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What is a Bullet Proof Vest?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A bullet proof vest, more accurately called a bullet resistant vest, is a protective garment that is designed to protect the wearer from the impact of bullets and shrapnel. Unlike body armor, which is made from hard plates, vests are made from soft materials and are designed to be lightweight, flexible, and comfortable. Many people in the field of law enforcement wear bullet proof vests on the job to protect themselves.

The earliest form of body armor designed to resist bullets was developed in the 1500s, when soldiers realized that their traditional plate armor was not up to the recently introduced concept of the gun. As early as 1919, several people applied for patents for designs that resisted bullets, but the real breakthrough in this technology came in the late 20th century, with the development of extremely strong and durable fibers like Kevlar®. Kevlar® and similar artificial fibers allowed companies to manufacture soft, flexible, and extremely strong vests that offered protection from bullets.

The science behind the bullet proof vest is pretty simple. When a bullet hits the vest, it encounters multiple layers of very strong, criss-crossed fibers. These fibers slow the progress of the bullet and distribute its force, causing the bullet to flatten out and stop in the layers of the vest before it can reach the body of the wearer. Typically, the wearer experiences some blunt force trauma caused by the impact, but this is much better than a bullet wound.

In order to function, the vest needs to be thick and bulky, to provide enough layers of fibers to stop the bullet. This can make it uncomfortable to wear, although modern designs are an improvement over earlier versions. Modern vests can usually be worn concealed under garments, and they come in a variety of cuts and designs that provide coverage while also sitting comfortably on the body.

In addition to resisting bullets, many bullet proof vests can also cope with attempted stabbings. The layers of material distribute the force of the knife while slowing its progress, making it difficult for an assailant to cut the areas of the body protected by the vest.

These devices only protect the torso, which means that the head and extremities are still vulnerable to injuries. This is an important safety consideration for people who wear such vests, as they are far from invulnerable. They simply make some jobs a little bit safer.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a EasyTechJunkie researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon324560 — On Mar 11, 2013

@OeKc05: you should know that, unless your dad is wearing some type of plated armor(like ballistic ceramic or however it's spelled), that a Kevlar vest will provide little more than peace of mind from a false sense of security.

Kevlar vests will not stop rounds from hunting rifles, or assault rifles. If I'm remembering correctly, during that Hollywood bank robbery with robbers wearing Kevlar and carrying AK-47s, one of them wasn't stopped until the cops already on the scene had broken into a gun store and got hunting rifles, because their handguns and shotguns weren't doing the job, and they couldn't get close enough to get a headshot (the other was stopped when the SWAT van arrived while the robber was trying to drive off, slammed into the driver's side to keep him from getting-out, then the SWAT cops ran out and shot him in the head before he could do anything).

I don't know if you'll read this, but felt it best to try and tell you so your dad would know he's not necessarily safer because he's wearing that vest.

By OeKc05 — On Jan 17, 2012

My dad's best friend was killed in a hunting accident. He had been out in the woods, looking for deer, when he was shot mistakenly by another hunter.

Since that day, my dad has worn a bullet proof vest every time he goes out into the woods during deer season. He tells me that some hunters get so excited when they see any movement after hours of waiting that they shoot at whatever it is without even checking first.

He doesn't trust any hunter out there, not even his own brother. He also wears a bright orange suit in the woods, but the bullet proof vest is his real life insurance.

By kylee07drg — On Jan 16, 2012

@wavy58 – Unless a bullet proof vest has metal plates in it, it will not be able to stop a bullet from an SKS. My brother is familiar with guns, since he is in the military, and they have to wear something that is more like body armor than a vest.

They have to take hits from AK-47s, so their body armor has to be super strong. My brother wears an extra-large vest with metal plates in it, and it weighs around 60 pounds. They have to be in excellent shape to lug this extra weight around and be able to maneuver while wearing it, as well.

By wavy58 — On Jan 16, 2012

My husband has an SKS, which is a super powerful gun, that he uses for target practice. I have seen where he shot at the ground with it, and I would hate to think of what this gun could do to a person's body.

Does anybody know if a bullet proof vest can protect you from an SKS bullet? Are there any other guns out there that can penetrate a vest like this?

I am just curious, because it seems highly unlikely that any strong fibers could resist the impact of ammunition from this gun. It really scares me that we own such a powerful weapon, even though he only uses it for shooting at a spinning metal target in a field.

By Oceana — On Jan 15, 2012

It amazes me that any fibers could resist penetration from a bullet. I am glad that these vests exist, because my husband works in law enforcement, and I worry about him every day.

It helps me to know that he is wearing one of these vests every time he goes out in the field. I do still worry that someone might shoot him in the head, because criminals must know that cops wear these vests to protect their torsos.

He has been shot at before, and all it did was knock him down. He got a small bruise in the spot where the bullet hit, but that was all.

By David09 — On Jan 15, 2012

@allenJo - I think in general you’re right about proximity, although stabbing takes place up close and the bullet proof vest seems to do a pretty good job there too.

To your point about metal, I’ve heard that other materials have been used as well. For example, there are ceramic bullet proof vests as well, however these are mainly used in military contexts, typically under camouflage clothing. I think the principle is the same however, in terms of how it slows the bullet down.

By allenJo — On Jan 14, 2012

I used to think that bullet proof vests needed to have some kind of strong metal beneath them to make them effective. I am not exactly sure how you would wear metal in an easy manner but the whole notion of using fibers in the Kevlar bullet proof vest didn’t make sense to me.

Then I went to a trade show where someone was selling safety gloves made out of Kevlar and he gave me the low down on the fibers and what makes them so effective. The article provides further clarification too.

While it doesn’t say, I would venture to say that your proximity to the assailant might make some difference in how effective the vest was. A bullet shot from fifty feet away won’t affect you the same as one shot from twenty feet away.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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