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by J.P. Anderson

As a guy who loves to save a buck, make things, and generally prove that “I don’t need to buy into your culture of consumption, man,” I’m always on the lookout for new projects. My interest in guns led me to improvised firearms, which inevitable led me to homemade body armor. Really. I was intrigued. Sure, Kevlar-and-plate body armor has a proven, battle-tested track record. But was it possible that “the man” was just selling us a load of goods? Could I make my own body armor that would be just as effective, comfortable, and cheaper? . . .

In case you’re pressed for time, the short answer is no. If you’re worried about your safety, buy some damn Kevlar. Interest free credit cards are your friend. For the long answer, read on.

My first idea about alternative body armor came from recalling an experiment I did with non-Newtonian fluids in eighth grade. You know, the cornstarch and water thing. If you rest your hand on a blob of the stuff, it will slowly sink it. But if you punch it, the fluid is rock hard. Would the same apply to a bullet? And hadn’t I read somewhere that someone had created a hardening fluid that would work in a bulletproof vest 

A quick search led me to Mythbusters Episode 112. Damn it. Six slender bags of a water/cornstarch mixture isn’t bulletproof at all. The amount you’d need to wear for a bulletproof vest would cripple Jean Claude Van Damme, if it worked at all.

Youtube’s Taofledermaus confirms the uselessness of the cornstarch and water method, but gets surprisingly good results with a giant gummi bear. The 5 lb. gummi stops a .380, so if you want to go into a situation of civil unrest draped in a vest of ‘roided out candy, best hope the bad guys are all carrying mouse guns.

What about pressing common household objects into use? Maybe a thick book with a ceramic tile top layer? In a pinch, this might actually get the job done in terms of stopping a bullet. But stopping a bullet is only part of the equation; the body armor also needs to be relatively lightweight, durable, and not restrict your range of motion. A poncho made of old phone books and bathroom tiles, as awesome as that would look, really doesn’t fit the bill.

Layers of cloth, from the linen of the ancient linothorax to the layers of silk some aristocrats would don in the days of flintlocks (and later: the first bullet-resistant vest made by Casimir Zeglen in the early 20th century used the same principal) to the felt-and-silicone contraption proposed by “Josey Wales” in “The Poorman’s Bullet-Proof Vest” might work against soft, lower powered rounds hurled from a musket (might) but are unlikely to withstand any real projectile, ie a modern bullet fired from a rifled barrel.  Having said that, there are some promising developments in the use of spider silks.  If you want a spider farm as part of your shtf preps so you can weave a featherweight armor vest, more power to you.  I’d rather be shot, personally.

The long and the short of it is this: you can hang two inch thick plates of Lexan off your body, or drape yourself in scales of 1/2” thick AR500 steel and shamble to your doom like a three-legged tortoise, or hide behind flower pots and filing cabinets like they do in The Walking Dead (that works, right?) but the bitter truth of the matter is that there is no homemade, field-expedient, inexpensive way to make a reliable bullet-proof vest. So if you like to tinker, make a kayak. Maybe you can turn your old Kevlar one into a tactical battle boat.

(Disclaimer: don’t let people shoot you to test armor, homemade or not, numbnuts.)

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  1. I have the answer you all have been looking for! Check out the dude in the 6 PM photo caption contest. If that isn’t a winner, I don’t know what is!

    Good luck driving your car with it!

    P.S. Also serves dual purpose. If you get home at 3AM and your wife is waiting up for you with a baseball bat, tell her to have at it!

    • 1/4 inch thick iron, helmet and breastplate. But he was facing 1878 vintage weapons, dunno if more modern loads would be stopped. I’m wondering what those guys who did the N Hollywood shootout used.

      • IIRC, they used multiple ballistic vests duct taped together. But, it’s been a while since the academy.

      • My understanding is they used commercially available body armor. They covered their torso’s with convention vests and then took more conventional vests and modded them for their arms and legs.

        These guys had money to work with. They took hundreds of thousands in their successful bank and armored car heists prior to the final shootout.

    • 1/4″ of AR500 is sufficient for most threats, sans AP .30-cal.

      Oddly, though, it does has trouble stopping M193 ball at 100 yards and in.

      • Not odd at all in fact. It moves fast enough at that distance to punch through where as heavier rounds of slowed to the plate’s rated stopping speed

        Penetration of armor is about speed, its why zippy little rounds like the 5.7x28mm are “armor piercing” they have the speed necessary to go through the soft armor rated for most handgun rounds.

        M193 is the fastest conventional production 5.56x45mm round, that gives it the highest penetration potential before you go adding things like a hardened core. It all starts with speed. The various types of armor are rated by the velocity they stop, not the size of the projectile. A vest could easily stop a .50 AE, 500 S&W or 50 Beowulf at a rating of III but crank the speed and mass up to the 50 BMG and the armor is toast.

        • You guys piqued my curiosity, so I googled “tokarev armor piercing” and came up with some youtube vids. Seems milsurp Tok will pass right thru Level 3 Kevlar and on into an oak 4×4. Will pass thru one oak 4×4 and disappear into a second. One shot did not pierce bulletproof glass, but it looks like a second shot in the same spot would have. I’m shocked, I thought the round was too light to do that stuff, despite its high velocity. Commercial 7.62×25 from Winchester did not duplicate the milsurp performance, tho.

        • Yea, 7.62 Tok rounds are pretty penetrative. I have a cz52 that does quite well with them.
          We used to shoot at a little claypit. One of our favorite reactive targets was made by sticking a 2X4X8
          into the sand, when shot, they would fall over. The first time I took the CZ out I thought it was the most inaccurate pistol known to man, as I couldn’t knock a 2X4 over even after expending a full mag.
          An examination of the target proved me wrong. I had hit the board every time, but the rounds had sailed right through it without knocking it over. I was kind of impressed.

  2. “I don’t need to buy into your culture of consumption, man,”

    Some lady came up to me, said “take this kevlar, it is bulletproof!”

    I said “Maaaaan, I don’t need no kevlar to prove bullets are real!”

    I took it, and THREW IT ON THE GROUND!

  3. “Interest free credit cards are your friend”

    ACTUALLY did that today to finish my first AR. A $550 complete rifle with 2 mags.

    this weekend will show if it works well.

  4. What thickness of polycarbonate sheets is necessary to stop most handgun rounds?

    Bonus question: what thickness and spacing of two polycarbonate sheets would be necessary to stop most handgun rounds?

    • Like many things, it all depends. There are many different grades
      of polycarbonates. Upon impact the poly could bend and lengthen,
      soaking up energy, or it could simply break. When a bullet hits,
      often it stretches the poly before penetrating. This can leave
      anything from a bump to a 1cm tube of poly. You also have different
      types, such as steel mesh reinforced. This may keep the poly from
      shattering but won’t necessarily provide enough support to stop a
      bullet. The effects from a poly on a bullet also vary between bullet
      type. For instance, hollow points often fail to deploy remaining in
      shape. The shape can of course lead to deeper penetration.
      What the poly really does well is to slow the bullet down, not stop it.
      Think of it more like a trauma plate instead of a piece of steel.
      Realistically you’re better off shoving 1/4in T1 steel in a plate
      carrier than you are of depending on polycarbonate.

  5. Layers of cloth, from the linen of the ancient linothorax to the layers of silk some aristocrats would don in the days of flintlocks … might work against soft, lower powered rounds hurled from a musket …

    The silk wasn’t to provide armour but to be pushed into wounds by the impact, so making extraction easier and more sanitary with less likelihood of bacterial infection.

  6. Having carried armored plates around Iraq and Afghanistan, I would rather get shot than carry armor around in the civilian world.

    • You might be surprised. You aren’t wearing an OTV and a basic load (+) of ammo in civilian clothes.

  7. If I’m mistaken Archduke Franz Ferdinand was wearing silk armor when he was assinated. It apparently worked well enough against mouse guns but…armoured shirts do jack against headshots.

    • Franz was shot in the neck with a .32acp. By a 19 year old with TB. Because he was not yet 20 he (Gavrilo Princip) could not be executed, but the TB took him before the war was over. He never accepted that his shot started the war, he was right about that. Franz’s last words were ‘Es ist nicht’ (It’s nothing). It would have been nothing if he had been wearing his bullet proof scarf.

  8. Whatever your improvised body armor is remember it also need ps to distribute the shock of the round striking the armor, sans why most “soft” body armor has a metal trauma plate in the rear. My understanding is that a bullet to the body armor doesn’t feel good at all

    • No soft armor has a metal trauma plate in the rear…

      Some soft armor has a provision for inserting a trauma plate on the exterior of the vest, but steel inserts are rarely used these days. Ricochet and frag…

  9. No such thing. If you need body armor, spend the few extra $ and get a good one that will do its job.

    • There are times when improvisation is necessary… but I think the mythbusters do a pretty good job of lighting the way on that one.

        • It’s NOT a target?


          I thought it was a huge bullseye, made for the benefit of beginners with fairly open groups.

  10. I believe Rocket City Rednecks (remember that show?) made some level II armor out of 3/8″ plywood and some layers of fiberglass on both sides. Held up against a couple shots of FMJ.

  11. Hinshelworld, I actually had my soft armor made for me, so I just straight up have that metal plate, but you are correct, my mayflower soft armor doesn’t, I alternate depending on where I’m working. Actually last time I checked most grunts are issued metal plates, while SOCOM issues ceramic plates,

    • Ceramic plates have been universal issue for some time, even to BCT and second-line units.

    • that guy was the biggest fool ever on preppers. His strategy was to steal other peoples preps wearing his crappy homemade body armor.

      • Stealing other people’s preps is a nice way of saying you’re too lazy to prepare yourself. So, your plan is to kill people and take their stuff.

    • I believe that is the guy from Dooms day Preppers?
      He’s now doing time for sexual assault and Stat. Rape

  12. Ducking behind a filing cabinet when folks are shooting squirrel 223 rounds at you is a bad idea?

    So how is thin sheet metal followed by 12 inches of paper followed by more sheet metal a bad thing?

  13. The same way not using the engine block of a vehicle for cover is a bad idea, ie; taking cover on the opposite side of the cab of a vehicle

  14. Interestingly enough, modern soft armor is little different in design, save the materials, from early soft body armor used in Europe called the gambeson. Gambesons were made either to be used under chain or plate armor, or (as particularly used by the peon infantry) as a standalone garment. They were made of multiple layers of (usually) linen, quilted over a wool stuffing, and the thickest varieties were able to stop arrows. They were of course quite warm, which was not a good thing in battle. For the wealthy, multiple layers of silk were used, which would have been lighter and more durable. Modern soft armor is pretty much the same, substituting Kevlar fibers for silk or cotton. Silk still shows great promise, as it is actually stronger, ounce for ounce, than Kevlar, and advanced weaving techniques make it extraordinarily tough, but does not disperse impact very well. Nanofibers and tubes are also being considered.
    All soft armor is a compromise. between penetration resistance (which is accomplished with fibers that “give” and spread the impact over a larger area than the cross-section of the projectile) and defense against blunt force trauma (which is accomplished with stiffer fibers that are conversely easier to penetrate). for example, chain mail over a gambeson is virtually impenetrable by an edged weapon or arrow, but does not resist blunt force trauma that can break bones. Plate armor is also impenetrable to arrows and swords, and resists blunt force trauma better–until the projectile is a soft round ball traveling 700 ft/sec. And by the time you get the steel thick enough to be bullet proof, it becomes ungainly heavy. (As an aside, the term “bullet proof” was first used to describe armor that had been tested and shown to resist penetration by firearms of the day–and was usually shown by a small dent on the armor plate over he wearer’s heart where the test had been conducted.)

  15. I should have specified that the bullets BOUNCE off the filing cabinet (in the midseason finale of this year’s Walking Dead). It’s not that a cabinet full of paper stops the round. The bullet doesn’t even penetrate the sheet metal. But hey, maybe Daryll stopped the shots with a glowing aura of pure awesome.

  16. As a side note I just keyed Second Chance Vest into google… holy ^%@#*@ have things (aka prices) changed! Bought my first (and only) vest back in 1985, Second Chance with the ridged trauma plate for < $150. In the Army as an MP and it was mostly buy your own or go without unless you wanted to wear a 50lb flak vest that *might* stop a .22LR. Wish I’d never sold it now.

  17. What’s wrong with ar500? I mean, sure, some ceramics at 5 or 6 times the price would be great, but the fact that they can’t be seriously damaged by most things, plus the coating, make it okay in my book. And honestly, it’s still lighter, even with a soft vest underneath, than the crap I went to Iraq with.

  18. I have a Second Chance IIIA and a Safariland IIIA concealment cut vest as well as IV ceramic armor but the first thing I ever put on that was intended to be bullet proof was a collection of city phone books rigged to each other and a tee shirt with duct tape. Thinking back it probably was thick enough to stop most hand gun rounds, but it was a beast to move about in.

    As far as expedient armor goes there are probably a few useful choices but if you in any way think you’ll actually need it I strongly recommend buying a commercial armor product.

  19. 10mm ball ammo wouldn’t go through a standard desktop hard drive at 30 feet that a guy brought to the range a couple of years back

  20. Agitator, I got out 4 years ago. The grunts I saw and worked with at the time all had metal plates, while I had ceramic plates

  21. I am actually working on this problem myself. UHMWPE is just another form of polyethelene, which is the plastic used to make some milk jugs and other items. If I can find a way to cause it to repolymerize into longer chains and then spin it into fibers, I would be able to weave my own next gen fabric armor.

    Of course I discarded with the idea of “cheap” long ago and only continue because I want armor, off the grid.

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