The best place to start your search for body armor is by exploring the different levels of threats that the manufacturer claims it’s armor will stop. For instance, NIJ Level IIIA rated plates will stop a round from a 9mm pistol.
With the world getting more complex, and conflicts seeming more likely than they have in the past, people are carefully considering what level they might need to survive conflicts, whether those are self-defense shootings or armed conflicts between nation-states that we civilians get wrapped in.
Whatever the case may be, one such tool that may make surviving a violent encounter more likely is body armor. If you’ve begun to do a little digging, you’ve found out that there’s a lot to learn.
In this piece, we’re going to break down the basic types and classifications of body armor to help make buying what you need a little simpler.
Soft Body Armor
Soft body armor, as you’d expect from the title, is made from soft and flexible materials. Most commonly, this kind of armor is sewn into premade vests that are, in a lot of cases, thin enough that you can wear under a shirt or a jacket.
If you choose this option we do recommend, however, an undershirt that’s made out of an athletic type of material that’s close-fitting just so that you don’t get the armor too sweaty over the course of the day.
The materials used in soft body armor have changed a lot in the last several decades. Kevlar is still a popular and lightweight option that allows for flexibility. Currently, several kinds of polyethylene have been engineered to be of good use in body armor.
Protection wise, most soft body armor is rater as II or III level armor that can resist a single handgun round at close range. That is an impressive feat in and of itself, but this is the lowest level of protection provided by modern body armor, and soft armors are generally not rated to resist rifle or shotgun rounds of any kind.
Because this is light armor, it’s favored by people who might face danger but are not necessarily sure they’re going to end up in a gunfight. For example, this kind of armor is popular among police detectives or people who are assigned to diplomatic protection roles. The lightness and flexibility of the armor make it easy to wear all day long.
At the cheaper end of this material, you’ll likely find armor that is able to resist a single handgun round. The more expensive and fully featured soft armors are also resistant to cutting and stabbing, which makes soft armor a compelling option.
Hard Body Armor
There are several types of rigid, or hard body armor available today, that come in a variety of materials and with different characteristics.
To help keep things simple, we’ll go through each of these material types with their varying characteristics so that you can make the choice that makes the most sense for you.
Steel is one of the oldest, most affordable, and still best options for body armor. Steel armor can come in a variety of shapes, from simple rectangles to plates that are cut to be more ergonomic with cutouts for your arms to make it easier to move with the plates in place.
Steel armor is usually at least level III rated, but is often also level IV or above, meaning that you can expect it to withstand at least one rifle round. This makes it an effective and affordable choice for body armor.
Of course, this comes with some caveats. First, steel armor without a special coating can fragment when it is hit, and those fragments can injure the wearer. Furthermore, steel armor can also badly deform when they are hit, and each of these deformations makes the plate overall less effective. That said, steel is an affordable and good option for rifle-level protection.
There are also hardened plates made from a stronger and more rigid version of the material more common to soft armor- polyethylene. These plates are typically related to stop multiple pistol rounds, and the higher-end versions here can take a single rifle round.
The major upside to these plates is that they’re exceptionally light: usually, these weigh a third less than steel.
But, with that lightness comes a greater chance to deform when it, which makes them much less effective after being hit a single time. These are good for folks who are concerned about weight.
In terms of sheer ability to stop a bullet, there’s no beating ceramic. These advanced materials can take, in some cases, armor-piercing rifle rounds with relative ease.
The most advanced versions of ceramic armor are made up of a large number of small ceramic disks arranged like plate-mail from the middle ages: this armor can resist several rifle strikes without much compromise.
The downsides to ceramic are twofold. First, it’s heavy even when compared to steel. Second, it is, paradoxically, fragile and prone to cracking. The same plate that can stop a .308 round might well crack if you drop it on its edge.
Thus, we recommend ceramic armor for people who expect that they might well get into a shooting incident, and thus need the absolute best protection. Generally, we recommend these to folks in law enforcement than to the general populace.
In this piece, we’ve looked at several types of body armor in order to help you make a choice of armor for your protection. Starting things off with soft armor: it’s lightweight and easy to wear all day, and can even be stab-resistant, though it won’t stop rifle rounds.
Hard armor can come in a few different materials, each of them making tradeoffs in terms of protection, weight, and general fragility.
So, which one should you go with?
It depends very much on your situation and what you might want to use your armor for.
If you’re the kind of person who needs protection, for example, a delivery driver, but you have to be able to drive, sit, stand, etc. all day, then we think that soft armor under clothing is an excellent option.
If, on the other hand, you’re preparing a plate carrier for home defense or some other kind of conflict, then we think that hard armor is often the better choice even if it’s heavy.