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Fully Vested

        As a confirmed nut case, I recently went out and purchased a ballistic vest. These are also known as protective vests, or even as ballistic armor. They are most commonly called bullet proof vests, though this is somewhat of a misnomer. As with many of my toys and curiosities, I picked the vest up, because the price was right. A friend of mine, who happens to be a security guard, was selling it for $150, which is quite reasonable, even for a used vest. This is something I have been considering picking up for a number of years; but found it hard to justify as anything other than a toy. Protective vests seem a bit magical to some people, as do firearms themselves; but this can be overstated. There is nothing very magical about bullets, and they are not difficult to stop. Where the difficulty lies, is in stopping them with a garment that is reasonably lightweight, not too bulky, and does not impede movement.

        Most states have laws against a felon wearing or owning a protective vest, and a few actually have silly laws against wearing such a vest during the commission of a crime, as if this would deter a mugger, burglar, or hold up man. As of this writing, only Connecticut outlaws civilian ownership of such items outright; but I wouldn’t be shocked to see other states follow suit. Many, if not most, sellers of ballistic vests will not sell to an individual unless provided with a police or military ID, though this is seller policy, rather than law. I suppose it is a matter of self preservation. The manufacturers of these products are hoping, through self regulation, to to keep a low profile, and defuse any government initiatives towards regulating their industry. For now though, most law abiding citizens may have to hunt around a bit; but will have little difficulty in obtaining a protective vest, except for the matter of cost. These things are really expensive.

        A “cheap” vest might offer level II protection, and cost $400 or so. The common range for most medium quality vests is $600 - $800, though some vests can cost well over $1000, or even several thousand dollars. Still, what is your life worth? As with firearms themselves, if you ever need one of these vests, you will really need it badly. There are some less expensive protective vests available; but these tend to be of the flak jacket variety, and are often heavy, and offer little protection. Most of this type are surplus, Viet Nam or even Korea era military. They were never designed to stop bullets, and were never claimed to have this capability. As the name implies, these were to protect the soldier from flak, and shrapnel.

        Ballistic protective panels, which are what make today’s vests protective, are also used in certain jackets, briefcases, and certain protective over vests. There is thus a variety of protective clothing on the market. There are generally three types of ballistic panels in widespread use today.

        The most common and well known ballistic material is Kevlar. This is a woven polymer cloth, which is said to be stronger than steel. Thin sheets of Kevlar are bound together into ballistic panels which are relatively light in weight, and reasonably flexible. The number of layers of Kevlar in a given panel is what determines its level of protection. The original Kevlar vests, made back in the seventies, used fifteen layers. A set of Kevlar panels can weigh as little as four pounds. Note how thin and flexible the Kevlar panel is, in the photo to the right. Yet these types of panels are designed to stop a bullet, and have been proven effective by the thousands of police and military lives they have saved.

        In use by the military, and some high end protective vests, are ceramic plates. Ceramic plates are generally constructed of boron carbide, or aluminum oxide, which is powdered, and then molded to shape with binders. It is very strong, and nearly as light as Kevlar, though it is not flexible. The advantage of this hard amour is that trauma will be uniformly transmitted to the wearer. Flexible armor gives increased mobility, and will prevent penetration by a bullet; but as it flexes, it transmits much of the energy to the wearer at the point of impact, so that getting shot wearing a Kevlar vest can feel like being hit with a hammer.

        The third type of ballistic material is good old hardened steel. This has the advantage of being cheap, and effective, though the plates are heavy, weighing about double, when compared to Kevlar. In very hot or very cold environments, steel plates will get very hot or very cold. Like ceramic plates, steel will tend to transmit kinetic energy more uniformly to the wearer, and thus avoid the bruising which can happen with Kevlar plates.

        When selecting a vest, the prospective user will need to assess threat levels, and the amount of concealment desired. A solder facing rifle, machine gun, and explosive threats will require the maximum level of protection, and will not be concerned with the high visibility of a bulky tactical vest. A police officer will likely be more concerned, or at any rate his supervisor will be concerned, over appearances, and the impression made on the civilian population. An officer will also be unlikely to face anything more powerful than a handgun, and will thus not need as high a level of protection as the soldier.

        For the civilian user, businessman, survivalist, or sportsman, the threat level will be low, but the desirability for discretion high. For most people, the sight of a person overtly wearing body armor is construed as a threat, almost at the same level as the wearing of a gun. Walking down the street wearing such a vest will also definitely get the undesired attention of local law enforcement. So for the average civilian buyer, a concealable vest, with a moderate level of protection is desirable.

        Not all vests protect equally. Ballistic vests are rated according to their ability to stop a bullet of a certain weight and energy. The more concealable vests do not offer the same level of protection as the heaver vests. For the user selecting a vest, and weighing concealability against protection, a set of standards has been set by the US National Institute of Justice, as a guide for law enforcement agencies. The NIJ Standard-0101.06, sets ratings for protective vests. For those wishing all the details, the standard can be looked up on the net. In a nutshell, Type IIA is good against 9mm, and perhaps 40S&W; Type II protects up to a 357 magnum; Type IIIA will protect the wearer from 44 Magnum, while Type III will protect against most standard rifle rounds. Type IV, the highest rated, will protect against armor piercing high powered rifle bullets.

        Generally, the civilian user will select the Type II. Most police use either the type II, or type IIIA, while the military uses Type III. Types II, and IIA are relatively concealable, with Type IIIA being a bit less so. Type III is usually worn outside the uniform, and is quite bulky, as is Type IV. These last types are also very expensive. They are generally used by the military and by police SWAT teams.

        At the other end of the spectrum is the vest shown here. It is a PACA vest, with a protection level of II. Though it can be worn outside of the clothing, it is designed for discretion, and to be worn between an undershirt and a regular shirt. It is Velcro adjustable, to switch between different types of usage. Wearing this vest outside of clothing will somewhat lessen the blunt trauma of being struck by a bullet.

        As with most modern protective vests, this is designed as a carrier unit, to hold removable ballistic panels, which fit into large pockets on the carrier. The carrier itself is synthetic and designed to be machine washable, with the inserts removed. It is the only part of the system that actually touches your body, or your clothes. The protection level of the vest can be changed by replacing the inserts, or by adding additional inserts. Special hard inserts called Trauma Plates can be used to enhance the protection of the existing panels. This adds to the weight and bulk of the unit, but is a way to increase the level of protection offered.

        This particular unit is pretty much the same class and type as those used by most of the nation’s police forces. Though it is designed to be light, flexible and relatively concealable, it will add a few inches to your torso measurements.  It also reduces flexibility a bit, and makes me feel a bit clumsy while being worn. I have a few special shirts, a couple of inches large for me, which are specifically for use with this vest. For those who do not wish to buy oversize shirts for use with a vest, they can be adjusted for wear outside of clothing, though this advertises that the wearer is using a vest. Such a revelation invites a head shot, from a possible assailant.

        As a type II, this vest offers reasonable protection from handguns up to 357 magnum. This protection only extends to the torso, and vital organs. Protection of the head would require a helmet, which is pretty hard to conceal. Protection of arms and legs is not practical, due to weight and mobility considerations. Quickly treated, a shot to the arm or leg is almost never fatal, as opposed to a shot to the torso which hits the heart, lungs, liver or kidneys. Head shots, though possible, are very difficult, due to the size of the target, and its constant rapid motion. Thus a vest offers pretty good protection, to the areas of the body most likely to be hit by gunfire.

        The outer shell of the carrier, is solid ballistic nylon, while the inner liner is of nylon mesh, to allow air circulation, and permit the skin to breathe and pass moisture. The pocket is held closed, and the ballistic panel held in place, by a full length strip of Velcro. The front and rear portions of the shell are held together by Velcro adjustable straps. The two halves are similarly constructed and hold their ballistic panels the same way. The only difference seems to be in the way that the shirt tails are cut, and in the lower collar opening in the front panel. Incidentally, the shirt tails are pretty convenient as aids in keeping the vest from riding up, particularly while the wearer is sitting down.

        Once the vest is properly adjusted, it can be worn with a fair degree of comfort, and is not too intrusive.  The vest can get a bit warm, and should be worn over an undershirt, so as to permit air circulation.

        Care is easy enough, and is mostly a matter of simple common sense. The carrier should be washed, when required, and should never be worn next to the body. Extremes of heat and cold (like storing outdoors, or leaving in a locked car on very hot or very cold days) should be avoided. The panels should not be allowed to get wet.

        Incidentally, if you are considering ownership of a ballistic vest, or any type of protective gear, you might want to get one now. Like night vision devices, firearms, lock picks, certain computer and electronic gear, as well as some chemicals, these are considered to be para-military and undesirable for civilian ownership. All of the aforementioned are banned in some places, restricted in others, and always subject to the whims of those who run our increasingly restrictive government.