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What you NEED to know about body armor for preppers

Upon occasion, I have received questions asking about body armor for a SHTF scenario. That got me to thinking that the topic of body armor might make an interesting article for the site. So I decided that I would break down the different types of body armor (bullet resistant) and their ratings. I also thought I’d give a little insight into my thoughts on having some as a prepper.

Body Armor Rating

Body armor is rated based upon its effectiveness against different types of ammo. These ratings are compiled by the NIJ (National Institute of Justice.) The NIJ frequently tests armor against the type of rounds listed below. These standards are the only nationally accepted standards for body armor worn by law enforcement. For this reason, I am most familiar with them and will be using them in this article.

There are a few things that you should be aware of when it comes to the NIJ standard. I will go into this in more detail in just a moment.

Bullet resistant armor breaks down into 5 categories according to the NIJ:

  • Level IIA – Designed to stop 9mm (124 grn FMJ) at a velocity up to 1225 fps and 40 S&W (180 grn FMJ) at a velocity up to 1155 fps
  • Level II – Designed to stop 9mm (up to and including from a sub gun) and .357 mag (158 grn JSP) at a velocity up to 1340 fps
  • Level IIIA- Designed to stop .357 Sig (125 FMJ) at a velocity up to 1410 fps and .44 mag (240 grn) at a velocity up to 1340 fps
  • Level III – Designed to stop 7.62mm FMJ lead core rifle ammunition – hard armor
  • Level IV – Designed to stop .30cal steel core armor-piercing rifle ammunition – hard armor

This armor is rated to not only stop the type of rounds listed with it, but also keep the back-face deformation of those rounds to a minimum. This means that the blunt force trauma from being hit by a bullet will not cause serious injury. This isn’t to say that it would not hurt or even break a few ribs should you be shot wearing one. Rather, it would help prevent internal bleeding from organs due to the force of the impact.

Things to keep in mind about the NIJ ratings

For the record, not all the armor ratings are for soft body armor. Level III and IV are hard plate armor as noted above. (See the pics below). Also, Level I body armor is no longer manufactured, and as such is not discussed here.

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Keep in mind that these NIJ ratings are tested against a single round. That means that the ratings do not account for the possibility of multiple hits.

These ratings are tests against the specific rounds listed. For example, a Level IIIA vest will stop a .44 mag round that is 240 grn. But against a .44 mag 305 grn fired from a longer barreled firearm, the Level IIIA vest may or may not stop it. The NIJ does not use a 305 grn .44 mag round in its tests.

Finally, be aware that there are no regulations on what body armor manufacturers can claim their armor stops. So companies can claim that their armor is above NIJ standards, but there is no way to know for sure. NIJ tests commercially available armor for their standards, but not above or beyond what was previously talked about.

Hence I recommend getting your body armor from a reputable manufacturer.


Level IIIA vest with a Level III ceramic plate

I mentioned above that Levels III and IV are hard plate armor. These plates are designed to stop not just handgun ammo, but also rounds fired from various rifles.

There are three different types of plate armor.

  • Ceramic
  • Steel
  • Polyethylene

The pic on the right is of a ceramic plate. The pic below is a vest made of steel plates.

Ceramic plates have been around for quite a while, and are excellent at stopping rifle rounds. However, ceramic plates begin to break down after being hit, and therefore are not great at stopping multiple rounds. There are also heavy. The ceramic plate I have in front of my vest weighs 7lbs 8 ozs.

They also must be handled with care. Dropping one can cause the plate to begin to break, making it much less effective against incoming rounds.

Polyethylene plates weigh less than ceramic, and are designed to stop multiple rounds. But these plates can get pretty pricey.

Steel plates are also out there. They are not as expensive as polyethylene, but are heavy. (Almost 10 lbs for a 10×12 sheet.)

Plate carrier with steel plates

Keep in mind that plates typically come in 10×12 inch size. So while they are designed to stop all kinds of rounds, they only offer protection in that area. Soft body armor can wrap around your torso, and can offer protection to more of your body.


Both soft armor and plate armor must be wore inside a carrier. Most soft body armor comes in a cotton or polyester carrier with Velcro straps. This allows the armor to be worn under clothing. See the pic on the left. Clearly, you can see the body armor on underneath their uniforms.

However, there are also external carriers as well. (The 3 vests in the top pic are all external carriers.) These external carriers can be full carriers, which will carrier soft body armor, plates, or both. There are also plate carriers, which hold just the hard plate armor. (See the below pic.)

Carriers can get rather pricey. But as always, you get what you pay for.

Personally, I have only external carriers, (see top pic) and all 3 are full carriers. I’ll go into more detail on this in a moment.

When looking for external carriers, multi-stitching on seams and attachment points are a must. It needs to be adjustable, typically with velcro. Avoid anything with elastic. This stuff can wear down over time.

Many quality carriers have pockets in them designed to allow you to carry plates (including trauma plates) in addition to the soft armor.

Keep in mind that carriers themselves offer NO protection. They are designed solely to carry the armor. So a carrier without armor is basically a shirt.

Trauma Plates

Trauma plates are typically 5×7 inch small plates that fit over your soft body armor. These plates are used to help add an extra layer of protection to the vital organs of the wearer. The help to absorb the energy from the impact of a round.

These are different than the plate armor as they are designed to be used in conjunction with soft body armor.

These typically slide into the front of the carrier on top of the soft armor. (Most carriers will have a pocket specifically for these.)

Adding soft/hard trauma plate(s) will add additional, higher protection levels and reduce possible bullet fragment ricochet. Some trauma plates are designed specifically to reduce the amount of blunt force trauma from a round impact and not necessarily to increase the level rating.

In my Level II vest shown on the right, I have two 5×7 trauma plates, one hard and one soft.

Other things to remember about body armor

Soft body armor can be seriously degraded by things such as heat, moisture, and UV light. So be sure to store it with this in mind. Also make sure your carrier is moisture resistant if you think you might be out in things like rain or snow.

Soft body armor also has an “expiration date”. This is typically 5 years from the date of manufacture. However, the expiration date on soft body armor doesn’t mean a lot. Soft body armor is NOT like milk, and will suddenly cease to function a few days after the 5 year mark.

Tests have been conducted on armor made back in the 1980s and 1990s. It still stopped the intended round. Just be aware that with time, the soft armor will slowly lose some of its protective capabilities. So for this reason I would personally avoid purchasing used armor.

Obviously the higher the rating, the more protective the armor is. But also keep in mind that the more protective the armor is, the heavier and thicker it is as well. It will be harder to conceal!

And finally, body armor is designed to stop bullets. But it is not always fool-proof. On occasion it might fail. You might be shot with something stronger than the body armor was designed for. (Remember my example of different .44 mag rounds.) Just remember that body armor is NOT Superman’s cap, and does not make you Iron Man!

Do Preppers need body armor?

Before we go any further, be aware about the laws in your area concerning body armor. For example, convicted felons are NOT allowed to own body armor. For more info on body armor laws in your state, click here.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s jump in on whether you need body armor or not.

When it comes to purchasing body armor from a preparedness standpoint, there are several factors that you need to consider.

The first is a cost vs need ratio. Body armor can get pretty expensive. Plate armor can be several hundred dollars without the carrier, and soft body armor can be even more. When you also stop and realize that the vast majority of emergencies won’t require body armor, then it stands to reason that other preps are much more likely to be needed and should take a priority. You won’t need body armor for a house fire, a tornado or earthquake, etc.  In reality, body armor probably won’t be needed except in a time of a WROL (Without Rule of Law) type event. And the likelihood of that is slim.

Level IV ballistic shield

Now that is not to say that you should not have body armor if you feel like that should be a part of your preps. What I’m saying (as I always do) is to prepare for the most likely events first. Don’t spend several hundred dollars on armor when you do not have enough food, water, medical supplies, etc already gathered and ready to go.

Next, are you purchasing armor for a potential WROL or long-term grid down scenario? If so, keep in mind that by wearing body armor (other than the very thin, concealable ones) you could end up attracting more attention than you want. I talk about giving away “clues/indicators” in my article on Opsec. By wearing visible body armor, you are telling other people that you have supplies.


Let’s face it, anyone wearing body armor in a serious SHTF event is going to have a lot more gear and supplies than just the armor. And the bad guys know this. They would quickly realize that you have other things that they want and need.

Maybe you feel you need concealable armor because you could be in potentially dangerous areas. Just remember that the stronger the armor, the thicker and heavier it is. This means that you will be trading some protection for the ability to conceal it. So while Level IIA armor is easier to conceal that say Level IIIA, it is not going to offer the same amount of protection.

Even with concealable armor, you sometimes run the risk of “imprinting”. (Meaning it is seen through your clothing.) This is especially true when you do things like sit down, bend over, etc. Soft body armor is generally custom fit. But it still will move around when you are physically active. Many a cop can tell you about their soft body armor pinching or moving around their torso when they are sitting. This can lead to imprinting.

Wearing body armor is not comfortable. That’s not to say that it is terrible. But a silk shirt it is not. It can get hot, and if the carriers are not washed or taken care of, they can begin to smell. Body armor is also a bit cumbersome. You are not going to have the full range of motion you would if you were not wearing it. Nor are you going to be able to move as fast. This is especially true when you have on plate armor.

For this reason, we practice shooting with our body armor on! If you have body armor, I STRONGLY encourage you to practice shooting with it on. It will change your shooting stance a little. It might also cause you to have to adjust the stock on a long gun. I have to shorten my AR stock by about a half inch because the added thickness of armor changes how I mount my rifle/shotgun to my shoulder. Needless to say, if you have not adjusted your shooting and posture for this, your armor may not be of much use in a gun fight!

It can also restrict your movement a little. You are not going to run as fast wearing an extra several pounds around your torso. It can also constrict your breathing a little…meaning it takes a bit longer to catch your breath after hard, physical exertion.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to body armor for preppers, if you have the available money and want to purchase some (for a WROL event) and just keep it in your gun safe or closet, then by all means go for it. (I recommend doing your homework and finding a reputable dealer.) Just be aware that in a SHTF scenario, wearing body armor could attract unwanted attention.

But if money is tight, I would caution you to concentrate on more pressing needs, like food/water storage, medical gear, communications, etc. You are more likely to need these types of supplies in the vast majority of emergencies.


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One Response to What you NEED to know about body armor for preppers

  • Some great info in your article, thanks. I personally like the 11 x 15 NIJ IIIa soft panels in my backpacks. They usually fit in the bladder pocket or laptop pocket and can be worn front or back. Weigh about 1 pound.

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