I’ll go more in detail and cover the pros and cons of each type of body armor below. To give you a brief summary, soft body armor is effective at stopping smaller caliber rounds like 9mm, but it doesn’t offer the same level of protection as plates. If concealment isn’t a factor for you, I recommend a vest that allows you to insert hard plates.
- Level of Protection
Level of protection is an important consideration. Different vests and plates have different rating levels that let you know what type of rounds they can effectively stop (more on this below). Before we cover that, here are the types of vests out there to choose from.
Plate carriers are designed to carry inserts made to stop real ballistic rounds. The plates inside the vest cover and protect the vital organs of the upper body. Some vests allow you to insert side and back plates, which might be a little overkill for civilian use, but hey if you don’t mind carrying a little extra weight go for it. They typically have MOLLE attachments and pockets to carry other military-style gear.
Soft bulletproof vests are nice because they are concealable and much lighter than plate carriers. That said, soft vests do have some major downsides. While they can effectively stop smaller rounds like 9mm or shotgun pellets, they’re ineffective against higher caliber firearms.
Multi-functional vests are tactical and are great for attaching accessories like magazine pouches and other gear. They are typically lightweight, but typically don’t have any areas to insert hard or soft plates. As far as protection goes, they aren’t much better than just wearing a regular vest or shirt.
- Ratings and Certifications
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), which is part of the Department of Justice has been setting body armor standards for a long time. Here is a link to the National Institute of Justice website with armor standards. These allow you to know what type of rounds the armor you’re looking at can realistically stop. Here are the levels.
Level IIA: Effective against 9mm to .40 ammunition fired from short barrel handguns. Not effective against rifles
Level II: Effective against 9mm and .357 magnum ammunition from short barrel handguns. Not effective against rifles.
Level IIIA: Effective against .357 and .44 magnum ammunition from long barrel handguns. Not effective against rifles
- Level III: Effective against 7.62 FMJ core ammunition.
- Level IV: Effective against .30cal steel for armor piercing rounds.
- The Different Types of Plates
SAPI Plates (Small Arms Protective Inserts) are used by all branches of the US military and are what we used in the Marines. Kevlar vests are great, but as mentioned above for rounds larger than 9mm they’re largely ineffective. SAPI plates were specifically designed to stop higher caliber rounds than standard Kevlar vests. SAPI plates are basically ceramic plates (described below) covered in a tough composite material (to trap fragments).
There are actually different types, but they’re typically made of boron carbide or silicon carbide ceramic. The level of protection is great, but they’re quite a bit heavier than soft plates. In the Marines, we had to wear these plates in the front, back, and sizes of our vest. The major downside of SAPI and ceramic plates is they are only designed to stop one impact in the same spot. This is because they shatter when hit to absorb the kinetic energy from the round.
Estimated Plate Weights:
Extra small plate: About 2.8 pounds
Small plate: About 3.5 pounds
Medium plate: 4.0 pounds
Large plate: 4.6 pounds
Extra Large Plate: 5.3 pounds
Ceramic Plates are a common type of plate you can find for sale. They were first used on a large scale during Operation Desert Storm. They were a breakthrough in body armor technology and were much lighter than other types of armor at the time. That said, they’re still pretty heavy and bulky.
With ceramic plates, you have to weigh the benefits of increased protection with the cons that come with a heavy vest. You see this a lot in the military; guys will remove their side or back plates to drop weight and increase their mobility. Also keep in mind that because they are designed to shatter when struck by a bullet, they are only effective at stopping one round in the same area. With ceramic plates, you also need to be careful to not drop them and remember to service them if they take a hard impact.
Polyethylene Plates are another type of plate you can buy. They’re significantly lighter than ceramic plates. These plates often involve woven shield materials that actually take advantage of the natural spin of a bullet to absorb the impact. The heat of the bullet actually melts the polyethylene and helps stop the round.
Steel Plates are an old type of plate that I don’t recommend because of the weight. Steel has been used for centuries, and if it’s thick enough it can account stop ballistic rounds. It was originally made to stop rounds from musket rifles but is still effective against modern firearms.
- Weight and Heat Considerations
Weight is another important factor, especially if you’re planning on wearing the vest for long periods of time. If you’re looking for a vest to workout in you might actually want one that is heavy.
If you’re looking for a vest for home defense or sports like paintball/airsoft you probably want to look for one that is lightweight. I’ll list the weight for each vest below, so you can compare.
If you’re wearing a heavy vest and moving around a lot, you’re going to sweat a lot. In the Marines, after hikes, our cammies would be totally soaked under our plate carriers. If you plan on wearing the plate carrier for a long time, I recommend attaching a hydration bladder to the back, so you can stay hydrated and prevent overheating.
- Functionally and Attachments
You want to make sure you get a plate carrier that has MOLLE attachments and places where you can attach ammo pouches or other gear you want to have on you. Certain vests have lots of places for attachments and accessories, while others are more minimalist.
MOLLE (pronounced like Molly) is an acronym that stands for “Modular Lightweight Loadbearing Equipment”. At the very basic level, it’s essentially a ladder of tightly woven and durable denier nylon that is far superior to other velcro systems. Having a MOLLE system integrated into your plate carrier allows you to quickly and easily attach pouches, accessories, patches, holsters, and many other pieces of gear. Using MOLLE is typically better than stuffing things into your backpack or your pockets because you can customize where the items go and you’ll always have quick access to what you need the most when it counts. Most high-quality plate carriers will be riddled with MOLLE and basically, all military issued vests encompass MOLLE in one way or another.