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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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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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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