t wear them as much as I should. Need to improve that and get out and train with them…

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