Action shows on T.V. and in the movies sometimes show a character whose life is saved by wearing some sort of body armor. This can be anything from soft body armor to more modern plate carriers.
Either way, the character is hit and they survive. Usually immediately getting back into the action after some drama over their possible injury.
But this raises the question of how realistic is this? Can you die while wearing a bulletproof vest? Or are the movies accurate? Today we’re going to find out.
How Effective Are Bullet Proof Vests?
Bulletproof vests are divided into different ratings and are designed to stop specific threats. If a round or other threat falls outside of those design parameters, the vest can be defeated. Otherwise the vest will protect you.
This comes down to a number of factors ranging from the type of vest, the speed of the threat, the weight of the projectile, the projectile’s design, and the projectile’s material.
Let’s take a closer look at these so you know how safe you can be.
Vests and Bullets: What Stops What
There are a number of bulletproof vests out there that provide you with varying degrees of protection. However the threats they face are much wider than you think.
From specialty rounds to more common rounds, bulletproof vests can only stop so much. That’s why they tend to be rated for the most common calibers. But even then some of the materials they are made of have limitations.
We are not yet at the level of technology where an extra light material will stop every round known to man. This means we have to trade off some things in order to get the protection we want.
This might be in the form of a heavy plate carrier that provides a wide spectrum of protection which hampers mobility. Or it might be a lower level of protection to help keep you mobile while wearing it all day.
So we’re going to go over an overview of the types of protection, what they might not be able to handle, and then we’ll go into the ammunition factors.
Types of Vests
There are three major protective materials that are used in making bulletproof vests and plate carrier plates: kevlar (fiber), steel, and ceramic.
Kevlar (and other fiber material) is mostly used in soft body armor while steel and ceramic are used in hard body armor, also known as plates.
All of these armor types diffuse energy. This means that the rounds will still hit with a lot of force depending on the round and will still cause significant bruising. Back face deformation, or the side closest to your body sinking in, may also cause significant damage or possible lethal trauma.
This is why certain parameters are set for back face deformation in armor testing. If the vest or plate stops a round but the armor deforms enough to cause significant internal damage, the armor provides a false sense of security.
Soft Body Armor
Soft body armor is some of the more common types of body armor out there, starting its use in the 1980s. While not being the first example of bullet protective clothing, it is the most recognizable term.
Soft body armor is mostly rated for pistol caliber rounds. This means things like 9mm, .45 ACP, and even more powerful .357 Magnum rounds or .50 AE are the main concern of these vests. They will stop those handgun rounds but do have some weaknesses.
Projectiles that are going extremely fast and are of a smaller diameter can easily penetrate soft body armor. Certain loadings of 7.62×25 Tokarev reach velocities that can penetrate soft body armor while most rifle rounds and some shotgun rounds can penetrate the soft armor.
Another factor is that soft body armor is designed to catch fast moving projectiles. This means piercing weapons or bladed weapons can actually penetrate certain types of soft body armor. This usually results in the layering of anti-stab vests with other types of body armor.
Hard Body Armor
Hard body armor is the better option in self protection but comes with its own limitations and problems. This comes from the nature of the plates and their intended use.
Like soft body armor, hard body armor distributes the round’s energy over the entire plate. Because of the sturdier materials used they have a wider application than kevlar style soft body armor, but that does not make them infallible.
Let’s look at what you get from the two major types of hard body armor.
Steel body armor is one of the earliest versions of ballistic protection and is offered today at a relatively affordable price.
Steel is effective against pistol rounds and some shotgun rounds but has the added dangers of spalling when it is hit. This results in pieces of rounds or worse pieces of the plate itself “splattering” against the user.
These small fragments of metal, called spalling, can cause significant damage to the end user since they are pieces of metal flying at hundreds or more feet per second. This is mitigated by using a spall cover but there is another danger.
This danger comes from higher velocity rounds. The speed of a round, which we’ll cover later, is a significant factor when it comes to armor penetration. Steel armor, specifically AR500 armor, is not necessarily rated for rifles.
Modern rifle ammunition can reach speeds that will defeat steel plates. This means that the round not only goes into your body but it brings that extra spalling with it, increasing the injuries incurred.
One saving grace of steel plates is that they tend to be reusable. If the round is defeated by a steel plate and the spall covering works, it will continue to perform as long as that cover holds. This is of course ignoring the fact that multiple common rifle rounds will defeat steel plates.
Ceramic body armor is nothing new. It generally offers better protection than steel, and is considered to be some of the best options for rifle protection out there. Especially in NIJ ratings of Level III+ and Level IV.
However whether these plates actually can stop a lot of the common rounds available is up for debate. While better quality armor plates will stop a lot of rounds, the real question is whether or not the plates you purchased will perform at that level.
Always do your research when it comes to the body armor you plan on actually wearing, especially if it is ceramic.
Another limiting factor of ceramic is that it loses effectiveness after being hit with multiple rounds. If a ceramic plate is hit in the same location multiple times with the same type of round it can fail. Most plates are rated to take roughly 2-3 rounds in the same area before it is considered unsafe.
Multiple hits in the same location is highly unlikely to happen but it is a consideration to keep in mind. Ceramic plates are not reusable, they are there to buy you a second chance should you unfortunately be shot.
This brings us to the determining factor of how protective armor is: the ammunition it’s facing.
Ammunition is the most important factor when developing body armor. You have to know what it is capable of if you can hope to make something that can stop it.
Whether a round is armor penetrating or not comes down to performance rather than legal definition. While legal definitions are important to follow, those definitions won’t stop a round from defeating a vest that is not rated for that round.
We can get a decent understanding of what will and will not be defeated by body armor when we consider three major factors of projectiles: How fast they are going, how heavy or dense they are, and what they are made out of.
Velocity or how fast the projectile is going is the primary factor when it comes to armor penetration. This is closely followed by how heavy or dense the round is. The Youtube channel Taofledermaus has hundreds of videos showing why these two factors matter while being entertaining.
We’ll leave the more entertaining methods to them while we concern ourselves with more practical reasons for armor penetration.
Most rifle ammunition today features some form of pointed spitzer projectile going at thousands of feet per second. On top of this they are small bore projectiles. This means all the force of that speed is focused on this tiny area that is the diameter of the bullet or smaller.
To illustrate why this speed matters we’ll look at car accidents. Unfortunately we have all probably seen the aftermath of a car accident. Those accidents at high speed leave the car almost unrecognizable afterwards and even lower speed accidents can result in death or significant injury.
All of that happens in the 40 to 100 mile per hour range with large objects with a lot of weight. Now let’s take a common rifle bullet and see how it stacks up. A slow 5.56 bullet goes at roughly 2,000 feet per second. This is the equivalent of 1,363 miles per hour.
A projectile going at that speed while being extremely small by comparison is going to go through body armor that is not designed to deal with such high velocities.
This brings us to the next factor: Weight/Density
Bullet Weight and Density
The weight of a projectile is another factor to consider when talking about armor penetration. This is because a heavier object is harder to stop than a lighter object.
Going back to the car example, it is easier for a small sedan to stop than it is for a semi-truck. This is because once the weight or mass of an object is moving, the greater the amount of force it takes to stop it.
This is why you’ll encounter larger heavy bullets defeating armor similarly to light fast bullets. The heavier a bullet is the slower it will go but the harder it will be to stop it from continuing forward.
This is why armor piercing rounds like the 9×39 cartridge are roughly 250 grains with a hardened penetrator. While going at speeds comparable to some .45 ACP loads it still can penetrate armor at a variety of ranges.
This is due to the weight and the density of the round. Which brings us to the final factor” bullet composition
What a bullet is made of or its composition is the final factor when we are creating body armor. This is because different metals or metal combinations can produce different weights and densities.
A bullet that is made entirely of soft lead is going to behave differently than one made out of a hardened tungsten steel.
Most armor piercing rounds feature a combination of copper jacket, lead, and some sort of dense penetrator. These penetrators are made of a more durable material than lead and are the main reason a round will penetrate besides how fast it is going.
Low grade mild steel will not perform as well as hardened steels, one might be defeated by quality armor while the other might not be. Keep in mind that both legally are considered armor piercing, but their performance says otherwise.
Some materials are denser than lead and will make a bullet heavier but more durable. This allows for the projectile to be pushed at faster velocities with less worry about it being damaged in flight.
This does not always translate to armor piercing but it is one of the factors that help develop an armor piercing round.
As long as your vest encounters a round it is designed to defeat, you have a high chance of surviving. However just because you have body armor does not mean you have a 100% chance of survival.
Obviously bulletproof vests do not cover the head or other areas of importance like the major arteries in the limbs. Vests are designed to protect the major organs in the torso, and are safety measures to help protect you should something go wrong.
Being able to take one or more rounds and survive is significantly better than dying from the same one or more rounds. You will have a significant bruise and possible some breathing issues as a result, but it does beat being dead.
That being said, bulletproof vests are made to add security to your tactics. Using good cover is still better than the highest quality of body armor, but having both is better. Similar to wearing a seatbelt, bulletproof vests might save your life if something goes horribly wrong.
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