Choosing the Right Body Armor System
Body armor is sometimes referred to as being a bulletproof vest, although there is no such thing as wearable protection that’s truly bulletproof. Body armor is, however, bullet resistant and provides wearers with protection against small arms fire, shrapnel, stabbings and similar threats.
Dating back centuries, body armor was originally created to provide combatants engaged in armed conflicts with a rudimentary level of protection against the types of weaponry used by the enemy. Today, body armor is widely used by law enforcement agencies, SWAT teams, bodyguards, security contractors and others whose occupations expose them to injury or death by shootings, stabbings and other hazards in the course of carrying out their daily duties.
Modern day body armor comes in a wide range of styles, materials and levels of protection they provide against small arms fire and sharp instrument stabbings. Today’s body armor systems range from lightweight, low profile vests made from tightly woven synthetic fibers such as Kevlar® to tactical vests called plate carriers that hold ballistic panels made from steel, ceramics or composite materials.
Choosing the right protection is extremely important, since your life literally may depend upon it. One of the most important factors to consider when choosing body armor is the type or types of threats you’re most likely to encounter while on duty, whether it’s from handguns, rifles, shotguns or stabbings. Below are some other things to consider before investing in a protective armor system:
Ballistic Stopping Capability
The types of small arms fire a particular piece of body armor is capable of stopping is based upon ratings assigned by the National Institute of Justice, which is the U.S. Department of Justice’s R&D and evaluation agency. The testing is centered around NIJ Standard-0101.06 NIJ, which establishes body armor protection ratings from a low of Threat Level IIA to Threat Level IV, which is the highest rating assigned by NIJ.
NIJ classifies various pieces of body armor by threat levels based on the types and calibers of rounds they can prevent from penetrating the armor and seriously injuring the wearer. Ranked from the lowest to highest degrees of protection, here are NIJ’s threat level ratings, along with the caliber bullets each will protect against:
Threat Level Ratings - Handgun Ammunition
- NIJ Level IIA – 90mm FMJ1, .40 S&W FMJ
- NIJ Level II – 9mm FMJ, .357 Magnum JSP 2
- NIJ Level IIIA - .357 Sig FMJ, .44 Magnum SJHP3
Threat Level Ratings – Rifle Ammunition
- NIJ Level III - 7.62x51mm FMJ,
- NIJ Level IV - .30 caliber armor piercing bullets
- 1 Full Metal Jacket
- 2 Jacketed Soft Point
- 3 Steel Jacket Hollow Point
Threat Levels IIA and II protection are typically made from strong, synthetic fibers such as Kevlar, and are capable of stopping most handgun rounds, although neither offers protection against rifle fire. Level IIA armor is flexible, lightweight and the most comfortable type to wear. Generally speaking, the greater the degree of protection, the heavier and less concealable the system will be. Because its low profile makes it easy to conceal, Threat Level IIA armor.is often used in undercover operations.
The most common body armor in use today level is NIJ Threat Level III solid core body armor with steel or ceramic plates that will withstand all handgun rounds, as well as rifle fire in calibers of up to 7.62mm NAT0 FMJ. An example is Spartan™ Omega™ AR500 Level III Steel Core Body Armor.
Some body armor is designated Threat Level III+, which is a rating that’s not officially recognized by NIJ. A Threat Level III+ rating indicates that although the equipment hasn’t been rated by NIJ, independent testing has shown that the armor meets or exceeds NIJ’s Threat Level IV criteria. Examples of Threat Level III+ include Spartan Armor’s AR650 Armaply™ and AR550 Steel Core Body Armor.
The tradeoffs in selecting body armor include protection, concealability and comfort. The higher the degree of protection, the heavier and less concealable the armor will be. An exception is Spartan Armor Systems’ new Elaphros™ Body Armor Plates. Made from multiple layers of tough, ultra-high modular lightweight polyethylene (UHMWPE) fibers, Elaphros composite plates weigh just 3.5 lbs. each, but provide full Threat Level III protection while offering maximum maneuverability without the weight of most Level III systems.
It’s a good idea to base your selection upon the lightest body armor available that will protect you against the types of threats you’re most likely to encounter.
Comfort and Mobility
A higher degree of protection usually meanswearing body armor that weighsmore. More weight means the wearer is both less comfortable and less mobile. Body armor is designed to fit snugly for maximum protection, although there’s also a tendency for it to be worn loosely. Loose-fitting armor may be a bit more comfortable, but might not provide the level of protection that its NIJ rating reflects.
Body armor systems with steel plates are heavier and less flexible than their ceramic plate counterparts, which makes them less comfortable to wear. Although heavier, steel plates give the wearer greater freedom of movement, since they’re less bulky than ceramic plates. Depending upon the plate size and cut, steel plates weigh 8 to 10 pounds or more each. Ceramic plates with comparable bullet stopping capabilities weigh 4 to 8 pounds each.
Not all departments or agencies require their people to wear body armor, which has resulted in some officers not being properly protected in the interests of comfort and mobility. This is especially true in hot, humid climates and dry, desert regions.
Wearing body armor that doesn’t fit properly can result in serious injury or even death. Regardless of whether it’s worn outside or beneath a uniform or other clothing, body armor needs to fit correctly to provide maximum protection.
Body armor should protect the front, back and both sides of the wearer’s torso. It’s meant to fit snugly, although there needs to be enough room for some freedom of movement. Armor that’s too tight can result in gaps between the plates, which leaves the wearer exposed to potential injuries from incoming small arms fire or shrapnel.
Body armor also needs to be the right length. A vest that’s too short won’t adequately cover vital internal organs, while armor that’s even just an inch too long will push against the wearer’s throat when bending down, stooping, squatting or sitting. Armor that’s too long can also make it difficult to access a duty belt and tactical gear.
The front panels of body armor that fits properly should meet without overlapping, which can damage the panels, cause wear and tear on the plate carrier and restrict the wearer’s mobility. There should also be a gap between the plates and the wearer’s body roughly equal to the space left after taking a deep breath and exhaling. This space will help reduce the trauma of a bullet striking the plate. The plate carrier’s shoulder straps should be taut but not overly tight. Straps that are too tight can cause the plates to sit too high on the wear’s body and leave the midsection partially exposed. They can also restrict breathing during foot pursuits.
As is true with most purchases, budget is obviously a consideration when shopping for body armor. This is especially true for cash-strapped departments, agencies and individuals who need to purchase their protective equipment using personal funds.
Generally speaking, there’s a direct relationship between the cost of a body armor system and the level of protection it provides. The more that’s available to invest , the more options there are as to plate types, shapes, weights, materials and plate carriers. This doesn’t, however mean that the most expensive system is always the best choice.
Choosing a body armor system is a personal decision based upon each individual’s needs and circumstances. The decision ultimately comes down to selecting a system that affords the level of protection for the type or types of threats you’re most likely to encounter while on duty. The system also needs to be one that you’ll actually wear rather than stow in the trunk of a cruiser, which means comfort and mobility are also major considerations.
Whether you’re considering steel, ceramic or composite body protection, Spartan Armor Systems carries a complete selection of top quality plates, plate carriers and other tactical gear. Military personnel, law enforcement and first responders receive a 10% discount on all Spartan products. Orders ship within 7 business days, and shipping is always free when you shop at Spartan Armor Systems.
Need more information or have questions about the best type of body armor systems for your situation? Call us at 520-396-3335 or contact us online to speak with a Spartan associate who will be pleased to assist you.