Today we have a guest post from our pal over at progunmillennial.com
I don’t own any body armor, and that’s on purpose. Let me explain:
How is Armor Classified?
Body Armor in the US commercial market as of mid-2022 is not terribly difficult to understand. There are 5 accepted levels, and they are put out by the National Institute of Justice and they are Levels IIA, II, IIIA, III, and IV, with increasing resistance as you ascend the levels. The -A suffix denotes a level lower than the nominal level. Think of level IIIA as “Level III, almost”, for example. Levels IIA, II, and IIIA are pistol-only levels, and not within the scope of this writing. Level III is rated to stop a 147gr .308″ projectile with an impact velocity of 2780 fps, +/- 30 fps. Basically, a lead M80 ball right in front of the muzzle. Level IV is considered to protect against “armor piercing” ammo, and is rated for a 166 gr .308 AP round, at 2880 fps, +/- 30 fps [source: NIJ.gov].
Some places sell armor labeled “Level III+”, but it is a non-standardized term and each seller has different definitions of III+. If you are considering a non-NIJ level of armor, be very careful and do as much research as you can. Consider your exact threat profile and look to see if there is indepedent third-party testing of that specific threat against that product. This is one of the places where YouTube is surprisingly useful. Speaking of considering threat profiles…
What am I Being Shot at With?
What is the most common rifle in America? The AR-15. That’s undisputed fact. I’d hazard a guess that 80% (low estimate) are sporting the common 16″ long 5.56 chamber., and the mags (if there happens to be more than one) are full of 55 gr range ammo approximating the M193 loading. Its the cheapest AR you can find and filled with the cheapest ammo you can find. That cheap gun + cheap ammo combo happens to perform very well against body armor. So well, that anything less than level IV won’t keep it from penetrating. This is great for the shooter, but a problem for armor buyers.
What is Body Armor Made Out Of?
Body armor, as you would expect, gets more expensive the higher the protection level. But, not all body armor is made the same. Level III & IV plates are primarily made from one of three materials: AR500 steel, ceramic, and high-density polymer.
The cheapest is the steel plates. They are relatively affordable, but they have some significant downsides. Steel plates are heavy, they send shrapnel out towards the wearer’s face & arms, and M193 (aka the cheapest ammo on the shelf) zips through it like a hot knife through butter. M193 defeats steel armor so easily that it’s pretty comical! Steel plates can shrug off 62 gr loadings all day, can take quite a beating from .308 AP rounds too, but that muzzle speed of the 55 gr rounds barely slow down through what is otherwise a very durable plate. AR500 is what training targets are made out of, and they are functionally immortal, except for 55 gr 5.56. A really good, M193-proof plate with anti-spall coating runs $160 and 10 lbs each, but a basic one is more like $70 and 8 lbs per plate.
The next most common plate type is ceramic. Ceramic plates are the expensive and most effective armor type. They stop M193 pretty easily along with everything else including hardened steel AP .308 rounds. Ceramic plates are also slightly lighter than AR500 plates. There is a lot to love with ceramics, but they too have their downsides. Ceramic plates are (as mentioned above) expensive. The cheapest I’ve seen that I trust to be legit is $210 for the front and back plates, at 9 lb each. That’s $420 and 18 lbs, and that’s the cheap option. $700 for a pair isn’t unheard of. Oh, and ceramic plates are just like dinner plates: if you drop them hard enough they crack, and they may no longer stop rounds like they should. That’s why they have a stated shelf life of 5 years. They are probably the best armor option, but undoubtedly expensive.
The third and least common type of armor is ultra high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE). It is a very dense plastic, dense enough that it can stop bullets. It’s still plastic so it has to be pretty thick compared to the other types to gain level IV compliance, but its still light enough that it floats. The main ballistic downside on UHMWPE plates is when a projectile has a hard tip. These plates can stop the lighter 55 gr 5.56 rounds without much issue, and can handle more multiple hits compared to ceramic armor, but when a round has a steel penetrator the UHMWPE starts to stumble. The second most common AR loading is a 62 gr approximating M855, about half with the steel penetrator and half solid lead. These, the second most common round for the most common gun in the country, are hell on UHMWPE. The second big downside with poly plates are their price. I found some that are on-par with the cheap ceramics, but I also found some that reached up towards a grand a plate. Yes, $1,000 front and back. It only weighs around 5 pounds each, but still that’s a lot of money.
https://www.youtube.com/embed/MI19oXvgOVA?version=3&rel=1&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&fs=1&hl=en&autohide=2&wmode=transparentWatch to see both PE and ceramic plates tested. Spoiler: They don’t all survive.
How Much Does Armor Protect Me?
Now, just because armor is expensive that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be purchased. As long as an item or system provides a service or use equivalent or beyond its cost, then purchasing it would be a good idea (see: houses, cars, etc.). I just don’t think that armor plates are a good investment for someone in my financial position. Here’s why:
The body armor panels I was listing prices and weights for above were 11″ x 14″. They are meant to sit on your upper thoracic area and provide rifle protection to what is considered the second most vital part of the body (the head being most important). Being bullet proof in that area is not a bad thing, I just question the efficiency of the available solutions. All the armor types are heavy and expensive. The cheapest option would be around $225 for plates and a carrier and weigh an extra 20 lbs. It can be lighter, but will increase costs dramatically. So you’re committed to paying all that money, and carrying all that extra weight all the time, for what exactly?
According to MedicineNet, the average adult male’s total body surface area is 2,945 square inches. Now that’s total body surface, and we’re not overly concerned with taking a shot to the pinky or little toe. So how much of that surface area should we consider vital? Using the “Rule of Nines” used in burn area calculation, we’re looking at 18% as critically vital, which works out to 530 square inches. I’m considering the whole trunk to be the lethal zone, as lots of first-hand accounts from trauma nurses have informed me that gut-shots are very lethal. They are looking at only gunshots that made it to the hospital (because they work in hospitals). If its lethal in the best case scenario, I’m going to call it lethal. A pair of 14″x11″ plates cover 308 square inches, which is 58% of our vital zone. Imagine carrying 18 lbs that cost you $1,200, and it only protects half of your high-likelihood lethal hits. And that’s weight you have to carry around all the time. Rucking into an area, rucking out, maneuvering under fire, all with an extra 20 lbs (or more!) pounds strapped onto you. Now you can mitigate those costs and weights by getting a smaller plate, but you are also reducing your protected area. A set of 10″ x 12″ plates cover 240 square inches, which is 45% of our accepted lethal area, a 13% reduction in area.
People much smarter than me argue that the gain of mobility from ditching the armor will allow you to not get hit more than the armor protects you. Said another way: whatever protection armor provides, it increases your likelihood of getting hit even more. What protection does armor really provide if its heavy enough that it slows you down getting behind cover? Or if the plate thickness prevents you from using a ditch or small depression in the ground to go prone in?
CQB is an area where this maneuverability aspect isn’t as important, especially if you get to and from the area with a vehicle. I don’t personally see myself knowingly going into buildings occupied with hostile forces, but I don’t know your situation. [Edit: John in the comments mentions this specifically]
Considering the initial investment costs, weight, maintenance costs, and loss of mobility, I just don’t see armor plates as a good addition to my overall system at this time. I think a lot of people get caught up in the mystique and hype of having armor. Maybe the costs aren’t as big of an issue to others as they are to me, or maybe their expected threat profile is significantly different than mine. For some dudes, armor makes all the sense in the world, but for the standard pro-gun millennial? I just don’t think the costs of armor, in terms of money, mass, and maneuverability, are justifiable.
So, given all the above, what do I recommend to most people? A chest rig.
A chest rig is affordable (unless you find something super gucci), lightweight, and can carry just as much stuff (mags, radio, maps, etc.) as a plate carrier. If you only put a minimum amount of stuff on it, you can remain very light and very maneuverable, allowing you to use more smaller cover (microterrain, pillars, tall curbs, etc.) The weight savings also allows you to move further faster. It doesn’t matter how much cardio you do, that work will take you further if you don’t have extra weight.
The only downside to not running armor is if you actually get shot. Now, I don’t want to make it sound like I think armor is useless. I have a very good friend who is alive today because he was wearing hard armor. He was in Afghanistan and caught a sniper’s 7.62x54r ight in the dead center of his chest. He was wearing rifle armor at the time, so all he had to show for it was a wicked bruise for a few weeks and a hell of a story.
Rifle armor is not something to be written off as useless, but it is also not something I think should be mandatory for everyone.
Considering the threats most people face, I think a wrap-around soft level II or IIIA vest would be appropriate for a lot of people. Think the “bullet-proof vest” you’ve seen cops wear in movie and TV shows from the 90’s and 2000’s. Such an item provides a lot more protection in terms of area, and is perfectly adequate in terms of what a standard gun person is likely to
Think about your specific situation and what you think is most likely to occur. Prepare for those things. Carefully consider your options, and budget accordingly in order of necessity. Is armor right for you?
Look upon general consensus with suspicion, and we’ll see you next Friday.