Body armor technology has progressed significantly since the first commercial bulletproof vest was introduced in 1901. At the time, body armor was either medieval-inspired, cumbersome breastplates, or soft vests made of materials such as silk, which would be ineffective today.
Today, adequate protection against firearms is now available in various items, such as concealable vests, customizable chest rigs, armor inserts for backpacks, and even armor-lined clothing. Modern bullet-resistant materials include high-tech fibers such as aramid, UHMWPE, or Kevlar and rigid materials such as hardened steel or ceramics.
Contrary to popular belief, ballistic body armor is generally legal to own in the United States. One of the few laws regulating their possession states that convicted violent felons are prohibited from privately owning or possessing a vest (18 U.S.C. Section 931).
In general, if you can legally buy firearms, you should be able to purchase body armor legally as well. You should always make sure to check all your local and state laws on the matter before doing so.
Best Body Armor in 2021: Hard Plates & Soft Armor
1. BodyArmorDirect Freedom Concealable Multi-Threat Vest
BodyArmorDirect Freedom Concealable Multi-Threat Vest
The Freedom Concealable Multi-Threat Vest by BodyArmorDirect is an NIJ-certified concealable vest made in the United States using sewing machines at the Florida-based manufacturing location.
This product is a standalone body armor vest that doesn’t require additional inserts or plates. It protects the torso, sides, and back with a 100% woven layer of aramid fibers, granting Level IIIA ballistic protection, suitable for most handgun threats up to .44 Magnum.
After testing, this body armor exceeded the NIJ 44mm maximum backface deformation standard, even with the most powerful calibers for this armor level. The .357 SIG 125-grain TMJ produced only 26mm of backface deformation while the.44 Magnum 240-grain JHP generated less than 34mm.
In addition to handgun protection, the Concealable Multi-Threat Vest is also rated to provide adequate protection against special threats such as fragmentation and shrapnel, as well as knife attacks.
With a certified thinness rating of 0.35”, this vest is concealable and comfortable to wear all day and in all positions. The vest makes it easier to perform everyday duties while still providing adequate protection against most armed threats on the street.
If you need additional protection, this vest also possesses a front pouch, which can accept soft or hard inserts, effectively turning this standalone vest into a plate carrier.
This body armor is offered in 3 different weight classes and is available in 8 sizes, ranging from small to 5XL.
2. Premier Eagle Tactical Vest with Level IIIA Soft Panels
Premier Eagle Tactical Vest with Level IIIA Soft Panels
Made by Premier Eagle, an established manufacturer of body armor and ballistic protection solutions, the Eagle Tactical Vest is a tactical vest fitted with NIJ-certified Level IIIA soft ballistic plates. This product offers 360° protection of your vital organs against the majority of handgun threats.
This product is suitable for law enforcement duties, security work, and bodyguarding, but it can also be used by private individuals seeking high-quality ballistic protection.
The Eagle Tactical Vest features fully-adjustable shoulder straps and an internal cummerbund, allowing the wearer to fit the vest snugly and comfortably onto their body. It is convenient and straightforward to put on and remove, thanks to its wide, elastic side straps.
Both the front and back of the ETV are fitted with rows of MOLLE strips (4 in the front, 6 on the back). You can attach the pouches and MOLLE-compatible gear of your choice, such as magazine carriers, holsters, knife scabbards, first-aid kits, and general-purpose gear pouches.
The ETV is made 100% in the US out of locally-sourced, 600-denier Cordura polyester fabric, offering high durability and resistance to the elements. This vest also possesses an extra-large man-down drag handle, allowing teammates or emergency services to drag the wearer to safety if they become incapacitated and unable to stand back up.
It is available in 2 colors (black and Flat Dark Earth) and 5 different sizes, from small to XXL.
3. AR500 Armor Standalone Ballistic Steel Plate Level III+
AR500 Armor Standalone Ballistic Steel Plate Level III+
AR500 Armor is one of the most popular manufacturers of hard armor plates and steel shooting targets in America. The company is named after the type of abrasion-resistant steel of the same name.
Armor plates made of steel offer unparalleled durability, outlasting all soft materials such as Dyneema or aramid, and more resistance to impacts and abuse than ceramic materials.
The plate is coated in military-grade PAXCON anti-spalling and anti-fragmentation coating, protecting your limbs and neck from metal fragments in case your plate stops a high-velocity or fragmenting bullet.
This standalone steel plate is made entirely in the USA. It is NIJ- and DEA-certified to offer multi-hit protection against:
- 5.56mm NATO M193 (55-grain) and 5.56mm NATO M855 (62-grain) at over 3,100 ft/s
- 7.62mm NATO M80 (148-grain) at 3,000 ft/s
The plate offers a Level III+ protection level, exceeding Level III standards.
This plate can be used in the front or the back of your plate carrier, protecting your vital organs from virtually all handgun and shotgun projectiles, as well as the most common rifle cartridges.
It is ideal for use as a frontal plate because it features an Advanced Shooters Cut (ASC), available for both right-handed and left-handed shooters. It’s comfortable to wear even during shooting competitions or practical training.
The AR500 Standalone Level III+ plate is an affordable ballistic protection solution that requires very little maintenance. The patented FragLock coating grants your plate a maintenance-free shelf life of 20 years. There’s no need to worry about aging or inadequate protective fibers with these inserts.
4. RMA Armament Model 1155 Level IV Hard Armor Plate
RMA Armament Model 1155 Level IV Hard Armor Plate
RMA Armament is a leading manufacturer of Level III, III+, and IV armor plates. The company’s CEO, Blake Waldrop, is a US Marine veteran and a former police officer with several years of experience wearing and using body armor.
The Model 1155 is a monolithic ceramic Level IV hard armor plate. With an overall thickness of 1” and weighing 8.3 lbs., this plate offers the highest possible level of personal ballistic protection at a competitive price and without the increased weight of a steel plate.
This plate’s dimensions are the industry-standard 10” x 12”, which fits most plate carriers. It possesses a military standard SAPI/ESAPI cut, making it ideal for use in duty plate carriers for law enforcement, military, or security work where rifle threats are expected.
Because this plate is NIJ certified Level IV, you can expect it to protect you from at least 1 hit from a .30-06 M2 armor-piercing bullet and multiple impacts from equivalent FMJ or hunting projectiles, such as soft points or hollow points.
It also provides multi-hit protection against intermediate rifle calibers such as 7.62x39mm (AK-47), 5.56x45mm/.223 Remington (AR-15) or 5.45x39mm (AK-74).
All RMA ballistic plates are produced entirely in the USA at the company’s Centerville, Iowa production facility.
5. Innocent Armor Bullet-Resistant Men’s Leather Jacket
Innocent Armor Bullet-Resistant Men’s Leather Jacket
Putting on a vest, even a concealable soft armor vest, may not always be a practical option, let alone a socially acceptable one.
Fortunately, solutions such as the Innocent Armor Bullet-Resistant Men’s Leather Jacket exist. On the outside, this item is a casual sheepskin leather jacket fitted for men, which looks and feels innocuous. It is perfectly suitable for everyday use, especially if you live in a relatively dangerous or high-crime area.
Inside, this jacket is NIJ-certified for Level IIIA ballistic protection, covering your front, sides, and back with ballistic fiber layers that can stop handgun calibers up to .44 Magnum.
The protective layer is designed with a custom wrap-around technology called FitTec, which breaks in and molds itself to the shape of your body within 5 to 7 weeks of wear.
This item is part of the armored men’s clothing line by Innocent Armor. Similar products are available, including a women’s clothing line and bullet-resistant backpacks complete with panel inserts.
How to Choose Body Armor
When choosing body armor, there are several factors to keep in mind:
- Expected threat: Assessing the threat level is making a reasonable expectation of what types of firearms an attacker is most likely to use against you when you are wearing body armor. There are two broad categories of body armor.
- Soft body armor is lighter and made of bullet-resistant fibers such as Kevlar, Twaron, or Dyneema, designed to stop most handgun and shotgun projectiles. Soft armor is available either as complete vests or as soft insert plates meant for plate carriers, backpacks, and other gear.
- Hard armor is heavier and composed of rigid plates, usually ceramic or metal, meant to be inserted in a plate carrier. These plates are designed to rifle projectiles, granting them a better protection level than soft armor at the cost of higher weight.
- Concealment: Depending on your occupation and situation, determine whether your vest should be overt (worn over your clothes) or concealable (worn under your clothes). Specific local and state laws may regulate whether you are allowed to wear body armor in public; be aware of these laws and whether there is an exemption for your particular occupation.
- Armor level: The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has designed a body armor performance testing and proofing standard, which classifies all body armor into various protection levels. Certain manufacturers have also created additional levels, which are not officially recognized by the NIJ but serve as commercial designations for improved or in-between protection levels.
- Proper fit: Body armor can only protect you effectively if you wear it correctly. Properly fitting body armor should provide you with a snug fit from the top of your torso to roughly a few inches above your waistline and must be comfortable enough to move, sit down, do chores, and of course, shoot while wearing.
The NIJ considers a projectile adequately stopped when it fails to penetrate the body armor and does not deliver excessive blunt-force trauma to the wearer.
Armor level is tested against a particular combination of caliber, projectile weight, bullet type, and velocity, guaranteeing that the body armor stops that specific combination at least once. Multiple hit protection is generally expected, but it is not a guarantee: The more damaged and compromised a vest or plate is, the less it can protect the wearer.
NIJ armor levels cover both soft and hard armor. To avoid confusion, below are two lists separating the armor levels relevant to soft armor from those applicable to hard armor to avoid confusion.
Soft armor levels:
- NIJ Level I: Level I is considered outdated and is no longer part of the NIJ standard, but certain older vests may still possess a Level I rating. It is rated to protect against the following threats:
- .22 Long Rifle, 40-grain LRN, 1,080 ft/s
- .380 ACP, 95-grain FMJ-RN at approximately 1,055 ft/s
- NIJ Level IIA: Level IIA armor is the lightest type of soft body armor you can purchase today, granting protection against common handgun cartridges. Unofficially, they also offer reasonable protection against shotguns; these vests can stop most sizes of birdshot and buckshot. Level IIA is rated to protect against the following threats:
- 9x19mm, 124-grain FMJ-RN, 1,225 ft/s
- .40 S&W, 180-grain FMJ, 1,155 ft/s
- .45 ACP, 230-grain FMJ, 900 ft/s
- All Level I threats
- NIJ Level II: Level II armor is a little heavier than IIA, offering a compromise of protection against high-velocity handgun cartridges while remaining relatively light. Level II is rated to protect against the following threats:
- 9x19mm +P, 124-grain FMJ, 1,305 ft/s
- .357 Magnum, 158-grain JSP, 1,430 ft/s
- All Levels I and IIA threats
- NIJ Level IIIA: Level IIIA armor is the heaviest type of soft body armor available today and is commonly used by law enforcement and security personnel. These vests protect against the majority of high-velocity handgun cartridges. Unofficially, they can also offer adequate protection against shotgun slugs. Level IIIA is rated to protect against the following threats:
- .357 SIG, 125-grain FMJ-FN, 1,470 ft/s
- .44 Magnum, 240-grain SJHP, 1,430 ft/s
- All Levels I, IIA, and II threats
Hard armor levels:
- NIJ Level III: Level III armor plates are rated to offer protection against rifles up to 7.62 NATO or .308 Winchester, as long as the bullets are FMJ or expanding (soft or hollow point). This level also protects against most 7.62x39mm bullets (AK-47 ammunition) and commercial .223 Remington FMJ and JHP ammunition. This level is rated to protect against the following threats:
- 7.62x51mm NATO, M80 ball, 148-grain FMJ, 2,780 ft/s
- All soft body armor threats
- Level III+: An in-between commercial designation for armor plates designed to provide more protection than standard Level III, without being as heavy as Level IV. This level generally refers to armor providing adequate protection against 5.56mm M855 and other small-caliber, high-velocity cartridges, which can defeat certain Level III armor types.
- As it is not an official NIJ rating, claimed protection ratings come from the manufacturers and vary depending on the brand and model.
- Typical Level III+ armor is intended to protect against 5.56mm M855/SS109 green tip (62-grain FMJ at around 3,000 ft/s).
- NIJ Level IV: Level IV armor plates are the heaviest and offer the most protection. Level IV is designed to stop armor-piercing full-size rifle cartridges. This level is rated to protect against the following threats:
- .30-06 Springfield, M2, 166-grain armor-piercing, 2,880 ft/s
- All Level III threats
- All soft body armor threats
The Bottom Line
Many professionals in security, law enforcement, and armed forces agree that the world we live in is dangerous and preparedness is essential.
Body armor for personal protection is as much of a valid option for citizens as concealed carrying. According to Delta Force veteran Larry Vickers, “If someone has time in a home defense scenario to put on body armor, having that option available is a plus.”
More socially-acceptable solutions, such as armor-lined clothing, are also available if you need some level of ballistic protection without drawing attention to a standard vest.
Armor is a compromise; even the lightest and most concealable options add a certain amount of weight and must fit you properly to offer adequate protection. It is up to you to determine whether you need extra protection should the need arise. If you decide to add body armor to your personal protection gear, there is no shortage of options to adapt to your needs and situation.