In the first part of this guide we examined the pros and cons of soft body armor. In this part of the guide we’re going to get into the various types of hard armor and rifle plates available on the market today.
Soft body armor is great for concealability, but it won’t stop rifle rounds. In order to stop threats from rifles, you’re going to need hard armor.
Hard armor comes in various sizes, with different levels of protection. Most often you’re going to wear it in a plate carrier, which often can double as a chest rig, allowing you to carry magazine pouches and various other MOLLE-compatible gear on the front, back, and sides.
Levels of Hard Armor Protection
The two official NIJ levels of hard body armor are Level III and Level IV. Level III body armor has to withstand a 147-grain steel jacketed M80-type full metal jacket (FMJ) bullet traveling at up to 2,810 feet per second. Level IV body armor has to withstand a 166-grain M2 armor piercing bullet traveling at up to 2,910 feet per second.
You may also come across plates that are listed as being Level III+. This means that those plates will stop Level III threats but will also provide protection against other threats that aren’t covered by Level III.
Some examples of this include M193 55-grain 5.56x45 NATO ammunition, particularly those fired from a 20” barrel, which can often penetrate some steel body armor due to its high velocity. Other examples include M855 “green tip” 5.56 armor piercing ammunition, or various other types of common rifle ammunition, such as 7.62x39.
The Level III+ designation is an unofficial one, and the performance of any such rated plate will depend on what the manufacturer has tested it against. There are numerous YouTube channels available, such as Mrgunsngear and Buffman – R.A.N.G.E., that test body armor against various threats.
Armor Plate Sizes and Sizing
Hard armor plates come in numerous different sizes, about half a dozen in all. The most common sizes you’ll likely find are 8x10, 10x12, and 11x14. There are also armor plates built to meet the US military’s SAPI requirements, measuring Small (8.75x11.75), Medium (9.5x12.5), and Large (10.25x13.25).
This is where you’re going to need to figure out how you’re going to wear your armor. Most plate carriers are sized for the 10x12 plates, as that is one of the most common sizes on the market, one that will fit most men fairly well.
If you’re a woman, or a man of small stature, you’re probably going to want a smaller plate. If you’re bigger, you may need a bigger plate. Just be aware that a bigger plate is heavier, which will make it more uncomfortable to wear.
Many people don’t realize that hard armor plates are supposed to protect the heart and lungs from being hit. The top of the plate should be at the suprasternal notch, or jugular notch. Too many people have a tendency to wear plates too low, exposing the arteries above the heart.
You don’t want to wear the plate too high, as you don’t want it coming up into your throat to choke you if you bend over or bend your neck. You also don’t want it to ride up when you’re seated or squatting, so the bottom of the plate should end a few inches above your belly button. Remember, this is intended to protect your heart and lungs, not your gut.
The plate shouldn’t interfere with shoulder movement such as firing a pistol or shouldering a rifle. It should ideally run from nipple to nipple widthwise.
Lengthwise you want to make sure that the armor doesn’t interfere with your belt when you’re seated, which is another reason it should end above your belly button. If you have a short torso, you may need to move down to a smaller size of armor.
To get a sense of sizing, you can cut pieces of cardboard to the dimensions of a rifle plate and place them on your body to see how they might fit.
There are also side plates, normally worn with cummerbund attachments. Standard size for these is 6x6”, with large plates running 6x8”. These are intended to protect you from threats from the side. But as with any armor, they will result in extra weight.
Armor Plate Cut and Fit
You also have to consider the type of cut when it comes to body armor. There are four main types you’ll encounter:
- Full Cut
- SAPI Cut
- Shooter’s Cut
- Swimmer’s Cut
Full cut body armor is a square or rectangular shape, produced to the dimensions of whatever size plate you order.
SAPI (Small Arms Protective Insert) cut means the top corners are cut at a 45-degree angle, saving some weight and allowing a little more movement of the arms.
Shooter’s cut features a more aggressive angle on the top corners, freeing up more space in the shoulders for shouldering long guns. Very often the bottom corners also feature a small 45 degree cut.
Swimmer’s cut features an even more aggressive angle than the shooter’s cut, sacrificing protection in favor of even more ability to move.
You’ll also hear single curve versus multi-curve. Single curve means that the plate features only one curve to wrap around the torso. Multi-curve means there are multiple curves on the plate to fit the torso in a more ergonomic fashion. Multi-curve plates tend to be more expensive than single-curve plates.
Types of Armor Plate
There are three primary types of armor plate you’ll encounter on the market today: steel, ceramic, and polyethylene (UHMWPE).
Steel is the cheapest, but also the heaviest. Ceramic is lighter in weight, but also pretty thick and bulky. Polyethylene is the lightest, but is also very expensive.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Different Types of Hard Armor
So what are the advantages and disadvantages of each of the types of hard armor?
Advantages of Steel Body Armor
- Can take multiple hits
- Relatively thin
Disadvantages of Steel Body Armor
- Heaviest body armor, will weigh you down
- Vulnerable to high velocity threats (M193 from 20” barrel)
- Can be uncomfortable to wear
- Will likely transfer energy of stopped shot to your body
Advantages of Ceramic Body Armor
- Lighter than steel
- Absorbs energy better than steel
Disadvantages of Ceramic Body Armor
- More expensive than steel
- Will shatter on impact, not great at stopping multiple bullets
- Shorter lifespan than steel
- Plates are thicker
Advantages of Polyethylene Body Armor
- Lightest armor available
- Good at stopping multiple shots
Disadvantages of Polyethylene Body Armor
- Thicker than steel
- Very expensive
Is Body Armor Worth It?
At the end of the day, you’ll have to make the decision on whether or not it’s worth it to wear body armor. It all comes down to the tradeoff between protection and mobility.
Body armor as it exists today was designed for soldiers who are transported into a fighting engagement by vehicles, generally for less than 24 hours at a time, and then exfiltrated by vehicle. When they’re hit by the enemy, they’re moved to a field hospital, or evacuated by air to a bigger hospital if their wounds are severe.
If you expect to be relatively immobile in a certain area, facing heavy threats, with the possibility of quick hospital care, then armor would be an easy yes. But if you’re facing the possibility of bugging out on foot for a long period of time and not having access to medical care, then you might want to sacrifice the armor in favor of extra mobility.
The choice you make will be dependent on the situation you feel you’re most likely to find yourself in. And be aware that even the cheapest set of steel body armor is probably going to set you back several hundred dollars once you figure in spall protection, plate carrier, side plates, etc.
Armor isn’t cheap, but it could save your life. You’ll just have to decide if the minimal risk of getting shot in the torso is worth the expense of buying armor. For some people it’s a no-brainer, for others it’s a no-go. But hopefully this guide gets you thinking and provides you with the basic information you need to start formulating your decision on whether or not to buy body armor.