Most people know of three options for body armor: steel, fiber (e.g. Kevlar), and ceramic. However, if you’re into military news, you may also have heard that more U.S. troops may soon be replacing their Kevlar-based equipment with a fourth option: lightweight plastic armor.
More specifically, the type of plastic is UHMWPE (Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene), which is more resistant to impact than any other plastic. You’ve almost definitely encountered UHMWPE before: it’s been taking the place of steel skid plates for off-road vehicles, hull reinforcements for boats, and other consumer products designed to take a serious beating. Your fishing line or compound bowstring might be made out of it. It’s also a popular choice for joint replacements.
Naturally, a lot of R&D has been dedicated to the ballistic applications of this plastic.
To produce a body armor plate, many thin sheets of UHMWPE are heat-laminated together under high pressure until they bond into one striated composite piece. The layered structure compounds the individual layer’s impact resistance, resulting in greater strength.
The result looks pretty cool under a microscope:
Upon impact, the resin bonds between the individual layers are broken, which disperses the force, allowing the bullet to be embedded in the material without penetrating. This is a very efficient way to stop bullets. In fact, you’d need a steel plate twice its weight to stop a round traveling at the same velocity.
The plastic plates themselves are so light they actually float, turning a 15-pound set of armor (two steel plates) into an almost equally effective set weighing in at just under 7 pounds.
Now you know how plastic armor works technically. How does it perform in practice?
After being tested by the NIJ, the AR500 Armor’s plastic plates earned the same rating as their steel plates: Level III, which means it will stop 7.62×51 M80 Ball at 2800 FPS, 5.56×45 M193 at 3150 FPS, and 7.62×39 AK 47 at 2380 FPS. This rating applies to the plastic plates as standalone armor, whereas the steel plates require separate trauma pads to earn the same rating. (That said, you will be significantly more miserable during and after impact if you don’t wear trauma pads or IIIA soft plates behind your plastic plates).
Although the plates have been professionally tested, Twang n Bang performed a DIY stress test, using a few 150gr .308 rounds. Impressively, the armor produced a completely survivable result. There were fragments embedded in the armor, but none in the plate carrier, which means the bullets were fully contained with zero penetration.
Here’s what that looks like:
When split apart, you can see how the impact was effectively distributed through those heat-laminated layers:
And here, you can see how the force was distributed on the other side:
Although it shouldn’t surprise you that the NIJ’s evaluation was correct, it’s amazing to see this lightweight plastic in action, offering comparable protection to steel.
So, besides soldiers, who is this for? Obviously, there are many professionals who might opt to wear body armor. However, if you do a lot of running and gunning practice with friends, it’s not a bad idea to protect your vital organs. It’s up to you to decide whether this is something that makes sense for you.
You can get more details and prices on these plastic plates here. Here’s where you can also find current discounts and promotions from AR500 armor.