The Ultimate Body Armor Guide
The topic of body armor has come up a lot these days, and perceptions about it and its use are changing. We've been asked about it, and feel like there is a lot of confusion around the subject so we've decided to put together this explainer of what is available and what you need to know before buying any.
It's a confusing subject for the uninitiated, so we are going to keep this as simple as possible - it's really easy to get into the weeds talking about advanced ballistic concepts, so we're going to skip over as much of that as we can in this article, but it is necessary to understand some basic concepts which we will go over.
TL;DR: Go with lightweight UHMWP Level III or Ceramic Special Threat (if you want to defeat M855.) Other types of plates are too heavy/expensive for most civilians. Ceramic and UHMWP armor have five year warranties.
DISCLAIMER: the information provided here is just that, information. What you do with it is up to you and out of our control, so please don't be dumb. Body armor is designed to be a life saving device, be serious, do your homework and make your decisions carefully, and don't just jump to the cheapest option.
Body Armor is regulated by Federal Law. Body Armor cannot be shipped to Connecticut, if you live there you need to purchase it there and in person. Felons are not generally eligible to own body armor. Please check your local laws if this applies to you.
BTW If you buy anything with the links we provide on this page we might get a small percentage of the sale. For more info click here.
Let's clear up some myths about body armor right out of the gate cause there's a lot of bad information out there:
- If you get shot in the armor you will get hurt. Really hurt: broken ribs, internal bleeding, bruising, passing out, even a heart attack are all possible, even if a round is successfully defeated by the armor. You aren't likely getting back up and into the fight right away.
- Only some armor can withstand multiple hits, and all armor will fail at some point if repeatedly shot, especially in the same location.
- Not all armor is created equal. There is a huge variety of price ranges, features, materials and quality out there.
- Armor is designed to defeat specific rounds and calibers, it is not meant to stop everything.
- Steel plates alone are not effective. The bullets will shatter, sending fragments everywhere, likely into you as well. Sorry Clint...
Ballistics, Cost, Weight
There are three factors that apply to all armor products: Ballistics, Cost, Weight.
You can only get 2 out of the 3. Examples:
- You can get inexpensive armor, but it either won't have the ballistics (defeat many types of rounds) or will be too heavy.
- You can get lightweight armor, but it will either be very expensive or it will not perform well.
- You can get high ballistic rated armor that can stop nearly everything, but it will either be heavy or very expensive (or both.)
You need to pick one of these three aspects as your primary concern, and compromise on the others.
For 99% of you reading this, Cost will be your primary consideration. You'll have a budget you'll need to stick to, and here's an important point: a lot of the armor out there has a 5 year warranty. That could mean you are replacing the armor every 5 years. We discussed this with the folks at RMA and they told us that shelf life and warranty aren't the same thing: as long as a plate is taken care of, shelf life can last decades.
Some armor types have 10 - 20 years warranties but now you are getting into the heavy weight stuff like steel plates.
Our suggestion for your next consideration: focus on Weight before Ballistics.
Why? As we said in the Myths section, even with armor you can't afford to be hit. Heavy armor will slow you down, a LOT. Not being able to move is more dangerous than you might think, and makes it more likely you will take a round.
Keep it under or around 3-4 lbs a plate if you can, most people can handle that amount of weight. That doesn't seem like a lot until you add it up: 5-12 lbs for plate, 2 for carrier, 6 for mags, 2 other stuff = ~20 lbs before you talk about water or a backpack, etc.
If you are in very good shape and train then bump it up as you see fit, but don't go overboard.
When we discuss Ballistics in the Threat Consideration section below you'll see what compromises you'll have to decide on when considering Weight.
Types of Body Armor
There are two common armor types: Soft & Hard
Soft Armor is made of multiple layers of ballistic fibers, from woven or laminated aramid materials such as Kevlar or Twaron, or from Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMWP) like Dyneema & Spectra. It is probably the type of armor you think of when you hear the term bulletproof vest. Some models can be concealed under a shirt or jacket, put into a backpack, or worn in a carrier.
Hard Armor consists of plates, and they are...wait for it...hard. They require a carrier to hold them. This is what you you might consider military style armor. There are three kinds of materials Hard Armor is typically made from:
- Ultra-High Molecular Weight Polyethylene
Some armor is a blend of these materials. There are benefits a downsides to each.
Soft Armor vs. Hard Armor
So which is right for you? It depends on the threat you are seeking to protect against and whether or not you want to advertise whether you are wearing it or not. We will discuss threat types in the next section.
Crye Precision LVS Pictured
Soft Armor Pros:
- Can be concealed under clothing
- Provides greater coverage area
- Protection from street threats like knives, clubs
- Easier for day-in day-out wear, flexible
- Generally not rifle round defeating, with exceptions being expensive
- Hard to store properly
- Will wear out with use
There's a reason Police generally wear soft armor, it protects them from the random threats the come up against when dealing with arresting criminals. They typically aren't getting into rifle fights.
Crye Precision Airlite SPC Pictured
Hard Armor Pros:
- Handles projectile threats better
- Can be less expensive
- Easier to store, can last longer than soft
- More popular for civilian use
- Requires a carrier
- Smaller protection area
- Bulky, not easily concealable
Military folks wear hard armor because they are expecting to be shot at by rifles. They need to carry a lot of gear and ammo so they need the extra carry space the carriers provide.
There are a lot of different types of bullets and guns out there. Not all armor can stop everything, and it isn't designed to. Some is designed to stop pistol rounds only, some are designed to stop pistol and rifle.
Even rounds out of the same rifle can be different. For example, an AR which shoots 5.56 can shoot M193 and M855 rounds (among others). Some armor cannot defeat the M855 round, because it has a steel core designed to penetrate armor.
There are Ballistic Armor Levels, and you should familiarize yourself with each, the names are a little confusing at first. Each level stops a certain range of threats.
Graphic provided by AR500 Armor
When it comes to Soft Armor there is:
- Level II
- Level IIIA
With Hard Armor has Level III & IV but we think this is easier:
- Ceramic Plates
- Special Threat
- Level IV
- Ultra-High Molecular Weight Polyethylene
- Level III
So the easy way to think of it is, soft armor is for pistol threats, hard armor for rifle. That's an oversimplification but roll with it for now.
If you need more information about a specific threat you are trying to counter, try to go directly to any manufacturer and ask them. Most have customer service reps that will answer emails within a day or two.
Sizing & Cut Style
Plates come in different sizes, so you need to measure them to fit. For width you measure between the nipples from the center of each. For the height measure from the sternal notch to the belly button. The plates will sit about 4 - 5" above the belly button.
Here is the area you want to cover. You might be 0.5" off on size based on the common available sizes, but that should be close enough. It's also important to make sure the plates are positioned on your body in the proper area and sitting correctly in the carrier.
Garand Thumb has a good video on positioning and carrier setup, back from his serious days:
You will see a bunch of different plate styles out there, we would recommend either the SAPI or Shooters Cuts. SAPI gives you a little more coverage, white Shooters Cuts give you a little more arm mobility. We can't really recommend one over the other, it depends on your body shape and personal preference.
We would suggest staying away from Swimmers Cuts, as these typically require custom carriers and are not really designed for civilian use.
This list is by no means extensive, that's the point. We're just trying to give you a starting point. Do your homework, and do a lot. This is not a decision to take lightly, and it might take you a week or more of research to get what will be best for you, especially if you aren't in a profession which allows you to try different kinds or get first hand experience with it.
There are many fantastic companies out there that make body armor, however many of them are not available to civilians. There is good news however, some of them are:
Tier 1 brands: Hesco, RMA Armament, Tencate, HighCom, Tyr Tactical, Armor Express, Crye Precision
There are many re-sellers in the industry but only a few US manufacturers of ceramic/poly plates: RMA, Hesco, Tencate, & LTC
There are other civilian focused manufacturers with products more readily available to the average consumer. Their materials and process might not the best available, but could be the best budget choice for you:
Tier 2 brands: AR500, Bulletsafe, Spartan Armor Systems
Stops common handgun threats.
Secondary Option: AR500 Rimelig
Typical Price: $399
It's tough to find Tier 1 Level II armor available to the general public. Exceptionally flexible Level II armor insert. Will require a carrier. Tested beyond to perform past its NIJ 0101.06 Certification. If you are going to spend this kind of money I would just go with the Crye LVS below.
Stops nearly all handgun threats.
Top Choices: Armor Express Vortex
Typical Price: $844.80 Weight: 4.2 lbs Medium | 4.7 lbs Large
Crye Precision is an amazing company, with some of the best products you can get, all made in Brooklyn, NY. This vest comes with a multitude of options and has lots of accessories. Very lightweight and concealable. The LVS armor is NIJ IIIA Certified.
Ceramic Plates: Level III/UHMWPE
Super lightweight and our top choice for most people, given that low weight and that it will stop all threats but M855 armor piercing rounds. Many float too, so won't pull you into the water if you wind up swimming.
Typical Price: $275 each Weight: 2.53 lbs.
This is one of the lightest options out there for Level IIIA+ / SRT plates. It can defeat multiple hits from a 7.62×39 (AK 47) a 5.56×45 ball round or a high-speed m193 round. Not rated to protect against green-tip armor piercing 5.56 m855. Read the ballistic performance test here.
Ceramic Plates: Special Threat
These are neither a Level 3 or Level 4 plates, but are hybrids. They don't have M80 ball protection, but stop several armor-penetrating rounds.
Typical Price: $170 each Weight: 5.5 lbs. Large | 3.5 lbs. Small
Hesco is a top-notch company, and we are fortunate that they are making these plates available. Built to protect from common 5.56 threats (M855, M193) as well as 7.62 x 39 protection (API-BZ included). Multi-shot rated on selected threats. Wrapped in a water repellent polyurethane coated, CORDURA® fabric finish. Made in U.S.A.
Ceramic Plates: III+
III+ plates have the ability to defeat m855, xm193, 7.62×39 MSC and .308 M80 NATO.
Typical Price: $314.99 Weight: 5.16 lbs Large (multiple sizes avail.)
This plate is the best of all worlds, it combines relatively light weight along with a favorable price to performance ratio. 1.2″ thick so might not fit all carriers. NIJ 0101.07 Tested. Ceramic/Polyethylene composite. Multi-Curve, SAPI/ESAPI-Cut stand alone. RMA Armament is a kick-ass company. Check them out, i think you'll be impressed.
Ceramic Plates: Level IV
Stops nearly everything short of a RPG, that's hyperbole of course, but this is the best protection you can get in a plate right now.
Typical Price: $305 each Weight: 6.8 lbs.
These are Ceramic stand alone plates which are .75 inches thick. Comes in the Large size: 10" x 12". NIJ Certified: 0101.04 / 2005 Interim Requirements. Velocity is a very well-known company with a long professional pedigree that typically doesn't make much available to the general public.
There are quite a few products out there made from steel, and they have some beneficial specs: they aren't expensive, they have good ballistic stopping power, and many have a 20 year warranty.
Only one thing, they are heavy. Really heavy in some cases. You can get away with it for a few hours or more depending on your current physical situation, but over a longer duration like a few days or weeks you might not be interested in them anymore.
That's why we don't recommend steel armor. Average people will have a hard enough time carrying the lighter ceramic plates. (Our readers ages and physical capabilities cover a huge range, not all of you are young folks in good health.)
There are some reasons to go with steel: you can leave it in your truck as a backup and not really worry about it getting damaged from heat or cold (unlike the other materials above.) You've also got that 20 year warranty, so the stuffs good to go for a long time.
Make sure you get the build-up coating if offered. You don't want to get hit with frag or spall, and although this type of coating isn't the best in the world at stopping that, it does a good enough job in most cases.
If you decide to go try it out, we suggest the AR500 Armor Level III+ Lightweight (FULL) Curved 10"x12" Armor with Pads Combo with the build-up coat This would weight about 16 lbs in total and run around $367.