Personal safety should be taken seriously, especially when dealing with firearms. Bulletproof vests are a very common addition to the layers of safety we employ. Now you might need a bullet proof vest because of your work or you might want one to supplement your home defense plan.
Either way you need to understand the investment you are about to make. Bullet Proof vests, more commonly known as body armor, can help increase your survivability rating in the event of a shooting. While understanding what a bulletproof vest can do is important, it raises additional questions.
Some of those questions are “Why do bulletproof vests have expiration dates?” and “Do bulletproof vests expire?” These questions are important especially when we see body armor on the secondhand market. Let’s look into how and why body armor expires.
Body Armor/Bulletproof vest Expiration
If the body armor has stopped one or more rounds, is stored improperly, or is heavily used it begins to degrade. This degradation weakens the armor, making it less likely to be effective. Companies estimate how long it will take for a vest to possibly degrade and assign them an expiration date.
However this is not the entire story. Body armor, like food, is still usable for a time after the expiration date. How the armor is stored and treated are the biggest factors you should consider when it comes around to using and replacing armor.
The types of armor we use also are important factors when we are trying to determine when to replace our body armor. Let’s go into a little more detail.
The “Why” of Vest Expiration
Three of the most common styles of bulletproof vest are Kevlar/soft body armor, steel plates, and ceramic plates. While other designs are being developed and are currently in use, it will take time for them to reach the more open market.
Those top three options are more than likely the options you are going to encounter. And with the ever growing pile of expired vests, you need to be aware of their limitations. To help with that we are going to look at the factors of degradation and how that affects each type of vest.
Degradation factors are those things in the environment that cause vests to wear out faster. This can happen quickly (direct impacts) or over extended periods (poor maintenance or storage).
Because body armor is let out into uncontrolled environments to a wide range of individuals who might not care how their equipment is treated, you should not rely on secondhand body armor.
Body armor with a mysterious past might not be as structurally sound as a newly produced bulletproof vest. That’s why you should not gamble your safety with using one. Secondhand vests should be for collecting, training, or controlled scientific tests if they are not recycled.
Now we are going to go into the factors that cause a vest to expire.
Direct trauma is the fastest way to cause a vest to expire. When a vest is shot it should be immediately retired. This is because it has done its job. It also has been compromised because it has been hit by a projectile traveling at hundreds to thousands of feet per second.
This makes bulletproof vests disposable or expendable equipment. Most body armor will not be shot, but provides a needed layer of protection just in case a shooting happens.
Direct trauma can also be caused in soft body armors with items that are not meant to be stopped by the vest. Soft body armor can be cut, stabbed, or pierced by non-bullets. This also will compromise the vest.
Other factors regarding hard body armor will be covered in another section.
Another factor that can accelerate the degradation of body armor is water. Water can permeate materials very effectively and can cause a number of problems if left untreated.
In soft body armor, a vest that is completely submerged or saturated with water should be replaced. This is because the water may cause the internal cohesion of the Kevlar material to fail.
Soft body armor relies on tightly woven material, such as Kevlar, to stop high speed projectiles. If they start to spread out, the integrity of the entire system begins to fail, just like a hole worn in regular clothing.
Water also has a habit of getting into extremely small areas and staying there. This can result in mold and in some cases rust. Both of these will cause damage to the material, but not enough to cause structural damage.
Rust is more of a concern with steel body armor. However the plate itself will be fine if water does not come into direct contact with the steel and sit there.
That’s right, even the sun is out to get you and your armor. While less of a concern with armor plates, soft body armor and plate carriers are susceptible to sunlight and ultraviolet (UV) radiation.
This is a result of a reaction in the Kevlar material with light and oxygen. The phenomenon is known as photo-oxidation and can cause the fibers of Kevlar to break down. This is a result from the polymer chains breaking in the material.
As a result, the Kevlar fibers become brittle and lose their integrity as they decompose. This means proper Kevlar vests have a protective cover over them to keep the sun and other UV light from acting on the fibers.
A less surprising factor is heat. Heat will also degrade soft body armor, plate carriers, and other materials like steel, ceramic, and polymers. This can result from poor storage or just extremes in the environment.
Because of this, storing body armor in the trunk of your car, especially in areas with high to extremely high temperatures is dangerous. This can push the temperature around your armor to a point where it starts to break down the materials it is made from.
Heat is less of a factor with hard body armors, but it will still affect the plate carriers if we are not careful. Obviously steel will change its durability if it is heated up enough. How much is enough? This depends on the steel, however some extremely hard steels will begin to soften in the areas of 280 degrees to 300 degrees, which are easily achievable temperatures.
Ceramic has its own set of problems, which will be covered in the ceramic section of this article.
General Use and Friction
If you wear your favorite clothes over and over again, they start to wear out. This is because of the use they have to endure. Bulletproof vests are the same. Since they are used in a wider set of environments than our normal clothes they are open to more abuse by that environment.
Friction from wear, being dragged along, or just roughly handled can break down bulletproof vests over time. This is particularly true for ceramic plates.
Ceramic is great for light, effective protection. However, it can be damaged by sharp impacts. Accidentally hitting it on a piece of metal or dropping it can cause the plate to fracture or otherwise become compromised.
This means that while it provides better protection than Kevlar and steel, ceramic takes more care and inspections than other armor types.
Vest Types And Concerns
As we have seen so far, each type of bulletproof vest has a different composition and will degrade under different circumstances. Many of these circumstances are shared but they are all not universal.
So we are going to look at those three common types of armor individually and see why they have differing shelf-lives. We’ll also cover the major risk to that shelf life.
Soft Body Armor
Soft body armor has the shortest life span. This lifespan tends to be 2-5 years depending on wear and other factors. You will see soft body armor made from things like Kevlar and similar materials which are very susceptible to the environment.
While water is a greater concern for Kevlar there are some soft body armors that will retain their integrity after being fully submerged. This will vary from maker to maker, but if you don’t know the composition of the vest and it gets submerged, consider it compromised until further review.
Heat and sunlight are universally bad for soft body armor and are the leading causes of degradation behind general use.
Because of how comfortable they are to wear (by comparison) soft armor is used the most. It is also the easiest to replace, but the costs will add up over time.
Steel Body Armor
Steel is the longest lasting body armor and has the least to worry about when it comes to storage. This places its lifespan at 15-20 years. However, this incredibly durable armor has a few drawbacks.
The spray-on-liner that covers the steel can come apart. This leaves the steel open to the elements which in turn can cause the steel to degrade.
However the greatest drawback is the nominal protection it offers for this long term durability. Not all steel armor is made the same and some have better ballistic protection. But most steel armor is not the best in ballistic protection.
Even when it does stop rounds and becomes compromised, the dangers of spawling are still present. This shifts the user’s danger from being shot to being shredded by shrapnel.
Ceramic Body Armor
Ceramic body armor is currently one of the better options available on the market today. It has a middle-of-the-road lifespan of 5-7 years. This is because of the composition of the ceramic plate.
Ceramic plates are either a single homogenous plate or made up of smaller pieces of ceramic in one plate.
Ceramic plates require more attention than steel. A sharp impact can cause part of the internal plate to fracture. This is great for stopping rounds but a hassle when storing or transporting those plates.
That’s why ceramic armors have to be checked every so often to see if they are compromised. This constant checking and maintenance can be time consuming, and replacing those plates can be expensive.
Poor storage is the leading cause of armor degradation. A properly stored and maintained bulletproof vest or body armor plate will still be viable beyond the expiration date.
The expiration date is a way to both protect companies and the individual from possibly using a compromised vest. However this expiration date has been interpreted as being when a vest will 100% fail. The armor will still work. But when we don’t know how it’s been treated we invite a number of potential problems to us.
If you have maintained your equipment properly there is less of a chance for it failing, just like anything else.
However if you do not maintain it, it will fail at the worst possible time.
Body armor can be a very nuanced topic. Especially since a lot of the standards for determining protectiveness are in need of updating. This causes a lot of misunderstandings of how body armor works and what it is rated to stop.
Because the average individual does not know the process of developing body armor and what causes it to lose integrity we find a lot of misinformation about which armor is good or not.
Properly maintained equipment that is of a good quality will work better than poorly cared for high quality equipment or plain low quality equipment. The expiration dates are more guidelines to help ensure people are using equipment that is still structurally sound just in case poor maintenance was present.
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