Decisions around body armor have serious potential consequences. We’re talking about a tool that is meant to protect you or a loved one from fatal bodily harm. It’s also a significant financial investment, so you owe it to yourself (or the recipient) to know what you’re buying, and get what you’re paying for.
Let’s unpack some body armor basics, and then do the hard work of debunking ten of the most persistent myths about body armor.
How Does Body Armor Work?
Bullets are dangerous because the explosive discharge fills it with potential energy. This potential energy is enough to punch through many surfaces, as well as bodies.
The point of body armor is to diffuse that energy and deform the round, reducing the blunt force of the impact and (hopefully) stopping the round from penetrating any further. It consists of plates, either made of woven fiber (soft armor) or of metal or ceramic (hard armor). Composite and hybrid armor are also available that blur the line between hard and soft armor.
Body armor plates are typically made from one of four key materials:
- Kevlar — A well-known form of woven fiber used in body armor. It is 5x stronger than steel fiber.
- UHMWPE — Short for ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene. It’s a mouthful, but it basically means a kind of polymer (like plastic) with an extremely long molecular chain, which causes it to transfer loads more effectively. It has the highest impact strength of any thermoplastic.
- Ceramic — Made from hardened clay, ceramic is a lightweight form of hard body armor. It is considered the more modern armor when compared to steel plates.
- Steel — Steel plates are the most protective form of body armor — but also the heaviest and most restrictive.
When a round hits the plate, the force of the impact is dispersed through the so it doesn’t all impact in one concentrated place. Think about stepping on a nail vs. stepping on a bed of nails. The one nail is just as sharp, but because your weight is distributed over many nails, they are less likely to pierce you. The armor also deforms the bullet into a mushroom shape, making it less likely to penetrate further.
Torso body armor is sometimes referred to as a “bullet-proof vest.” Body armor may also include throat protectors, groin protectors, helmets, and other components.
Who Regulates Body Armor in the US?
Body armor is certified by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research wing of the US Department of Justice. Body armor may either be certified or compliant.
- Certified — The product has been tested by a certified lab and audited by the NIJ, an expensive process that is repeated every year.
- Compliant — A modified standard whereby an independent lab tests the body armor against NIJ standards, sometimes once and then never repeated for the product.
The NIJ certifies body armor to five levels — Level IIA, Level II, Level IIIA, Level III and Level IV. Higher-level body armor is capable of stopping faster, heavier rounds from closer range.
Is It Ever Illegal to Own or Wear Body Armor?
It is illegal for people convicted of a violent crime to possess, purchase, or own body armor in all 50 United States. In some states, it is illegal to wear body armor on the premises of a school, and in some states wearing body armor during the commission of a crime is a separate criminal offense.
Now that we know a little more about what body armor is, let’s pick apart some things it is not. Here are the ten most common myths about body armor, and what you need to know instead …
Myth #1: Only Police and Military Personnel are Allowed to Buy Body Armor
“Can anyone own and wear body armor?” Yes, with only a few exceptions. Ownership of body armor is not restricted to police or military personnel. As mentioned, though, people who have been convicted of a violent crime are prohibited by law from purchasing, owning, or wearing body armor, and some states prohibit wearing body armor on school grounds.
Myth #2: Body Armor is Bullet-Proof
“Are bullet-proof vests really bullet-proof?” If not, they should be called something else, right? A better way to think of them is “bullet-resistant.”
The truth is, while high-quality body armor can substantially reduce your chances of death or serious injury from a bullet strike, bullets can still penetrate body armor. Many factors contribute to the ability of a round to compromise body armor, including the caliber of the round, angle of attack, age of the armor, and range of the shooter from the armored target.
Myth #3: Body Armor Protects Against Every Kind of Round
“Do bullet-proof vests protect against all types of bullets?” Remember, body armor is rated from Level IIA to Level IV by the NIJ. H
For example, level IIA is capable of stopping a 9MM full metal jacket round at 1120 feet per second, but the same round at 1205 fps would require Level II body armor to stop, while the same round at 1430 fps would only be stopped by Level IIIA body armor or better. Only at Level III are you protected against most rifle rounds, while Level IV is the only body armor that can stop armor-piercing bullets.
Myth #4: Body Armor is Stab-Proof
“Can a bullet-proof vest stop a knife?” You’d think it would, right? After all, a knife attack doesn’t have the force of a discharged round. But a crucial part of the work done by a fiber bullet-proof vest is deforming the bullet to diffuse its energy. This doesn’t happen with a knife or sword, so a fiber vest will not stop a hard blade strike.
Body armor at Levels IIA, II, and IIIA will provide some protection, but they are just not designed to stop a knife attack — even though Level IIIA can stop handgun rounds. Level III and IV body armor is not tested to stop knives, but it easily will due to its composition from heavy polymer, ceramic, or steel.
Myth #5: Body Armor Protects You from Pain
“Does it hurt to get shot with a bullet-proof vest?” The short answer is “Yes.” The plate diffuses the impact force, potentially stopping the bullet from punching through the vest and the body of the wearer, but we’re talking about a lot of impact force. Imagine getting kicked by an elephant.
When you see a scene in the movies where an officer takes multiple bullets to the vest, barely stumbles, then keeps chasing … that doesn’t happen. While your chances of survival are much higher, most people who catch rounds with a vest experience bruising, internal bleeding, and even cracked ribs. Unpleasant … but preferable to a hole punched through the torso.
“Will people be able to see if I’m wearing body armor?” The higher the level of body armor, the thicker and more bulky. You might be able to conceal lightweight Level IIA body armor under thick clothing, but Level IIIA or above is nearly impossible to conceal under clothing.
Myth #7: One Type of Body Armor is as Good as the Next
“Is all body armor equally effective?” Definitely not. Lightweight, concealable Level IIA can stop a light handgun round if it isn’t moving too fast. Heavy Level IV body armor, meanwhile, can protect against armor-piercing rifle rounds, but it may restrict movement and breathing, as well as alter your shooting stance.
Myth #8: Body Armor is an Advantage in a Physical Fight
“Is body armor a liability in a physical fight?” Body armor can be a liability in hand-to-hand combat. It can restrict your mobility and make it harder to breathe under exertion. It can alter your shooting stance by preventing you from fully straightening your arms, and an assailant can even use your own body armor to choke you. It is important to train while wearing your body armor. Not only to break it in, but to understand how it affects your specific movement.
Myth #9: Body Armor is Comfortable to Wear
“Is body armor uncomfortable to wear?” Oftentimes, yes. It depends on the level of body armor, but all body armor is hot, heavy, and restrictive of movement and breathing to some degree. The risk of discomfort and compromised mobility has to be weighed against the risk of an attack that the body armor might protect against.
Myth #10: Body Armor Never Goes Bad
“Does body armor ever go bad or expire?” Absolutely. Exposure to moisture and ultraviolet light can degrade body armor. The manufacturer will usually set an expiration date ranging between 5 and 10 years
Body armor is a tool that saves lives every day. Before you invest in it, make sure to consider the potential threats the wearer might face. If you have any more questions about body armor, don’t hesitate to reach out.