Body Armor For Civilians - Part 2: How To Choose The Right Armor
Body Armor for Civilians
Part II. How to Choose What You Need
In Part 1, I discussed the importance of body armor for civilians and highlighted the fact that violence can occur anywhere, at any time. I mentioned different locations and situations, besides being at home. Taking account of the locations and situations common to you and your family’s lifestyle is a good starting point for choosing the right body armor. But for context, I need to explain the various body armor platforms and ballistic protection levels.
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) sets the standards and quantifies ballistic protection for body armor. For any level, the bullet must not perforate the vest and the vest must protect against blunt trauma. The levels, from lowest to highest protection, are IIA, II, IIIA, IIIA+, III, III+, and IV. Here’s an NIJ Chart that clarifies some of these. Level IIA through IIIA are tested to protect against handguns, and III through IV against high velocity rifle rounds.
I wrote a blog post detailing the differences and issues between Level III and Level IV body armor. It's important to choose a level of protection that meets your needs, while also being comfortable and practical to wear. Generally, the greater the protection, the heavier the armor. And more expensive.
Soft vs. Hard, Concealable vs. External
Soft body armor, also known as concealable body armor, is designed to be worn under clothing in the form of a vest. So it needs to be comfortable: soft, flexible, and lightweight. The trade-off is a relatively low protection level, basically handgun rounds.
Hard body armor is designed to stop rifle rounds and other high-velocity projectiles. The typical platform for this is a “plate carrier” that’s worn externally, which stores hard ballistic plates. The plates are not sewn into the carrier, but can be removed and substituted. The most common plate materials are steel, ceramic, and Polyurethane (PE). Polyurethane is ideal because it’s lightweight yet provides high-grade protection, but is also more expensive.
Because they’re external, plate carriers can store more than ballistic plates, such as magazines and other tactical gear, so design is a huge differentiating factor. As a former police officer who now uses body armor as a civilian, I’ve designed plate carriers for 221B that offer a lot of practical utility and customization, in addition to protection.
At Home, At Work
One of the most important features of a plate carrier is how quickly and easily you can get it on. Unlike concealable soft ballistic vests, most body armor plate carriers don’t have a cummerbund which, depending on the design, makes them fast and easy to throw on in a moment’s notice (for example, the QRF plate carrier I designed for 221B is super fast to put on).
In a home invasion, when you’re awakened in the middle of night by breaking window glass, speed is of the essence. So having a plate carrier nearby, along with a firearm, is good preparation for this scenario. Family members might also have their own plate carrier, or perhaps a ballistic shield.
Previously, I mentioned civilian jobs that entail enough risk to consider either wearing body armor or having it available. The optimal body armor platform is going to depend on the specific job and situation. How much ballistic protection is needed? Will you wear it for prolonged periods? If not worn regularly, how quickly will you need to put it on?
Take paramedics and firefighters, as an example. They wouldn’t normally wear armor, but when working in dangerous areas, they might encounter a shooter. The practical solution is keeping a plate carrier vest with hard armor that can be put on quickly. As emergency responders, they need to do their job, even amid danger, so they need a minimalist, low-profile plate carrier that doesn’t unduly restrict their mobility (again, like our QFR).
In other jobs, where dangerous situations can be anticipated—and the threat will most likely come from a handgun or knife—a concealable, soft ballistic vest is optimal. Examples are bail bondsmen, process servers, repo agents, maybe taxi or ride-share drivers.
Out and About
We spend a lot of time on the road. In recent years we’ve seen increasing instances of violence committed by rioters against motorists. In my last email, I mentioned a former police officer who came upon a major active shooter situation while driving. He had a firearm, but no armor. The case for keeping body armor in your vehicle becomes even more important if you drive as part of your profession, such as long-haul truck drivers and delivery drivers.
What kind of body armor platform should you carry in your vehicle? Why not both a soft concealable vest and a hard-armor plate carrier? That’s what I do. Now you’re fully prepared for any situation and don’t have to think about it every time you venture out on some mission, large or small.
With the hard armor, you’re ready for whatever crazy thing erupts. With the soft armor, you choose to wear it in specific situations. Rather than give examples, think of the situations where you conceal carry. Owning multiple types of armor provides greater flexibility and options for different situations.
Another body armor platform for being out-and-about is not worn but carried, in the form of bags and backpacks that carry ballistic plates and can be used as shields. These are ideal when you need the storage and transport utility they offer, yet can also benefit from protection in a random active-shooter scenario. It’s sad to have to mention that they’re optimal for school environments.