ballistic plates and armor

Choosing the Right Protective Plates and Armor for You

Personal protection is crucial during active shooter preparation and response, and there are so many decisions to make about your armor that all come down to your preferences.

Personal body armor can come in one piece, but more often, you’re looking at two separate pieces: the plates and the plate carrier vest. Keeping the gear separate means you can easily remove the plates to wash and store your vest.

How Body Armor Works 

Body armor works by “catching” the bullet and then dispersing the energy of the hit throughout the vest. There are three main materials used in the construction of body armor – polyethylene, steel and ceramic. 

  • body armorPolyethylene
    • Used in both soft and hard armor, polyethylene is an ultra-high molecular weight fiber that is extremely strong and lightweight. This fiber is woven into sheets for soft ballistic and pressed into plates for hard ballistics. Depending on configuration, polyethylene can be used to stop handgun or rifle rounds. Typically polyethylene armor is a higher price point than steel or ceramic. 
  • Steel
    • Used in hard armor, steel is typically coated with an anti-spall coating to minimize bullet fragmentation. Steel is extremely durable but heavier than polyethylene and ceramic. Steel stops both handgun and rifle rounds and is usually the cheapest option. 
  • Ceramic
    • Used in hard armor, ceramic plates are constructed with ceramic strike face and polyethylene backer. The ceramic breaks up the round and the polyethylene catches it. Ceramic is similar in weight to steel with a middle price point. The key advantage to ceramic is the ability to defeat common armor piercing rounds.

What Threats will Body Armor Stop?

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) regulates body armor requirements and testing. The requirements can be found on their website and is listed under the 0101.06 ballistics standards.

NIJ tests against these standards and also publishes a Ballistic Armor Compliant List (CPL). The CPL can be located on their website as well.

The most asked about requirement is threat level or what the body armor can stop. See the breakdown of the five NIJ 0101.06 threat levels below:

  • shellback plate armorLevel II
    • Stops 9mm and .357 Magnum ammo fired from short barrel handguns
  • Level IIA 
    • Stops 9mm and .40 S&W ammo fired from short barrel handguns 
  • Level IIIA
    • Stops .357 SIG and .44 Magnum fired from longer barrel handgun
  • Level III 
    • Stops 7.62mm FMJ lead core rifle ammo
  • Level IV
    • Stops .30cal steel core armor piercing rifle ammo

What to Look For 

Since there are so many ways to get information in today’s market, beware of fake news. After all, you are looking into something that can potentially save your life. Let’s make sure you get the right armor and not something that is fake. Look for the following when purchasing body armor. 

  • NIJ Certification
    • If possible, try to purchase armor that is NIJ Certified and listed on the CPL. The testing process is extensive and done through an independent third party. 
    • The CPL can be view at the link below: 
    • Armor will have a seal like you see here
  • NIJ Compliant 
    • If armor is not NIJ Certified, try to purchase one that is NIJ compliant. NIJ compliant means the armor did not go through the complete certification process but still stops the rounds for NIJ threat levels. The certification process is extremely expensive which is why some companies do not go through it. 
    • Ask to see ballistic testing data. If the testing data is from a NIJ approved lab, you know it is credible.
    • NIJ approved Labs:
      • NTS Chesapeake 
      • Oregon Ballistic Laboratories 
      • HP White 

Ballistic Terms 

When doing your research on body armor, there are many terms that are often used in the industry to describe ballistic traits. Many of these terms are not fully explained, so we provided a breakdown below. 

  • soft armorStand Alone Protection 
    • No other protection is needed to stop the threat level listed on the plate (no plate backer needed) 
  • In Conjunction with Protection
    • Requires multiple pieces of armor to provide protection against the threat level listed. Level II , IIA or IIIA ballistic plate backer is needed
  • Spall
    • Pieces of the projectile that break off when it hits a hard object 
    • This happens mainly with steel armor. Make sure the armor has a coating that prevents spall 
    • Polyethylene and ceramic armor absorb the projectile and spall is typically not an issue 
  • Plate curve
    • Since your chest is not flat, curved plates fit better. There are three different types of curve 
      • Flat 
        • No curve 
      • Single Curve 
        • Curved on a single dimension, typically horizontal 
      • Multi Curve 
        • Curved on multiple dimensions, horizontally and vertically 
  • Plate Cuts 
    • shellback armor plateThere are 4 main types of plate cuts or shapes 
      • Full Cut 
        • A full cut ballistic plate is either square or rectangular. It protects the whole back, hence its name. The downside of this cut is that it sometimes hinders some movements of the user. 
      • Shooter’s Cut 
        • A shooter’s cut ballistic plate has a rectangle shape and distinct cut-off corners above to enable its user to move better and improve their agility. It is known as shooter’s cut because it is best for those who need to carry weapons or artillery on their shoulder.
      • Swimmer’s Cut
        • A swimmer’s cut is a modified shooter’s cut plate. The difference is that more area of the upper portion of the plate is removed to allow more movement in the shoulders and upper back.
      • SAPI 
        • SAPI means Small Arms Protective Inserts, and they are preferred by the military. The inserts weigh from about 3 to 9 pounds depending on its size.
        • Keep in mind that when choosing your plate cut, make sure to assess your needs. Analyze how much of your torso needs additional coverage and the amount of body movement that will allow you to move fast.

Proper Fit 

All plates must be worn properly to ensure proper protection. 

  • Ballistic plates’ design aims to protect its user’s vital organs, the heart and lungs. It is not intended to protect the whole body or torso. To know which size will fit you best, get a measuring tape. Measure the height by placing the end of the measuring tape above your collarbone and going down to your navel. Stop at about 2 to 3 inches on top of the navel. An undersized plate will not provide the necessary protection it aims to give, while an oversized one will add a burden to its user.

Plate Carrier 

Now that all of the basics of ballistics have been covered, the only thing left is to find a plate carrier. Make sure the plate carrier fits the armor plates you select, and choosing the right plate carrier all depends on what you are using it for. There are a endless amount of plate carriers on the market, but they all fall within four main categories:

  • plate carrier vestHeavy 
    • Ruggedly constructed and well padded to accommodate heavy loads of 35 pounds or more. These carries are mainly used by the military and law enforcement.
  • Medium
    • Most common and designed for people who still want to carry more gear than just the plates themselves. Can comfortably carry 20-30 pounds.
  • Minimalist
    • Trending in the market. They have less padding and attachment points. Good for 15-25 pounds.
  • Slick Carriers 
    • Designed to blend in or be worn underneath clothing. Less is better. 

Ready to invest in a high quality armor suited to your specific needs? Check out our full selection of plate carriers and protective equipment from top brands you can trust. 

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