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How to Select Body Armor

Which Model of Concealable Vest Should I Get?
- see our Vest Selection Page

An IN-DEPTH Buyer’s Guide

If you are short on time, just read our Quick Answers, get your measurements, and then call us. If you are looking for in-depth information, this Guide draws on our experience, and the excellent research from the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center to give you some real fact and insight.

The following also contains opinions on choices and tradeoffs in ballistic protection on which reasonable people can differ. It should also be remembered that NO ARMOR IS EVER 100% ‘Bullet-PROOF’. Thus, how you apply this Guide to your specific circumstances is solely your responsibility and legal liability.

Page Contents


What Do You Need to Worry About?

There is a lot to think through buying ballistic protection, but the material used in construction is NOT the major factor (as long as you avoid Zylon!). As long as the vest is NIJ Certified or similarly tested by a reputable independent lab, you really don’t need to worry too much about the ballistics.

“Armor performance is the critical issue, not the manufacturer’s construction of the armor.”
...Guide to Police Body Armor, National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC)

Aramid fibers include Kevlar® from DuPont, the tried and true material. Twaron® is the European version of aramid fabric. Both have the advantage of being more flexible for greater comfort. The Polyethylene fibers include Spectra® by Honeywell, or Dyneema® (by DSM in Europe) offer both advantages and disadvantages: ~25% lighter, better multiple hit and blunt trauma performance – but also ~20% more expensive, and stiffer with a corresponding reduction in comfort.

Gold Flex® by Honeywell is a high tech fiber made from aramid. Ultra-light and ultra-thin – but also the most expensive. Most "GoldFlex"vests are actually a blend of fibers to keep the cost down.

Zylon® from Toyobo

Second Chance has issued a Safety Recall notice on their Zylon vests due to premature degradation, and the NIJ has researched this issue with results showing serious degradation problems. Consequently, the NIJ has decertified ALL Zylon vests, prompting a new interim Body Armor standard 0101.05

Avoid all vests with Zylon. We only use the Aramid ballistic fibers or GoldFlex Gold Shield in our ProMAX vests, and have never produced a vest with Zylon.

Putting aside the Zylon problem, what you SHOULD worry about is armor construction as it relates to the coverage of the armor on your body (see below) and the vest's softness and comfort / concealability. Less Aramid and more stitching makes a lighter, thinner vest that looks good on paper.  But when you wear the vest for any length of time the stiffness and comfort penalty becomes obvious (plus a concealability problem as well sometimes).

There is really no substitute for trying on your vest – and ensuring you have a money-back guarantee. (You should have this for fitting issues anyway.)


What are the Threats YOU Face?

Vests can protect against many threats. As detailed on the Ballistic Protection Levels page:

  • blunt trauma, e.g., fists, clubs and auto steering wheel columns!

  • knife / edged weapon attack – slashing (though NOT thrusting/stabbing unless special stab-resistant material)

  • most pistol ammunition (and '00' Buckshot) – NIJ Threat Level II-A, II, and III-A – the regular 3 to 6 lb. soft body armor vest (~1.8 - 2.7 kg.)

  • FMJ Rifle rounds – NIJ Threat Level III – 1/4" specially treated steel, 1/2" ceramic armor plates, or 1" Polyethylene plates

  • .3006 Armor-Piercing Rifle – NIJ Threat Level IV – 3/4" thick ceramic armor plates.

While we would all like to be covered head to toe in Level IV protection (the human equivalent of a bulletproof turtle!) this is not practical for several reasons...


Practical Considerations

  • HEAT BUILDUP – is the number one problem for vest users. Putting on a vest is a welcome replacement for a jacket or sweater for much of the year, but during the summer, heat is the limiting factor in vest use. No vest on earth can honestly claim to be comfortable in the heat.

  • COMFORT / WEARABILITY – is a function of the vest's fit, coverage and softness. If you aren’t wearing the vest, it isn’t protecting you! The best vest for you is the one you’re wearing when shot!

  • FREEDOM of MOVEMENT – is a function of the vest’s thickness or bulkiness, and design and fit. If you are hindered in the movement required, your vest can become more of a liability as well as an asset.

  • WEIGHT – affects your fatigue level after prolonged wear, and your physical speed of movement. More of an issue with Rifle Plates than a pound difference in soft Body Armor protection Levels (or models).

  • CONCEALABILITY – firstly, if an armed criminal notices your body armor, they can easily aim, or threaten, your head, hip or groin area. You have just wasted part of the advantage of wearing a vest. Secondly your situation may require the discretion of a concealable vest.

  • COST – if you can’t afford it, it isn’t protecting you! As a consumer, you must realistically judge what threats you face, and make rational choices. 100% protection is simply not possible no matter how much you spend – but you can get 80% or 90% of the maximum protection available, for half the cost.

So, how do you make a rational tradeoff between all the choices, with all these constraints? By the percentages...

Protection is a % Game

REAL PROTECTION =

  1. % of Threats Stopped by Vest, and
  2. % Coverage of Vest on YOUR Body, and
  3. % of Threat Time Vest is Worn

Assuming the threat doesn’t notice your body armor, and target unprotected areas!

For example, if your vest...

  1. stops 95% of the threats you face, and...
  2. covers 70% of your upper body, and...
  3. is worn 100% of the time in a potential threat environment...

You have achieved 67% coverage. 95% times 70% times 100% equals 67%. (0.95 X 0.7 X 1.0 = 0.67 = 67%)

67% is a superb score, but, if nothing else, this example should remind you of the importance of training, tactics and common sense. Body Armor will put the odds in your favor – very substantially – but (just as in life) there are no 100% guarantees.

% of Threats Stopped by the Vest

As detailed on the Ballistic Protection Levels page, even Level II-A vests are adequate for the vast majority of pistol ammunition usually seen on the street. Level II and III-A offer more blunt trauma protection, and stop more of the unusual threats.

But really the decision here is not so much a percentage protection decision, as personal preference – pay a little more, for a slightly heavier and bulkier vest – and know that if you ever take a hit on the vest you might possibly get off with a 3" or 4" bruise (~8 or 10 cm.), versus a cracked or broken rib. We can’t make that call for you, other than to say we generally feel well protected with a Level II vest – a nice balance between competing priorities.

If all you can afford is Level II-A, yes, you might be missing a few per cent of the more unusual ammunition threats – but in the big picture wearing your vest 100% of the time is MUCH more important. If you simply feel better knowing you have a III-A (the maximum in soft body armor) we can’t argue with peace of mind.

The one good rule of thumb is – get a vest tested to stop the weapon you, or your partner, carries:

"one in six officers killed with a handgun was killed with his or her own service weapon”
 ...Guide to Police Body Armor, NLECTC

Tactically, one factor does strongly recommend a thicker Level II or III-A, over II-A – being able to return fire more quickly and/or effectively.  The extra thickness means more blunt trauma protection, and less felt impact or injury from bullets striking you. Thus you may be able to react faster and more effectively after being hit – critical if you need to prevail in the confrontation, as well as just survive the hit.

But, especially if you are wearing your vest for long periods of time, comfort often becomes the most important factor – don't automatically assume Level III-A is the best for you.


Armor-Piercing Threats?

Some aficionados are fond of expounding on the fact that their favorite Armor-Piercing (AP) 9 mm, or their 7.62 mm Tokarev pistol ammo, etc., etc., can “go through that vest like a hot knife through butter”! Indeed, you should be aware that some very rare and specialized pistol ammo CAN penetrate soft body armor. But what also needs to be said is that in the US AP pistol ammo is illegal and difficult to impossible to obtain (also all the calibers of AP rifle ammo usable in pistol variants).

How often does the armed criminal take the time and trouble to find such rare ammo? Not very often, though obviously you must evaluate the threats YOU are likely to face. If you are a narcotics police officer after hard-core biker drug-gangs – AP is possibly a concern. In 1999 one officer was just barely saved by his Level II vest from a drug dealer with a 7.62 mm Tokarev.

So, for example, SWAT teams, and police officers making high-risk traffic stops, may be well advised to get Level III-A armour, just to be on the saf-ER side (there is never a 100% safe side). For the majority of law enforcement, security guards, and civilians, getting a Level III-A is money well spent for peace of mind and extra blunt trauma protection – but probably not required on a percentage analysis. You must evaluate the threats YOU are likely to face.


What About Blunt Trauma Pads?

Not to be confused with Rifle Plates, these 5" by 8" (~13 by 20 cm.) Steel or Aramid inserts are designed to protect the vulnerable mid-chest/sternum area from blunt trauma. A great idea, highly recommended, but they are the icing on the cake – not the cake. Vests are NIJ-certified WITHOUT a Blunt Trauma Pad.

“NIJ has not conducted research to determine the effectiveness of such inserts. In general, NIJ believes that agencies should select armor that provides the rated level of protection over the entire area of coverage, not just isolated areas.”
...Guide to Police Body Armor, NLECTC


Rifle Protection

The big question in Threat Levels is – do you need Level III or IV rifle plate protection? Adding a PAIR of 10" by 12" Ceramic plates (~25 by 30 cm.) will add ~11 lbs. (5 kg.) to your 4 lb. vest (1.8 kg.)! (Plus it will double the cost of a $500 vest.) You can cut that down to ~6 lbs. (2.7 kg.) with Ultra-light Polyethylene plates – but then the extra cost is ~$800.

Generally, in U.S. urban areas, short-barreled firearms are the main threat because they are the type of weapon most often used by criminals. Worse, they are concealable – you can’t avoid something you can’t see. You can more easily avoid the criminal with a rifle, seen from a distance.

Once again, you must evaluate the threats YOU are likely to face. If rifles are a possible or probable threat, get some Level III or IV protection, as this is often the only option short of your vehicle’s engine block. (Or hoping that your car door will cut ~2,800 fps of rifle muzzle velocity in half – so that your soft body armor might handle it!)

A good compromise is a soft body armor vest for regular wear, with an optional carrier with built-in rifle plate pockets, such as our ProMAX Concealable with a Rifle Plate Pockets carrier. Or, more convenient for quick throw-on use, Rifle Plates in a separate ‘modular’ Over-vest Carrier. This allows you to quickly add Rifle Plates when the tactical situation demands.


Armor-Piercing – Level IV Ceramic Plates

Analogous to the soft body armor discussion on AP – how often are you faced with a criminal with Armor-Piercing ammo? The military in war zones, obviously. SWAT teams may be well advised to spend the extra money for the peace of mind and officer confidence.

But it can also be argued that it’s not justified on the small percentage chance of ever facing such a threat. Once again, you must evaluate the threats YOU are likely to face.


Steel versus Ceramic Rifle Plates...

However, Ceramic or Polyethylene Plates, versus Steel plates, are usually well justified on two factors. Firstly the weight savings – you are looking at carrying ~3.3 or 5.5 lbs. per plate respectively, versus 9 lbs. for steel (~1.5 or 2.5 kg. versus 4.1 kg.). Over two plates that is 5 lbs. to 11 lbs, of weight savings (2.3 or 5 kg.).

Furthermore there is less chance of ricochet or bullet splatter causing injury with a Ceramic or Polyethylene plate. The bullet tends to penetrate further into nonmetallic plates. (However, this also means that, in multi-hit situations, ceramic or Polyethylene loses protective integrity faster than steel.)

Steel does have advantages – it’s less expensive, and you don’t have to worry about fracturing it if dropped/abused. If you can afford it, go light, but, as always, it's more important to wear second-best protection than to have nothing.

% Coverage of Vest

Rather than focusing on marginal differences of what the vest stops (outside of rifles), it is far more important to determine how much of your vital area is covered by the vest.

Many concealable vests skimp on the amount of coverage of your body. A lot of people are worried about whether their vest will stop the exotic, uncommon threats – but what's usually more important is to cover MORE of your body against the COMMON threats. By all means get a Level III-A for the uncommon threats, but the more important factor is how well the vest covers YOUR body (and that it is comfortable and concealable enough so that you actually wear it).


Side Coverage

If you hold a weapon in the side-angled “Weaver” stance, the target area exposed to the threat is your SIDE as much - or more - than your front. Full side protection is critical to achieve good percentage coverage of the body areas exposed to the threat. Excellent side coverage is illustrated by the photo below:

Level III-A Body Armor - Side

Many vests are marketed that are just front and back, or only have “extended”, or partial, or “scalloped” side coverage. Look in the mirror when holding in a side-angled Weaver stance – the large percentage of your upper body that would NOT be covered makes the problem obvious.

However partial side vests do serve a purpose in high heat environments because they offer more ventilation and heat dissipation. If you can’t, or won’t, wear a full side protection vest in the summer – get us to size you for partial side coverage that will be worn (and train yourself to face the threat in a front-facing, isosceles stance – and then hope it’s just a single threat!)


Design and Sizing of the Vest

Width

Firstly, is the vest cut narrowly across the chest, to give maximum freedom of movement and comfort – or cut widely for maximum protection? The coverage across the chest can vary by up to an inch or two (3 - 5 cm.) between brands – for the same size.

What is best for you really depends on your body type, how long you wear the vest each time, the level of threats, and your personal preference for more comfort and arm freedom, or more protection. Have the vest you are going to buy measured across the Chest between the armpits (measure the ballistic panel, NOT the cloth carrier)

Length

Secondly, most vests are designed to ride comfortably above a police officer’s duty belt. This is ideal for comfort for patrol officers on long shifts – you won’t wear a vest that jabs you in the throat when you bend over, or sit down. But, if you don’t wear a duty belt (or have a long torso), you are missing an extra one to two inches (~3 to 5 cm.) of coverage on your abdomen.

But it is also critical to not to get TOO LONG a vest. Too long, and it will ride up when you sit or bend, and jab you in the throat.

ABA Vests / Bullet proof Vests Photo Gallery
Side by Side Comparison PHOTOS

Unless you see it in writing otherwise, you can safely assume that a bulletproof vest is the standard, shorter, duty belt length. (And just to add confusion, one company's Regular can be another company's Short.) Generally a standard, size Large vest is ~12" to 12.5" (~30 - 32 cm.) measuring the ballistic panel (NOT the cloth carrier) front centerline – the SHORTEST distance from the bottom of the neck scoop to the bottom of the vest.

An extra one to two inches (~2 to 5 cm.) increases the coverage area of the vest by ~5% to ~10%. This is not an earth-shaking difference, but the feeling of coverage you get can be illustrated by holding 12" (~30 cm.) of a tape measure from the bottom of your throat down to the belly, versus 14" (~36 cm.) of coverage for an Extra-Long vest.


Tactical Vests

An exterior tactical vest with neck, shoulder and groin protection will weigh ~50% more than a concealable vest, and cost you ~ $750 or more. But you leave the criminal with little to aim at, other than your head, arms and legs. (And you can even cover the biceps, triceps, deltoid and armpit area with Upper Arm Protectors!)

The percentage coverage is superb – but heat build-up is more of a problem, and comfort and freedom of movement is slightly more restricted. But nothing beats that turtle-shell feeling, if you are investigating the sound of breaking glass at 3 in the morning!

Will you have it on when the threat arrives? For SWAT teams, who have transit time to gear up, the answer is obviously yes, but for others highly dependent on the particular situation. Thus for tactical vests, the ease and quickness of getting the vest on is critical. Front-opening vests are a very attractive (though more expensive) option here. If you are buying a tactical vest – find out EXACTLY how it is put on, to evaluate quickness.

The other argument against exterior tactical vests is that it is visually obvious to the criminal to aim at unprotected areas. However, it can also be argued that it is unlikely that this visual clue will be acted on effectively in an adrenaline-charged confrontation.

Regardless, our suggestion is that even tactical armor is best worn in the same color as the usual uniform or clothing to minimize the giveaway. Even better is to cover up with a jacket. Even if criminals know in the back of their mind that law enforcement almost always wear vests – why remind them in the middle of a firefight!

% of Threat Time Vest is Worn

This is THE most important factor. Whether your vest covers 90% or 95% of pistol ballistic threats is marginal. And whether you are covering 50% or 70% of your vital areas is still less critical than going to ZERO protection with NO vest. Whatever vest you buy – make sure it is comfortable enough to wear for the duration required. The best vest for you is the one you actually are wearing when shot!

Also, it’s often the practical considerations listed above that are the most important, and can really only be thoroughly checked out with the vest in hand. Thus you should only buy a vest with a clear return policy, in case the vest won’t work on your body, or in your situation.

To repeat, especially if you are wearing your vest for long periods of time, comfort often becomes the most important factor – don't automatically assume Level III-A is the best for you.


Heat Discomfort vs. Vest Use

If you don’t wear your vest in the daytime, or during the summer heat, you’ve just cut your average protection in half or less. A solution could be a partial side model for summer daytime use, keeping a full side protection model for the winter, and at night when it's cooler (and threats are more numerous, and less visible).

Before sacrificing this much protection, it would be advisable to try adapting to a full side protection vest:

A moisture-wicking undershirt, and/or a CoolMax® moisture-wicking carrier, and wearing the vest more loosely will help. This allows a little more air to circulate under the vest, and helps keep it from getting so “sticky”.

Get a cooling system for your vest. The least expensive (i.e., quick and dirty) method is to pick up a freezable cold pack from your local pharmacy. Freeze it, wrap it in cloth, and insert inside the vest between the ballistic panel and the inner carrier fabric. BE VERY CAREFUL YOU DON’T FREEZE YOUR SKIN – it MUST be well-insulated from bare skin. The other problem to beware of, is stability of the cold pack.


If Your Vest is NOT Worn Routinely...

...but kept at hand for emergencies, how fast you get it on is THE critical factor. The ideal here is a front-opening jacket vest. Instead of slipping on over your head, you can throw it on like a jacket, and quickly close the overlapping Velcro front flaps.

Just as importantly, the concealment is built-in with the integral jacket. It doesn’t do much good to get your vest on fast – visible overtop of your clothes – and then have the criminal take head and groin shots!


We hope you have found this Guide useful.

Please contact us if you have any questions or comments.

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