Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bulletproof Vests

Posted by McGuire Army Navy on

Man shoots man wearing old fashioned bulletproof vest

What Are Bulletproof Vests?

Bulletproof vests, and plate carrier vests are specific types of body armor designed to absorb and block bullets, projectiles, and fragmentation.

It's important to note that there is no such thing as a completely "bulletproof" vest or armor. The most that these types of armor can do is offer some degree of protection, but there is always an element of vulnerability.

In this post we'll go over the history of bulletproof vests, briefly, discuss different types of body armor, relative effectiveness, and advantages and disadvantages of each.

A Brief History of Bulletproof Body Armor

Throughout history, armor was usually worn in battle to protect against swords and other edged weapons. However, with the advent of firearms in the 16th and 17th centuries, the armor that could protect against the new weapons was simply too heavy to worn in battle.

During WWI, armor was brought back, this time to protect against shells. This type of armor was used on a small scale, and was also too heavy to be of practical use.

U.S. Army soldier wearing flak jacket, Vietnam, 1971 (credit: Dwight Burdette)

By WWII, a lighter armor was developed made of overlapping plates of steel, aluminum, or bonded fiberglass attached with a nylon garment, covering both the front and back of the wearer. Called "flak jackets", these vests were flexible and protected against shells, but could not stop armor piercing bullets. Overall, they were not very effective and their function was more psychological than anything else.

By the 1960's, vests were developed that had plates of composite layers of steel, boron carbide (a hard ceramic), or plates made of a hard plastic known as polyethylene, or PE.

Researchers made a momentous discovery in the early 70's when they found that numerous layers of nylon fabric could dissipate the energy of a bullet. And with the invention of Kevlar in 1971, a fabric was available that was five times stronger than steel on an equal weight basis.

By stitching together many layers of Kevlar - anywhere from 8 to 48 layers - armor manufacturers could create a bulletproof vest that would effectively stop a bullet by causing to it flatten and mushroom against the fabric, thus dissipating its impact energy.

Two Types of Modern Body Armor

There are two general types of body armor, each with its specific purpose, advantages, and disadvantages.

Soft armor, ballistic, or bulletproof vests are made of soft, fabric like material (usually Kevlar) and are typically worn by police officers, security professionals, and private citizens. They're designed to protect against low-caliber bullets and edged weapons.

Hard armor, known as plate armor, consists of a vest with plates of hard armor inserted into pouches sown into the vest. Plate carrier vests are usually worn by military personnel, who are exposed to high-caliber bullets and rifle rounds.


Both soft and hard armor are not actually bulletproof. They're only bullet resistant, and even when they do their job and the bullet does not penetrate, the wearer is usually bruised, and can sometimes be seriously injured.

Moreover, full body protection is impossible. Kevlar vests cover the front, sides, and back of the torso, and plate armor only protects the front and back.

Comparison of Soft Vests and Plate Armor

Kevlar vests are made of flexible fabric. This makes them quite versatile and easy to wear. Depending on the number of layers, they can stop 9mm and .40 caliber bullets, and can even protect against .357 and .44 magnum hollow points.

Plate carrier vests are a lot less flexible, but much stronger. The plates can be made of steel, ceramic, or PE. Manufacturers classify body armor plates into two classes. Level III can protect against 7.62mm full metal jacket bullets, and Level IV is supposed to block 30.06 armor piercing bullets.

Both types of armor have their advantages and disadvantages. Vests are lightweight and easy to conceal; just how easy it is to conceal them depends on the number of layers. They feel more or less like regular clothing, and can be worn under clothes. They also wrap entirely around the torso, covering the front, ribs, and back, thus providing protection to a large area. They are usually a good choice for civilians who want to wear them inconspicuously.

Plate carriers are heavier, and must be worn over the wearer's clothes, making them difficult to hide. Additionally, only the front and back of the torso are protected, leaving the sides exposed. However, they're the best protection against rifle threats, and the ideal choice for soldiers. They're also easy to put on and take off.

What Kind Should You Get?

When deciding whether to get a plate carrier or vest, you should determine the nature of the threat that you're trying to protect against. Law enforcement and private security will usually be adequately protected with ballistic vests. These will guard against edged weapons and low caliber bullets. They're also the best choice for civilians who don't want many people to know that they're wearing body armor. Military personnel and those facing threats from high caliber bullets and rifle shots should wear plate carrier vests.

Stay safe out there!

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