Maximise the efficiency of your body armour

“Self-defense is not only our right, it is our duty.” – Ronald Reagan

Thousands of men and women echo these words by preparing to protect themselves from threats in their daily lives, employment and chosen professions.

But owning body armour is not enough. You need to understand its capabilities and maintenance to ensure you’ve made the right choice and are looking after it.

Understand it.

Modern body armour has a relatively short history. Soldiers fighting in World War 1 used little body armour. By the end of the war, medical personnel concluded that the majority of casualties could have been avoided if the soldiers had worn protective armour.

Great Britain and other world leaders immediately began investing in the development of body armour. Twenty-one years later war came again, but this time infantrymen wore lightweight armour while fighter pilots and bomb squads who would be facing machine gun and anti-aircraft fire donned heavier armour.

These early forms of body armour evolved into the sophisticated body armour that we have today. Today’s armour can be divided into two categories:

Soft Body Armour

Sometimes referred to as “covert armour” because it is worn under your clothes, soft body armour is the lightest, most flexible and comfortable of all body armour. Composed of multiple layers of bullet-resistant fibres, soft body armour protects its wearer by catching the bullet, dispersing its energy over a wide area and deforming the tip so that it rapidly comes to a stop.

Some styles of soft body armour come with the option to attach or insert a ballistic plate. This transforms the soft ballistic vest into a hard or plate vest.

Hard Body Armour

Typically worn over top of clothing, hard or plate body armour is also called “overt armour”. It can be separated into two parts: The vest or carrier which may or may not be made of bullet-resistant material and the ballistic plates which fit into it on the front, back and sides.

Ballistic plates used to be made from metal, but modern manufacturers generally make them from lighter and more effective ceramics or composite plastics. Each plate has a strike face which slows and flattens the bullet, as well as a back panel that absorbs impact and minimises trauma.

Most ballistic plates come with their strike face clearly marked. If yours is unmarked be sure to mark it and always insert it into the carrier facing outward. Putting a ballistic plate in backwards can be a fatal mistake.

The UK Centre for Applied Science and Technology and the US National Institute of Justice routinely test body armour and categorise it according to the protection that it gives. Before you purchase armour, consider the level of threats that you may face and then buy armour that is effective against those threats.

Soft armour (and most hard armour) protects against most pistols and shotgun rounds. Its standardised NIJ levels are as follows:

  • Level IIA – About 4mm thick; protects against .22mm short, .9mm, .45mm, .380mm and .38mm bullets
  • Level II – About 5mm thick; protects against everything included in Level IIA as well as .22mm long bullets
  • Level IIIA – About 6 mm thick; protects against everything included in Level II as well as .44 Magnum bullets

The muzzle velocity of rifles ranges from 365 to 1,500 meters per second. Only hard armour can effectively stop rifle rounds. The two standardised levels for hard armour are:

  • Level IV – About 15mm thick; protects against everything Level IIIA soft armour covers along with .30 Carbine, 5.56mm and 7.62mm NATO bullets
  • Level V – About 20mm thick; protects against everything included in Level IV as well as .30 armour piercing bullets

Your chest is the largest target area on your body and thus all hard armour plates are designed to cover this area and protect your vital organs. Body armour can save your life by protecting this vulnerable area from bullets. Interestingly, body armour also offers some protection against stabbing and slashing weapons, as well as from projectiles which may be released in car crashes or building collapses.

Don’t Just Buy It, Wear It!

Every year a number of men and women suffer life-threatening injuries because they didn’t think they’d need their body armour. Generally this is because older designs offer some drawbacks, specifically;

  • Weight – Soft body armour usually weighs between 1-3 kilos, while the ballistic plates in hard armour weigh anywhere from 1-5 kilos apiece.
  • Temperature – Body armour limits the circulation of air around your body causing you to feel hot and sweat even if your environment is cool.
  • Flexibility – The weight and thickness of body armour will change your ease and range of movement, affect your shooting stance and make breathing slightly harder during physical exertion.

Thankfully advances in technology and design have made it possible to lessen these adverse effects thus encouraging body armour owners to wear their protective vests all the time.

Cleaning and Storage

Keeping body armour clean and storing it properly is critical to its efficiency. Lack of cleaning or incorrect cleaning, as well as sloppy storage can decrease armour’s bullet-resistant properties and keep it from fitting adequately.

Most body armour comes with care instructions from the manufacturer. If you have those instructions, be sure to follow them carefully. If you do not have the instructions, it is generally considered safe to hand wash soft body armour and the vest of hard armour with water and a gentle detergent. Rinse them well because soap residues can damage fibres within the armour.

Lay your freshly washed armour out flat to air dry. Keep it away from any form of heat and UV light (including sunlight) since they degrade the protective properties of many fabrics.

Ballistic plates can generally be cleaned with a damp cloth. Never submerge them in water and always wait until they are completely dry before using them again.

Once your body armour is dry, store it correctly so that it does not become creased or crumpled which would compromise its fit. Body armour can be laid out flat on a shelf or in the bottom of a drawer, but be careful to never stack anything on top of it. You can also hang your body armour on specific hangers and stands that will preserve its shape.

Life Expectancy

Body armour should be replaced if hit or damaged in any way. Whilst certified body armour has been tested against multiple hits that doesn’t mean you can continue to wear it safely after a strike. It is vital you check your body armour for wear and tear on a daily basis.

Almost all body armour has an expiration date (usually 5 years after its date of manufacture), because its components degrade with time, use and heat. Some specific types of armour do not expire due to the makeup of their protection and so it is recommended you replace them after 10 years.

Most body armour, however, lasts well past its expiration date since the most important factor is not its age, but how much “mileage” has been put on it. If you intend to use your armour past its expiration date, be aware of the following signs that it is aging and replace it when necessary:

  • Fabric that is thinning or fraying
  • Tears in the waterproof covering
  • Straps that are loose
  • Deformity of the vest or plates

It is also advisable to replace your body armour if you gain or lose weight, build muscles or do anything else that keeps it from fitting properly.

In conclusion, body armour can save the life of the wearer and the people that he or she is defending. It is essential, though, that you understand it, use it, care for it appropriately and replace it when necessary.