Body armor saves lives in the field every day — but it isn’t foolproof. Improper fit and usage can spell the difference between life and death in a critical situation. Here’s a brief guide on how to wear a bulletproof vest and other body armor. Remember, when in doubt, always follow the manufacturer's instructions for the body armor you select.
Finding the Perfect Fit
For maximal results in terms of both comfort and protection, your body armor should fit perfectly. Body armor that is too loose or too tight could restrict or impede movement while opening up vulnerabilities.
Get your armor custom-fitted, wearing the uniform or outfit you are most likely to wear the body armor in tandem with. The inner panels should not overlap to avoid damage and restriction of movement.
Tighter is definitely not better, even if it feels more secure. Straps should be secure, but not too tight. Rippling and buckling of the straps are a sign that they may be too tight. Over-tight straps may cause the body armor to sit too high, leaving the midsection vulnerable.
Keep track of changes in your body over time. If you gain or lose weight, consider taking your body armor back to get re-fitted.
Note that body armor designed for different sexes may fit differently. Be sure to select the body armor construction best-suited for your body shape.
How to Properly Wear Body Armor
Body armor comes with instructions. If in doubt, always follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Strictures that apply to one set of body armor may not apply to another.
However, here are some general rules of how to wear a bulletproof vest and other body armor …
The armored plates that make up the protective component of body armor are usually contoured to fit against the body. Make sure the plates are facing the right direction. This seems like an obvious instruction, but many field reports call out soldiers for wearing their plates backwards because they find it more comfortable.
Wearing plates backward opens up vulnerabilities and may decrease user comfort while increasing wear-and-tear. Some plate materials, like ceramic, only provide maximal protection in one direction — if a round strikes the back of the plate, it may go through, even if the plate is rated to protect against that round.
If in doubt, inspect the plate. Plates usually have instructions on the back side of the plate. Make sure the side with the instructions is facing your body.
If the weight is improperly distributed, body armor can exact a heavy toll on your lower back, even to the point of causing permanent damage. If you wear heavy body armor for an extended period of time, you will definitely start to feel it, even if you don’t feel it initially.
Make sure that every strap is secured and tightened (without over-tightening) to distribute the weight as evenly as possible across your torso, with as little pressure as possible on the lower back.
Make sure to wear body armor that is properly sized to your body. Larger wearers may be tempted to go with smaller plates to keep the weight of the bulletproof vest light, but small plates create vulnerabilities. So, too, do oversized plates on smaller frames (in addition to packing on extra pounds and leading to more strain on your back).
What It’s Like to Wear Body Armor
No description matches the experience of actually wearing your body armor — especially since body armor comes in a variety of shapes, sizes, and weights.
If at all possible, consider periodically wearing your body armor during your daily routine. This is perfectly legal to do as long as you have not been convicted of a violent felony, although some states prohibit the wearing of body armor in schools.
Bottom line — a combat scenario is not the time you want to be learning surprising new facts about what it’s like to wear your body armor.
Soft body armor is lightweight and presents few movement restrictions, although a plate inconveniently located over a joint may make it harder to bend. Lighter weight means less pain and fatigue from long-term usage, but it may also be less protective. Body armor also doesn’t breath very well, so expect a sweaty torso.
Plate body armor offers more protection, but at the expense of weight and mobility. If a plate finds its way into a position over a joint, forget about bending that joint. That’s why it’s so important to properly wear your bulletproof vest and other plate body armor pieces. In addition to being sweaty and unbreathable, plate body armor can cause significant fatigue and back pain if worn for several hours at a time.
What Is It Like to Fight in Body Armor?
If you know how to wear a bulletproof vest or body armor properly, it should minimally impede your mobility in a fight. However, heavy body armor may cause fatigue and pain over time. It may also limit blood flow and reduce situational awareness.
If you get punched while wearing body armor, you may still feel the impact, albeit somewhat more distributed. If the armor catches a bullet, users describe the feeling as similar to getting hit by a hammer. It will leave a nasty bruise the next day, but it has never been fatal and usually does not incapacitate the wearer or impede their ability to continue the fight.
If body armor is too loose, it may become a liability in a fight, allowing the opponent something to grab onto when grappling, gain leverage, or even choke the wearer. This is why it is so important to properly wear a bulletproof vest that fits correctly.
How Do You Keep Your Body Armor Ready for Action?
Body armor is usually rated by the manufacturer to last five years or longer, but to keep it working properly, it’s important to maintain it correctly. Here are some steps to take to keep your body armor ready for action …
- Avoid Soaking. Prolonged exposure to water can degrade body armor and cause the seams and fastenings to loosen. Don’t soak your body armor, don’t try to wash it in the washing machine, and try to keep it out of heavy rain.
- Hang-Dry Your Armor. If your body armor becomes wet, hang it to dry. Don’t store your body armor on a hanger, however. It could start to lose its shape and fit improperly.
- Practice Spot-Cleaning. To clean your armor and control the sweat odor, clean the armor with soap, water, and a clean cloth, one section at a time, wiping away the excess moisture with each section.
- Roll Up Soft Armor. Body armor can normally be stored flat, but storing soft body armor rolled up may keep it more supple, flexible, and comfortable to wear.
- Keep Your Warranty On File. In fact, keep all the paperwork, including your proof of purchase and serial number. If your bulletproof vest needs service, it will come in handy.
Remember, knowing how to wear body armor can make all the difference between stopping a bullet or not; being able to fight effectively or not; suffering back pain or a strap malfunction at the worst possible time. Take the time to learn your body armor — it could end up saving your life.