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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