Is There the Best Body Armor?
Let me get this straight: the entire “the best <you name it>” line is a myth. There are no the best clothes, cars, tools or computers. And there are no the best armors as well. Then what this article is for? Because there is “the best value for money” thing, that is why. Below, we will debunk a number of misconceptions on choosing the right body armor, review armor types and materials, offer advices on how to fit the armor, and finally will answer the headline question: is there the best body armor (for its value).
What an armor is what it isn’t
Body armor is often referred as bulletproof vests, or bulletproof armor. However, such names are misleading. There is no body armor that can really make you bulletproof. A correct term to describe body armor is bullet-resistant.
The purpose of body armor is to save your life, not make you bulletproof like some comic book hero. The armor protects vital parts of your body and prevents penetration damage that a bullet can do to them. But a shot is a shot. A bullet has kinetic energy and that energy cannot just disappear. The purpose of the vest is to dissipate this energy, redistribute it from a tiny area of the hit over a much larger area of armor plates. In practice this means that if you are shot, you still receive damage – yes, real painful damage like broken ribs and huge hematomas. May be you even fall unconscious because of shock, but you will stay alive.
Also, take into account that there is no universal body armor that protects from everything. Any armor can be penetrated.
Summary of this part: body armor does not make you bulletproof, but it does save your life.
The legal side of wearing body armor
Well, is it legal at all for a civilian to wear personal body armor after all? The answer is yes. Totally legal. There are some exceptions, of course, but if you have a clean criminal record and have no psychiatric disorders, you can freely buy and wear body armor.
Of course, there could be some local regulations, so you better checking out yourself rather than just taking our word for it. But the general rule of thumb is that buying and wearing body armor is allowed for civilians too.
Summary of this part: all civilians in the U.S. and legally own body armor.
Who needs body armor
Aside from obvious categories including policemen, SpecOps, and security officers, many other people can wear body armor occasionally or on the regular basis.
- What comes to mind first are, of course, shooting range visitors. Feeling safe in a place where everyone routinely uses firearms is worth spending a few hundred bucks.
- Then, there is hunting. Surely, hunting injuries are not too common, but statistics indicates that over 57% of all hunting injuries are in fact firearms incidents.
- Home safety. No one implies you will be wearing body armor while watching TV on a sofa, of course. But some peace of mind is helpful, especially if there is a risk of mass shootings or public disorders in vicinity.
- Finally, wearing armor is just cool. Seriously, that’s a whole solid reason to own body armor. “Why did you buy that armor set, John? – Because I can”. Cool.
Summary of this part: anyone can own body armor, may be you need it too.
What are body armor types
The variety of types of body armor available on the market is overwhelming. But things are simpler than they look. All body armor plates on the market are either hard armor or soft armor. That is.
So, how does one determine if the armor is hard or soft? There is a national standard developed the NIJ (National Institute of Justice) that breaks down all armor types onto five classes. These are:
- Type IIA. Protects against 9mm FMJ RN; .40 Smith and Wesson (S&W) FMJ.
- Type II. Offers reliable protection against 9mm FMJ RN; .357Magnum JSP.
- Type IIIA. Can withstand shots of .357 SIGFMJ FN; .44 Magnum SJHP.
- Type III. Protects against 7.62mm FMJ (M80) (Rifle).
- Type IV. Can stop rounds of .30 Cal AP (M2 AP) (Rifle)
The first three types in this classification are soft armors, while Type III and Type IV are hard armors.
Soft armor is typically made of fiber materials, for example, kevlar. Such armor is soft, flexible and lightweight. Apparently, it cannot withstand against powerful firearms, but can deal with pistol shots. Synthetic fibers soft armor is made of are extremely hard to tear, so they catch the bullet and literally do not allow it to make it through. The energy of the shot is redistributed across the entire vest.
Hard armor is another story. Made of metallic or ceramic plates, it can protect against rifles and even sniper rifles, but is weightier and bulkier as a result. Keeping a low profile while wearing hard armor is difficult, so undercover operations are not an option. Modern materials like ultra high-density polyethylene are both hard and have relatively low weight, but can be more expensive.
Soft plates can be inserted to tactical bags and knapsacks, but are also used as a second line of defense in full armor.
Summary of this part: soft armor is lightweight and concealable, while hard armor offers the best protection.
Armor threat levels
All threats are categorized and described in the NIJ Standard 0101.06. The level of threat includes contributions from projectile caliber, mass, material, velocity, and the number of consecutive rounds shot to the same point of the armor.
Armors within a type are tested against certain bullets at certain velocities, and are guaranteed to withstand a shot in this particular circumstance. However, the real world is not a laboratory shooting ground, there are many additional factors here that can reduce efficiency of body armor.
Type IIIA armor is an all-in-one solution against most common handgun threats. It also ideal for concealed wearing if that’s a priority for you.
NIJ Type III armor offers good protection against rifle threats, but you can also take a look at the out-of-standard Type III+ armor if you need some additional stopping power. Since Type III+ was not developed by NIJ, different manufacturers may have different specifications of this armor type, so make sure to clarify this before buying such armors.
Type IV armor offers protection even against very serious threats, such as sniper rifle shots and armor piercing rounds.
Summary of this part: we highly recommend reading the NIJ Standard 0101.06 carefully to choose the appropriate armor for the anticipated threat level.
What materials body armor is made of?
Body armor plates are made of different materials today. However, there are three basic body armor plate materials that constitute the basis of 95% plates on the market.
Steel armor plates are hard enough to stop most bullets shot from firearms and rifles. While truly efficient, steel armor plates are heavy. Another disadvantage is that AP rounds can penetrate steel armor, which makes metallic armor plates a bad choice for special operations. Spalling is also a problem. You see, even if the armor managed to stop the shot, but metal flaks flying off have hit your open parts… well, that’s bad. You can compensate spalling by using special spray coating on top of a steel armor plate. On the plus side, steel armor is the cheapest one.
Expensive, extremely efficient, relatively lightweight – this is ceramic body armor. Ceramic body armor can protect against some very dangerous bullets including 30.06 AP. After all, most ceramic armors are certified as Type IV. This armor can save you from fierce rounds, but its price can literally render you unconscious when you see it. Also, ceramic armor is bulky and fragile. Don’t throw or drop it if you aren’t ready to buy a new one after that.
UHMWPE (Polyethylene) armor
Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene or UHMWPE is a special hit-resistant type of plastic that can withstand most pistol shots, but barely can stop anything more powerful without becoming way too thick to remain practical. Advantages of polyethylene body armor are its super-light weight and the ability to withstand repeated rounds.
Summary of this part: various materials can provide decent protection, but it all depends on when and how you will use the armor and on you budget, to make a final choice.
How to fit your body armor
Fitting clothes is an accustomed procedure, and everyone can pick a good-looking number after a few tries. But fitting your body armor is a whole different story.
First of all, your body armor is not for a fancy look, but for your protection. You can’t afford bad fit, believe us. Second, for safety reasons you cannot return body armor if it doesn’t fit well to you. This means, you have to pay attention when selecting body armor plates and a vest.
Body armor plates come in different sizes of which the most popular size is 10 x 12 inches. Although, there is no universally accepted standard, so other sizes are available too. Make sure to refer to manufacturer’s sizing charts to select an armor plate of the appropriate size.
If the size is chosen right, then:
- The armor plate must be one finger below your sternal notch
- The armor plate must cover you nipples
- The armor plate must be two fingers above your belt
Properly sized body armor must completely cover your heart and your lungs.
Choosing the cut of an armor plate
Selecting a proper shape of an armor plate is all about finding the right balance between protection and mobility.
Rectangular shape offer maximum protection for the cost of somewhat impaired mobility. Still good for protection of the back, though.
SAPI shape has upper angles of the plate cut down, so you feel more comfortable in your armpits. We recommend this cut as the default one.
Shooter cut features even lower cuts for better mobility and easier aiming in the shooting stance. If you are left-handed, make sure to choose the shooter cut plate for your side.
Swimmer cut offers minimal protection due to cut angles on all sides. At the same time, it allows for superior maneuverability thanks to such an aggressive cut.
Which one to choose? This depends on type of your activity. If you don’t need to be highly mobile on the shooting ground, a normal SAPI cut or even a rectangular shape are OK. On the other hand, if you need to change position fast, and aim while moving, your obvious choice is shooter cut or swimmer cut.
Curved vs. flat surface
Body armor plates can be flat or have anatomic shape. Anatomic plates are slightly curved from top to bottom or from side to side. While there is little effect of the plate curvature on its effectiveness and stopping capability, it can be a big deal in terms of wearing comfort. The best fit is the fit that repeats the natural shapes of your body. If you feel comfortable with flat plates – go with flat. At the same time, countered armor plates typically fit better.
Summary of this part: best fit armor is crucial for your safety. Do not choose the size of your body armor based on rule of thumb only.
What is the best body armor?
The best body armor is the one that saves your life and health. And the ability of body armor to save you depends on many factors you should take into account when selecting this safety product.
There is no universal “one-size-fits-all” body armor. There is no the best body armor. But there are quality armors, and if you spend some time on careful selection, you can find the best match for your tasks and duties.
Below are a number of tested and proven body armors of various classes.
Safe Life Defense Vest (Level 3A)
With less than 6 lbs weight this compact light body armor (Level 3A) is a nice concealable body armor solution. The vest offers excellent coverage of torso and sides, and does not hinder your maneuverability. Its low profile is ideal for wearing under casual clothes, yet wearing over is also a viable option.
The armor provides a decent protection against pistol rounds plus protects against knife slashes too. Totally recommended for virtually anyone!
AR500 Armor Level 3A Hybrid
This baby easily stops Magnum .357 and 9 mm while being extremely lightweight and flexible thanks to hybrid composition of its armor panels. When put under a shirt, this AR500 body armor is practically invisible. That’s what we call “100% concealment”.
The armor delivers top notch protection against almost any pistol or revolver caliber including common 9 mm, .357 and even .44. Yes, AR500 is a serious thing even though it looks pretty futile. Not only does it offer superior protection for its class, it also gives you almost perfect mobility.
AR500 Level III+ Lightweight
Another AR500 in our test, and another best armor in its class, class III+ in thus case. The body armor can stand against rifles rounds including 5.56 caliber thanks to steel plates. It is lightweight though, and hence is more comfortable during long wearing. Thinner panels also means better maneuverability than its thicker counterparts.
Keep in mind, that Level III+ is not NIJ certified. Make sure to read manufacturer’s specifications carefully.
Spartan Armor Level III+
Wow, Spartan, we love it. This Level III+ body armor gives you some serious protection, and according to our tests, it withstands rifle shots perfectly. The model also has swimmer cut for better mobility, which is crucial on the mission or on the shooting ground.
You can apply anti-shrapnel coating to this armor too, to make it really superior among many NIJ Level III+ certified competitors. Yes, this increases your weight, but sometimes you just need that extra protection from spalling. Definitely recommended.
Spartan Armor Elaphros Level III UHMWPE
Now, this body armor is a super light yet capable. The reason? Ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene. This hi-tech material can stop rifles rounds like Type III armor should according to NIJ standards. The armor offers excellent maneuverability thanks to low weight. At the same time, UHMWPE requires thicker layers of protection, so no concealed wearing guys, sorry.
The armor plate weighs 3.5 lbs and successfully stops a shot from a 7.62 rifle. That’s enough to keep you alive even after a shot from M80 (well, if you are lucky). Want more? What about .223 rounds? It survived that too, even though it is not supposed to. Yes, this is an old-good Type III body armor that’s universal enough for almost any threat level. Recommended.
AR500 Level IV Ceramic
Ok, let’s get to ceramic body armors and some really fierce protection. Meet AR500 Level IV. Like other ceramic plates, it’s a bit more costly, but the difference is worth it. The NIJ Type IV body armor is designed to withstand 30.06 M2AP armor piercing rounds! In our tests it survived even two shots! Of course, the shots were made to different points of the armor.
Ceramic body armor is bulkier, and AR500 is not exclusion. If you are ok with being a tank and feeling like one, AR500 is a good choice if you are looking for a tough protection.
RTS Tactical Ceramic Level IV
What’s so special about this body armor? It’s price. This is a really affordable ceramic Type IV armor. Sounds scary, but our tests have shown the armor really does what it promises. RTS Tactical stopping power could do with its low weight. The armor stopped 7.62 rounds and even offered moderate protection against .223 – something you wouldn’t expect in a body armor plate in this price category.
There are better options in this list, but if you are tight on budget, RTS Tactical Ceramic Level IV is ok.
Velocity Systems Special Threat Ceramic Plates
And when the price does not matter, try this baby from Velocity Systems. A ceramic body plate is certified and tested against multiple shots from 7.62x39, 7.62x51, 5.56×45 M855, and 5.56×45 M193. Neat.
The weight of these body plates is higher than average, but that’s normal for this level of protection. This body armor can effortlessly withstand a lot of threats… as long as your budget can withstand its price.
RMA Level IV Multi-Curve
Another piece of Type IV ceramic armor, and another good one. The armor is certified as NIJ Type IV, which makes a protection for serious guys (like you). But its weight is a bit over the top. 8 lbs per plate. Seriously? But on the shooting ground the armor did well.
RMA successfully withstands multiple 7.62x39 shots, even without backside deformation. Impressive. M80 shot was also stopped. Multiple .223 rounds? Also, no problem as long as hits are not too close to each other. A very good body armor that we can definitely recommend.
Mira Tactical Level IV
This body armor was born to protect its wearer from rifles and armor-piercing ammo. It withstands 7.62 rounds, can deal with .223 caliber (even multishot) and even stopped two rounds of M2AP Black Tip.
If you are looking for some strong defense, Mira is a viable option. Very impressive and wholeheartedly recommended.
Safariland Matrix Ballistic Panel
Let’s get back to basics. This body armor is certified as Type II, which means it defends against pistol shots and knife threats. The weight and profile are low enough for concealed wear, that is why this armor is often a preferred choice for guards and security officers.
Ergonomics of this body armor is excellent: it is thin, comfortable to wear, while its cuts allow for higher mobility. That’s what a doctor prescribed if you need to wear this piece for a whole day.
Safariland SX Ballistic Panel
This extremely thin ballistic panel stops most pistol shots and stabs as well. A bare minimum of 0.16 inches thickness is something you would hardly notice even if you wear this armor all day long. And if you need to stay in civilian clothes while remaining protected from common pistol rounds, Safariland SX is what you need. The price is high, but the armor is well worth every cent.
US Armor Enforcer 6000
These ballistic panels are certified as Type II or Type IIIA panels, depending on what model you prefer. The main feature of this Enforcer 6000 ballistic plate is its ergonomic design. Plus, they are lightweight too and thin. Planning a covert operation? You need this, period.