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Body Armor Ballistic Tests
The debate has come up again and again on how protective the surplus "flack" vests are against bullets. In comparing the average surplus military vest to the average police vest, we usually find claims that the police vests are more bullet resistant by virtue of the fact that the tags on the vests say so. The the advantage of the police vest being concealability and better claims of protection. The advantage of the average military vest is that it covers more parts of the body and will almost always be less costly, hence my opinion is that the average survivalist is going to be more likely to get the military armor, and it is often the more realistic choice. It offers more protection and would be worn only in training and higher threat level scenarios where concealability is not an issue. Given those considerations, the protective coverage over larger parts of the body is a safety advantage. An urban survivor, security guard, or persons in high risk low paying professions will however, see a more practical use for a police type vest.
In hopes of settling some of the arguments on the protection levels of surplus military vests, I have decided to conduct additional tests and document the results on this site. I had tested the US GI PASGT vest previously, but I did not photograph the results and the legitimacy of the tests were hotly disputed by some "experts" in the field. If someone out there is willing to provide another vest for testing, I will be glad to use these same test criteria and publish the results here. If you have a sample of some other surplus body armor and wish to have it tested, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org I am well aware of what the labels say on various military vests and how the "intent" was only for shrapnel protection, but Kevlar is Kevlar, and armor is going to have performance levels in kind with its condition and construction which is a scientific fact regardless of what manufacturer's lawyers will claim or deny. These tests are not for the purpose of making additional claims of protection, bun in determining a general guideline for the performance of these vests based on the samples tests.
This first test is on a German "Fleck" pattern vest that I understand is current issue with the German military and available as a surplus item on the open market with prices in the US ranging from $50 to $100 depending on size and condition.
The weather conditions for the test were cold and wet, with shots fired at a range of around ten feet. The backstop was a plastic tub partially filled with sand. I have no illusions about this vest stopping rifle rounds, or specialty high velocity handgun rounds so I tested it with three common caliber threat handguns; .45 auto, .40 S&W, and 9mm. I did not feel it necessary to test the vest against low threat calibers like .22LR, .380 or .32 auto since nearly every vest on the market will stop those bullets. I used standard ball ammunition in order to mitigate any inconsistencies one would normally find with hollow point ammunition which can give misleading results with underpenetration or overpenetration of kevlar.
A single round was initially fired from each handgun. The front and back panels of the vest appear to have the same amount of kevlar, and I opted to shoot from the inside back on the theory that it would provide a realistic target, being a single panel is what is between a person's body and the vest. Placing the vest closed up against a backstop, with both panels in line with the bullet path might give a false test result from the stacking of extra layers.
.45 did not penetrate, as expected the low velocity round is stopped by nearly all body armor, even the low quality and older stuff. .40 appears to have penetrated a little further, but was still stopped cold. The 9mm zipped right through, but as I will detail later, this result was not something I could easily repeat. The above picture shows the test guns to be fairly standard guns in the related calibers. A Kimber CDP in .45, Witness .40, and Beretta 92F in 9mm. As you will note in the picture below, the infamous "blunt trauma" of the .45 is often much exaggerated. The damage to the plastic tub being comparable to poking it very hard with a broomstick. Now a really hard poke with a broomstick would probably not feel too good, but it is far from debilitating and nowhere near enough force to propel someone backwards onto the ground.
Here, the backstop shows the one fluke in the initial test. A full penetration by a 9mm FMJ bullet. The "dents" in the tub are memory from blunt trauma that came from other hits on the vest as it was up against the tub. I was unable to duplicate the conditions of the penetration with other ammo in the first firing session. What is frustrating is that the penetration was from an apparently normal Remington round that came from my loose ammo bin. It is possible, but unlikely that it was a submachinegun round I picked up a few years ago at a range shared by police.
An examination of the vest and the backstop on the penetration show that the round fully penetrated and retained enough energy to displace a lot of the sand in the box, but I could not find where the round penetrated a tarp on the other side. It is possible that the bullet deflected into the ground. I attempted to repeat the penetration with additional rounds of 9mm and .40 since at first it had appeared the penetration was from the .40 caliber hit and not the 9mm. Later testing with the .40 revealed that it was not penetrating. The initial 9mm penetration was very clean and indicative of the vest having had little influence on the bullet path. In past experience, I have seen that penetrations usually will have a lot of pulled or torn fibers some distance from the point of penetration as the fibers would distribute force away from the point of impact. It does not make sense to me quite yet that another 9mm hit very close to the penetration was stopped within only about half the kevlar layers.
I opted to cut the vest open at the point of initial faliure. One thing I immediately noticed is that the kevlar in this German vest has a little bit finer weave than I have found in the PASGT and police vests. Otherwise, it appears to be conventional Kevlar material contained in an inner carrier of olive drab cotton/poly cloth, and then sewn into a cotton/poly outer shell similar in texture to the material used in US Issue lightweight BDUs. Another curiosity is the way the material cut and the condition of the vests as they tend to come into the US. The vests are usually clean, soft and faded. This might be the result of dry cleaning or laundering which would involve soaps and chemicals which degrade the kevlar.
I took the vest and the Beretta out again for a further test with another assortment of ammo. I fired at around eight feet and aimed several shots at the tag area of the vest. This time, most of the rounds penetrated, but with the type of penetration consistent with an incomplete stop. This had the pulling and bunching of the kevlar material I have seen with other stress failure type penetrations. Penetration on the tub had evidence of both blunt trauma and penetration indicating the kevlar absorbed a significant amount of the impact before failing. What became evident was that there was an inconsistency in the performance of the vest against 9mm at close range. 9mm parabellum did, however, penetrate most of the time.
Penetration on the vest here is not obvious but there are several exit points where bullets made it through the vest and would have injured the wearer (the vest was shot from the inside, so exit points are on the outside).
In the end, I have to consider the surplus German "Fleck" camo vests to be a bare minimum of ballistic protection which is probably equal (at best) to a level IIA or even as minimal as a level I vest. You sacrifice ballistic protection, but get a fairly high level of comfort, low cost, and of course some satisfaction on owning a military collectible.
Note, I became aware that this page has been viewed and referred to a number of times by people at a website (in German) apparently frequented by German military personnel. One person remarked (if my Babelfish translation is correct) that current policy in some German units is for troops to not wear the vest often and that they have tests which show that injuries caused by hits from a rifle may actually be made worse by the body armor. Their theory being that a normal FMJ bullet will deform and begin to tumble before exiting the vest and entering the body, therefore causing a more severe wound channel than what would be caused by a simpler in and out puncture wound common to a hit from a full power rifle shooting military FMJ ammo. I have not verified the validity of this claim, but it does sound worthy of mentioning.
For the survivalist who is looking to get at least some body armor protection on a tight budget, or who is looking to keep costs down on gear that remains in a cache and rarely used, the surplus German flack jackets remain a viable low cost option. They could, in theory, be layered under or over other protection and in a pinch can be worn under other clothing since they are thinner and more flexible than other armor. That trade-off is probably what the Germans had in mind when they issued this vest. That being a more comfortable albeit thinner vest provides more protection if it is worn than a costly and heavy vest that is left at the barracks. I would not recommend this vest, however, for serious professionals who go in harm's way as a matter of duty or intent.
Next will come a complete retest of the US Government Issue PASGT armor which is still the most common that is used by regular units in the US military.
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Another credible individual has tested another sample German vest with 125 grn JHP 9mm +P loads at 20 feet. There were no complete penetrations in his test. He did note that multiple hits did weaken the vest and eventually resulted in what would have been significant blunt trauma in the parts of the vest that had gotten three or more hits that were close together.