How to Choose Body Armor
We're going to discuss the different factors you need to consider when buying body armor. I'm going to try to keep it as simple and short as possible. The main 3 things to consider are protection level, weight and price. But you also to want to think about cut/fit and materials. so let's get straight into it.
Protection levels are categorized by NIJ testing standards that are generally denoted in Roman numerals. The most common ones are IIIA, III, and IV, although there are in between categories of III+ or Special Threats.
Level IIIA denotes that it stops most common pistol caliber rounds. it starts from 22LR, through 9mm, 45, all the way up to 44 Mag. These typically fall into two categories: soft body armor that are made from aramid (yellow fibers made that starts with K and rhymes with Lar) which are flexible, or polyethylene (UHMWPE) which are typically compressed into hard plates. These are generally speaking very lightweight and low bulk and are great for concealed carry. While soft armor is more comfortable, hard armor plates offer better trauma protection as the plate itself will break apart when struck by the bullets absorbing most of the energy.
Level III protects against most common rifle rounds such as 7.62x39, 7.62x51 and 5.56 M193. Typically these are made from ceramic plates with a polyethylene backing or pure polyethylene plate. The NIJ standard is 6 rounds spaced minimum 2 inches apart from each other as well as from the edge, with no penetration. While it might seem logical that 7.62x51 would provide higher penetration power than 5.56, the truth is a little more complicated. Due to the higher velocity of 5.56, it offers higher penetration capabilities, for example 5.56 M855 (green tip) would cut through polyethylene plates where 7.62x51 would be stopped.
Therefore there is a commonly used designation of III+, which is not officially recognized by and NIJ, that offers protection against 5.56 M855. Typically these are the best balance between weight and protection level where it protects against most common rifle rounds while not being too heavy.
Some manufacturers choose to drop certain protection level such as Hesco’s L210, which offers protection against M855s but is not rated to stop 7.62x51. While certainly these plates have benefits in weight and cost, it's up to the buyer to decide if the protection level is adequate for their need
Level IV offers protection against armor piercing rounds such as 30.06 AP. However the NIJ testing standard requires only one shot. Typically these are made from ceramic plates, there are quite a bit heavier than Level III/III+, it requires thicker ceramics to break up the armor-piercing cores. There are composite materials that are lighter, however those cost close to $1,000 per plate.
It's clear no one wants to be burdened by extra weight during a firefight or emergency, so pay close attention to what you are buying. Different plates offering the same protection level can have significantly different weights. For example a Level III+ plate can weigh anywhere between 4 lb and 7.5 lb. While on paper the difference might not be significant, a 5 lb difference in an all day carry scenario can be very tiring for the wearer.
While buying body armor, price is usually top of mind. Do expect to pay more for lighter plates, or the ones that are multi curve, which are more comfortable to wear but harder to manufacture. Plates in the same protection category can often vary in price by three to four times. This is a combination of the materials used which influences the weight, manufacturing technique as well as finishing. Also and NIJ certifications are very expensive to maintain so the certification cost or passed down to the consumers. Additionally traditional manufacturers have large markups on their products due to brand recognition.
Cut & Fit
There are two most common shapes with comes to ballistic plates: SAPI & swimmer. Swimmer cut has a more aggressive cut around the arm area, which makes it more comfortable. However it offers a little bit less protection coverage. There are different sizes for ballistic plates as well, depending on the wearers size. the smallest are 8x10”, most common are 10x12” for the largest users 11x14” are available as well. There are also side plates in 6x6” or 6x8”.
There are also different curvatures to the plates the most common ones are single curve and multi curve. Single curves are curved horizontally, where multi-curve have both horizontal and vertical curvature. Multi curves are typically more comfortable for the wearer compared to the single curves. There are more difficult to make as well as the need for specific ceramic tiles to conform to curvature, making them more expensive than single curve.
For Level IIIA plates, the choice in materials are often between Aramid, and polyethylene. Aramids are more expensive than polyethylene. However the price and performance difference is not significant.
When it comes to ceramics there are two kinds of common ones: Alumina Oxide (Al2O3) or Silicon Carbide (SIC). Alumina Ceramics are typically white or light yellow in color, where is silicon carbide are dark grey or black. Silicon carbides are better as they are harder and lighter. For example a light Level 3+ Alumina plate is around 4.7 lbs, the same plate made from SIC is around 4 pounds, and therefore more expensive.
Since and NIJ testing requires that any testing grounds needs to be 2 inches from the edge, a lot of plates are being manufactured with a ceramic area of typically around 8x10” (200x250mm), leaving an almost 1 inch edge on the sides that are filled with foam. Do note that any ceramic plate needs to have a foam edge to protect the ceramics from drops though.
When you are buying ballistic plates you typically need to make trade-offs between weight protection level and the price. At Hudi’s Tactical, we offer high quality ballistic plates in each category that are significantly cheaper than the competition while not compromising with quality, so you can get the best protection without breaking the bank.