USGI PASGT Body Armor Test

Amid a tremendous amount of speculation and argument, the much maligned and disputed US Government Issue Protective Armor for Ground Troops (PASGT) has been in service for nearly 20 years and recently been surrounded by controversy about its protective qualities (or lack thereof).

First, we must understand the environment they were intended to be used in. The US military has not implemented plans for the rotation of body armor through supplies for any reasons other than loss, damage or wearout. Periodic replacements simply because armor was "old" were unheard of until fairly recently. Conversely, periodic replacement of body armor for law enforcement personnel is common. This big factor in this is the ballistic warranty on most body armor and the fact that ballistic warranties must expire over time, but within a period where the insurance coverage of the manufacturer will still be good on the vest. I estimate the insurance cost of a police vest to be around $15, but it is tied in with proper use and care of the armor itself.

Military contract buyers on the other hand, saw that extra cost as a major stumbling block in the 1980s when the decisions were made to update the Vietnam era body armor that was prevalent with the US military. The "new" armor would follow the same general pattern as the traditional "flack vest" in that it would be a front opening vest, but that would prevent it from being certifiable by any NIJ standards. This was something of a non-issue because the manufacturers were not held to carry any million dollar insurance policies on the protective qualities of the vest. Instead, they were rated for "shrapnel only" even though the material is identical to that used in the bullet resistant vests that were insured and sold to law enforcement agencies.

Thousands of the PASGT vests have hit the surplus market, especially in recent years when upgrade armor like the RBA and later Interceptor began to hit the scene. Still, we see a lot of coverage in the press and whiner corps that PASGT is "next to no protection at all" or "is not body armor". Well that is a matter of opinion.

Up to recently most law enforcement agencies considered level IIA to be a fairly good mix of mobility and cost vs protection against small arms fire. At that, they usually meant handguns and short barreled shotguns commonly used in the urban areas or carried in vehicles. Body armor capable of stopping Kalachnikov rounds at close range has never been a realistic priority because short range attacks on law enforcement by assailants using assault rifles are quite uncommon.

Military planners have a new bottom line to deal with when it comes to troop casualties - they cost more than ever before. The direct cost on average to retrain and re-quip a low ranking troop can easily stretch into the $500,000 range, and that does not even include payment of the direct death benefits to next of kin if a troop falls in battle, or worse, in a training accident.

I had tested a surplus PASGT vest before with surprisingly good results, but the test was flawed mainly for two reasons. One, we did not have a realistic backstop against the vest. This prevented the vest from behaving as if a person were wearing it when it was hit. Second, and most critical, no pictures were taken to document the test. I set out to put both issues to rest this time. In testing the German vest, I had good luck in measuring the blunt trauma by using plastic behind the vest to check the deformation of the vest behind the areas of impact. For ballistic realism, I then backed that up with a tightly wadded old plastic tarp. It was in so tight that it started to make the front of the vest separate. The plastic would have virtually no ballistic properties of its own, but it would fully prevent the vest from doubling up the front and back panels unrealistically. The test vest appeared to be a late 1980s vintage sample in size small. It was in decent used shape with no apparent serious damage. The previous owner told me it came from the Marine Corps and was discarded by a unit that had upgraded to Interceptor armor before heading out on deployment.

I do not pretend to hope that this vest will stop direct rifle fire at close range, but in comparison to police vests, I gave it a good simple workout with common handgun threats. The results of which you see here. .45, .40 and 9mm are the most common handgun caliber used these days in North America, and anything serious in between will be just that" in between. Even medocre body armor will stop .22 LR, 32 Auto and .380, so I felt they were not worth testing. Note however, that many rifle rounds lose considerable energy at longer ranges, and it is entirely possible this armor could perform against rifle calibers at longer range. I am saving the back section of this vest for longer range tests. All shots were made at "conversational distance" under 7 yards. NIJ testing has been done at greater distances like 15 and 25 yards, however I think the most important analysis is going to be at these shorter ranges where the ballistic effect of the bullet is not mitigated by other factors and we can look at "worst case scenarios" of an attack at close range, or close quarter battle where a person is most likely to get shot at with a handgun or submachinegun. It is assumed that there are longer distances where this armor will stop any bullets due to the loss of power all fired bullets exhibit at longer ranges. The problem with testing and certification with this is that loss of power is not predictable under much other than laboratory conditions due to heat, wind, elevation and the length of the barrel of the gun it was fired from.

First was the .45, using 230 grain jacketed "ball" ammo fired from a Kimber 1911 type pistol. Yes, a lot of people now use hollow points in the .45, but that is redundant since .45 ball ammo already has significant stopping power without the use of fancy ammo. It also goes to reason that Ball ammo would have the best penetration characteristics vs. unpredictable hollow points. As expected, penetration was minimal, with the bullets not even impacting the last layer of nylon, let alone the last few layers of kevlar. Three hits fairly close together did nothing to threaten the integrity of the vest. I did, however see evidence of what would be some fairly serious blunt trauma on the plastic placed inside the vest. This suggests that you would still have the possibility of serious organ bruising or rib damage if a person wearing the vest gets hit. I think such hits would be survivable.

The test with .40 caliber ammunition when fired from an EAA Witness pistol presented the results which I expected of a round that was specifically engineered NOT to penetrate body armor. Not only was blunt trauma minimal, one of the bullets appeared to have bounced off the vest. Penetration was even less than with the .45. Note that the .40 round was developed specifically for law enforcement use and situations where loss of control of a weapon would pose the least possible danger to patrol officers who would normally be wearing a vest. There is no doubt it is some relief to law enforcement officials that the .40 cartridge has become quite popular with both citizens and criminals alike because .40 caliber guns are often built on smaller, lighter frames originally engineered for 9mm. Still, the potential for blunt trauma injury should still be taken seriously as the dents in the plastic are deep and sharp. I think hits with this cartridge against the vest would be very range sensitive, as the .40 loses significant power at longer ranges.

The test with 9mm produced some slightly surprising and dissatisfying results. It does point to a lot of the reason why the US military finally made the switch to 9mm back in the 1980s when it became evident that many of the nations opposing militaries were upgrading beyond simple mass infantry tactics. While the .45 had plenty of stopping power for use against lightly clad infantry at point blank ranges, it lacks sufficient penetration to punch through cover and hit at longer ranges common to a battlefield environment. At what were virtually point blank ranges, the 9mm ball ammo had a 50% chance of penetrating the body armor when the rounds hit in relatively close proximity to each other. This suggests that multiple hits on the same area will weaken the armor enough for bullets to eventually penetrate up close. This could include a burst from a submachinegun or multiple hits from a handgun. Note, however, that there was not a whole lot of blunt trauma with the rounds that were stopped by the vest. They pretty much either pierced or they did not. Of the two bullets that penetrated, both retained sufficient energy to pass through the wadding in the vest and lodge in the back of the vest, but were easily stopped by the back of the vest. Hence, another person wearing armor, say in an executive protection scenario, would present complete protection against a 9mm threat. Two factors to consider in this: First, the penetrations were two out of four hits, all very close together. Second, the range was close, simulating a CQB environment and actually much closer than the NIJ standard. When backed out to the 15 to 25 yards normal for NIJ standard, I got less penetration and even if there was penetration, the bullet would retain a lot less power to cause damage even though a hit could very well be deadly and present a complicated problem for medical personnel trying to extract the bullet from a wound.

The tests are not fully concluded, but they do show how you do get significant protection from these vests which are available relatively cheap on the market. It also shows that the PASGT is far better than detractors give it credit for. It is not Interceptor armor, but it is also not half bad.