The Different Types of Body Armor
The purpose of this, the first in a series of publications on body armor, is to introduce the reader to the main types of protective body armor and give us a leap point into further discussions on the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the types of materials used in body armor, and how they are often applied. Generally speaking, body armor is divided into two categories, soft armor and hard.
1. Soft Armor
Soft armor is dominantly made from multiple layers of ballistic fibers (usually Kevlar) or laminates (like Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene) that are then cut or formed into the shapes needed. Some benefits to soft armor are that it can provide full torso coverage and be concealed under a shirt or into a backpack without significant profile. It can be very flexible with a large range of ballistic protection ratings for most common calibers. Soft armor is generally favored among police for its low-profile, non-threating appearance while protecting against most handgun threats.
Some drawbacks to soft armor are that it is incapable of defeating rifle rated threats, and most do not protect against edged weapon attacks unless an augmenting panel of material is applied. Moreover, proper storage of soft armor must be maintained as folding, creasing, or hanging of soft armor can cause strain or compromise the fibers of the material itself. And lastly, soft armor will eventually wear out over time due to friction and general wear and tear.
2. Hard Armor
Oppositely, hard armor is often made from a variety of materials to include steel, Kevlar, ceramics, and other specialty materials using cutting edge technology. Some benefits of hard armor are that because of its increased thickness, hard armor is capable of defeating both handgun and rifle rated threats. In addition, hard armor necessitates being worn in an external carrier and thus can be easily donned and removed. Traditionally, hard armor has been a staple of issued equipment to the military to meet battlefield threats.
Some drawback to hard armor is that some of its materials may be sensitive to Ultra Violet (sun light) exposure, impact from droppage, or exposure to some corrosive liquids. The result, particularly from being dropped or struck, can be damage in the form of cracking or fracture (something noted by a cracking sound when the plates are flexed in the hands). Other drawbacks include hard armor being highly observable due to its pronounced profile and weight, weight which makes prolonged wearing uncomfortable and strenuous. Lastly, heavy armor, simply because of its properties and as noted, does necessitate a carrier of some type to be properly worn and provide its intended protection.
Generally, these two types of armor play into the variety of market options available on the market which follow as such:
3. Backpack Armor
Backpack armor is a type of body armor that consists of a single ballistic plate or panel placed in a compatible backpack or insert to provide protection against bullets. With the advent of school shootings since the 1980’s, this type of PPE has become increasingly mainstream, especially following the Sandyhook shootings. Generally speaking, backpack body armor is flat and not contoured, thus making it relatively inexpensive. The drawback is backpack body armor is limited in coverage area, often less than the dimensions of the backpack and should be considered a “shield” to cover vital areas.
4. Body Armor
As a subset of PPE, body armor is often thought of as the main reference to ballistic protective equipment, and is traditionally worn in a vest or carrier. Body armor itself comes in a variety of dimensions and “cuts” that are specific to the intent of the user. Much like the trifecta factors of body armor, cuts in the dimensions of body armor range from the most protective to least. Such cuts include:
4. A. Rectangular Armor
As the descriptor implies, rectangular body armor is just that, a singular plane of armor that is mostly with angled corners, and offers the most coverage area. Rectangular plates are popular for use in backpacks or as back panel body armor, however they also offer the least mobility.
4. B. SAPI/ESAPI
Otherwise known as Small Arms Protective Inserts (SAPI), this type of body armor was later superseded by Enhanced SAPI (ESAPI) dimensions intended to offer a lighter weight and improved mobility for the war fighter. They are often made from boron carbide (a type of ceramic material) with a durable, external composite coating. It is important to note that true SAPI/ESAPI plates are government developed (meaning not available to civilian markets), and thus not NIJ certified. Instead the government validates SAPI/ESAPI plates by testing them independently against three rounds of ball ammunition, and three rounds of armor piercing ICW ammunition. If the plates survive—they are considered “approved”. Civilian manufacturers mimic the cut of SAPI/ESAPI plates with their 45-degree cut at the shoulders, and rounded bottom corners.
4. C. Shooter
Shooter cut plates are by far the most widely utilized design on the current market. It mimics the ESAPI profile in that the upper corners are cut at about 45-degrees, but often this cut may be more aggressive and also side specific (optional left or right side) based on the shooter’s preference for added comfort when shouldering a rifle. Yet again, the lower corners of the shooter’s cut profile are rounded. These plates offer the perfect balance of torso coverage and maneuverability.
4. D. Swimmer
Swimmer cut designed plates were a later advent following ESPAI. It incorporates similar upper corner cuts for shouldering like shooter cut, but has similarly aggressive corner cuts on the bottom intended for maritime operations. This makes sitting in small boats or other such vehicles far more comfortable. Swimmer cut designs that adhere to formal DoD requirements have a specific radii, shape, and coverage requirement. But some manufacturers have taken liberty with the Swimmer design, and as a result have plates that have diminished overall protection.
4. E. Specialty Cut
There are a number of specialty, or vendor-specific cut types on the market. These are often derivatives of the aforementioned cut designs and intended to be marketable to a specific audience or purchaser. Such cut types can include “Law Enforcement Cut”, or “DEA Cut”, or “Enhanced Cut” but invariably have the same benefits—and disadvantages of the previous cut designs.
5. Side Armor
Similar to body armor, side armor plates are basically smaller versions of the soft or hard body armor. They are also made from similar material and can provide a variety of ballistic protection. It is important to remember that side armor is not the side of the user statistically to be facing the threat, so its overall torso coverage area is generally smaller.
6. Trauma Pads
Further within the body armor genre are trauma pads. These oft overlooked elements are essential to avoiding the traumatic effects of back force deformation that happens when a ballistic plate is struck by a projectile. Such blunt force trauma includes (but is not limited to); deep bruising, lacerations, broken bones, ruptured organs, and even a heart attack. The point being, that without trauma pads you will not be getting back up and right back in the fight. As such, trauma pads (a.k.a. “comfort pads”) are a non-ballistic pad, made from a variety of materials (typically foam or gel), and are slid into the same pocket as the ballistic plate, and between it and the body-side.
7. Head Armor
Protecting your brain can be just as critical as protecting your torso. As such, a quality “brain bucket” can be essential. Head armor can come in a variety of materials and protective levels, but caution should be exercised as there are as many unscrupulous manufacturers for head armor as there is body armor (often some are interlinked). Attention should also be placed into the proper lining of the helmet to ensure padding is present to protect the head from similar back force deformation if struck in the helmet by a projectile.
Disclaimer: The purpose of this PPE series is strictly informational, much like our COVID Chronicles on plate carriers, this series is not intended by SSE to sway or convince the reader that one specific brand of body armor is superior to all the others. In the end, this series is intended to provide the reader with a condensed and focused resource—nothing more. As always, check with your local laws as some states have regulations on ownership of body armor by civilians.
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