Who uses bulletproof vests?
The reasons for choosing to purchase and own a bulletproof vest are varied and widespread, but they all typically boil down to the decision to protect oneself. After all, body armor is just that, armor. It is an insurance policy that you wear over your vital organs to save your life from an otherwise lethal event. The vast majority of people will go their entire life without ever getting shot. Yet, just like other catastrophic events, it does happen, and it is better to be prepared beforehand rather than after.
There is the small but growing number of people, particularly in the United States, that are choosing to be prepared for the worst. Prepping is an increasingly popular cultural phenomenon and while it may seem silly to some, it never hurts to be over prepared should anything bad happen. From natural disasters to collapses of rule of law and governmental turmoil, danger does exist, especially in the hypothetical future where anything might happen. While many focus almost blindly on offensive weaponry for self-defense with the proliferation of concealed carry programs and home defense planning, almost no consideration is typically placed in actual defensive measures. The best laid bug out plan or prepping strategy can easily be scrapped by a single stray round when not wearing armor capable of defeating it. With the variety and customizability of ballistic armor today, and the ever-falling price tag, there remains few excuses to refuse to integrate it into a self-defense strategy. Steel rifle rated bulletproof vests often seem to be overkill for the average civilian, but these too have their specific advantages that make them perfect for certain applications. Compared to Kevlar soft vests, AR500 steel plates do not degrade with light and heat, and thus have a theoretically infinite shelf life so long as they do not rust. This allows them to be purchased once and stored until they are needed.
The most surprising purchasers of high-grade rifle rated NIJ Level III+ AR500 plates are actually those already issued body armor. Law enforcement and first responders looking to upgrade from their standard issue soft vests typically move up to AR500 steel rifle plates as opposed to the flimsy Kevlar vests they are issued. Contrary to popular belief, the soft Kevlar vests issued to police units across the country and the world are extremely vulnerable to rifle cartridges, offering little to no resistance against anything not fired out of pistol. With the growing threat of domestic terrorism and police targeted violence, the likelihood of an officer being faced with a rifle threat is greater than it has ever been and many feel justifiably under protected by their standard issue vests.
Bulletproof vests on their own are simply pieces of gear designed to protect their user from harm. They are protective in the same way that a motorcycle helmet protects its wearer from potential harm. No one has ever been killed or injured from an attack from a Kevlar vest as far as the records show. Bulletproof Vests often receive negative press because they are found in stashes of weapons recovered by the police when they raid drug cartels and other nefarious organizations. Bulletproof vests as a result have acquired a stigma of being owned by those looking or expecting to be in conflict with the authorities, yet this is not their only role. Many own bulletproof vests and other ballistic armor to protect themselves in everyday situations and have their critical place in any good home-defense or prepping strategy.
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What is AR500 steel?
AR500 steel is the industry designation given to Abrasion Resistant steel that has a Brinell hardness rating of 500. The “AR” in AR500 steel stands for “Abrasion Resistant”. While this may seem rather odd, using abrasion resistant steel for ballistic purposes like armor and steel targets actually makes perfect sense. The same abrasive forces that would deteriorate softer steel in manufacturing and mining applications is roughly equivalent to the ballistic forces introduced by a bullet. While these two forces may not seem to be remotely comparable, the solution to both is hardening the steel. The harder the steel, the less it will deform under a specified force, in this case a bullet. The harder the steel, the faster and heavier rounds it is able to stop effectively. This trend continues in steel until around the 500 level on the Brinell scale, while it would seem reasonable to assume that AR600 or 700 would be capable of stopping even tougher rounds, field-testing has shown that past 500, the steel becomes very brittle. While these extremely hard steels may not deform when faced with large magnum class rifle rounds, they wind up shattering catastrophically, usually still letting the projectile through in the process. AR500 is the preferred middle ground between hardness and flexibility for ballistic applications because it stops the greatest number of calibers while maintaining its structural integrity.
Hardness is measured typically using the Brinell hardness scale. The Brinell scale describes the indentation hardness of various materials through the degree of penetration caused by an indenter. Basically, pressure is applied to a steel or carbide ball on the material and the indentation caused by this force is measured and then translated via an equation to a numerical score. One of several definitions used to describe the property of “hardness” in the material science community; it is the scale most commonly used in the steel industry and, by extension, in the steel ballistic plate-manufacturing sector. Typical alloys include roughly around C-.30%, Si-.70%, Mn-1.70%, Cr-1.00%, Ni-.80%, Mo-.50% and B-.004%, though each manufacturer uses their own proprietary blend, this steel makeup is a rough average. AR500 steel on the molecular level then does not seem particularly special, and it really is not as far as steel goes, but it does have a few special properties. Starting from this stock blend steel, it is then heat and quench hardened to its specified 500 Brinell rating. To put that number into perspective, ordinary mild steel only has a Brinell hardness of 120. A square inch of AR500 steel can withstand up to 110 tons of pressure. AR-500 steel is also about the hardest workable material available, everything beyond it on the Brinell scale, such as glass and ceramics, have a tendency to shatter when worked and are therefore susceptible to the catastrophic failure discussed earlier.
The advantage of using such a hard variety of steel is that very little of it is necessary to defeat even very fast rifle rounds. As a result, the overall weight of an AR500 steel bulletproof vest can be kept well below 20lbs while offering complete torso and back protection. In comparison, the ceramic bulletproof vests currently in use by the US Army weigh up to 35lbs, or roughly double the weight of an average NIJ Level III+ AR500 steel vest. Even very thin sheets of AR500 are capable of defeating pistol calibers. Even fully rifle rated plates are relatively thin compared to their Kevlar or Ceramic counterparts. This makes them easier to move around in and less cumbersome. This makes AR500 steel bulletproof vests perfect for those working inside or in tight quarters like vehicles.
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The classical definition of “bulletproof” is typically presented as an object’s imperviousness to bullets. With the variety and often overwhelming power of modern munitions, making something impenetrable to every possible munition is impractical. When it comes to wearable bulletproof armor, having something that offers maximum protection while maintaining complete mobility requires some degree of compromise. At least it used to.
The government authority that sets the standards for ballistic armor is the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). The NIJ thoroughly tests every vest upon its introduction to the market using their rigorous standardized laboratory methods. The NIJ first started doing these tests to determine which vests would be good enough for police officers and other law enforcement. Since then, the NIJ rating system has become the industry standard for law enforcement, military, and commercially marketed vests. Every vest is given a protection rating which describes what kinds of cartridges the vest is capable of stopping. The ratings serve as a convenient guide to classify and quantify the ballistic capabilities of each vest model.
The chart above outlines the increasing levels of protection at each rating. Level I is only rated for rimfire and archaic cartridges, which are so rare in self-defense situations that no vests are commercially sold with a Level 1 rating. Level IIA describes a vest that is capable of stopping handgun velocity 9mm and other common slow velocity pistol cartridges such as .40 S&W. Level II offers protection against faster moving pistol calibers such as 357 Magnum and pistol calibers shot from carbines. Level IIIA is the highest rating Kevlar vests have been able to achieve thus far. These vests can stop nearly anything fired from a pistol, but they leave their wearer completely exposed to any variety of rifle calibers as well as some of the more exotic armor piercing pistol calibers such as 5.7x28FN. In the past, in order to get full Level III protection, which includes rifle calibers, one would have to spend an exorbitant amount to get hard armor capable of stopping even the lightest rifle cartridges. Because of the inferior steel used in these older vests, they would have to utilize thick, heavy plates in order to offer protection even against some of the more common rifle cartridges. With modern steel processing and hardening methods, it is now possible to get ballistic plates rated beyond Level III+, which is capable of stopping round more powerful than the .308 ball used to certify standard Level III. Level III+ exceeds the standards set by the NIJ and is vastly superior to the common vests used by law enforcement and even most military personnel.
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Advanced ceramics took the materials industry by storm in the early 90’s as the wave into the future. They are often lightweight, strong, and impervious to rust or other common forms of degradation. Ceramic plates are currently used by the United States military because of their marginally higher level of protection compared to more traditional materials. Yet despite their often high-tech reputation, when it comes to applications in ballistic armors, they have a few pronounced drawbacks.
While ceramic ballistic plates can have tensile strengths and hardness levels surpassing hardened steel, they do so at a price. In order to achieve their extreme hardness ratings, ceramic plates become very brittle as a result. In this way, their hardness actually becomes their greatest weakness. In their initial condition, ceramic ballistic plates offer one cohesive strike surface to catch incoming rounds, as the round impacts, the hardness of the ceramic deforms the soft lead, typically aerodynamic bullet into a much flatter mush of semi-molten lead. This now un-fluid dynamic projectile will have a much harder time penetrating through the inner layers of the vest now, so the vest can function and stop the round. As a result of the impact however, the ceramic often cracks under the great force delivered by the projectile. For each subsequent hit, the ceramic plate has less and less strength to counter the force of the bullet and stop it from penetrating. Ceramic plates have a finite number of rounds they can stop effectively, and typically they must be replaced after each hit.
Ceramic plates are extremely hard to manufacture and often times fail quality control during the production process. Due to the exotic materials required and the failure intensive manufacturing processes, the cost of ballistic ceramic plates is the highest in the current bulletproof vest market. Per plate, ceramic plates cost at least 200% more than their steel alternatives. To put our military’s current ballistic plates in perspective in regards to cost, a NIJ Level III+ steel plate typically costs around $150, a single Enhanced Small Arms Protective Insert plate used in the US Army’s IOTV (Improved Outer Tactical Vest) can cost up to $600. To put that into perspective, a steel vest with two full AR-500 plates and carrier can be found for only $300.
The combination of their fragility and high cost makes ceramic plates impractical for civilian purposes. While advanced ceramic plates are rated half a step higher on the NIJ rating scale, the negatives associated with using ceramic as a bulletproofing material become more pronounced on the consumer level. While the US military has a vast supply network to replace damaged vests on the field, the civilian does not have this option. Should there be a WROL situation, there is no supply line to get you a new vest should you take a hit, and you would have to work with what you have. The second issue also becomes more pronounced when individually financed. Unlike the military that has the law of large numbers working on their side, an individual that takes a round to a ceramic vest must pay to replace that vest. If working in dangerous environments, the odds of being hit with a second round increases drastically. Your likelihood of getting shot increases the more times you have already been shot.
In terms of consumer-level practicality, the durability and cost of traditional steel plates wins compared to the still new ceramics. While this may change in the future, for right now, the simple AR-500 steel plate makes the most sense for bulletproof protection for the everyday civilian.
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Prepping has unique and particular characteristics that make choosing tactical gear a little bit more complicated. For the typical “operator”, price is of secondary importance to performance. Take for instance the wild success of Sig Sauer and HK pistols in the U.S. The same goes for plate carriers and ballistic plates. Ceramics offer the highest performance, but are also fragile and expensive, typically 3-10 times more than an equivalent AR500 steel or Kevlar plate. Yet, for the prepper, that money could be better spent on other things and infrastructure that would be of more utility. Every dollar of a particular prepping budget needs to be appropriately and efficiently allocated to maximize utility and ensure a breadth of needs covered.
The second consideration is time. Prepping is all about having affairs settled and stored away for when they may be needed. Many people do not consider that Kevlar bulletproof vests have a very short shelf life of only a few years before the fibers start to decay, even when unworn. Exposed to UV radiation and heat, they can become ineffective in only a few months. Adding in their inherent inability to stop even lightweight rifle calibers like 5.56×45 (the cartridge utilized by the most popular rifle in the US, the AR-15) it becomes clear that a Kevlar vest is not an effective nor long lasting solution to personal ballistic protection in a prepping situation.
Why not Ceramic then?
Ceramic plates suffer from an equally disastrous fault in their nature. Keeping in mind the already exorbitantly high price of ceramic plates, they also have a tendency to crack and fracture when tossed around. While this may seem silly, a simple task of throwing your carrier into the bed of a truck can compromise the integrity of a ceramic plate. The worst part of this is, there is typically no visible signs that this has occurred. Ballistic ceramic plates are typically constructed of a few different layers sandwiched together. As it has been shown in real world testing, the inner layers can crack, while the outer ones remain visibly fine. This results in a constant state of uncertainty and given that they are so expensive to replace, most choose not to as frequently as they should.
Both ceramic and kevlar plates suffer from yet another common disadvantage, though this one is a bit more drastic. Both kevlar and steel plates need to be replaced after every hit. While a Level IV ceramic plate may stop a tiny 5.56 round equally as well as an AR500 steel plate, each hit significantly compromises the integrity and ballistic ability of the ceramic plate. In comparison, AR500 steel can take tons of hits, even in the same area depending on the loading. At intermediate ranges, even rifle rounds can be stopped near indefinitely. AR500 steel is the most common and effective target steel, and is used throughout the world in shooting ranges for both pistol and intermediate range rifle. AR500 steel is chosen because it lasts the longest of any material subjected to the kind of continuous ballistic trauma a gun range has to offer. As an added bonus, AR500 steel does not deteriorate in the sun and is relatively rust resistant, so it can be kept out in the range without having to be brought in constantly. This kind of reliability and ruggedness is what makes AR500 perfect for use in prepping bulletproof vests. It can be stored basically indefinitely and can take punishment for years without needing to be replaced, the kind of attributes that make it invaluable in a prepping scenario where it may be impossible to buy another vest later down the road.
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When it comes to bulletproof vests, Kevlar is the most widely used material in the US. However, Kevlar isn’t the most effective material on the market anymore. Soft Kevlar vests are only effective against pistol rounds. No Kevlar vest on the market today reliably passes NIJ Level III certification and therefore is not effective against rifle calibers. Kevlar is susceptible to the high speed, small diameter projectiles used in modern rifle calibers. The small, fast rounds slip right in between the fibers and pass through the vest barely slowed down. Steel on the other hand is a homogeneous material; it is one solid piece of material of constant composition. With advances in steel hardening, less steel is required to make a vest bulletproof. As a result, bulletproof vests made with steel ballistic plates are now light enough to wear while offering superior protection to Kevlar.
The AR-500 steel used in hard bulletproof vests is also used at gun ranges for steel targets. AR-500 armor is capable of withstanding thousands upon thousands of pistol rounds even at short range. The soft lead and low energy of pistol rounds does not cause the steel to deform or deteriorate. Kevlar vests are not capable of withstanding a lot of rounds, especially in the same areas. With each shot, the fibers around the area of impact are stretched and oftentimes break. As this occurs, the effectiveness of the vest overall is reduced. This is why Kevlar vests must be replaced every time they are shot.
A Kevlar vest will never last a lifetime. The ballistic Kevlar used in soft vests only has a shelf life of about five years, and that decreases dramatically when actually worn, exposed to heat, or UV radiation. While this is not an issue for large police departments or military units, for the individual, replacing an overt vest that is likely sitting in a closet as insurance every five years is not only tedious but also expensive. Coated AR-500 ballistic steel will last indefinitely and retain its effectiveness.
Soft Kevlar vests have a major disadvantage compared to hard vests in preventing trauma. While a soft Kevlar vest will stop some bullets, it still transfers most of the energy of the projectile into the wearer’s body in a localized area around the point of impact. This energy causes the Kevlar to deform and push into the wearer, affecting his or her internal organs. In the best-case scenario, this energy transfer does not do any harm. At the worst case, being shot results in broken ribs, internal organ damage, and possibly even internal bleeding and trauma that can still result in death or hospitalization. Steel vests, due to their rigid nature, spread out the force of bullet impact over the entire surface area of the plate and is therefore much less likely to cause serious internal damage to the user.
Rifle-rated Level III+ steel vests are no longer much more expensive than their Kevlar counterparts. Adding in their longer shelf life and repeated hit abilities reducing their need to be replaced, a one-time purchase of an AR500 steel vest can offer decades of rifle protection whereas a Kevlar vest will only last 5 years even unused while offering minimal protection. While steel vests are still slightly heavier than Kevlar vests, their enhanced protective capabilities and rugged durability more than make up for their slight weight disadvantage.
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Bulletproof vests and ballistic armors have been in development since the 1500s, but they did not reach their true potential until the modern era. Since the introduction of firearms into warfare, the elite have always been interested in developing armor capable of stopping this firearms. In its first iterations, “bulletproof” armor was simply high quality 16th century battle armor that was sturdy enough to stop the weak firearms of the day. Eventually, bulletproof vest would become both inexpensive and capable of protecting their users against even modern high-powered rifles.
Bulletproof armor and clothing remained the plaything of the social elite for most of its history before the modern period that followed industrialization. Before the availability of synthetic alternatives, silk was woven in multiple layers, sometimes with thin sheets of steels mixed in, to catch pistol rounds. Silk was found to be effective because of its high tensile strength, meaning it can withstand a lot of stress acting toward stretching it without breaking. When individual silk fibers are woven together into silk cloth and then stacked in large bundles, the strength of the individual strands is multiplied giving the vest the ability to stop the black powder pistols of the day. The addition of thin steel plates into the layers of silk only added to this early armor’s effectiveness.
The Modern Era
With the invention of Kevlar, the bulletproof vest market exploded. Kevlar has an extremely high tensile strength for its density, meaning it is extremely strong for its weight. Kevlar when it is manufactured is actually just small individual strands of material. On their own these small fibers are very weak, but when woven together in deep interconnected layers their collective strength is enough to stop pistol fire. Because of their light weight, Soft Kevlar vests became the standard for police and military units throughout the world. Eventually Kevlar became easy enough to produce that it proliferated the market. Soft Kevlar vests are what most people think of when they hear bulletproof vest, but Kevlar is no longer the best material available. With advances in steel hardening, less steel is required to make a vest bulletproof. As a result, bulletproof vests made with steel ballistic plates are now light enough to wear while offering superior protection to Kevlar.
Steel in Ballistic Armor
Traditionally, older milder forms of steel were vulnerable to high-speed rifle cartridges when made light enough to wear. Thus, steel armor was relegated to vehicle use as a bulletproofing material. Mild steel and Kevlar offer essentially the same ballistic protection, but Kevlar is significantly lighter and more flexible. Yet, this balance has shifted. Now thin plates of extremely hard steel are able to stop the vast majority of rifle rounds, a feat impossible for a Kevlar vest to replicate. Ballistically hardened steel plates (typically rated at AR-500 or a similar hardness) are tough enough to be used as pistol range targets. Pistols have little to no effect on the integrity of these plates, and it takes a very fast rifle round to cause even minor damage and a very powerful round to ever penetrate all the way through. AR-500 steel plates will handle magazine after magazine of the most common and deadly rifles in the world like the AK-47/74 and AR15/10 variants.
The future of Bulletproof Vests more than likely lies in the development of Graphene, a newly discovered super-material that has a tensile strength to weight ratio higher than Kevlar or even Carbon Fiber. As of now though, and for the foreseeable future, graphene’s utilization is restricted due to its inability to be produced in quantities greater than a few grams. Until it becomes commercially viable and battle-tested, the time proven humble hardened steel plate will continue to be the best ballistic protection available.