Is Lightweight Armor as Effective as Traditional Body Armor?
Body armor systems are worn by law enforcement, members of the military, private security contractors and others whose work places them at risk of being injured or even killed by gunfire. These protective systems consist of bullet-resistant plates inserted into the pockets of tactical vests called plate carriers.
The two primary types of bullet-resistant body armor are soft armor and hard armor. When held within plate carriers, they provide the wearer with protection against small arms fire and shrapnel. Some body armor systems offer frontal protection only, while other plate carriers will also hold back and side panels. There are plusses and minuses to both hard and soft body armor systems. The choice ultimately comes down to a reasonable balance of the wearer’s comfort, where and how the armor will be used and the types of rounds he or she will most likely encounter and need to be protected against.
Traditional Hard Body Armor
Traditional hard body armor is usually made from carbon steel or other metal alloys. Steel plate body armor, which is made from the same carbon steel used in manufacturing armored vehicles, is thin, durable and relatively inexpensive. Steel plate armor can also sustain multiple hits, but being made from metal, they’re much heavier than soft body armor systems. Steel plates provide the greatest degree of protection, but in addition to being heavier, they’re inflexible, restrict mobility and are more uncomfortable to wear than lightweight body armor plates.
A plate carrier vest with hardened steel plates is called steel core body armor, which is also known as tactical or military-grade armor. The most commonly worn type of protection is National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Threat Level III solid core body armor, which means it has been rated to stop all handgun rounds as well as rifle fire up to 7.62x51mm FMJ.The Spartan™ Omega™ AR500 is an example of steel core body armor with a Level III threat protection rating.
Hard body armor is also available in ceramic plate versions. Although they weigh slightly less than their steel counterparts, ceramic armor plates are considerably thicker and more expensive than steel plate systems. Spartan Armor Systems™’s Level IV Body Armor Rifle Plate is a good example of ceramic protection, which testing shows will withstand five to seven 30-06 M2 armor piercing rounds of rifle fire before they begin to show signs of deterioration.
Ceramic body armor is also available in lightweight versions. Spartan’s Spectra Lightweight Advanced® ceramic inserts weigh just 4.5 lbs. each, as opposed to comparably priced steel plates that weigh 10 pounds or more, depending upon the cut. Spartan’s Lightweight Advanced Ceramic Body Armor carries a Threat Level III+ rating, which means it meets or exceeds NIJ Threat Level IV body armor standards, although the plates haven’t been officially tested and rated by the NIJ. Spartan’s Lightweight Advanced Plates will stop virtually all handgun rounds, as well as rifle fire in calibers up to 7.62mm NATO FMJ.
Soft Body Armor
Lightweight body armor is also made from synthetic fabrics. Soft composite body armor systems with NIJ safety ratings up to Threat Level III are available in plates made from Kevlar or other tightly woven synthetics. An example is Spartan’s two-plate Flex Fused Core™ IIIA Body Armor, which weighs less than 2.5 pounds for a set. Another example of a composite body armor system is Spartan’s Elaphros Lightweight Body Armor. The plates weigh just 3.5 lbs. each, or less than half the weight of comparable steel armor plates, giving wearer maximum comfort and mobility with Level III Protection.
Lightweight Body Armor vs. Traditional Body Armor – Which Is Better?
Two of the most important factors in choosing body armor are how and where it will be used. Whether the body armor is hard or soft, lightweight or traditional, there are tradeoffs. Here are some things to take into consideration when shopping for a body armor system:
- Protection Level. Where you work and the types of weapons and ammunition you’re likely to encounter will affect your decision. Police officers in an urban area who may come up against handgun fire might choose Spartan Armor’s Flex Fused Core IIIA Soft Body Armor Plates, which weigh 1.14 lbs. each. Peace officers in rural areas where high powered hunting rifles are carried in pickup truck gun racks should consider heavier traditional body armor capable of stopping rifle fire, such as Spartan’s AR650 Armaply™ Steel Core Body Armor.
- Comfort, Weight and Mobility. Greater protection generally meanswearing body armor that weighsmore, and more weight means the wearer is more uncomfortable and less mobile. Not all departments or agencies require their people to wear body armor, which can lead to officers not being properly protected at times, which is particularly true in hot, humid weather. Body armor is designed to fit snugly, although there’s also a tendency for it to be worn loosely. Loose-fitting armor may be more comfortable, but might not provide the level of protection that its NIJ rating reflects.
- Working Environment. Where you work and the activities you perform while wearing body armor on duty will also play a part in your decision. If you’re working undercover assignments, you’ll need low visibility concealable armor such as Spartan’s Level IIIA Soft Body Armor and Concealed Plate Carrier package. SWAT team members will probably lean toward Spartan’s Armaply™ Extreme Lightweight Steel Core Body Armor, which provides Threat Level III+ protection against rifle fire in lightweight (6 lbs.) plates that offer better comfort and mobility than most other steel plate armor. Officers in urban settings may find that Spartan’s Flex Fused Core Soft Body Armor will be sufficient.
Climate also plays a role in the decision process. Those who work in hot, dry desert areas or warm, muggy sections of the country will probably lean toward lightweight armor. Unfortunately, the lightest body armor plates tend to be the priciest.
- Body Armor Care and Maintenance. The NIJ’s standard for the useful life of body armor plates is five years, regardless of the type. Because materials used in soft body armor deteriorate over time, soft body armor should always be replaced after five years. Continuing to wear soft body armor longer than five years is at the wearer’s risk. Testing, however, indicates that steel plates may have useful lives longer than five years.
All body armor needs to be treated with care to preserve their bullet-stopping properties. Some materials require more care than others. This is particularly true for ceramic plates, which can shatter if dropped and can also be damaged through exposure to extreme heat or cold for extended periods of time. When not being used, plates made from polyethylene or other synthetic materials should be carefully folded and stored rather than rolled up and tossed into a locker or the trunk of a cruiser, since the bullet-resistant fibers may break down. All body armor should routinely be inspected for tears, burns, creases or other signs of deterioration. Regardless of the type, body armor should always be replaced immediately if it’s taken a hit or has otherwise been damaged.
- Cost. Cost is obviously a consideration for most departments, agencies and individuals when buying body armor. The greater your body armor budget, the more options you’ll have as to plate types, weights and materials.
Choice in body armor is a personal decision based on individual needs and circumstances. Carefully consider each of these pros and cons to decide whether traditional hard body armor or lightweight soft body armor is best for your situation. Your decision will ultimately come down to buying the best armor you can afford and will actually wear. Keep in mind that any level or type of protection is better than a t-shirt or uniform top.
Whether you’re considering buying ceramic, composite or steel-plate body protection, Spartan Armor Systems can provide all your plate, plate carrier and other tactical gear needs. We offer military personnel, law enforcement and first responders a 10% discount on all Spartan products. The Majority of orders ship within one week, and shipping is always free when you shop at Spartan Armor Systems.
Have questions or need more information about the best type of body armor system for your situation? Call us at 520-396-3335 or contact us online.