Written by Richard Douglas
Body armor is a topic that is tricky to navigate.
Even if you know a lot about guns, it can be complicated.
I aim to remove the confusion and give you the information needed to make a decision.
Let’s get started.
The Basics of Ballistics
If you aren’t an expert on terminal ballistics, knowing what armor to buy can seem impossible.
But even if you’ve never shot a gun before, knowing which armors are designed for what purposes can make your decision 100 times easier.
In general, the more gunpowder in the cartridge, the more power behind the bullet, and the more you need to stop it. Pistols are stopped by the most rudimentary body armors, while rifle rounds create more of a challenge to stop.
Somewhere in the middle is the old standby, the 12 gauge shotgun. It packs a larger wallop than most rifle rounds, but the soft nature and blunt shape of the projectiles can actually make it easier to stop.
I’ve seen armor piercing rounds from a 308 stab their way through an inch of solid steel, making these the toughest challenge for body armor, but they make plates for that as well.
How Body Armor Works
Modern body armor has two components: plates and plate carriers.
When you think of a bulletproof vest, the image of a single item appears in the mind’s eye, but most of the time it can be separated into those two components, or at the very least the two components have been permanently connected.
The vest itself is actually a plate carrier made from a durable fabric such as Kevlar. Unless it’s designed as a single piece protection, it will have pockets where armor plating can be inserted.
Armor plates stop the bullets while the plate carrier (the vest) holds them in front of the vital parts of your body, namely the heart and lungs. Generally one plate will cover your chest while another covers the same area on your back.
Soft Armor Plating
The armor plating ratings tell you not only what kind of rounds can be stopped, but how heavy your armor is going to be.
Level IIa, II, and IIIa (read 2-A, 2, and 3-A) armors are generally soft plates made from many layers of heavy fabric material. They are lighter weight than rifle plates and flexible to allow for movement.
In general, level II armor is stronger than IIa, and IIIa is the strongest of this group. IIIa armor can also be manufactured from other materials as well, such as ceramics.
All of these soft armors are designed to stop handgun bullets, and to that measure they are quite effective. The differences are fairly small, but even a IIa plate is designed to stop six rounds of 9mm fired from a handgun.
A note on ballistics. The caliber doesn’t tell all, and even the same ammunition fired from different guns will have drastically different performance.
The saving grace is that a level IIa plate will stop the most common handgun rounds while II and IIIa are designed around heavier calibers, 357 SIG and 44 Magnum respectively.
The other keynote is that even a round that penetrates the armor will probably do less damage than if it had hit full force, but that’s a grey area and if you need maximum protection against any handgun round out there, then IIIa is the way to go.
If you are looking for something to slip in your kid’s backpack, IIa plating is better than nothing, lightweight, and very flexible. It also makes a terrific everyday ballistic vest that can be worn under a baggy shirt.
Levels III and IV armor plating are designed with rifles in mind, the kind of rifles that you see people sighting in with a rangefinder scope on the shooting table beside them.
Level III is generally reserved for most hunting rounds. The vests are tested against a 308 cartridge, and the armor will probably serve well against the power of a 30-06, or any popular hunting round.
The testing is also done with full metal jacket (FMJ) ammunition, which penetrates better than expanding ammunition commonly sold for hunting. In general, military personnel shoot this kind of ammo while civilians, including the monsters that might be shooting at you, carry expanding rounds like hollow points.
Level IV plates are designed specifically for “armor piercing rounds.” They are very thick, very heavy, and not worth the effort for most of us. AP ammunition has a steel core in the middle that separates from the rest of the bullet on impact to drive through a target like a sharp nail.
This kind of ammunition is not typically found on the shelf at Walmart. Level IV is also designed around armor piercing 30-caliber rounds like the 308 cartridge, so it isn’t like a level IV vest is going to stop an AP round from a 50 cal.
But if you want the most protection out there, level IV is it.
Even carrying body armor is a personal choice, and the selections aren’t easy.
Level IIIa is probably the most common option for a soft plate armor among civilians, though Level II and even IIa are more comfortable and concealable. If you are worried about rifle rounds, level III might be the way to go.
Editor’s note: As of this publication, body armor is legal to own in the U.S. (except for anyone who has been convicted of a violent felony or its state equivalent); however one state has a proposal to ban body armor.
Richard Douglas is a long-time shooter, outdoor enthusiast and technologist. He is the founder and editor of Scopes Field, and a columnist at The National Interest, Cheaper Than Dirt, Daily Caller and other publications.
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