Testing the Practicality of Body Armor For Home Defense
Is it practical for a civilian to make a plate carrier or bulletproof vest part of their self defense plan? We find out.
BACK IN AUGUST, SENATE Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he wanted to introduce a bill to ban the sale and possession of body armor by civilians. “The ease with which those intent on doing evil are able to get advanced body armor is shocking,” he said. “What we have learned is that a good number of those intent on mass shootings buy body armor,” he continued.
Of course, far more people buy body armor with no intent of committing mass murder. They buy it to protect themselves from such evil people, whether that be in public or when the privacy of their own home has been violated.
While nothing (yet) has come of Senator Schumer’s proposed ban, it kicked buyers into high gear. Some online retailers went from having plenty of inventory in stock to running a backlog between six and eight weeks – or more! In fact, this story has been in the works since mid-August, and I’ve only just recently acquired all of the pieces I needed to test and, ultimately, write this article.
I wanted to know what it was like to wear body armor while performing home defense drills, and more importantly, what it’s like to shoot with it on.
We’ve all seen private security, law enforcement, and the military wearing vests and plate carriers of various types and going about their “normal” day, but what is it like for an average person to wear it for an extended period of time?
I tested a few different “bulletproof” products and vests from different manufacturers that are available to civilians, both behind and in front of the firing line. Here’s what I found out.
The first piece of gear I tested out was a Level IIIA bulletproof vest from BulletSafe. Designed to protect the wearer from shots up to and including the .44 Magnum, the vest weighs 5.7 pounds.
The first thing I noticed was that despite being called “soft armor,” it’s really anything but. It also gets hot quite easily, even just moving around in everyday life. (I work from home, so it wasn’t weird wearing a vest all day and going about my normal business.)
Another unique item from BulletSafe is their bulletproof baseball cap. Yes – baseball cap. It looks like any other plain-jane black Flexfit cap on the outside, but there’s Velcro on the inside that holds a small, curved plate of Level IIA armor, which is rated up to and including .45ACP, across your forehead.
There’s a bit of foam on the face of the plate to make it a bit more comfortable to the wearer, and I must admit, it wasn’t horrible to wear.
Because of the Flexfit design, everything is held tight to your head, but not in a way that’s uncomfortable or restrictive.
Next up, it was time to try wearing some hard armor. Hardwire sent along two Level III plates, which protect up to and including 7.62 NATO and 7.62×39 PS Ball, and weigh 3.3 pounds each.
To hold them, I used an Eagle Active Shooter Response Plate Carrier, which weighs just 20 ounces (1 pound, 4 oz). The plates slip into the Velcro pockets on the front and back, and there’s plenty of MOLLE and Velcro for attachment of any and every kind of accessory you could possibly want within arm’s reach.
Without any extra gear attached, this setup weighs eight pounds. It was surprisingly comfortable to wear, which I’m sure was helped by the plates being of the curved variety instead of straight, and the plate carrier did a good job of distributing the weight.
Still, after awhile, it becomes cumbersome—and hot—at best. It makes me thankful that I didn’t have to wear it for long periods of time, that’s for sure!
In a home defense scenario, though, the amount of time you’d need to wear it is minimal and the benefits of having it far outweigh any discomfort. (After all, that’s kind of the point, right?)
Home Defense Drills
Now it was time to actually run some home defense scenarios. First, I ran some home defense drills wearing the BulletSafe vest. While it weighed less than the Eagle carrier with two Hardwire plates in it, it was more cumbersome to maneuver while wearing it.
It was manageable with a handgun, but trying to shoulder an AR was problematic. There’s not adequate space to pull the buttstock in tight without bumping into the vest. As a result, my hold on the rifle wasn’t as good as I’d like it to be.
Shooting a long gun with body armor like this takes additional training and you will find that it’s much easier to shorten the stock on an AR and shoot with the buttpad on the vest instead of your shoulder, but this can feel really awkward at first.
Then I ran the same home defense drills wearing the Eagle/Hardwire combo. Even though it weighs more than the BulletSafe, it was easier to handle my firearms—both handguns and my AR—with this combo.
In addition to the plates being curved, they’ve also got a “shooter’s cut” that provides extra space in the shoulder area. This makes it easier to shoulder a long gun and to maneuver with it.
At The Range
No body armor test would be complete without some shooting, right? Right.
Before we begin, it’s important to note that there’s no such thing as “bulletproof.” In reality, even the best of body armor is only bullet resistant. In order to pass the National Institute of Justice tests, a piece of armor has to withstand six rounds of a given test ammo within a 3.94” circle, so that the rounds are close to one another, but never impacting the same location.
A new piece of armor is used for each caliber test. To test a piece of armor with multiple calibers for certification is impossible because of all the variables involved.
Generally speaking, a piece of armor like the one tested here begins to degrade after the first shot—technically speaking. Nothing is ever as good as new once it’s been compromised.
Will many kinds of armor withstand multiple rounds and/or different calibers? It’s certainly possible, but the variables are simply too great to quantify.
Basically, what I’m saying is that you should not judge or base an armor’s rating of any kind by the tests I’ve done here. Assume that your armor will protect you from one shot, consider yourself lucky to have survived said shot, and fight like hell to get yourself out of a situation that would require you to put the armor’s repeated success to the test.
Alright, with that out of the way, it’s time to do some shooting. I decided to field test the gear that I was most likely to use in a home defense situation. In this case, it was the Eagle/Hardwire combo and the BulletSafe baseball cap.
First up was the Level III plate from Hardwire. The first five shots I put on the plate were with a .22 LR pistol. You could barely see any indentation and had to hold it in the light just right to see that there were, in fact, five super small entrance holes. The plate sustained zero deformation.
Next up was a 9mm pistol. Those shots busted the side of the polyurea covering and you could see one of the rounds that the Dyneema inner material had caught and deformed, but there was no penetration.
Now for the rifle calibers. I shot five rounds of 5.56 from my AR15, and you could see the plate starting to deform slightly on the face and back, but the plate held up and was not penetrated.
Finally, I brought out my Garand to see what some .30-06 would do. As you might expect, that round caused a good bit of deformation on the front and the back and split the other side edge open, but it did not penetrate the plate.
The second shot pushed it past the breaking point and finally caused the plate to fail, allowing that .30-06 round to penetrate and exit the plate. Even so, I think it held up really well, taking five rounds each of .22LR, 9mm, and 5.56, and one round of .30-06 before finally failing.
The plate performed as advertised—and then some. Remember: my tests were far from “standard” and should not be used to judge a product’s abilities in any other situation than the one shown and described here.
.30-06 – 2 rounds
With the main plate test finished, it was time to see how the BulletSafe baseball cap would hold up.
The first test on the cap was three rounds of .22LR. It stopped all three from penetrating the would-be wearer’s skull, but the extreme curve of the plate caused the rounds to move around a good bit—especially if a shot hit near an edge.
For example, one of my edge shots was prevented from passing through, but it was deflected and ended up exiting the side of the hat. The other two rounds stayed in the plate, but you’d definitely be feeling it, since the plate had begun to deform on that side.
Now for three rounds of 9mm.
It absorbed the first round with no problem, but shots two and three would have caused serious injury – but not death.
.22LR – 3 rounds + 9mm – 3 rounds
By this point, the plate was completely compromised and blown wide open. There’s no way it would have been possible to still wear it in that condition, even if it could still stop more rounds. Nonetheless, the hat performed as advertised – and way beyond.
It withstood six rounds at close range without letting any of them through. That’s pretty impressive. Actually, no. That’s exceptionally impressive.
This product is not designed to protect the wearer from half a dozen shots to the forehead at close range. It’s more of a “one-and-done” scenario. The fact that it kept all of the rounds from penetrating is absolutely amazing. It’s highly likely that you’d have a fractured skull at this point, but you would not have a bullet hole in your head.
Again, my tests were far from “standard” and should not be used to judge a product’s abilities in any other situation than the one shown and described here.
Is Armor Practical for Home Defense?
After all the testing, the final question to be answered is, “Is it worth it?” In terms of the life-saving potential, the answer is, unequivocally, yes. Wearing it isn’t something I’d want to do all day (gratefully, I don’t have to, thanks to the men and women who do), but just like carrying a gun, wearing a bulletproof vest or plate carrier is comforting—not comfortable.
Of course, time is of the essence in an armed conflict. Some argue that the seconds it takes to don your armor are seconds—and, in some cases, life—lost. That could certainly be the case, but it doesn’t have to be.
In a perfect world, you’d have the time to properly cinch down / Velcro your armor into the tightest and most effective position possible. Both the plate carrier and the vest I tested can be stored in a way that they only have to be slipped over your head to be put on. It’s not the absolute tightest fit, but it’s better than nothing, right?
This also assumes that you keep your body armor near your defensive firearm, which is preferably right next to your bed. In this case, it can be fairly easy (and quick) to grab both your armor and your gun and get them both ready for the fight.
Now, if you keep your gun by the bed and your armor in the closet on the other side of the room, well, then you’ve got a whole different set of issues.
Just like training with your gun, you have to train with the armor. Not just shooting with it on like mentioned above, but also putting it on. You’ve got to be able to get it on your body in as fast a manner as possible – otherwise, what’s the point?
Seconds really do matter. You train for fast reloads; why not train for fast armor donning? If you plan on incorporating it into your home defense scenario, then you have to incorporate it into your training. It’s as simple as that.
As for how much training you should do, well, that’s up to you. Like any other kind of training, you’ve got to do it enough so that you’re both comfortable and proficient with it. There’s no set amount for that.
We don’t live in a comfortable world and body armor isn’t perfect, but it certainly makes dealing with it a little easier. Politicians like Schumer often say, “If it saves one life, isn’t it worth it?” Well, in this case, yes Senator, if owning body armor saves one life, it’s worth it.