Body Armor Quality: Why I Do Not Endorse Chinese Body Armor, and Other Notes on Armor Quality
In recent years cheap body armor and ballistic helmets manufactured in China have flooded the U.S. market. These products offer what is, at least on the surface, very attractive price/performance ratios. Many such armor products become the subject of “YouTube shoots” wherein media influencer types with large subscriber counts or just your average person test out the armor on a range. These YouTube shoots are often touted as evidence of the armors quality, with proponents proclaiming that the armor “stopped what it said it stops, so why don’t you like it?”
The answer – I don’t endorse these Chinese products because there are a great deal of things that YouTube shoots alone can't reveal, not to mention the problems often associated with Chinese manufacturing, or any manufacturers that simply go un-watched. Manufacturers who face little or no outside oversight have been caught cutting corners to varying degrees, or outright lying about their products and manufacturing processes.
A prime example of the problems associated with lack of oversight is Sioux Manufacturing and the debacle regarding the Kevlar they weaved into completed fabric sheets. Sioux Manufacturing was contracted by the DoD (U.S. Department of Defense) to weave Kevlar for the PASGT helmet. It was discovered they were shorting the picks in the weave to cut costs. This shorting of the picks lead to a measurable decrease in ballistic integrity of finished helmets made using their fabric. Detailed information on this incident (among others) can be found in the book Shattered Minds by Dina Rasor.
Another example of what I’m talking about can found in a 2010 incident involving ArmorSource, who sub-contracted their ACH helmet assembly to UNICOR – also known as Federal Prison Industries. Their manufacturing supervisors were having prisoners cut and assemble material and helmets with handmade tools, disassembling old/rejected helmets and reusing the material, etc. Multiple production lots of the helmets failed ballistic tests. This revelation resulted in the recall of over 44,000 ACH helmets and ArmorSource paying a three-million dollar settlement.
All of this happened in the U.S. with U.S. based companies, those companies being contracted by the US Government. That said it is up for question what level of oversight and regulation Chinese armor companies face, and if they do operate under some level of legal regulation and/or third party oversight, to what level is it enforced? Regulation and oversight without enforcement is equivalent to nothing being done at all.
There are some more instances of armor companies and quality issues that are worth noting, though these did not directly involve government contracts –
TAP (Tactical Armor Products) made the fairly well known Gamma Plus plate. The Gamma Plus was a single curve level III ceramic plate. The fiber backer on many of the Gamma Plus plates still in existence is likely delaminated fully or partially from the ceramic strike face as the adhesive bonding these two parts is failing due to improper application procedures used during plate assembly. Because the plates were assembled improperly the effects of time (over a decade now since production of these plates ended) have taken their toll on the adhesives bond. These plates can no longer be relied on for ballistic protection, especially beyond the first hit on the plate.
Hesco failed a FIT (Follow up Inspection Test, required by NIJ to retain NIJ Certification) on both their 4400 and 3610 plate models. The 4400 FIT test failure was in 2018, where a full penetration on one plate was recorded during the FIT test. The 3610 FIT failure (and subsequent suspension from the NIJ Certification list) was in 2019 and has resulted in the 3610 plate being pulled from Hesco’s product line, with production of the plate officially ending. The cause of this is, as far I’m aware, unspecified consistent issues with supplied materials. Hesco has also opted to replace many 3610 plates currently in use with their 3810 plate.
To view all open and closed NIJ Advisory Notices (and hence all armor that has at least temporarily had its NIJ Certification suspended) click here.
I would like to reiterate the point about what level of oversight, if any, Chinese armor companies face. Even U.S. based companies miss quality problems, make mistakes, etc. Worse still are shady fly-by-night armor companies.
Furthermore there are other issues to consider besides just whether or not the plate simply stops the projectile from penetrating. Just as an example, I’ll reference the Botach Battle Steel Level IV plate here as it’s recently become quite popular and has appeared on the channels of several popular firearms and ‘prepper’ oriented YouTubers.
The plate is ostensibly a product of LongFri Technologies, located in Pomona, California. A plate of identical specifications and appearance is listed in their product catalog. Reading through LongFri’s site there are myriad spelling and grammatical errors. Furthermore most of their products are typical of imported Chinese armor, with LongFri selling knock-off OpsCore helmets and the like. Both of these factors strongly suggest that LongFri is, at best, an assembler of a small handful of products such as their plates or that they are just an importer of products fully manufactured in China.
In regards to the quality of the armor itself, there’s a reason these Chinese plates are cheap in comparison to comparable U.S. made plates. These manufacturers are likely cutting corners to lower production costs and hence make a cheaper plate. Where this corner cutting is occurring is likely in both materials and construction. The purity and overall quality of the ceramic used will likely be lower than that seen in a U.S. made plate, the adhesive bonding the strike face to the fiber backer may be applied crudely and the adhesive itself may be of low quality or it is inappropriate for use in ballistic products, and the backing materials will also be of lower quality than those made by the likes of Dyneema, Honeywell, or DuPont. The points about quality of materials and assembly can apply to any armor, not just ceramic plates.
The point being that what you’re paying for with U.S. made armor from a known good manufacturer is consistent quality, better materials, better engineering in regards to ballistics, and superior craftsmanship. Again, in regards to the Botach plates in particular, Neither Botach or LongFri state measured BFS (back face signature, the reading taken from an NIJ spec clay block backer after a hit to the armor in lab testing), impact velocity, shot spacing, etc. There is no available information on what kind of quality controls are in place to ensure that plates being sent out the door to end users are not dangerously out of spec. There is no good information on the longevity of the armor. There is no information on the manufacturer’s track record.
One last point on the matter - Who is being held accountable if a given piece of armor fails? With armor from quality manufacturers and distributors there is a clear line of responsibility. In the case of the Botach armor plates for example, who is responsible for a failed plate? Is it Botach? Is it the manufacturer (again, ostensibly Longfri) that Botach has obscured for some reason? How do we know that Longfri is an actual manufacturer or assembler, or if they’re just an importer shell company for a China based manufacturer? With most imported armor the true manufacturers are often obscured. At the very least I expect it to be more difficult to enforce any sort of legal liability for armor failure against most Chinese manufacturers compared to European or American based companies.
Bottom line – while Chinese armor typically stops what it says it stops, it’s still a gamble due to the amount of unknowns involved regarding quality and QC processes. Single quantity tests are statistically meaningless as there’s nothing to prove one piece is the same as the next, so these “YouTube shoots” should always be analyzed with this in mind. There’s no way to ensure consistency from lot to lot or even from one item of armor to the next, never mind that the degree to which the armor can be subjected to abuse (rough handling, environmental exposure, etc.) and still perform as claimed is completely unknown.
With all that said I do not and never will endorse the purchase of such armor except in a tiny minority of scenarios with exigent circumstances where the purchase of such armor is a last resort should armor of a known quantity not be available.
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