Bulletproof vests provide wearers discreet protection if they happen to find themselves caught in any dangerous situation, especially involving firearms. Mass shootings alone seem to get worse and more frequent year by year. Gun-related risks occur in many forms, from crimes on street corners and riots in dangerous neighborhoods, to military threats and mass shootings.
As a result, people have become interested in investing in bulletproof gear and clothing, although many aren’t sure how exactly bulletproof vests protect them.
As the name implies, a bulletproof vest protects its wearer from ballistic threats. To what extent? It depends on the protection level it has, usually in compliance with levels set by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) in the United States.
Being “bulletproof” doesn’t translate to its literal meaning, because there are cases where the user may still get injured from gunshot ammunition, although probably not as severe as without having any protective barrier.
Also, with the layers of protection it offers, it can withstand other forms of body penetrating dangers, but only to some limit especially if it is not designed for these events.
Different Types of Dangers
Different types of vests may resist bullets according to the level of bullet velocity that they are made for. That doesn’t mean that vests that fall on lower armor rates aren’t useful. Some may opt to go about their day wearing the vest as light clothing with the with thinner layers it offers.
Grenades and other explosions may cause shrapnel to fly everywhere and harm those nearby. Depending on how far a person is from an explosion, the vest might protect them from any bodily harm.
Knives and other sharp items
Bulletproof vests today use Kevlar® as a major layer of protection, which is also used in stab proof vests. In some instances, especially those with higher protection ranges, bulletproof vests can endure stabs.
However, it is better to decide whether you’d need either a bulletproof or stab proof vest in your usual routine, as you can’t expect the bulletproof vest to give you the best protection against stabs.
Security threats might not just be related to humans, but also wildlife or stray animals. Bulletproof vests happen to protect against bites from animals which might carry poisonous toxins or diseases.
Professional security fields, as well as different localities, have their distinct standards when it comes to ranking bulletproof vests. The NIJ’s standards, however, are more widely applied, especially for average end users. With that, bulletproof vests are currently classified into those enumerated below.
- Armor Level I
- Armor Level II-A
- Armor Level II
- Armor Level III-A
- Armor Level III
- Armor Level IV
- Special Level Armor
NIJ Level I armor has the lowest protection level, while the Special Level Armor has a protection level that goes beyond the standard ratings. For more information, about these performance ratings see our Guide to the NIJ Protection Levels.
Bulletproof Protection Types and Parts
Let’s deconstruct a bulletproof vest to better understand how it can realize protection. The following are the basic parts that most bulletproof vest consists of:
Soft Ballistic Panels
Bulletproof vests include soft ballistic panels which are made of high performance fibers, the most popular today being the aramid fiber (where Kevlar® belongs) and polyethylene fibers.
These are meant to be light, yet still shield or reduce the impact of bullets, especially those with lower velocities.
Hard Ballistic Panels
For bulletproof vests meant for higher bullet velocities (and therefore riskier situations), hard ballistic panels may also added, in addition to soft armor.
Hard armor is usually made of either ceramic, Dyneema polyethylene, or a combination of both. Metals (like titanium or steel) and fiberglass may also be used to upgrade those with only soft ballistic panels.
Trauma pads can be made of aramid or polyethylene fabrics, as well as other materials like plastic. They are usually placed on top of the ballistic panel in the chest and back.
Their purpose is to reduce the physical trauma that a bullet may cause to the wearer. They don’t offer increased ballistic protection, but are meant to reduce the bruises of a wearer, as well as lower the speed of a bullet.
Some padding might be inserted to provide the right comfort to the wearer, as well as preserve the other layers of the vest. The padding should have the quality to minimally penetrate the body, so as to not aggravate a person’s wounds.
Straps in bulletproof vests are supposed to enable the adequate coverage of the panels to the wearer, support mobility, and fasten the vest to the wearer with stability.
Checking Your Vest's Protective Capabilities
To learn what types of bullets a vest can withstand, you can check its specifications. Meanwhile, as you already know, bulletproof vests are actually simply bullet resistant, so you shouldn’t expect them to be capable of completely shielding you 100% of the time, even under their assigned ammunition range. However, knowing that, the right vest used at a likely instance might determine your survival.
To make sure that a vest is always in its proper condition, buyers should check the warranty and guide for proper care instructions of a bulletproof vest.
Manufacturers themselves are subject to testing their products, commonly with the one administered by the NIJ - the NIJ 0101.04. Countries other than the United States also like to consult with this test.
So before being allowed to sell to the public, a manufacturer would have agreed with initial and follow-up inspections of a certain product, which will be ongoing for five years. This is to check if the construction and quality are preserved for a certain model.
During a test, the product will undergo ballistic testing and quality check. Companies producing bulletproof vests then have to register for the said testing and submit their samples to an NIJ-approved lab.
If you’re qualified to buy a bulletproof vest (check your local policies or our Legal Guide to Purchasing Body Armor), something you can do is check if the manufacturer is included in the NIJ compliant list to ensure that the products sold are authentic.
Determine and Invest in the Right Protection For You
Bulletproof vests, with the protective layers they have, can therefore prevent different materials from easily penetrating their wearers. Of course, how a wearer responds to an unexpected danger is more important. It is also wise to assess what type of protective accessory you need in your environment, as there are other options like stab proof products.