Essential Gear: Body Armor and Protective Gear

Body armor is another important consideration.  Guns do almost nothing to protect you from hostile or accidental fire.  Body armor does.  Surplus military body armor actually performs a lot better than its reputation and offers the best protection for the money.  The downside is that it is hardly concealable, in fact, it looks pretty obvious when you are wearing it.  On the other side is commercial law enforcement body armor.  It usually covers a lot less of your body, but it is easier to wear.  In fact, you can easily wear police style body armor under your normal clothes.  This is a good idea in lower threat level situations and can even be a help in higher threat level situations.  If I could only have one set of body armor, then it probably would be a police style vest since it is more versatile, but it is not necessarily the most protective.   For tactical purposes and situations where cost is a factor, military surplus armor is hard to beat. 

Police armor is rated by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) against different types of ammo and at different ranges.  The chart below is by no means all inclusive, but it gives you an idea of what armor levels protect against what.  Military armor is not formally rated the same way, although its protection is fairly consistent with level II police armor.  Most law enforcement agencies use level IIIA body armor for general patrol issue and IIA for undercover work.  Certain special SWAT team members use level IV armor, but it is the most rare.  Most body armor will not protect you much against blunt weapons like sticks or clubs, but it will offer protection against most wide bladed knives.  THIN DIRK OR DAGGER TYPE KNIVES CAN PENETRATE BODY ARMOR with enough stabbing force.   


 If you can only have one vest, get one like this, it has decent protection and good versatility. 

These semi-custom vests for police use combine elements of a combat vest with body armor.  Protection tends to be better than with similar military vests.  A similar utility can be had by making custom carriers for your body armor.  

In general, body armor is made from high tech synthetic fibers called Kevlar.  Another, more advanced material is called Spectra.  Many modern vests use a combination of the two materials.  New vests start at around $250 for a decent police style vest with IIA protection and $200 for an as-new military unit.  Used military body armor commonly trades hands on the surplus market for under $100 and sometimes as low as $50.   Police armor is usually more expensive, with quality models running around $500 if they include Spectra and upwards of $900 for level IV SWAT units.   Police surplus vests vary widely in price, but $100 seems about average with some going as high as $250 and good deals being as low as $40.  

Used police armor is commonly available in online auction sites like Ebay, Yahoo and others.   A search for "body armor" will usually turn up a couple dozen for on auction at any given time.   In almost every case, the warranty will be expired, but the vest panels are in reasonably decent shape and will perform as designed for many years to come.   The most common buyers of these cheaper used vests are security guards.   Other buyers include survivors like yourself, cab drivers, couriers, convenience store workers, delivery persons who carry cash, and collectors.   Journalists and firefighters also use body armor from time to time.   Some motorcycle enthusiasts scavenge the material for building crash protective garments.  

Level one armor is the very uncommon and not particularly valuable.  It is used by prison guards in special vests made mostly to protect against knife attack.  Level I armor is the weakest, but since it is the most flexible and concealable, people can get away with wearing it all the time.  Level one armor will often reduce the severity of injuries caused by bullets that do penetrate it.   It is sometimes custom made into normal clothing for undercover police, wealthy individuals and government officials.  Ronald Reagan was known to wear a level one armored trench coat.   

One element that plays a role in the value of a used police vest is the ballistic warranty.  Since Kevlar degrades with age, manufacturers put a warranty expiration date on the vest (usually on the inside label of the front panel).  The warranty is usually for five years from the month of manufacture.  Vests older than that warranty are worth nothing to a law enforcement agency and must be replaced.  They are commonly thrown away.  Although this armor is still pretty good, never ever pay top dollar for it.  Low paid security guards traditionally get police "hand-be-down" armor from small departments.  It is still far better than nothing, but not as good as new.  Some sellers of low cost used body armor claim that it can be good for the lifetime of the owner, as long as it is well cared for.  I have personally tested ten year old panels and found them to perform to factory spec. 

There is a growing concern in the law enforcement community regarding access to body armor by criminals.   While some of this is entirely irrational, a survivor must be sensitive when dealing with law enforcement or their traditional suppliers in getting body armor.    Some states have legislation that restricts ownership of body armor by felons.   Another thing is enhancement of criminal sentences for those who are known to wear body armor during the commission of a crime.   

Military vests are usually well used and abused within months of being put to use, although they may spend decades in storage.  That is why they never have a ballistic warranty.  I have personally tested a US Army PASGT vest with a variety of loads and found that even a well abused model performs at level IIA but I have tested one that was well within the capabilities of a level IIIA vest.   They will not stop normal rifle rounds like a heavier vest would.  Another issue is blunt trauma.   The PASGT vest has no provision for shock plates, so even through a .44 mag will not penetrate the panels, it is likely to still be a critical or fatal hit because of the blunt trauma.   This armor is not commonly restricted from civilian purchase and usually costs less than police type armor.   It offers better coverage, but is much less concealable.   I highly recommend the US PASGT vest for a survivor's tactical gear package.  

Newer breeds of heavier, but far more protective, military armor become available on the marked from time to time.   The most common is known in slang as "RBA" or Ranger Body Armor.   It is designed more like a police vest but has ceramic torso plates that protect against high power rifle fire.  This stuff can sell for as much as $850 on the surplus market but I suspect it can drop to around $100 depending on availability and condition. 

The top of the food chain for military body armor these days is the Interceptor armor by Point Blank.  It is current issue by the USMC.  While not providing any more protection than the RBA system, it is more lightweight and versatile.  Groin and neck protection is integrated into a system of interchangeable panels instead of the aging "diaper" used with previous armor.   The Interceptor armor is also compatible with the Molle gear system, but the system is rapidly declining in popularity among troops.   Addition of the SAPI plates brings the level IIIA basic interceptor armor up to a solid level III protection.  

Technological advancements in body armor gravitate toward lighter weight and broader coverage with a combination of flexibility and stiffness.  Past armor was either hard with little flexibility or soft with little blunt trauma protection.  Blunt trauma from a bullet hit square in the chest can kill even if the bullet does not pierce the armor.  Newer hybrid armor deals with these issues.   The best military armor is the Interceptor armor developed by Natick labs.  While highly touted by the US military, it is in very limited use and is unlikely to see widespread use or availability until 2010.    There are limited numbers of these vests on the commercial market with prices varying widely.

Another decent item to get is a Kevlar helmet.  Do not waste your time with an old style "steel pot" helmet.  Kevlar helmets run around $250 (as high as $500) new but sell used for as little as $50 and sometimes less from a GI who just needs the cash.  The US issue PASGT helmet is very commonly available, but Israeli and British models are also available.  New prices tend to be about the same with used ones hovering around $100.   Neither the Israeli or the British models offer the level of head and neck protection of the US model.  The US model is favored by war journalists and UN peacekeepers.  Get one used and keep it with your war gear.  

Care of body armor:

Some things that shorten the life of body armor are water (including excessive salty sweat), sunlight (do not leave armor laying out in the bright desert sun), mold and mildew.   Do not wash Kevlar with any kind of detergent.  Old vests can get stinky and I know guys who have washed their military vests.  Do what you have to do I guess.  If you have to wash a military vest.  Use warm water and a mild soap.   Wash the vest by hand in a tub and use a scrub brush.   Try to avoid submerging the vest in the water. The outer nylon is not part of the ballistic protection, the yellow stuff inside is the Kevlar, at least go easy on it.   Do not wring the vest to dry it and avoid bending or wrinkling it.  Do not iron the vest.   You can wash a police style vest more easily by removing the panels from the carrier and washing the carrier in a washing machine.  Do this frequently enough and the panels will never get stinky.  On civilian vests, you can replace the carrier from time to time.  

Treat police style body armor like an undergarment.  Wear it over a thin t-shirt but under your outer clothing.  Only prisoners and journalists wear it on the outside of normal clothes.   The idea is not only to conceal the body armor, but to protect it from dirt and grime since the stuff is very difficult to clean and cleaning usually degrades service life.  That is why cops usually wear a t-shit under the armor - it can get smelly pretty quick.  They usually never wash it and dispose of the armor by the time it smells really bad.  

One thing that can help a little is to wash and replace  the carrier garment, although cheaper armor has an integral carrier.  Most 'refurbished' armor on the market is made with old panels with new carrier garments.  As a last resort, cut the panel open and remove layers of Kevlar that have been damaged by mildew or dry rot.  This will degrade the vest, but you can combine sheets of Kevlar from two panels to make one decent serviceable panel and it will smell better. 

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