Over the past couple weeks I have been hunting down some body armor; certain ranges (many police ranges for example) require it, and it’s something that I like to wear during firearms training classes. You should train as you fight, with the appropriate gear; you don’t want to cheat yourself. You need to know how to move and react with your gear. That being said, any type of body armor for your local public shooting range is probably a bit overkill. If you feel you need armor at your public range, you might want to consider finding a different range. One of the reasons I tend to avoid my local ranges.
In all honesty, I could probably get away with not having any armor at all, this isn’t a war zone… I could borrow when needed, etc., but I got a little fixated on the process and having my own gear. I ended up finding some pretty good deals, or what I consider a good deal, on some new equipment. I’m going to try to outline a bit of what I learned along the way, and hopefully that will help someone if they are looking to buy something.
The first realization I had in the shopping process is that there are a lot of options. Different styles, shapes, colors, protection levels, and brands. Trying to jump through all of that and figure out what to get was a pretty mind bending process. I was mostly looking at concealable vests, I ended up finding more than that, but that was what I originally set out for.
There are a few protection levels for concealable vests and body armor in general, the standard levels described by the NIJ (National Institute of Justice) are IIA, II, IIIA, III and IV. If your interested in reading the full NIJ standard, it’s available here. The information listed in the table below gives a basic outline of what the NIJ uses for testing each protection level.
|Level||NIJ Testing Calibers||Protection Calibers (Examples, not NIJ listed)|
New: FMJ; 124 gr; 1225 ft/s
Conditioned: FMJ; 124 gr; 1165 ft/s
New: FMJ; 180 gr; 1155 ft/s
Conditioned: FMJ; 180 gr; 1065 ft/s
|.22 LR; .380 ACP; 9mm; 40 S&W|
New: FMJ; 124 gr; 1305 ft/s
Conditioned: FMJ; 124 gr; 1245 ft/s
New: JSP; 158 gr; 1430 ft/s
Conditioned: JSP; 158 gr; 1340 ft/s
|.22 LR; .380 ACP; 9mm; 40 S&W; .357 Mag|
|IIIA (3A)||.357 SIG
New: FMJ FN; 125 gr; 1470 ft/s
Conditioned: FMJ FN; 125 gr; 1410 ft/s
New: SJHP; 240 gr; 1430 ft/s
Conditioned: SJHP; 240 gr; 1340 ft/s
|.22 LR; .380 ACP; 9mm; 40 S&W; .357 Mag; .44 Mag|
|III (3)||Rifle 7.62mm*
New: FMJ; 147 gr; 2780 ft/s
Conditioned: FMJ; 147 gr; 2780 ft/s
|.223; 7.62×39; .308; 7.62×51|
|IV (4)||Armor Piercing Rifle – 7.62mm AP*
New: AP; 166 gr; 2880 ft/s
Conditioned: AP; 166 gr; 2880 ft/s
|5.56 AP; 7.62×39; 7.62×51 AP; 7.62x54R; 7.62×63 AP|
The general rule of thumb that I’ve been told, multiple times, is that whatever level of protection you wear, it should be able to protect against your duty load. So if you are a police officer, your vest needs to be able to stop whatever round you carry in your sidearm.
But, in 2012, the FBI reports, “none of the officers were killed with their own weapons.”
There are many aspects to the NIJ tests, as an example, there is a test called the “Backface Signature” (BFS) test; this is the depth that a projectile indents a testing medium when it hits the armor. It’s the basic deformation of the vest into you when shot. The NIJ states a maximum of 44mm (1.73 in) for all protection levels. Most commercial vests that I’ve seen have had BFS measurements in the 30-38mm range. This is another specification you can use when comparing different options, if you need some more scientific information. If you want a whole lot of scientific information about testing, check out the NIJ Standard-0101.06 (Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor) testing specifications, you can really nerd out on it all if you want.
The NIJ also has a 0115.00 Standard for Stab Resistance. This is a rating that is used to rate protection from stabbing from knives or other sharp objects. Many vests say they are “stab resistant” but are not actually NIJ rated; the NIJ rates armor stab protection using Level designation of 1, 2 or 3. The table below outlines the ratings and the basic stab test parameters.
|Protection Level||Strike Energy (E1)||Overtest Strike Energy (E2)|
|1||17.7 ft. lbs. (24 J)||26.6 ft. lbs. (36 J)|
|2||24.3 ft. lbs (33 J)||36.9 ft. lbs (50 J)|
|3||31.7 ft. lbs. (43 J)||47.9 ft. lbs. (65 J)|
The NIJ document outlining all of the details for the Stab Resistance testing is available, here. So if you find a vest that is stab rated, you will know what that rating actually means, to one degree or another.
Generally, concealable body armor only offers up to the IIIA protection level, for things like level III and IV, you usually have to add things like ceramic or steal plates. Something like a plate carrier is usually used for these, and they are not really “concealable”; ceramic plates can be quite thick. Also, to meet a lot of the testing standards, many level III or IV plates also require a plate backer. This is due to the ceramic plates cracking and breaking apart after impact. AR500 steel plates have become very popular for level III and IV protection online, most of these tout that they are tested to NIJ levels, but are not actually NIJ certified. You can buy AR500 plates online for around $60 USD and up from places like ar500armor.com. A major concern of mine about AR500 style plates is spalling; many companies offer anti-spalling coatings, etc. But you should definitely do some research before purchasing anything as it is a widely unregulated market.
For most body armor, you have to separate the armor and carrier; most of the variety is in the carrier, not the actual armor. That being said there are also a lot of different variations of armor, but there are far more variations of carrier (in my opinion). I’m going to talk mostly about concealable vests as that was my focus, though a lot of this applies for plate carriers as well. The standard concealable vest is a simple vest with adjustable shoulder and waist straps, usually attached with Velcro and some form of elastic. There are very simple systems that are more or less just a fabric vest that the armor slides into, and there are more complex systems that have multiple adjustments, moisture wicking fabrics, materials that attempt to help regulate your temperature, and things that offer electroshock weapon protection. Oh, and don’t forget, just to add some more options, some carriers also have tails that you can tuck into your pants to try and help keep the vest from riding up. Basically, there is a lot of variety.
It’s worth noting that there are a couple of different types of material used for making flexible body armor. The main ones that I’ve seen are Kevlar®, Dyneema®, Spectra®, Twaron®, and some other variations of materials made of Ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylenes (UHMWPE). Most of the materials are a type of UHMWPE. As long as the vest meets the NIJ specifications, the material shouldn’t matter too much. That being said, things like Dyneema tout a “40% reduction in weight over older armor technologies”. So with with more modern, and more expensive options, you will find lighter weight vests that are thinner and can offer more protection.
A lot of manufacturers use blends and other variations to make their vests. Whatever they are made out of, I have heard that you should, given the option, choose an option that is woven opposed to laminated. The laminated versions are more prone to damage and separation; that being said, woven materials can stretch and separate as well, but from what I’ve heard, laminated materials are more prone to issues.
With the slew of style options out there, you will have to do some research into what will work the best for your situation, or what is required for your situation (departments often have very specific requirements). If money is no object, then you can get the best of everything, if you want to try and save some money, you can get more basic setups; fortunately there are options. The best thing I found to do is to write out a list of must have features (requirements, e.g. Level IIIA, Level 2 Stab Protection, etc.), if any, and a list of deal breakers (e.g. NIJ certified, weight, etc.). Then use that to do an initial evaluation of products, if a product passes those criteria, add it to a list with some basic specs like weight, thickness, protection level, price, etc. and once you have a list, take the features of those models and add/remove items from your list. Continue doing so until you have your options narrowed down (then shop around for the best price).
I didn’t spend too much time researching the color options for any particular vest or the benefits of one vs another. But it’s worth noting, if you plan to wear a vest as an undercover setup, you might want to consider a white carrier; this will blend in better with something like a white undershirt. It’s one of those things that if you normally wear really light colors, and then have a black vest on underneath everything it wont contrast very well. So just make sure to plan accordingly for your usage.
Something to keep in mind, there are a lot of really expensive and really cheap options on the market. I found a range from $275 to about $2,000. The thing to note about these is that with a lot of the lower priced options, they may say “IIIA Protection” on them, but they are not actually NIJ certified. Some have been privately tested, some you just don’t know. If you are unsure of a manufacturer, the NIJ has a list of manufacturers that are certified and comply with the NIJ 0101.06 Standard, you can view it, here. This is also a good resource to look for companies that make products that you might be interested in. If you don’t need a vest that is actually certified (for personal use, or ???), then you may be able to look at these manufactures and save yourself some money. Also, many of these manufactures have YouTube videos and other promotional material about the testing of their products, it’s up to you if you trust them. Some may work better than others, some may not. So, if you need something that is actually NIJ certified, make sure you check out the brand, especially if you haven’t heard of them or their prices are dramatically lower than others.
Another thing to keep an eye out for is the Airsoft market. If you don’t do the right searches (or are too general) you will probably run into them. They are replicas, made out of who knows what, and offer NO protection. So if you accidentally get a really good deal on some Airsoft “armor”, place it directly in the trash.
So what did I end up getting? A couple things…
I found some new IIIA inserts for my plate carrier on eBay from TopBodyArmor.com. I decided to order them to check out the quality, etc. And they were really cheap ($155 for front and back, 10″ x 12″, shooters cut). They, as far as I can tell, are not NIJ certified. They “meet NIJ standards”, so they report, but are not actually certified. Once I get them, I will do a more complete post on them and the experience with the company.
After ordering the plates mentioned above, I found a website bodyarmoroutlet.com that had a great special going on for a Point Blank Vision (IIIA) concealable vest that included 2 carriers, Thorshield™ (Electroshock Weapon Protection) and various other bells and whistles. This was not a $300 system, it was closer to $1,000. So, I hope you get what you pay for here… We will see when it gets delivered in 15-30 days. The deal sealer for me was when I submitted a question to their website I got a call back from a sales associate who was nice, communicative and very helpful… I like good customer service, it sells me every time! Ordering of this vest was a little more of a process, fortunately the sales associate was able to walk me through all of the information that Point Blank requires, including sitting on the phone with me while I took various measurements for chest size, waist size, etc. Also providing input on what other options I may want. Basically, the process is much more tailored to the actual person so it’s a custom made vest, not an off the rack item (in most cases). When I get this vest, I’ll also do a post on it and share more about the experience.
I’ll get some more information out about each of the specific products that I ended up ordering as soon as I get each of them. Don’t forget to check back soon!