There is a gun then a loud bang. You’ve been shot in the chest. But you’re wearing a bulletproof vest. You take a moment to catch your breath and you walk away from the scene.
So wearing a bulletproof vest saved your life, but how do you feel now?
How Bulletproof Vests Work
“Bulletproof” is actually a bit of a misnomer, as no personal armor is completely impenetrable to all firearm projectiles. But wearing a bulletproof vest certainly ups your degree of overall bullet resistance. Resistance simply means that the vest will stop certain types and sizes of bullets travelling up to a specific speed, depending on the rating of the vest. When the bullet in the above scenario hit the vest, it became caught in a web of very strong fibers that had been woven into a dense fabric. But unlike a spider’s web, this vest relies on layers upon layers of this fabric to absorb and ultimately disperse the energy from the bullet’s impact. Energy is absorbed by each subsequent layer until the bullet has been stopped while the force is dispersed over a larger area of the vest and body to help mitigate the effects of blunt trauma to the wearer’s internal organs.
Construction of Bulletproof Vests
The archetypal concealable bulletproof vest is constructed of layers of ballistic fabrics like Kevlar (a trademarked para-aramid synthetic fiber developed by DuPont), layers of which are assembled into what is called the ballistic panel. This panel is embedded into a carrier. The carrier is generally composed of conventional fabrics like cotton and nylon.
In order to provide additional protection, some manufacturers coat the ballistic fabric with other materials. In other cases, hard materials like metals or ceramics are integrated into a more rigid protective wear to increase the level of protection beyond that of the low caliber handgun. But these armors are typically impractical for routine use and are typically worn externally for only short periods of time. For these special types of body armor think SWAT teams and the military rather than Law and Order SVU‘s Elliot Stabler.
Being Shot While Wearing a Bulletproof Vest
We know that the average law enforcement professional is not wearing a bulletproof vest that can withstand the shots of a rifle. But assuming that the vest worn is rated for the type of handgun and bullet used, 85% of vest wearers will sustain minor or no injuries (according to an Akron police department and Akron General Medical Center study) after being shot in the vest area.
But that is not to say that it doesn’t hurt.
Among the accounts from those who have experienced being shot while wearing a bulletproof vest (and lived to talk about it), there is one consistent analogy to describe the feeling: being hit with a baseball bat. Just check out this video from Bullet Safe:
Of course, the force of the impact is dependent on a number of factors including, but not limited to: the type of vest worn, the caliber of the weapon, the type of ammunition, and the distance from which the person was shot. Assuming again that the vest is in good condition and is rated for the weapon used, the vest should stop the bullet, but not before forcing the wearer backward or even knocking them down and sometimes with feelings similar to getting the “wind knocked out of you.” It certainly looked that way for Robert Kaiser, CEO of PPSS Group, who took a bullet wearing one of his company’s bullet resistant vests on camera:
While the vest works to absorb and dissipate the energy from lethal impact, the energy still has to go somewhere, and it is that very force that the wearer experiences. As the vest disperses the force of the bullet, it essentially affects a greater surface area by spreading the force. Thus the strange comparison of the force of a tiny bullet to a much larger baseball bat.
Injuries While Wearing a Bulletproof Vest
Though it may save your life, wearing a bulletproof vest certainly does not prevent injury from gunshots. Those minor wounds associated with being shot while wearing a bulletproof vest include bruising and abrasions, or damage to the skin’s surface. More moderate and even severe injuries can sometimes occur even in people wearing a properly rated vest and may include cracked ribs and even behind-armor blunt trauma (BABT), which can cause a wound that appears on its surface to be a gunshot wound.
Given the possible injuries, the International Association of Chiefs of Police strongly recommends that those who are shot in the vest area while wearing a bulletproof vest seek medical evaluation regardless of their symptoms at the scene. So while wearing a bulletproof vest can save your life, we won’t be asking anyone to shoot us anytime soon just to see how it feels.
For more information on the history of the bulletproof vest and those who wear them, click here.