People have been using body armor in one form or another since we first realized sticks and stones can break our bones. As weaponry grows more sophisticated, so does the gear we use to protect ourselves. This brings us to one of the most common types of body armor used today - the bulletproof vest.
If you're wondering who wears them and why, you're in the right place! We'll explain who needs a bulletproof vest and how they can help you.
Table of Contents
- Who wears bulletproof vests?
- Military and First Responders
- Security Personnel and High Risk Jobs
- High-profile criminals
- How do bulletproof vests work?
- What are bulletproof vests made of?
- Do bulletproof vests actually work?
- Bullet resistant - not bullet proof
- How do I know if a bulletproof vest is good?
- Do I need a bulletproof vest?
Who wears bulletproof vests?
Most users of bulletproof vests work in high-risk environments and are required to use them on the job. Others wear them out of concern for their personal protection.
Let's look at ballistic vest use among different people.
Military and First Responders
Military and first responders wear bulletproof body armor every day. It's their job to put themselves in harm's way and head into volatile situations where bullets and other projectiles may fly.
Members of the armed forces use bulletproof gear for protection not only against ballistic impact but also against fragments and shrapnel from explosions caused by grenades and the like.
Since every branch of the military specializes in its own set of tactical skills, the body armor they wear for different situations reflects this.
Do soldiers wear bulletproof vests?
Yes, but their tactical vests are generally more protective and customizable than the ballistic gear used by other vest-wearers we'll talk about in this article.
Soldiers face advanced threats and use hard armor plates (usually ceramic) in carriers along with soft armor inserts, not to mention other protective equipment like headgear.
What bulletproof vest does the US Army use?
The United States Army ground units stationed overseas are issued the Improved Outer Tactical Vest (IOTV) as part of their body armor loadout. The IOTV is a plate carrier vest meant to be used with ceramic ballistic plate inserts, soft armor ballistic panels, and deltoid + groin protectors.
Why don't soldiers wear full-body bulletproof suits?
While full-body body armor would provide maximum protection, it would be way too heavy and hot.
Soldiers are already working with a lot of weight as is. A size medium IOTV loaded up with plates is 31 pounds. And remember: body armor is NOT the only thing soldiers carry around.
The balance between protection and weight is always a challenge for armor developers, who sometimes get carried away in their quest for full coverage protection.
A good example is the side armor plates that U.S. troops in Iraq flat-out declined to use due to the extra weight they added to the Interceptor vest. The plates were fine for soldiers guarding convoys who didn't need to move around much, but for anyone needing mobility and speed, that extra sixteen pounds on top of the IOTV, rifle, ammunition, water, and other equipment was just a bad idea.
Full-body armor? Not gonna fly until it can become a lot lighter.
First responders are professionals like police, Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTS), and firefighters who show up first at the scene of any emergency ranging from traffic accidents to active shooter situations.
You wouldn't usually associate first responders, like EMTS, with gun threats. But they also use bulletproof or multi threat vests now because of the increase in gun/stab attacks aimed at them as they arrive at emergency scenes.
Since first responders never really know what they're walking to, they wear bulletproof armor as a protective measure.
Security Personnel and High Risk Jobs
People who work in high-risk jobs obviously need bulletproof vests, concealable vests, and other types of protection.
Law enforcement officers
Law enforcement agencies tend to use either Level II or Level IIIA soft body armor vests. This armor doesn't protect against rifle rounds or armor-piercing bullets like armor rated Level III or Level IV, but such heavy armor wouldn't allow for mobility or concealability - important factors for a police officer.
Ballistic body armor serves officers well. It has saved the lives of over 3,000 members of law enforcement since the 1970s. This is due to both the vests' bullet resistance and also their blunt impact performance, which can protect the officer's torso during a vehicular accident.
Correctional officers (COs) patrol correctional facilities like prisons or jails. Stab-proof vests or multi-threat vests are common protective gear for COs because of the threats they face.
The criminal justice system does what it can to keep these environments tightly-controlled, but prisons still aren't the safest of places. When fights can occur, COs have to intervene. Prisoners have been known to fashion sharp weapons out of everyday objects ("shivs"), and these spiked blades might find their way to a CO's torso.
Armored truck drivers
Drivers of trucks carrying valuables or large sums of money often wear bulletproof vests and helmets for protection against attempted robbery.
Armored vehicle robberies are relatively rare compared to other types of theft (26 armored truck robberies were recorded in the U.S. in 2018), but when they do occur they're usually quite violent, hence the need for protective gear.
There are different types of bodyguards, and they all face unique threats requiring the appropriate protective vests.
- Bodyguards to celebrities - more likely to opt for stab-proof vests since they're under a higher threat of blade attacks as they escort their client through crowds of fans. Body armor is not always deemed necessary when working with celebrity clients.
- Bodyguards to politicians - usually wear ballistic resistant concealable vests as they're expected to take a bullet for the client if need arises.
- Military bodyguards - usually wear tactical plate carriers on duty. Face a higher threat of blade and spike attack than any other type of bodyguard.
Believe it or not, certain criminals are made to wear bulletproof vests by law enforcement.
Why do police put bullet proof vests on criminals?
Criminals are transported in bulletproof vests if they're high-profile cases or are responsible for crimes likely to incite vengeance from the public. If Lee Harvey Oswald had been wearing a bullet resistant vest when Jack Ruby shot him, for instance, Oswald might have lived to face the punishment the judicial system decided for him.
Personal and Civilian Use
Can civilians wear bulletproof vests?
Yes, they CAN.
According to federal law, any law-abiding U.S. citizen can buy and wear body armor, including Level IV ballistic resistant plates and carriers. Each state has its own set of restrictions regarding body armor, though.
In Connecticut, for example, you have to get it the old-fashioned way: face to face. You can't buy it through e-commerce there.
You also can't buy or wear body armor if you've ever been convicted of a felony. If you're considering wearing a bulletproof vest while you commit a crime, we strongly suggest you do neither: while the crime is obviously illegal, wearing body armor while carrying it out compounds the offense.
Why would a civilian need body armor?
There are many reasons the average person might wear a bulletproof vest. It may be for:
Peace of mind
The rate of violent crime and mass shootings has increased over recent years. Many people feel a lot better out in public or sending kids to school knowing there's a piece of bulletproof gear on them that can buy precious time and save their life.
Some civilians opt for concealable bulletproof vests with soft ballistic panels when they're out. Others prefer armor that's more multi-functional, like bulletproof backpacks or bags or even bullet resistant clothing. The Level IIIA versions of these items can resist handgun penetration up to a .44 Magnum, just like a bulletproof vest would, and you'd never know they had armor panels inside just by looking.
Safety in dangerous neighborhoods
When you live or work in a high-crime area, you're more at risk of falling victim to violent attack. Even just walking from the front door to the car opens you up to threats ranging from drive-by shootings to muggings at gun or knife point.
Not everybody has the option to live or work in a safer place. That's why some people in these risky locations wear body armor. It's usually a vest that's concealable and able to protect from both a bullet or a stabbing.
Imagine being a gas station clerk in a dangerous neighborhood and sitting all day in front of a cash register full of money. Bad.
Now imagine sitting there wearing a hidden vest that can resist penetration from the most common handgun ammunition and street blades. Less bad, right?
Protection while hunting or shooting
Some hunters or sport shooters opt to wear ballistic protection. They know they're not an intended target but that accidents can happen. Plus, there's often a lot of vision-obscuring forest between themselves and other groups of hunters, and it's not unheard of to notice gunfire being accidentally directed in their party's general direction.
Hunters who wear vests tend to go for a carrier with a hard armor plate - usually Level III or III+ - because that's the only level rated to stop rifle fire.
How do bulletproof vests work?
Bulletproof vests, AKA "ballistic resistant" vests, generally work by dispersing the energy of an impacting bullet or other projectile, slowing it down, turning it to the side, and deforming it into a less dangerous shape.
This process keeps the bullet or projectile out of the vest wearer's torso, an area of the body that active shooters tend to aim for: it's a wider target, and one that can do a lot of damage. While your chances today of surviving a gunshot wound are better than ever before, that's ONLY if vital organs like the heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, the brain, and blood vessels are not hit.
If a bullet penetrates any one of these, the chance of survival is basically ZERO.
A vest can't protect the brain, of course, but it can protect the rest.
What are bulletproof vests made of?
Bulletproof vests use one of the following two forms of body armor:
- soft body armor - made from many layers of a strong material like Kevlar, Twaron, or Dyneema. Soft armor is flexible, light, and concealable. They're usually only rated up to level IIIA, however.
- hard body armor - uses plates made of a hard substance like AR500 steel or ceramic, like the Spartan Armor Systems Hercules Level IV Ceramic Advanced Compound Curve Body Armor pictured below.
Do bulletproof vests actually work?
Yes, ballistic vests do work.
But what does "work" mean?"
Bullet resistant - not bullet proof
Bulletproof really means resistant to penetration by bullets.
If you do get shot with a bullet while wearing a quality bulletproof vest rated to protect against that particular bullet, you're still going to be affected by the impact.
It's going to knock you off your feet, hurt a LOT, leave a whopper of a bruise, and maybe even cause internal injury.
But the odds of walking away from the scene alive are much, much higher.
How many hits can a bulletproof vest take?
That depends on what kind of armor it is, but the general rule for most cases is one and done.
- Soft armor (Kevlar, Twareen, Dyneema, etc.) - In general, these can resist one bullet before the strength around the area of impact is compromised. If the armor is struck again close to the first area of impact, there's a likelihood the second bullet will go through.
- Hard armor ceramic plates - One shot shatters the armor in the impact area. The shot dissipates much of the energy from the impact, breaking up the bullet into smaller pieces that can be stopped by a soft armor backing.
- Polyethylene hard armor - These plates can be shot many times, with some manufacturers guaranteeing them for hundreds of rounds before ballistic integrity is lost.
How do I know if a bulletproof vest is good?
There's one key factor in knowing whether or not a bulletproof vest is quality:
NIJ Certification - the hallmark of body armor quality
A bulletproof vest that has a National Institute of Justice (NIJ) certification mark on the outside of the ballistic package was tested to some of the most rigorous standards you'll ever see.
After testing, the armor is given a rating that indicates its demonstrated ability to resist penetration from a certain range of bullets travelling at certain velocities.
That rating is called an NIJ protection level.
How NIJ levels work - some examples
We've already written in detail about what different NIJ levels mean, but here are some quick examples:
Let's say you're wearing a vest rated Level IIA (the lowest protection level available today), and you get hit in the torso with a 9mm impacting at a minimum velocity of 332 m/s.
That vest can withstand that impact. In fact, all the NIJ protection levels can. So while nothing in this world is certain, it IS almost certain you'll survive that 9mm impact with that vest on.
If you didn't have that vest, and that 9 mm hit you in a vital organ, your survival odds would not be good.
On the other hand, don't expect a Level II vest to defeat a .44 Magnum. That's the territory of a Level IIIA and upward vest. And only Level III or a Level IV armor plate protect against rifle fire.
What protection level does my bulletproof vest need?
The first two criteria among all the things to consider when choosing a bulletproof vest:
- Always go for the protection level that can protect against your own gun if you have one!
- Get a vest that can defeat the most likely type of firearm threat you'll encounter, whether that's a handgun or a rifle.
Do I need a bulletproof vest?
Bulletproof vests and other body armor aren't only for people in high risk jobs. The number of mass shootings in the world is rising, and there's nothing fun about walking around in fear for you or your loved one's safety.
Bulletproof Zone’s collection features body armor ranging from vests and plate carriers to bags and clothing. Everything we offer is NIJ certified; we trust nothing less.
Do you wear a bulletproof vest? Tell us about it! Your feedback could help others make a decision. Plus, we like to hear how you're staying safe out there. And if you don't have a ballistic vest but are considering one, don't hesitate to contact us with your questions.gllgp