Will Soft Armor Work as a Trauma Pad?

Body armor can stop a bullet and save your life, but that doesn’t mean you will escape the situation unscathed — you still risk experiencing serious injury. For reducing blunt-force trauma, some individuals wear a trauma pad behind their bullet-resistant vest or plate carrier. But some ask: what about soft armor — can it fulfill the same purpose?

Soft Armor — Does it Work as a Trauma Pad? Let’s Find Out

In some cases, yes, soft armor can replace trauma pads. Soft armor, like a trauma pad, can reduce the blunt-force trauma of a bullet impact when used in conjunction with hard armor.

The success of this combination will depend on the ballistic rating of the vest and the power of the ammunition. Soft body armor also increases overall ballistic resistance.

Soft Armor and Trauma Pads

Whether soft armor is an adequate substitute for a trauma pad requires a discussion of the two — what they are and how they function. 

Soft Armor

Body armor can be divided into two categories: soft and hard. Soft body armor uses flexible Kevlar or Spectra panels to stop relatively low-velocity handgun bullets and buckshot pellets. As the vest or panel absorbs kinetic energy, it slows down and catches the projectile.

Hard armor, in contrast, uses rigid plates to destroy or capture high-velocity rifle projectiles. Law-enforcement officers and private citizens generally wear a hard armor plate in a vest pocket or plate carrier and a soft armor vest behind it. That way, if the bullet partially or completely penetrates the hard plate, the Kevlar or Spectra will capture the bullet and plate fragments, thereby preventing potentially deadly injury.

Trauma Pads

A trauma pad is a non-ballistic panel that you can wear behind the backface of a hard plate or soft vest to reduce backface signature (deformation) and protect yourself against Behind Armor Blunt Trauma (BABT) injuries. It’s important to note that trauma pads do not stop bullets. 

Behind Armor Blunt Trauma (BABT)

While effective at providing ballistic protection, soft armor deforms in response to bullet impact, which can cause blunt-force trauma injuries behind the point of impact on the vest. The extent of the blunt-force trauma will depend on several factors, such as the impact velocity, shape, weight, and construction of the bullet. 

The composition of the bullet also plays a role. The harder the alloy, the less the bullet will deform and the more it will concentrate its kinetic energy on a relatively small area on the vest or plate. This is why hard metal alloys, such as steel and tungsten, are used in armor-piercing (AP) ammunition. 

The non-penetrating injuries that can result from backface deformation while wearing body armor are classified as Behind Armor Blunt Trauma (BABT) and include the following: skin contusions (bruising); skin lacerations; rib fractures; and contusions to internal organs (e.g., the lungs, kidneys, and spleen). 

Backface Signature

In order to test the backface signature, the NIJ places the vest against a block of non-hardening, oil-based modeling clay and measures the depth of the deformation. The NIJ Standard 0101.06 specifies the acceptable backface signature as 44 mm (1.73 inches) or less. As the vest absorbs the bullet’s kinetic energy, it transfers some to the surface behind it. Soft body armor is available in several ballistic ratings, depending on the level of protection that you need.

Soft Armor Ballistic Ratings

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) certifies three levels or types of soft body armor for protection against handgun threats. All else being equal, more layers of Kevlar or Spectra will result in less backface deformation and blunt-force trauma. A Type IIIA ballistic vest, for example, will provide more blunt-force trauma protection against a 124-gr. 9mm FMJ-RN bullet than a Type II vest, at the expense of increased weight and reduced range of motion. 

Soft armor is available in the following ballistic ratings (all listed velocities are ± 30 ft/s):

  • Type IIA (9mm and .40 S&W)

Type IIA is the lowest protection rating that the NIJ currently certifies — Type IIA vests are lightweight and highly concealable but limited to comparatively low-energy threats. The NIJ tests new Type IIA armor using 124-gr. 9mm FMJ-RN (full metal jacket round-nose) bullets at a velocity of 1,225 ft/s and 180-gr. .40 S&W FMJ bullets at a velocity of 1,155 ft/s. When conditioned, the test velocities decrease to 1,165 ft/s for 9mm and 1,065 ft/s for .40 S&W.

  • Type II (9mm and .357 Magnum)

The NIJ tests new Type II armor using 124-gr. 9mm FMJ-RN at 1,305 ft/s and 158-gr. .357 Magnum JSP bullets at 1,430 ft/s. In a conditioned state, the velocities decrease to 1,245 and 1,340 ft/s, respectively. Type II achieves a satisfactory balance regarding protection, comfort, and concealability. As a result, it remains in widespread use among law enforcement and private citizens alike.

  • Type IIIA (.44 Magnum and .357 SIG)

Type IIIA armor is the heaviest of the soft armor types, providing increased protection against high-velocity and magnum handgun calibers. If any soft vest or insert will act as a trauma pad, it’s this one. Type IIIA vests tend to be more tactical and less concealable.

The NIJ tests new Type IIIA armor using 125-gr. .357 SIG FN (flat-nose) bullets at 1,470 ft/s and 240-gr. .44 Magnum SJHP (semi-jacketed hollow-point) bullets at a velocity of 1,430 ft/s. When conditioned, the NIJ reduces test velocities to 1,410 and 1,340 ft/s for the two rounds.

Is a Trauma Pad Still Worth It?

With all this in mind, you may ask: “Is a trauma pad still worth it?” The answer is that it depends. It’s worth noting that a trauma pad does not eliminate the backface signature. As a result, there is still the possibility of Behind Armor Blunt Trauma. What it can do is reduce the extent of the deformation. This means that if you intend to wear soft body armor, alone, wearing a trauma pad behind the vest can potentially reduce the severity of BABT.

When wearing hard armor, it’s customary to also wear a flexible Kevlar or Spectra vest behind the hard plate. If you wear soft body armor behind hard armor, a trauma pad may not be necessary for three reasons:

  1. First, Kevlar and other soft armors are effective at absorbing and dissipating kinetic energy. This is especially true when the bullet has already struck a rigid ceramic or steel plate.
  2. Second, soft armor provides additional ballistic protection that a trauma pad does not.
  3. Third, if you need to remove your hard armor, you still have soft armor to protect you against handgun threats; you’re not completely exposed to hostile fire.

If you don’t wear soft armor behind a hard plate, a trauma pad can serve as an inexpensive, lightweight method of further reducing blunt trauma.


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