When given the option between hard and soft body armor, the choice seems rather obvious at first. If you are in a line of business that may expose you to gunfire, why would you want a soft material protecting you from a speeding metal projectile? Believe it or not, soft body armor can be the superior option in some circumstances.
It may be helpful to understand how each type of armor works. When it comes to a piece of equipment that can mean the difference between life and death, you really cannot be too careful in making the right choice. Be sure to take your time and research each type of armor so that you know exactly what you need when you go to make your purchase. The following information should tell you most of what you need to know to make an educated decision.
Soft Armor Plates
Soft armor may be lighter and more flexible, but it is the material and the design that give it the strength and durability to stop a bullet. It may feel like a thick canvas vest, but the materials used to create that vest can be anywhere from five to ten times as strong as steel.
The most common material used is Kevlar, made by DuPont. The Kevlar threads, which are woven together like a net, are proven to be able to stop a bullet. The net-like design distributes the force of the impact, causing the entire net of Kevlar threads to absorb the energy. Think of it like a tennis racket. If you made a tennis racket with only horizontal threads, the ball could easily go right through it, because each thread would be left to absorb the impact on its own. Since the thread alone does not have the strength to absorb the energy, it would end up being pushed aside or broken.
In a net configuration, the horizontal threads transfer energy to the vertical threads, and vice versa. That means the energy spreads thinly throughout the entire system. It is an incredibly effective method of energy distribution; effective enough to stop a bullet. The lightweight material and its protection makes it ideal for professions that may require a lot of movement and flexibility. Some policemen, for instance, would find soft armor to be the optimal choice. Other professions that may need to conceal the vest, like private security, may also prefer soft armor. Soft armor does come as a stand-alone vest, or as soft plate inserts.
Hard Armor Plates
Hard armor plates are the other major option available. These are much thicker and heavier than soft armor. While there are several different materials used to construct hard armor plates, the general idea is to use strong material and make it too thick and dense for a bullet to penetrate. Steel, ceramic, and poly plates are some of the most common.
Steel plates were some of the first and most common, until they were mostly replaced by the much lighter ceramic plates. Ceramic could stop a bullet, and even stop multiple hits, while weighing a great deal less than steel. SAPI plates, or Small Arms Protective Inserts, are multi-layered plates designed for use by the United States military. They are made of ceramic, but covered with strong composite material that adds an extra layer of protection. Typically, the military inserts SAPI plates into Kevlar vests, thereby getting the protection of both soft and hard armor. Poly plates are very effective at repelling rifle rounds and multiple hits as well.
You can get more information on the different hard armor plates in my article on plate materials here.
With this information in mind it should not be difficult to decide what is best for your needs. You may need the lightweight flexibility of the soft armor, or the heavy protection of the hard armor.