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If you are at the point where you are considering things like weapons and body armor, then you probably have a good handle on the other priorities for survival, such as water, shelter, food, medical supplies, and clothing.
Assuming you have all these things in place, they won’t mean much if you can’t survive some sort of armed conflict.
You don’t want to have collected a bunch of survival gear for those who would simply take it from you. You’ll need to be able to fight back and your choice of weapons and body armor make all the difference.
This post will focus on the different types of body armor you can use to enhance your likelihood of surviving an attack with a firearm.
From full body armor to concealable body armor, body armor plates, the full range of ballistic armor types and body armor levels, we’ll demystify this topic.
There are many misconceptions out there and the industry doesn’t always help. Let’s straighten some things out because you need a clear view of what exists and what your needs are.
There’s some vocab out there that is dedicated to body armor and how it functions. Here’s a look at the terms you are most likely to encounter when you look to buy body armor:
The term “vest” in itself can cause a little bit of confusion when it comes to understanding body armor.
The idea of a single piece of equipment that you simply slip on is easy to understand. Especially if you are new to the topic, you might be lured into “just buying a vest” because a “vest” sounds like a complete package.
So if you buy “just a vest” you might wind up with a limited level of protection without realizing it. For example, a standard soft armor vest without any supplementation will typically only protect against pistols.
Now, if you stick a pocket on that vest and insert a quality armor plate, you can expect protection from rifles too (only where the plate is covering of course).
So now, do you have a soft armor vest with a plate carrier or a plate carrier that includes soft armor protection?
How about if you buy a plate carrier that offers protection from high-velocity rifle bullets? That’s better than soft armor right? But a streamline plate carrier might be little more than a pocket that holds the armor plate in place.
Depending on your size and your body’s position when you encounter an incoming bullet, you could still have half of your abdomen almost completely exposed to danger.
Okay, so let’s beef up your plate carrier with soft armor materials and we’ll throw a few useful pockets on there as well. Now you are wearing something that looks a lot like a “vest” again!
Honestly, what you call it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you are aware of the kind of protection you have and where you have it. Just like guns, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to armor. Wear what works for you and call it whatever you want.
Check out this video from "free field training" that explains how a vest can leave certain body areas exposed.
So now that you have an idea of the different armor “packages” and some of the terms used to describe their benefits, let’s look at the levels of protection you can expect.
There are a few standards for body armor ratings. In order to simplify things, we will stick to the one developed by the United States National Institutes of Justice or simply the NIJ.
That doesn’t mean you can’t find great armor that has a rating from a different source. But the NIJ is a pretty well-accepted, relatively well-standardized place to start.
Teijin Aramid, a company that produces bullet-resistant fibers, provides this great chart to explain the standards for protection as outlined by the NIJ.
Keep in mind, however, the standards for NIJ ratings are subject to change and are updated/improved every few years. Usually, the changes aren’t drastic from year to year.
Here are the NIJ body armor standards you should consider (NIJ Standard 0101.06):
Level 2a Body Armor (pistol protection only)—protects against 9mm and .40 S&W
Level 2 Body Armor (pistol protection only)—protects against 9mm and .357 magnum
Level 3a Body Armor (pistol protection only)—protects against .357 SIG and .44 magnum
Level 3 Body Armor (pistol and some rifle protection)—protects against 7.62 mm Nato
Level 4 Body Armor (pistol and some armor piercing rifle protection)—protects against .30 caliber M2 AP
So this looks like an accurate and easy way to classify our levels of protection, but actually it's a mess! Firearms shoot whatever we put into them.
The fellows doing the NIJ testing are doing their best, but they can’t test every round available. So the truth is that there’s no guarantee you won’t be shot with some sort of untested, super bullet that defeats the armor you are wearing.
Also, things like bullet weight, brand, and velocity have been left out of the standards above for simplicity’s sake. It does, however, provide you with a general idea about what to expect from each level of protection, which is really the best we can hope for.
Again, you can see the complete set of ballistic standards here.
To make life easier, let’s make something else clear.
Soft body armor generally only protects against pistols.
Hard armor plates are the only type of armor that reliably can protect against both pistols and rifles.
That means that if you are discussing any product with a designated level of III or higher, you are really only discussing armor plates.
On the flip side of that, with how heavy armor plates can be, you should really almost never bother with a plate that doesn’t offer any rifle protection (there are exceptions of course depending on the situation).
While body armor needs to be tough, it breaks down, just like anything else you wear. And, the more you wear it, the faster it wears out.
One of the biggest killers of body armor is ironically your body itself!
Human sweat and the heat from your body gradually takes its toll on the fibers that body armor is made from. Additionally, it's the “grind” of use that burns up this protective equipment. Police officers, for example, may have to spend long hours sitting in their patrol cars.
The area where their armor contacts their car seats takes a fair amount of abuse, as they enter and exit their vehicles all day or swivel around in their seats as they drive and work.
And while it might not seem like a big deal, the back of the vest that contacts the seat is right where the kidneys are located—not a good place to have worn out protection!
That’s why police departments throw out what look like relatively new sets of body armor and why you should keep an eye on the condition of your own protective gear.
Here's a police-focused article about things that wear out body armor and some maintenance ideas.
Additionally, you may enjoy this informative video from PrepMedic, that covers some basic body armor concepts.
Now it’s time to think about your specific needs.
If you are prepping in an urban area, you will have some slightly different considerations than if you are out in the suburbs or in the countryside.
A study from 2011 published in Military Medicine examined the negative effects of body armor among those doing strenuous military or lifesaving work (such as firefighting).
The findings were not surprising. Wearing body armor can really wear you out sooner than if you weren’t wearing any.
Think about it, a doctor might tell someone to lose 5-10 pounds to help them take some weight off their joints. When you wear armor, you are usually putting on anywhere from 8 to 20+ pounds of equipment, depending on what you choose!
While it doesn't seem like that much weight, it adds up as your day progresses. And, like carrying a concealed carry pistol, you’ll probably only use or wear what is comfortable over the long term.
With this in mind, here are some common scenarios and options you might consider:
You live in a city and you don’t rely on a car. Most of your travels are done by bus or train/subway. You have limited space to carry anything. Your backpack contains most of what you need and use.
So the name of the game is compactness.
This is the scenario that is by necessity going to limit some of your choices. A soft body armor vest, with level 3a protection and without plate carrier, might be your best option.
It can be easily worn under your clothes and is not conspicuous. Here are a couple examples from the industry.
The BulletSafe Bulletproof Vest (from BulletSafe Bulletproof Vests)
A quality level IIIa vest with a price point that is not out of reach for many. A nice feature of this vest is how sleek it is. It is clearly meant to be worn under your regular clothing without bringing attention to yourself.
Additionally, it can be upgraded with hard plate armor that you need to purchase separately.
AR Concealment Plate Carrier with Soft Body Armor (from Armored Republic)
This product is also affordably priced and provides another viable option via a true plate carrier route. Instead of a more all-in-one vest, you get a low-profile plate carrier that will accept special level IIIa soft armor plates.
It will also accept hard plates, but to stay “covert” instead of “overt” (hidden vs obvious) the soft plates will probably work out better.
You live in the suburbs and you rely on a vehicle for most of your transportation. In fact, your car or truck is never too far away, so you can store a lot of prep gear and have a fair amount of survival items at hand.
What you don’t have is a ton of privacy, so you might want to keep how prepared you are under wraps (for security reasons).
This scenario is actually similar to the first one, except that it allows you to upgrade your level of protection if and when the occasion should arise.
Now you have the ability to add your vehicle as a place to armor up, while still keeping a low profile. Generally speaking, not letting the neighbors know what you’re packing (from food to weapons) is a good policy.
Let’s keep all the options we listed above on the table, but also add a couple more:
SKELETAC Plate Carrier (from Ace Link Armor)
This is literally the most cut-down, minimal plate carrier you can buy. Basically, it is a super high-quality pair of suspenders for your armor plates.
It allows you a relatively concealable way to have level III protection, without being obvious about it. As the product name suggests, it is a skeleton setup, the “tank top” of plate carriers.
It can be supplemented with pouches and compartments, but you’d really want to buy them from the manufacturer to ensure they attach correctly (unlike a carrier or vest that comes ready with MOLLE attachment loops).
Cyclone Light Weight Sentry Plate Carrier (from Spartan Armor Systems)
This is a very form-fitting plate carrier, but not as concealable as the previous options—especially because it has nicely padded, supportive shoulder straps.
Here we are starting to cross over into a more traditional military look and feel. What is nice about this is that you can add pockets, pouches, and even holsters with the MOLLE loops and velcro that are on the front and back.
Like all plate carriers, the plates you choose dictate your level of protection. You might consider wearing this throughout your day without any accessories attached, then coming back to your car or home to quickly strap on whatever you need. The point is your gear stays out of sight until you need it.
In this scenario, you are either somewhere very rural and private or maybe even off the grid.You don’t need to worry about being observed and you can create the ideal setup for whatever threat is coming your way.
You also have a vehicle and maybe even an alternate supply stash somewhere in addition to where you live.
However, by virtue of being further removed from the city, you might be surrounded by some more heavily armed people, which means you are more likely to encounter rifles as a threat.
Again, everything we discussed earlier should still be on the table. All the options listed can be configured to protect against rifles if so desired. The biggest change is your ability to carry more stuff and to be a little more “overt” vs “covert”.
But keep in mind, the more you load up, the faster you’ll wear yourself down. But, depending on what you think you will encounter, it might be worth it.
Defender Plate Carrier (from Condor)
This is a large vest-style plate carrier, which offers great protection because it allows hard plates to be inserted on the back, front, and sides. It also has plenty of MOLLE attachment loops that literally cover the entire garment.
Additionally, the nice wide shoulder straps really help to distribute the weight of the plates you choose. Having the ability to carry hard plates on the sides is a nice feature, although the weight and mobility issues this may cause is worth considering.
A fun feature of all Condor gear is how much customizing you can do. You can literally build a complete armor kit from one manufacturer that covers any scenario you can imagine!
Not that you can’t source and build any setup imaginable from other manufacturers, but Condor really makes it easy.
Owl Tactical Vest (from Premier Body Armor)
This “vest” is really a beefed-up plate carrier that allows you to enhance your protection with add-on armor accessories.
The carrier pockets will accept up to level III hard armor plates, which is pretty standard. The front, back, and sides (what they call the “cumberbund”) are made from level IIIa protective material.
What makes this product unique is that the shoulders, neck, and groin can also be easily protected with level IIIa soft armor if you decide to purchase those upgrades from the manufacturer.
You’ll be giving up mobility for protection, but again, it depends on what you are facing. For example, if you’re expecting a long ride in a car where the upper half of your body is essentially exposed, you might consider strapping on the shoulder and/or neck protection.
Like some of the other options, this system offers plenty of Velcro and MOLLE attachment points for all your pouches and accessories. This product is possibly the priciest on the list, but still worth considering.
If you’ve started to do any research on this topic, you’ll see immediately how many options there are out there for hard armor plates. Technology has advanced dramatically in the last 20 years and the truth is, many of the plates available will do what you need.
You don’t need to always spend higher to get higher protection either. Here’s some things you’ll want to ask yourself when buying a quality armor plate:
If you opt for a soft armor, level 3a body armor, you might have the protection you need while keeping your setup more “wearable” over the course of the day.
If you need more armor, but can do with level 3 body armor vs. level 4 body armor, you might shed some weight and gain some mobility. It depends on your needs and your physical conditioning.
But if you really need it, don’t skimp…gear up.
Having a bullet impact your body armor isn’t fun. Even if your armor stops the round, getting showered by fragments of bullets is something you’ll want to avoid. It can result in a situation that ranges from annoying to very dangerous.
Imagine having to continue a firefight after being shot in the armor plate, but needing to keep one eye shut the whole time because you were partially blinded by bullet fragments.
Or, just as likely, having those fragments splatter into the face of a buddy who is helping you out. That’s why, if possible, you should purchase armor plates that include a special anti-spall/frag coating to help reduce flying bullet fragments.
You should settle on whether you want to carry plates and, if so, the size of the plates you want to carry before buying a vest or carrier.
This way you can eliminate any annoyances with carrier pockets that don’t fit. You should also check with the manufacturer to make sure that the level of protection you require is compatible with the vest or carrier you would like to purchase.
For example, a robust, level 4 ceramic plate might not fit a carrier that is really designed for a slimmer level 3 steel plate.
There are so many great options out there for armor plates. Read the reviews, examine the features, and choose what is best for you. But to get your search started, here are a couple of products that offer a good value:
These steel plates are reasonably priced. For a little extra money, they come with what the company calls their “Build Up Coat” (an anti-spall/frag coating).
They have a nice video on their website which demonstrates how well their coating works and they do a nice job of explaining some of the basic principles of hard armor.
Check out this video from AR500 showing examples of frag / spall behavior.
If you really want level IV armor, this is a great value for your money. While it is a ceramic plate and is bulkier than other options, it is quality made and reliable.
This product also has a good reputation among law enforcement agencies.
If you are standing in front of a .50cal BMG rifle loaded with explosive ammunition, there’s no “bulletproof body armor” or level IV body armor on earth that is going to save you.
You can have all the best body armor plates that money can buy, but the same thing that has been true since ancient times is still true today: armor is always a little bit behind the weapons it defends against.
That doesn’t mean it is useless. It just means that you should never mistake your level of protection for invincibility—even if you are wearing full body armor.
That being said, if you want to stay as safe as possible, you’ll need to wear it. And if it isn’t comfortable, let’s face it, you might not wear it enough.
That’s why military guys train in their heavy gear. Their bodies have been forced to adjust to the burden of ballistic armor.
You may want and need to train your body to deal with gearing up—especially if you skip the lightweight body armor and opt for a more complete setup.
One last thing to consider is that you will fight the way you train. If you really want to be effective while wearing body armor, you’ll need to practice with your firearms while wearing all your gear.
The way you shoulder a weapon, how you bring your sights into focus, and even how you absorb recoil is going to changes when you are wearing protective equipment.
You might be a ringer at the range in a T-shirt and jeans, but you could be in for a rude awakening when you try to get the same shot group while wearing a restrictive vest.
So, practice a lot and practice in the outfit you’ll be wearing if and when all hell breaks loose.