With body armor becoming standard gear for military and law enforcement personnel, and manufacturers providing countless options, it can be overwhelming when selecting the right body armor for you. We are here to help by breaking down the different types of body armor, levels of protection, and selection considerations.
Types of Body Armor
There are many different forms of body armor but here body armor is in reference to a worn vest that is designed to provide ballistic protection to the torso and its vital organs.
The two most common types of body armor are known as soft and hard armor. They can also be used together as in-conjunction (IC) armor. Stab resistant and combination armors are less common but also available.
Soft armor is commonly worn by law enforcement personnel under uniforms or clothing but can also be worn over it and in combination with hard armor. Soft armor is comprised of lightweight, flexible panels that are multi-layered with ballistic-resistant materials that provide protection from most handguns. These panels stop bullets by absorbing and dispersing their energy. Each layer of material can absorb a certain amount of energy, so the overall effectiveness of soft armor is based on the number of layers in a panel.
Hard armor is normally worn by military personnel but is also worn by some law enforcement personnel in high-threat situations. Hard armor is comprised of rigid panels or plates constructed of ballistic materials like ceramics, metals, compressed laminate sheets or composites. These ballistic materials make hard armor heavier than soft body armor but also extend protection to include rifles. When a bullet hits hard armor the force is absorbed and distributed and the bullet is either captured and deformed or broken into pieces. The overall effectiveness of hard armor is based on the strength of the plate.
In-Conjunction (IC) armor consists of specific hard armor plates designed to work in-conjunction with specific soft armor panels for a high level of ballistic protection. IC armors are generally soft armor carriers with pockets for inserting plates or plate carriers with pockets for plates and soft body armor panels. Another available but uncommon type of IC armor is the combination of two soft armor panels for an increased level of ballistic protection.
Stab resistant armors are worn by correctional officers and are designed to protect against edged or stabbing weapons. It is important to know that stab resistant body armor is not designed to be ballistic-resistant and ballistic-resistant armor is not designed to be stab resistant.
Combination armors also known as dual threat or multiple threat armors protect against both firearms and edged or stabbing weapons but are also typically heavier and bulkier than soft armor that protects from one or the other.
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Levels of Protection
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) of the U.S. Department of Justice provides NIJ Standard-0101.06 which specifies five levels of ballistic performance for body armor. Type IIA, II & IIIA are generally soft armors designed to protect against handguns and Type III & IV are generally hard armors or IC armors designed to protect against rifles. The five levels and their threat bullets are listed as:
Type IIA. 9mm FMJ RN; .40 Smith and Wesson (S&W) FMJ
Type II. 9mm FMJ RN; .357Magnum JSP
Type IIIA. .357 SIG FMJ FN; .44 Magnum SJHP.
Type III. 7.62mm FMJ (M80) (Rifle).
Type IV. .30 Cal AP (M2 AP) (Rifle)
Exhibit 10: Threat Rounds in NIJ 0101.06. Selection and Application Guide 0101.06 to Ballistic-Resistant Body Armor
The NIJ Ballistic-Resistant Body Armor Standards and Testing Program provides a performance standard that sets minimum performance requirements for body armor and a Compliance Testing Program (CTP). The performance standard also describes the test methods that determine if the requirements are met. However, the use of NIJ Standard-0101.06 or any other NIJ standard is voluntary and manufacturer participation in the NIJ CTP is also voluntary.
Stab resistant armors are tested under NIJ Standard-0115.00.
Combination armor that is ballistic and stab resistant is tested under both NIJ Standard-0101.06 and 0115.00.
Operating environments will dictate body armor requirements, but some selection considerations to keep in mind are level of protection, fitment, design features, and occupational requirements.
Level of protection should be dictated by anticipated threats. For example, a possible threat for a law enforcement official in the U.S. is a criminal armed with a handgun. Based on this threat soft armor would be suitable. Another possible threat is their service weapon being used against them so at minimum a law enforcement official’s body armor should be able to protect them from their service weapon. Depending on the service weapon a type IIA, II or IIIA soft body armor would be necessary. This rule can and should be applied to anyone selecting body armor that carries a service weapon. For law enforcement in more dangerous environments and military personnel, type III or IV hard armor or in-conjunction armor would be appropriate for the extra protection from rifles and other threats. Whatever the occupation, level of protection based on anticipated threats should be the top consideration when selecting body armor.
Body armor selection often results in a compromise of protection and wearability because with more ballistic protection you typically get more heavy, bulky body armor and less comfort. This factor should be kept in mind when selecting body armor. A balance between protection and wearability is vital so the body armor is worn full-time. Increased ballistic protection is useless if the body armor is not worn.
Body shape regardless of gender should be considered when selecting body armor since it directly affects wearability and proper fitment. Body armor is available in male, female, and gender-neutral models and in multiple sizes. Male and gender-neutral soft armors are very similar in form and hard armors are usually gender neutral. The major difference is found in soft body armor with curved ballistic panels for the female bust. These design differences make individual body shape more important than gender when selecting body armor since not all genders have the same body shape.
Proper body armor fitment is essential in maximizing protection while not impairing mobility and performance of duties. Proper fitment can also make body armor more comfortable and wearable for extended periods of time. Body armor should fit snug while still being able to slide slightly on the body and not so snug that it affects breathing especially after physical exertion.
The front of concealable soft body armor panels should cover from just below the jugular notch to two to three finger-widths from the top of the belt while standing. The rear panel should cover from about two inches below the collar bone to about one inch above the belt. Overt soft armor and hard armor sizing can be slightly larger for more protection but fitment while sitting should be verified so the front panel does not disturb the throat. With hard armor, plates come in different sizes and shapes and need to be installed correctly in the carrier per the instructions in order to provide ballistic protection. Hard armor plates should protect the aortic region while keeping the mentioned guidelines in mind.
For proper side coverage with soft armor, the front panel should overlap the rear panel about two inches with the front panel being on top to prevent a bullet entering between panels. This overlap also accommodates for some fluctuation in weight without creating a gap. Coverage should be as high as possible into the armpit without affecting mobility or shooting positions. For hard armor side coverage, plate carriers’ cummerbunds typically have inserts for side plates that vary in size but are commonly six inches by six inches. Some plate carriers are worn over soft body armor that provides side coverage while the plates provide front and rear coverage.
These guidelines are meant to help with fitment but are not concrete and the goal should always be maximum coverage while maintaining enough mobility to perform occupational duties.
Some body armor design features to keep in mind are covertness, weight, thickness, and fastener type. Occupational policy will usually dictate if body armor is to be covert or overt. If for personal use the decision should be made on the intended use of the body armor. Increased protection typically results in increased weight and increased weight results in fatigue. Keeping a good balance in weight and protection is crucial because when fatigued ounces equal pounds. The thickness of body armor can also increase its weight and will likely trap heat and reduce mobility. When selecting fastener type, environment, ease of use and noise should be considered. Although the type of fastener might not affect performance the environment (dirt/water) can affect a zipper or hook and loop differently. Unless body armor is issued, fastener type will ultimately be personal preference. Many other features like camouflage, pockets, and MOLLE are available and should be considered if they assist in the completion of duties or the mission.
Occupational requirements vary by occupation and agencies, but a common requirement is body armor that meets a NIJ level of ballistic performance. To find if body armor has met the requirements of the NIJ CTP visit the compliant products list at https://cjtec.org/compliance-testing-program/compliant-product-lists/.
Occupation and mission will influence body armor requirements but knowing the different types of body armor, levels of protection, and proper fitment provides the knowledge to make a better-informed decision. While complete protection is impossible, choosing the right body armor for the job could mean the difference between life and death.
National Institute of Justice. (2014, December). Selection and Application Guide 0101.06 to Ballistic-Resistant Body Armor. https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/247281.pdf