When it comes to body armor, anything is better than nothing. At the same time, it’s critical to understand the different levels of protection offered by plates and soft body armor. Any level will absorb some impact and penetration. Remember that protection adds up. If you’re wearing IIIA plates and put a wall or something heavy between you and incoming AK-47 fire, even if the bullet penetrates the barrier and hits you, the combined protection of the object and the plates could still be enough to save your life.
Body Armor Levels
Modern body armor usually offers at least level IIIA protection. Levels IIIA and III are easy to confuse when researching, but there is a significant difference between what each level will stop. Doublecheck to make sure that you don’t buy less protection than you think you are.
Soft vs. Hard Armor
Soft armor is easier to conceal under everyday clothing. These vests are made to closely fit the body and do not have the pockets and customization potential of a plate carrier that is worn over clothing. Those who want extra protection while commuting during times of unrest or who work in occupations that can be targets for extremist actions might consider soft armor. Although rifle rounds will penetrate soft armor, the typical handgun rounds that are used in the average robbery or shooting will be stopped. Here is an example of a soft armor vest that is specifically designed for someone who has to dress for the office.
Hard armor consists of steel or ceramic plates that are often coated to prevent splintering on impact. Steel plates are heavier but cost less and can handle multiple shots in the same area better than ceramic composite plates. Hard armor has different “cuts” to accommodate specific needs. For example, you can get a swimmer’s cut that makes movement easier.
Many bulletproof backpacks are rated at this level. Unfortunately, it does not provide adequate protection for the rifle rounds that many who buy these bags are worried about. IIIA is the typical rating level for soft body armor. Some people use this softer armor when light protection is fine. It is easier to conceal under clothing. If you can stand the extra weight and heat generated by IIIA, it can be used to pad out or provide even more protection when wearing level III or IV plates.
Level III is effective against rounds such as the 7.62 x 51, .44 Magnum, and all common handgun rounds.
This is the minimum level recommended for protection from popular rifle rounds. It will stop a 7.62 x 39 round but not a 30.06. It will also stop rounds from an AR-15.
For serious active shooter situations, you want level IV plates. This level will stop a 5.56 (AR-15) or 7.62 (AK-47) round as well as it stops a 30.06 round. Technological advances have reduced the weight of these plates, but the lightest options are not readily available to civilians. They are also substantially higher in cost. If budget is no object, you may want to check availability.
Plate Production and Lead Times
Over the past few years, the lead time to get plates has been high at times. If you want plates sooner rather than later, you may have to search to find some that are in stock. Most dealers and manufacturers try to be very clear about how long it will take them to ship your armor. Sometimes it pays to not be picky about the color of the plate carrier you choose for your armor package. I would be willing to settle for a different color if it means getting my armor a month earlier. It’s not like they make carriers in loud colors unless it’s designed for a child.
Surplus Vests, Carriers, and Plates
There are websites that sell plate carrier setups and soft body armor vests that are retired police wear. These are usable, but they are at the end of the service life that is allowed for law enforcement. Plates with an expiration date must be retired even if they are still solid.
Most of the available surplus is soft armor. You could use this for additional protection and padding under a carrier setup and higher-level plates. Remember that plates prevent penetration and reduce some shock and impact, but they don’t absorb all of the force. Extra padding and layers can add additional shock resistance so that you can get on your feet sooner and recover faster overall from any active shooter situation.
Occasionally, military surplus stores get armor that offers a higher level of protection than soft armor. These deals are harder to find than they used to be but are worth looking for if new armor is not a possibility.
Plate Carrier Setups and Brands
This is the recognized leader in body armor and plates for both civilians and law enforcement. They stock bulletproof gear in a wide price range to accommodate any budget. Active military, veterans, law enforcement, and first responders can get a 10% off code by sending a copy of their ID or other credentials to firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the time of this writing, you can get the Testudo Gen 2 package for just under $300, and the lead time is a mere 1–2 weeks. The plate carrier comes with two 10” x 12” level III plates for the front and back. Side plates are extra but can be easily added later.
The Invictus Fully Loaded package is a good choice for someone who wants a lot of options on their plate carrier setup right from the start. The carrier itself weighs a mere 1.2 lbs.
Spartan offers a huge selection of plate carriers and plate styles. They are an excellent source for those that want a close-fitting soft body armor vest.
I’m highlighting these because they weigh a mere 3.5 lbs. each. They are available in two sizes, 10” x 12” and 11”x 14”, with the larger size weighing slightly more. They are only available as a set and offer level III protection. These plates are a good choice for someone who is interested in layering soft armor with hard but is concerned about overall weight.
Spartan sells their own brand of plate carriers, and they also offer Condor carriers. Like so many companies, there is a wide range of prices and features. Remember that if you feel the need to wear a plate carrier setup, you want one that will be as comfortable as possible.
This is a good full-coverage carrier for those who want to keep it simple. There’s room to add gear, and it takes side plates if you want all-around protection. The downside is that it is not sized for smaller people. The chest size for this carrier is from 38” to 48”. Of course, if you’re wearing soft armor underneath your plate carrier, remember to account for that because it will substantially add to your chest measurement, meaning that you might need a larger carrier than you think.
Although Premier offers some plate carriers and plates, their selection seems to be geared more toward people who want soft armor or plates for backpacks. They also offer a lot of options geared toward civilians, such as bulletproof laptop cases. Here’s a link to the plates and carriers that are currently available.
I could spend hours just looking at all the cool gear this site has to offer. Fortunately, they have a large selection of plates and carriers as well as other armor and riot gear for those who want to be even more ready for unrest or live fire. I also recommend LAPoliceGear if you’re looking to add gear to your carrier setup. They offer quality professional grade gear at a reasonable price.
A plate carrier setup is a significant investment. It’s important to consider all of the factors so that you get the best performance and value for your money. Don’t expect to find inexpensive plates. If you find a deal that seems too good to be true, then it may be surplus that is past its prime and not guaranteed to provide optimal protection.
It’s important to consider the total weight of what you will carry. A full set of level IV plates is heavy all on its own. Sure, you can pay more and reduce the weight some, but you still need to be careful when deciding what gear to add to your plate carrier setup.
Activity or Mission Considerations
Consider why you’re buying a setup. Do you want to protect yourself during civil unrest? Perhaps you plan to wear your plate carrier for extended periods because of your occupation?
Best Plate Carriers for Females
Plate carriers and plates that are made specifically for females are hard to find. The US Army and some manufacturers are trying to change that.
The main advantage of a carrier made for women is comfort when wearing for an extended period of time. If you’re curvy or large breasted, plate carriers made with men in mind may require alteration. Some women choose to wear additional padding under carriers. This is the most cost effective option, but it adds weight and makes it easier to become overheated during heavy exertion and hot weather. Padding can fill the gaps between the rigid plates that cannot conform to the female body.
Women who want better fitting armor should check out this article by a female US Army veteran for more info and tips. At the time she wrote the article, the best option was swimmer’s cut plates. Unfortunately, the swimmer’s cut means slightly less coverage than traditional plates.
I asked some of my friend’s that are retired from the military about female body armor and they pointed out another issue women have is plate carriers being too long. This means when a shorter female sits down, the carrier jams up under their chin and when they run or walk, the same carrier will rub on their legs.
Pockets and Pouches
Some plate carriers come with pouches while others simply have a Molle setup that allows you to add pouches as needed. Weight distribution is important but so is ease of access. You want to be able to reach your sidearm quickly. Clips and reloads also need to be given priority when it comes to ease of access.
Carefully plan what you really need for your plate carrier setup and get the best quality that you can afford. Remember, just because something is the most expensive doesn’t mean it’s the best quality. Research gear additions carefully or buy brands and styles that you have used and trust.
Practice and Improve
Getting a great plate carrier setup is not always as easy as buying a few things and putting them together. You need to wear your carrier and plates and see how you do. Try wearing it on a hike and see how it feels. Does it rub? Is it too big or small? If a carrier is uncomfortable on a short hike, then it’s not going to be any better if you need to wear it for an extended period of time.
Keep in mind that it may take some time to get used to the weight itself.
Pro-level Plate Carrier Setups
Security guards, law enforcement, and preppers who want protective gear for heavy active shooter situations will want level IV plate carrier setups that include side armor plates. Remember, you can remove the side plates if you want to reduce the weight and are in a situation where you are comfortable with slightly less protection. Side plates cost considerably less than front and back plates.
If you are going to be wearing a plate carrier set up for extended periods of time, buy what is most comfortable even if it costs substantially more. The temptation to not wear something is greater if it is not as comfortable as possible.
Plate Carrier Setups for Teens and Children
Teens and older kids can wear some of the smaller adult plate carriers and plates. The main concern is strength and the ability to handle that much weight. Some armor companies have bulletproof vests specifically designed for children. With so much civil unrest and uncertainty, some prepared parents are coming to terms with the possibility that their kids might need a plate carrier setup too.
In the past, I have been able to find specific carriers for kids but now it seems that most plate carriers are really just designed for paintball. I encourage you to contact specific body armor companies about the availability of children’s body armor. Demand is through the roof for body armor for adults. Some armor companies may be willing to do something custom for you or make suggestions based on the age and size of your child.
Make sure that your setup is designed so that you can comfortably fire your weapon.
The shoulder area of your plate carrier should not have anything hanging from it. You need to be able to shoot a rifle, and you don’t want your movement restricted when seconds can make the difference between life and death.
Items to Consider Carrying
Many people who wear carriers also carry a bag on their back. You may want to change the way your plate carrier is set up if you will be carrying a bag to ensure even weight distribution and comfort. Bags may have to be ditched in a major situation, so consider which items are most essential to have on you at all times and within easy reach.
Building your rig over time is recommended. Start out with a basic carrier and plates, and add gear as you can.