The Complete Guide to Body Armor

Body armor is a necessity in some professions, including security, law enforcement, and the military. Many options are available to personnel, ranging from helmets, chest protectors, hands, your sides, even including the groin area. This article explores some of your options regarding which parts of your body to protect, how they work, and gives product examples for all armor types, along with reviews. We still start by explaining a really brief history of body armor and its uses.

What is Body Armor?

People often call body armor a ballistic vest or a bullet-resistant vest. The idea of body armor has been around for quite a while, going back as far as the 1500s when the Roman army tried pistol proof vests. They have come so far as the fairly well known Kevlar vest that was developed in the 1970s. While the Kevlar material was originally developed to replace the steel belt in tires. 

We used the term bullet resistant because there is no such thing as a “bulletproof” vest or armor. The armor offers tightly woven plastic fibers and metal capable of at least slowing a bullet down before it penetrates enough of the body to cause more serious damage, which is still extremely helpful compared to having nobody armor at all. The International Association of Chiefs of Police says that modern body armor has saved the lives of at least 3,000 officers. Enough larger caliber or close range rounds fired into a ballistic anything will render it less than impenetrable. We share information like references to multiple gunshots with you not to scare you, but to be realistic about the limitations of body armor and the human body.

Note that the entire purpose of body armor is the transfer of energy. Body armor basically deforms a bullet and makes it less likely go to through armor. You will still feel the impact of a bullet or shrapnel, probably pretty well, but it won’t be localized and is less likely deadly. Various body armors come with various protection levels too. The Justice Technology Information Center has the following:

  • Level IIA: Tested to stop 9mm and .40 Smith and Wesson ammunition fired from short barrel hand guns. No rifle ammunition stopped.
  • Level II: Tested to stop 9mm and .357 Magnum ammunition fired from short barrel hand guns. No rifle ammunition stopped.
  • Level IIIA: Tested to stop .357 SIG and .44 Magnum ammunition fired from longer barrel handguns. No rifle ammunition are stopped.
  • Level III: Tested to stop 7.62 FMJ lead core rifle ammunition.
  • Level IV: Tested to stop .30cl steel core armor piercing rifle ammunition.
Testing a bulletproof vest in 1923 (Source).

Body Armor and Your Body

Your Head

Your head happens to contain your brain, which is rather important for critical function, movement, and thought.  A bullet-resistant helmet has a few essential qualities. It needs to protect your brain and skull well, be reasonably lightweight, and breathe well, especially if you are in a hot environment like the desert. To give the effectiveness of a bullet-resistant helmet some context: There is no such thing as a truly bullet-resistant helmet. The helmet is more likely to help in the event of an IED explosion, shrapnel, or just getting your head banged around while driving – the bullet of a sniper is more likely to end in a shot to the head than close up small arms fire at often unpredictable ranges, and you can’t really stop a bullet that size and speed. So which one should you buy? Well, we have a few examples of good helmets too.

BulletBlocker NIJ Ballistic Metal Helmet

This is fairly lightweight at 4 pounds, and comes in one universal size with an easy to adjust strap that helps adjust it for your head size. The helmet is rated for NIJ IIIA standards and is especially helpful for blocking shrapnel and small arms. The hardness of the helmet is also adjustable to remain comfortable, and it has a quick-release buckle for easy takeoff.

Battleware Technologies FSeven F7 Level III Helmet

Coming in two sizes and weighing up to a half-pound less than the BulletBlocket is the Battleware F7. This Batteware provides the proven TEAM WENDY retention systems to keep the helmet on your head as well as OpsCore ACT-ARC rails so you can attach additional accessories to your helmet.

FSeven F7 Level IIIA Ballistic Helmet (Source).

North American Rescue Batlleskin Viper A1 Level IIIA Bulletproof Helmet

The Viper A1 combines a truly lightweight load at 3 pounds with lots of comforts. You get moveable comfort pads to ensure your helmet provides the right relief and a 4 point chin attachment system as well as extra neck protection for your spine. The Viper A1 is tested for a wide range of temperatures from -40 to extreme desert heat while remaining comfortable. The whole retention system works well for ensuring you are comfortable and safe.

Chest Protection/Bulletproof Vest

Chest protection, or an armor or plate carrier, is more common than a helmet, and often used by law enforcement personnel, as well as hunting and shooting enthusiasts. Note that body armor is not always legal to wear, and some have believed not legal to own. Body armor is illegal in some places (look up your location) and is not legal to be owned by felons. Why? Mass shootings sometimes involve wearing body armor, and those are not good, so some regulations are in place to keep people from combining shooting with committing mass crimes.

That said, there are occupational and recreational uses of body armor. If you go to open, outdoor ranges, you may want to consider wearing armor to help you in the event of a negligent discharge. Unless you intend to practice indoors or practice at a terrible indoor range, you probably don’t need to wear your armor while shooting.

Shooting at night is also a good reason, in the event someone is lost and on the range, or people otherwise don’t trust their sense. In case the reasons for wanting to protect the chest aren’t clear, most of your vital organs including your heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, and more can be protected from shrapnel, small arms bullets, and impact.

Level 3A Soft Armor with 9mm & .357 (Source).

Types of Armor

Soft Armor

Soft armor is more comfortable and easier to wear with an often flexible Kevlar plate that can be inserted when needed. These are often worn by police officers who wear Kevlar plates because they weigh less and are more comfortable for long periods. Soft armor can be a complete vest or a vest with openings and inserts so you can choose to wear an armored vest or just one that carries extra stuff depending on the situation. Soft armor is typically rated against pistol calibers and is also often useful against knives. This kind of armor can also readily be concealed in a vest or designed shirt.

Hard Armor

Hard armor is much harder, but also more protective. Hard armor is often plated and made of steel, ceramic, or plastic. These can be rated to stop both pistol and bigger, heavier, faster rifle rounds. Hard armor has it’s advantages of keeping you extra safe. Obviously, the plates themselves are heavier and bulkier. Wearing large protective plates will slow you down, but protect you more. Smaller plates will speed you up, but offer less protection. Most vests and plates, soft or hard, cover your vital organs and leave your arms and armpits alone for now. Those can be protected separately.

What’s Hard Armor Made Of?


This is the metal that range targets are made of. These plates often weigh 8+ pounds and protects from small arms rounds. AR500 is reasonably inexpensive and can last for years, forbid that it actually needs to catch a bullet. These are not effective against smaller pieces of shrapnel or higher velocity rounds.


Ceramic is lighter, more expensive, and better at stopping larger caliber, faster moving rifle bullets. The disadvantage is ceramic is that it’s not all that durable and might need replacement if you drop it or fall on it.

Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene Plastic

Say that 3 times fast! UHMWPE is also known for being light – at about 3 pounds for a plate. This kind is thicker and primarily for stopping pistol rounds and can take repeated shots. 

Without further ado, here are some top picks for body armor.

Best Vest and Plates

Safe Life Defense 3A Vest

This vest manages to combine being lightweight, offering great coverage, and is super concealable for being discreet. The result is a nice vest for movement, with all day long comfort. Safe Life makes this comfortable and safe with pouches for hard armor, 10 points of adjustment, and a coolish mesh liner. Safe Life is very popular amongst police officers for its combination of safety protection and weight. Safe Life makes this vest in three colors: Black, sand, and white.

Concealable Multi-Threat Vest Level IIIA (Source).

AR500 Armor

This a plate and not a vest. AR500 has been mentioned and they make a great plate. AR500 hybrid armor costs a bit more but can be flexible and worn with your plate/armor carrier and weights as little as a pound and a half, which is great for a back or front plate.  The hybrid model is also only a quarter-inch thick. The low profile and flexibility of these plates make them quite concealable. Use a concealment carrier as well and no one will know you are protected. These are also popular amongst law enforcement officers who are willing to spend a little more to get the protection that weighs less.

Safe Life Defense FRAS (Flexible Rifle Armor System)

As is not so subtly implies with the name, this vest is meant to protect from higher weight, velocity, and sized rifle ammo. Safe Life says this feels like soft armor because it does, while still helping to stop .223 and 5.56 rounds and 7.62×39’s. The best offers complete front and back coverage, slash protection and is meant to be worn comfortably for 12 or more hours. Similar to the previous Safe Life, you have 10 adjustment points and a cool mesh liner to stave off the heat. FRAS is expensive, but worth it, especially considering that your life is on the line and you can wear it all day.

Safariland Matrix Ballastic Panel

Please note: Unless you a police officer, you cannot buy one of these vests. These are for law enforcement only and this writing is for info only. Safariland makes an outstanding concealable panel capable of withstanding Level III and IIIa threats. Made from Barraday woven armor and Honeywell Spectra Shield and Golf Shield, this panel is barely noticeable, lightweight and is a quarter-inch thick. That’s quite impressive. Again, law enforcement only though. They don’t want these in the hands of civilians.

Safariland SX

This one gets even thinner, and again law enforcement only. Add Kevlar to the Matrix panel and some SAATI. With its thinness and barely noticeable weight, you’ll get all day comfort and protection from small rounds and stab attempts.

Protect Your Side

Ballistic vests don’t always provide side protection, and some don’t wear side protection because it’s potential impact on mobility and marksmanship. These do add protection for your current vest and are more helpful, especially if you could get attacked from behind or face stab threats.

Side Armor from BulletSafe

This is a relatively simple system that protects the sides of your ribs and comes in a few sizes, as incorrect size could restrict your movement. 

AR500 Side Plate

This is more so a plate meant to worn in a carrier versus a separate system, but these are lightweight and flexible for the purpose of protecting the sides of your internal organs.

Side Armor for BulletSafe Vests (Source).


Want your legs and groin protected a bit better? Noting of course that as you would expect, bullet resistant pants add a bit of weight, they can be worth it so you can keep you know, walking after taking a bullet.

Blue Defense Ballistic Pants

These protects from small arms at the III level and manage to weigh only three pounds. While three prounds is obvious much heavier than your jeans or slacks, it’s totally worth it if you also have a chance at being shot or experiencing an IED explosion. You get full frontal side and protection and removable ballistic panels. Elastric straps also ensure a proper fit and protection in the areas you want.

ATT Tactical Leg and Thigh

ATT Tactical provides IIIA protection for shins and thighs separately The significant difference between their products and ballistic pants is that these have MOLLE webbing so you can add accessories to the thigh pads. They also offer forearm protection made of similar material. Note that these protectors are meant to work with the groin protector on your existing vest.

Groin Protection

So about the last spot available that won’t affect your grip on a firearm is the groin.  Notice how we didn’t mention groin protection when discussing leg armor or chest and abdomen armor? This is mostly because the chest plates don’t extend well the groin, and are often nothing more than a kevlar strip that comes off the front and might not even align right. While you probably won’t need ballistic pants and groin protection, you might not want a full pair of pants while still getting groin protection. 


Nutshellz started as a company working with SWAT teams after noticing how ineffective and uncomfortable the attached Kevlar flap to a test would become. These can handle level III threats. Also, in case you were wondering, these are also frequently used by athletes after a Cardinals catcher took a 103 MPH foul tip to the groin wearing a regular cup. This particular incident ended in surgery, and the team purchased Nutshellz for all. If a professional athlete can crouch and run for three hours, it’s probably pretty comfortable for most anyone. 

NuttyBuddy Ballistic

NuttyBuddy was also developed following tests with SWAT teams and athletes and offers Level III protection too. These are pretty comfortable and worn by pro athletes every day. These are made with lightweight Kevlar as well.


We’ve covered most every party of the body you would realistically want to be covered. Forearm protection is available too, though hand armor is generally restricting. The biggest things to consider when purchasing armor is your actual needs and comfort. Uncomfortable body armor can be intolerable and gradually straining to your body, making it difficult to do your job well. 

Many of these companies offer 30 day or more guarantees for the purpose of making sure you can wear their armor right, and that it’s totally comfortable. Wearing armor in a comfortable way is essential to enjoying it, and making sure its covering the right spots.

These details can help you make a life saving decision, but do your own reading and consider the situations you will be put into. No two armor needs are the same and no two armors are.


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Kevin was born and raised in Texas and loves all things tactical. His hobbies include shooting, hunting, rock climbing, and hiking with his dog Jax.

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