Even if you’re not in the military, with an estimated 300 million legal firearms in private hands and millions more illegal guns in circulation the odds of encountering a live fire situation are increasing. It’s important that those who are thrust into harm’s way have the right protection. And that protection begins with body armor.
Whether soft or hard today’s body armor is lighter and more effective than ever. And with the ever growing number of carrier vests on the market you have more ways to deploy that body armor than ever before. In this guide we’re going to take a look at the best body armor on the market today, including some of the many outstanding bulletproof vests.
1. VISM Plate Carrier Vest with Level 3+ Plates
This durable, comfortable carrier vest from VISM covers your torso front and back with level 3+ protection. The carrier vest is fashioned from rugged 60D nylon and accommodates the two SAPI hard armor plates that come with it. What sets this otherwise ordinary looking plate carrier aside are the two 6×8 inch plates that slide into the side pockets and put the finishing touches on the 360 degree coverage.
All plates are made of Ultra-High Molecular Weight Polyethylene and are capable of stopping a 7.62 NATO M80 147 grain round as well as some 5.56 NATO rounds. There’s plenty of molle webbing to go around. Both shoulder straps and cummerbund are fully adjustable and there are breathable mesh inner panels for soft body armor. Weighs 9.7 lbs including plates.
2. SecPro Gladiator Beast Package
If you’re in the market for something even more comprehensive check out the SecPro Gladiator Beast Package. The Gladiator Beast gives you outstanding 360 degree hard armor protection as well as shoulder, collar, throat, biceps, groin and lower back protection.
The front, back and side plates are crafted from Level IV ceramic that exceed NIJ 0101.06 standards. There are numerous sizing points in the waist and shoulder areas to refine the fit. The vest opens on the side to make getting into and out of it that much easier and there’s 360 degrees of tough molle webbing for all your peripherals. Weighs about 14 pounds fully tripped out.
3. BlueStone Safety Full-Wrap Bullet Protection Vest
If you’re not participating in night patrols through Helmand Province you might not need all that nifty molle webbing. In fact if you’re a security professional plying your trade on the streets of the US while trying to maintain a discreet profile it will be a major inconvenience. Instead you’ll want something like the BlueStone Safety Full-Wrap Bullet Protection Vest. This sleek but highly effective piece of protective clothing slips on under your shirt and jacket.
It covers you front, back and side against the kind of threats you’re likely to encounter in Chicago, LA or Miami. That includes 9mm, 38 and 40 caliber and even 44 Magnum non-armor piercing rounds. The vest is ready to go out of the box with an adjustable, elasticized waist band and all-over Kevlar soft body armor. There’s even an extra soft trauma plate insert protecting your heart.
4. Rapid Dominance Tactical Plate Carrier Vest
If you’re looking for an affordable plate carrier vest that’s versatile, durable and will provide a comfortable vehicle for your hard armor plating we recommend the Rapid Dominance Tactical Plate Carrier Vest.
The shell is fashioned (constructed is probably a better term) of 1000D Kodra water-resistant nylon and is covered in 360 degrees of heavy duty molle webbing. The vest is breathable, fully adjustable, has a drag handle for emergency evacs and a quick release in case you need to exit the vest in a hurry. Accommodates hard and soft plates with equal ease and costs less than a pair of high-end running shoes.
5. VISM Quick Release Carrier Vest with Two Panels
The VISM Quick Release Carrier Vest is tough, practical, doesn’t impede your movements and comes with two UHMWPE soft armor plates. Those plates are flexible enough to assume whatever shape you need them to. But at the same time they’re tough enough to stop a .44 magnum in its tracks. The vest itself is made of water-resistant PVC with double stitching throughout, breathable mesh inner panels and a quick release strap.
You can use the plates that come with the vest or get your own. It will accommodate any standard SAPI hard or soft plates. There’s 360 degree molle coverage, padded shoulder covers and it’s fully adjustable top and sides. There’s also a discreet but important reinforced drag handle to facilitate emergency evac.
6. SecPro Legacy Tactical Assault BulletProof Vest
Comfort is always a concern when it comes to body armor or bulletproof vests. And we’ve gone to great pains to find ones that don’t punish you for wearing them. Of all the body armor on our list though the SecPro Legacy may be the most comfortable we tested.
This is a lightweight, low-profile vest that comes with 2 NIJ Level 3A soft armor panels that slip into a 500D nylon shell. That shell is fully adjustable and contours itself to your particular profile, giving the feeling of a tailored garment. Albeit a pretty heavy one. Tons of molle webbing and the ability to swap for hard armor plates (should you desire) add to the appeal. And lets not forget that it will stop .9mm, .357mm and .40mm handgun rounds and .357 and .44 Magnum rifle rounds.
7. BlueStone Safety Grab and Go Protective Vest
Not everyone is crazy about the way 360 degree vests feel. Nor do they necessarily need that level of protection. For them those folks there’s the BlueStone Safety Grab and Go Protective Vest. The Grab and Go features front and back Kevlar panels that are integrated into the vest itself.
Beyond that there’s a wide and fully adjustable waist strap and strong but minimalist adjustable shoulder straps. And that’s about it. Grab and Go is a good name for this vest as it might be something a member of a private security detail wants to have on hand just for those special occasions when they’re called upon to venture into high risk areas.
8. Tactical Scorpion Gear Level III+ Plate Body Armor
If you already have your carrier vest but are just looking to fit it out with some outstanding plates consider Tactical Scorpion Gear Level 3+ plates. These plates come in a variety of sizes ranging from 6×6 to 11×14 and weigh anywhere from 1 to 4 pounds.
They’re 1 inch thick, deter fragmentation and provide true lightweight protection from real world threats. To that point they’re rated to stop up to six hits from 7.62 NATO rounds traveling at 3400fps. Slip them into your own carrier vest or pick up a vest from Tactical Scorpion that’s made for them. The company will also produce custom size plates to order.
9. SecPro Basic Tactical Assault Vest
This is another bulletproof vest intended for security personnel who need to maintain a low, but secure, profile. It’s beautifully tailored to disappear beneath your jacket or overcoat and provides Level 3A protection both front and back.
There are 10 x 12 inch plate pockets front and rear that will accommodate hard or soft armor. The 1000D Cordura shell is water resistant, light and breathable and DuPont Nylon Supplex makes sure the panels stay clean and dry. Shoulders and waist are adjustable. There’s side opening for easy access, removable ID patches and it comes with its own carry bag.
10. Armor Express Hard Bal Plate Carrier
The final item on our list of best body armor is the Armor Express Hard Bal Plate Carrier vest. It will accommodate level 3 or 4 hard or soft plates both front and back. It also has what the company calls a “dynamic cummerbund system” with integrated side pockets for more plates, and it features a rugged nylon shell that’s water resistant and fully adjustable.
There’s molle webbing all around, double stitching at key points and a front hook and loop ID panel. Best of all the cut won’t interfere with your firing position. Just keep in mind that the actual body armor panels (including panels to fit into the cummberbund sleeves) are sold separately.
Will Body Armor Make Me Bulletproof?
Not entirely. Your body armor/bulletproof vest will likely be capable of stopping bullets from a handgun. Especially if fired from some distance. But if you’re sporting soft armor and someone is up on you with a .44 or firing at you with a high powered rifle it’s going to present an existential threat. That threat will also extend to both sides if you don’t have side panels. Also, armor piercing bullets will typically make short work of a bulletproof vest. And of course, if an IED explodes next to you body armor won’t be of much use (1)
Keep in mind too that even if your body armor manages to prevent a round or rounds from penetrating you stand a good chance of winding up with broken ribs, damaged organs and/or some serious internal bleeding as a result of the impact. So body armor can increase your chances of survival, but it won’t make you truly bulletproof.
Is Body Armor Legal?
Everyone has a right to self defense. And in spite of opposition from the lunatic fringe that extends to your right to defend your body from bullets. It is therefore perfectly legal in all 50 states for people to purchase body armor. Although in one state (Connecticut) that purchase must be made in a face to face manner.
The only individuals who have seen their right to purchase body armor or bullet proof vests compromised are convicted felons. And even they can do so if their employer requires it of them and they only wear it during the normal performance of their duties (2). So they represent the only group whose right to this sort of self-defense has been abridged.
Where Can I Buy Body Armor?
You can purchase body armor in any state in the Union by way of a face to face sale. In 49 states you can also purchase it online and have it shipped to your home. As mentioned, only Connecticut makes it illegal to purchase body armor in this fashion, insisting that people must purchase it by way of a face to face transaction. Exactly what they hope to prove or prevent by this type of law is unclear. But it is what it is.
Body armor or bullet proof vests can also be legally purchased at a gun show or in a brick and mortar store. You don’t have to show any particular type of ID to do so and you’re free to walk away from the purchase carrying or wearing that body armor or bullet proof vest. Just be aware that virtually every state has a law making it a separate offense to wear body armor during the commission of a crime (3). Also, as we mentioned, convicted felons are forbidden from wearing body armor in all 50 states unless they’re required to do so in the performance of their job.
Are There Different Types of Body Armor?
Body armor falls into one of two general classifications: soft and hard. There are some important distinctions between the two that we’ll get into now.
Soft Body Armor
Soft body armor is pretty much what the name says it is. Although it’s not soft like a cashmere sweater it is relatively soft compared to plate armor and exhibits a certain degree of flexibility. Soft body armor is typically not as bulky as hard body armor. As such it’s more likely to be worn by police officers or high end private security officers during the performance of their duties.
Perhaps surprisingly members of the Secret Service detail assigned to accompany the president when he’s out and about don’t usually wear body armor, hard or soft. Proof of that was on display for all to see on March 30, 1981 when a would be assassin opened fire on then President Ronald Reagan outside the Ambassador Hotel in Washington.
Even though bulletproof vests were available at the time agent Timothy McCarthy was not wearing one. As such when he turned to face the gunfire and shield the President he wound up taking a bullet in the midsection (4). (Just for the record, agents assigned to protect the White House grounds today wear both soft and hard body armor (5).)
These days soft armor is usually made from a special fabric such as Kevlar, Twaron or Spectra. And it can be molded into virtually any shape. There are even Kevlar baseball caps (6) for the security minded outfielder. (Although even if it stops the bullet you may wish it hadn’t.) Soft armor is generally rated to stop small caliber pistol shot but won’t provide much protection against a rifle.
Hard Body Armor
Just as the name implies hard body armor is comprised of hard plates of ballistic steel (7) or ceramic. The plates slip into a carrier vest that may itself have soft body armor integrated into its shell. Whereas soft body armor won’t provide much protection beyond stopping handgun rounds, hard body armor should provide adequate protection against high-caliber rifle shot.
The downside to hard body armor starts with the weight. A couple of plates could weigh well over 10 pounds and impede your movement to a significant degree. In addition these rigid plates can be very hot and they will certainly end up altering your shooting stance. Also, when shopping for body armor don’t be confused by marketing terms like “hard armor vest”. Such a vest may come with hard armor plates. Or it might just be designed to accommodate plates you buy separately.
What Materials are Used to Make Bulletproof Vests?
We touched on a few of these earlier but let’s do a deep dive now into the various materials used these days to produce bulletproof vests.
Kevlar – Without a doubt Kevlar (8) is the best known material used for bulletproof vests and other bullet resistant items. That’s largely because it was also the first. Kevlar was originally developed by DuPont in 1965 as an alternative to steel belting in tires. But its defensive potential became immediately apparent. It exhibits both low weight and high strength, the ideal combination for personal protective gear. It’s also fire resistant and won’t degrade under heat or if immersed in water.
It took the company some years to develop what we would recognize today as being soft body armor. But by the early 70s they had their vest and by 1976 Kevlar vests were approved for use by a number of police forces. In the years since Kevlar has undergone constant refinement with new Kevlar vests also able to repel stabbing weapons.
Spectra – Spectra body armor materials (9) are a product of Honeywell Corporation and have been in use for more than 2 decades providing protection for law enforcement and military personnel. Spectra actually comes in several different grades ranging from their SA-3118 soft armor to their SR-3124 Spectra Shield II hard amor.
In addition Honeywell produces a Spectra variant known as SR-1214 which is their standard hard armor product designed for use in plate and vehicle applications. Spectra is celebrated for its ability to provide outstanding ballistic performance while at the same time being light and reducing damage from the kind of blunt force trauma (10) that often accompanies a round hitting body armor.
Twaron – Twaron (11) began life as a fiber named Arenka. It was originally developed by the Dutch company AKZO Corp. Even though it was developed virtually in lockstep with Kevlar its commercial viability was bogged down by financial problems that rocked AKZO during the early 70s. Once those monetary problems had been resolved the product began to appear in a variety of self defense applications, including bulletproof vests.
The word on Twaron is that it does an outstanding job dissipating and absorbing the impact of a bullet and that the unique construction of the fibers allows for ballistic protection that is both lighter and stronger than other comparable materials. (Though you’ll find some people to dispute that claim.) In 2000 AKZO sold the rights to the Twaron brand to the Japanese company Teijin Ltd. And in 2007 Teijin renamed Twaron “Teijin Aramid”, which is the name it’s sold under to this day.
Dyneema – Like a lot of products we now consider groundbreaking or state of the art Dyneema came about as the result of an accident. While conducting an experiment to rearrange polyethylene molecules a pair of Dutch scientists discovered they had created polyethylene crystals that were uniformly aligned and therefore extremely tough. After working to refine their accidental discovery they came up with a fiber that is light enough to float but which also manifests the ability to absorb very high amounts of energy.
The new fabric, dubbed Dyneema is marketed as the world’s strongest fiber (a 1mm Dyneema cord can bear up to 240 kg) and is used today to produce some of the most expensive, and most effective, body armor in the world. The company’s new Force Multiplier Technology is purported to provide the same overall strength as previous versions of Dyneema while weighing a full 25% less.
The Bottom Line
Whether you’re a member of law enforcement, a private security professional or a member of the military today’s body armor can provide you an excellent chance of surviving a handgun or rifle attack. Today’s body armor is fashioned from a number of incredibly tough materials and available to most individuals either through online, brick and mortar or person to person sales. All of the products on our list will greatly enhance your survivability in a live fire situation without having to empty your bank account to gain that advantage.