Letter Re: Recommendations on Body Armor?

I’d read your post in SurvivalBlog about body armor – someone had asked for some recommendations. I own a small company and my employees wear armor, I’ve worn armor for ten years… And there have been some upheavals recently that those looking to acquire used body armor need, desperately, to be aware of that weren’t addressed in your answer – which was adequate but I felt needed elaborating on – so here goes!


Both Second Chance and Point Blank are facing bankruptcy and major lawsuits associated with some of their vests – specifically the so-called 4th generation fibers known as Zylon, Second Chance used them in it’s ULTIMA, ULTIMAX and TRIFLEX series of vests and Point Blank (who also make the PACA brand vest) used them in too many products to list here – so I’ll give you the PDF link to the document on file in the current civil case against them.


I could ramble on about the foreign buyout of both companies prior to their spectacular failure rate – but it’s irrelevant to survival. So, what brand to buy?

Gee, I guess that means Safariland or ABA (American Body Armor) are safe huh?

Nope! Everybody messed up! Again, too many products to list here – here’s another link for Safariland’s vest exchange program.


I’d guess that the above manufacturers represent about 90 percent of the total law enforcement vests sold in the last ten years. They’d still own the market today, if they hadn’t gone to Zylon to try and increase flexibility in the vests.

Yes, there are other manufacturers (a couple dozen in fact), nearly all of them import their vests from our Chinese friends, few manufacturers make them here – and you can still get a quality vest WITHOUT Zylon from these guys… but you need to know more, you should understand what soft body armor can and cannot do.

The basic theory behind soft body armor is the same as a baseball glove, spread out the impact and it doesn’t do as much damage (or penetrate) Kevlar fiber has tremendous linear strength to other fibers, tightly interwoven like a trampoline, and layered, it catches the bullet, spreads out the impact and your skin is not penetrated – you go up in levels from IIa -> II -> IIIa (IIIa is the highest soft body armor rating – above that is level III and IV, hard ceramic plates)to defeat the more energetic 9mm rounds which are only a real threat for one reason, they are more pointy than other pistol rounds and FAST. Essentially, to defeat soft body armor you need to be fast and/or pointy – a 22 LR Stinger round is plenty fast, but is blunt tipped and will not penetrate even the lowest level of soft armor. The newer 17 caliber ballistic tips are a real threat to soft body armor. A 17 HMR I fired at a level II vest panel, waltzed right on through. Granted it was an old vest panel (about 8 years) but it seemed solid to me. I don’t know what energy might be left after penetration, I just wanted to know if it WOULD penetrate. Ironically, 12ga slugs and 44 Magnum rounds are so flat that even a IIa will stop them, you don’t get the higher rated soft body armor the heavy rounds – you get them to defeat 9mm subgun rounds. This logic stemmed from, I believe, the idea that you should always wear a vest that will stop the bullets you carry. And with many police agencies carrying 9mm HK-MP5 variant subguns, it spawned the popularity of the IIIa level vest. The dinky little round that FN developed for their P90 was specifically meant to defeat soft body armor – hence the near moratorium (note that they are now marketing a 16 inch barreled version of the P90 now for civilian sales) on the gun for civilian use, and the absolute moratorium on the ‘good stuff ‘ (steel tipped) and FMJ versions of their ammo. The new ammo for the gun is aluminum tipped, and deforms too easily to defeat a IIIa vest – or so I am told.

Incidentally, “NO!!!!” I will not conduct a series of tests to determine what newfangled bullets will or will not penetrate soft body armor. Hundreds of guys with more time than me have already done so. Google is not just a cute sound made by a baby. Look it up.

Things like ice picks and shanks go right through soft armor (sharp and pointy). Your vest will give you some protection against slicing damage in a knife fight, but almost none against a vigorous stab. There are a whole generation of specialized ‘stab’ rated vests that prison guards wear, although Second Chance does make a vest that has dual layers (ballistic and knife), I think they call it the Prism series.

All centerfire rifle bullets will penetrate soft body armor too. You hear/see those ‘trauma packs’ or ‘plates’ that some manufacturers put in their vest – they are NOT rated to increase the stopping power of the vest – they are to spread out potential heart stopping, or rib breaking (with accompanying lung puncture) impacts and decrease the amount of damage you might take if you get in a head on collision. Second chance used to make a hard-plate that increased your ballistic protection, they still do – but they add a LOT of weight – for about the same weight you can get a REAL ceramic plate that IS rated to stop rifle rounds.

The only thing that will reliably stop rifle rounds (most of them) is ceramic plates, commonly referred to as SAPI plates by the military. They are typically 10 inches by 12 inches (size varies with application) and slip into a carrier over your soft body armor, they are meant to be used in conjunction with the soft armor as some rifle rounds will fragment on striking the plate and the vest is supposed to catch those fragments. It is not very reassuring to know that only a 10 by 12 inch square on your torso is resistant to rifle bullets – but you shouldn’t be presenting ANY target to a looter/criminal – much less a fully exposed torso. Plates are HEAVY – not something you’d wear everyday. You are far more likely to be wearing simple soft armor in an everyday scenario, or while out working in your victory garden.

My entire point isn’t to dissuade you from buying body armor, it is to make it clear that you need to do your research before you buy – especially if you are going to buy used, or off of Ebay. You need to understand the limits of it, and find a way to make it part of your routine. Just yesterday a police officer was killed in a city south of me, I will be sending a contribution off to his widow – he was not wearing his armor when killed – although the department had issued it to him. Body armor is uncomfortable to wear, but if you do it often enough it becomes less annoying. That’s why I had some panels inserted into a levis jacket – even in a casual setting, I can have it with me without arousing suspicion (unless someone picks it up!).

Were I to make a recommendation, find a used vest that you can VERIFY was sold in the last year or two, VERIFY has no Zylon in it, and VERIFY that it has not been exposed to harsh environments. Apparently Zylon was super-sensitive to getting damp/wet, all manufacturers used to encase the panel in Gore-Tex to help with wicking away sweat, now some are encasing it in a thin rubber casing to totally exclude water dampening the Kevlar – because, YES! Even Kevlar will deteriorate with prolonged or repeated exposure to dampness/heat/sweat/bad-breath, etc… And when you get that used vest delivered, take the panels out and look at the dates or date codes listed, a LOT of used vest hawkers on the internet buy new carriers (the thing the panels go in) and the vest looks new in photos – but may contain ten year old panels. So, again, if you MUST buy used – buy from someone with a solid, honest reputation that you can VERIFY.

Soft body armor needs to be comfortable, if it’s ill-fitting you wont like wearing it, ergo, you will NOT wear it. For that reason I do not recommend EVER buying a used vest that doesn’t fit your measurements exactly. If you go to a police uniform shop, they’ll measure you for a vest, and then you’ll know the exact size front and back panels you’ll need to find in a vest. Be careful though, some uniform suppliers are ‘snooty’ – believing that only police officers and other government agents should have soft body armor (no kidding). In some states you may not legally possess body armor. I’m pretty sure New York City restricts it, as well at the PRK.

So be wary, do your homework and be patient for the right used vest to come along. For TEOTWAWKI I must say I prefer concealable body armor – what the goblins don’t know about they can’t take steps to circumvent. Make it obvious that you wear armor, and I can guarantee you a looter will stay awake nights plotting his next head shot. While you are toiling away insuring the survival of your family, they have ALL DAY to plan looting you – it’s their CHOSEN CAREER PATH.

In case you folks are wondering about the body armor I own…

1 Point Blank full vest tactical carrier (external) – with IIIa panels made by another manufacturer
2 sets of SAPI plates one level III and one level IV that fit in the above vest
2 PACA concealable IIIa vests. (kevlar only) 1 year old and 4 years old.
1 tanker style kevlar helmet
1 USGI camo pattern flak vest, five years old – fits nicely under either PACA. I’d rate it at a IIa for most applications, maybe a little less. It is, however, intimidating to wear – psychological factor is why I have it.
1 Levis denim jacket with IIa panels integral to the torso and back and upper arm. I can wear this anywhere and NOBODY knows I’m armored.

OK, so maybe I do have a bit of armor – and that’s not counting what I have for the family, maybe someday I’ll post the picture of my eight year old daughter and her somewhat large vest and AR-15.

I did manage to get hold of a few dozen “destroyed” body armor panels (for testing!), I trimmed, sandwiched and overlapped them in a few waterproof (vacuum) bags and sized them for my door and rear panels in my ’65 Landcruiser. I’d considered using lexan laminate bullet-rated plastic, but MAN is that stuff expensive!!! I didn’t pay for the ‘destroyed’ body armor panels, so it was just labor to make them. My source was a body armor representative that was swapping out vests for a couple of local departments (police departments buy new vests every five years regardless of use/wear) – this activity happens every day around the country – where do you think a lot of those used eBay vests come from? These panels are somewhat stiff given how I fastened them to one another, and are two layers thick everywhere with IIIa panels. These used vests are shipped overseas for police officers over there who cannot afford them. England is a big benefactor from this program, and many eastern bloc countries. (Was that politically correct?)

ALL that being said, body armor is something that is not only ‘nice to have’ but lends a passive safety factor to your life – you don’t have to ‘display’ it for it to be useful, and the stuff keeps you warm in the winter! I’ve had to lay prone for extended periods of time in the snow, and the armored parts of me stayed very warm, it also smoothes out the rocks that always seem to exist in any terrain that you might be called upon to go to ground on.

What do I think you should get? I think you should buy NEW – it’s somewhere between $300-500 dollars for a quality Level II these days – or you could go the used route, but I don’t think it’s worth my life to save 100 bucks… I read a passage from John Ross’s “Ross in Range” commentary area (www.john-ross.net) that says something along the lines of ‘Friends don’t let friends buy junk guns.’ – and I’d like to second that opinion but apply it to body armor. The time to find out that your body armor was just a little TOO old to stop that 9mm round going a measly 1000 f.p.s. is not when you’re wearing it. I’d also suggest reselling it every three years and using the proceeds to upgrade to the new stuff. If the political rhetoric hits the revolving finger slicer you might be faced with a few years of using the stuff – and unavailability of new replacements. The more life you have in the vest when the balloon goes up, the longer it will be useful. Or rotate the used vests (if you can afford it) to the barter goods bin (and seal them away from moisture and heat) – if you think a tanned piece of leather will be worth something in a disaster – imagine what value will be placed on any body armor you have tucked away as surplus. – J.H. in Colorado