The world we live in is far from perfect. As events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and hurricane Katrina have shown us things can get kind of crazy quickly. I hope we never witness true civil unrest or societal collapse in the United States, but if it does happen it is likely we won’t have much warning. Having a reasonable supply of things like gasoline, canned or freeze-dried food, bottled water, medical supplies, firearms and ammunition, and body armor can be useful in a SHTF scenario.
In this article, I am going to discuss body armor—what you need to know and how to get it. If you are just starting to learn about armor and ballistic protection the options can seem overwhelming. Let’s cover some of the basics.
Who Can Buy Body Armor?
Body armor is legal to purchase and own in all 50 states in the United States. In the state of Connecticut, you must purchase it in person, but in the rest of the country you can order it online. Individual states may have restrictions about its use so be sure and check local laws. Felons convicted of violent crimes may not purchase, possess, or use body armor under federal law. Furthermore, the commission of a crime while wearing body armor generally carries severely enhanced penalties. Some companies that manufacture and sell body armor will only sell to military or law enforcement, but this is a personal choice rather than a legal prohibition. Several good companies sell body armor to civilians online. Spartan Armor, Hoplite Armor, and RMA are just a few of them.
You should only buy armor that includes a rating from the NIJ (National Institute of Justice). The NIJ is the R and D arm of the Department of Justice. Armor manufacturers send in their products to the NIJ to be ballistically tested and receive a rating based on what rounds the armor will stop. Some less scrupulous manufacturers will try to mislead consumers by claiming to “test to NIJ standards” or “tested in an NIJ certified facility.” You want to make sure the plates you are buying are actually NIJ certified. Legitimate retailers will publish the NIJ certification results on their product page. Below is a chart from the NIJ explaining the different rating levels.
Soft armor is a material with very tightly woven fibers that can repel the bullets of some firearms, some knife attacks, and can help mitigate blunt force. Soft armor is typically made of Kevlar or Dyneema. Additionally, soft armor typically has an NIJ rating of IIIa or less. This is sufficient to stop most handgun rounds, but not many rifle rounds. You can purchase soft armor vests that have the armor built into the vest, or you can purchase separate soft armor plates. If you buy the soft armor plates you will need a plate carrier.
A plate carrier is a vest that typically covers the wearer from the bottom of the ribcage up to the collar bone. The carrier features slots on the front and back that accept armor plates, which are typically purchased separately. The benefit of buying a plate carrier is that you can swap out different types of armor plates depending on your needs. However, plate carriers are generally bulkier than standalone soft armor vests. Plate carriers also typically have MOLLE attachment points for attaching magazine pouches, medkits, and anything else the user needs on hand.
Soft armor is generally the lightest armor you can buy. It is also, as a general rule, less expensive. It is less bulky than most hard armor plates. These benefits come at the cost of better ballistic protection which hard armor offers. If you need to wear armor concealed regularly and don’t anticipate threats greater than handgun rounds, soft armor is likely the best choice.
Hard armor typically comes in plates that must be worn in a plate carrier, placed in a backpack, or used as a standalone shield. There are two main types of hard armor: Steel and Ceramic. The differences boil down to protection, weight, cost, durability, and length of service. Steel armor is typically at least 15% heavier, on average, than ceramic armor. However, there are no steel armor plates that are NIJ certified to a level IV threat. Ceramic armor is more expensive than steel armor, but can be found for close to $150 per plate. Ceramic armor can at most take a few hits and then must be replaced. In addition, Ceramic armor can break if dropped (although not very common) and can be negatively affected if exposed to water. Ceramic plates are wrapped with a material like Cordura to help protect them. Also, most ceramic armor has a 5-year life. After that, the armor plates must be replaced to remain effective at stopping the designated threat.
Steel armor can hold up to multiple hits and will not break if dropped. It also suffers from little back deformation when shot. It will, however, cause spalling when hit with a bullet. This is when the bullet shatters on impact and can send fragments flying out. These fragments can be extremely dangerous and life-threatening. Steel armor manufacturers have addressed this by adding on plastic coatings to the plates that prevent spalling. However, these coatings add significant weight. A set of steel plates with the anti-spall coating can easily weigh 10 lbs per plate.
If you are interested in body armor and want to protect against the possibility of rifle shots, you will want to pick up a plate carrier and armor plates. While the higher cost of Ceramic armor and limited shelf life can seem to be a detriment, it is the best option currently on the market that will adequately protect against rifle threats. There is a reason it is in use by military and police forces around the world. If you want something that is lighter weight and easily concealable you may find that soft armor is your best bet, but only if you’re not concerned with rifle threats. Whichever you choose, body armor can be a lifesaving tool in dangerous circumstances.