Gunfights are generally bad news for all involved, but while many gun owners plan and prepare fairly well for the offensive aspects of a fight with a variety of guns and stockpiles of ammo — most fail to think through all of the defensive considerations. One of the basics being body armor.
We walk through some of the best body armor products on the market today and dive into the specifics of how body armor works, how it’s certified, and whether or not you can even own it.
Armed with some information on armor and some recommendations, the otherwise daunting field of body armor becomes much more easy to navigate.
Armored up and ready to take on the (ancient) world.
This ceramic set of level IV plates is about as good as it gets in terms of a bodily protection. While you’ll need to provide a plate carrier (more on that in a bit), this armor is designed to stop multiple hits from rifle calibers and is NIJ-certified. AR500 constructed this in a shooter’s cut, for increased comfort and mobility.
Premiere Body Armor Stratis Backpack Armor
Responding to the need to develop armor plates that will work in everyday backpacks, Premier Body Armor’ Stratis Enhanced Backpack Insert gives you a lightweight, NIJ and rifle-rated backpack plate — configured to fit in the laptop slot of most backpacks.
This is a good option for folks looking for more subtle protection than a plate carrier offers. While it’s Ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) construction is not on par with ceramic plates, it’s much easier to conceal than a plate carrier will certainly deflect or stop a bullet much better than a backpack alone.
If you’re looking for hard backpack armor check out the AR500 Hard Backpack Armor which offers a ballistic steel core. It’s heavy at 10 lbs but backpack armor doesn’t come much more heavy duty than this option from AR500 .
Spartan Armor System
This set of soft body armors combined into a vest is an excellent one-stop option. While soft armor doesn’t offer the same ballistic protection as ceramic or steel armor, they are much more flexible, comfortable, and light — which appeals to a lot of people.
The ability to customize the fit, as well as the abundance of MOLLE attachments, makes this a good call for folks interested in moderate or EDC-appropriate protection.
Spartan Armor Systems
Another option that will get you armor and a carrier with a single purchase, this set of steel plates and a plate carrier give you level IIA protection and a high-quality rig. These steel-core plates give more protection than soft armor, but not as much as ceramic plates — although they’re easier on the wallet.
While not technically body armor, it’s important to protect your head. The multi-hit level IV plates you have on your chest won’t do you much good if you take a round to the head and are out of the fight instantly.
Thus, if you’re building a set of gear intended to protect in a worst-case scenario, a helmet should be part of your kit as well. This one is a IIIA ballistic helmet and, thanks to the adjustable harness, is also comfortable and customizable.
Again, not technically armor, but a necessary accessory. If a bullet is stopped by armor, only the bullet is stopped. All that kinetic energy has to go somewhere. In this case, it will go into the wearer.
These pads are designed to help spread that impact around, avoiding internal injuries and bruising that often occur when rounds are stopped by armor.
Is Body Armor Bulletproof?
Nope. Tactically, it is extremely unwise to consider any armor you can wear as impermeable.
Instead, think of your plate as bullet-resistant — and tested to meet certain standards. The only things you’ll want to consider bulletproof are several feet of earth or a solid concrete wall.
Armor is akin to a seatbelt you put on in the event of a gunfight. Seat belts do not guarantee survival of a car accident: they increase your odds of surviving one. The same is true of bullets and body armor.
Body Armor Laws in the US
We’re no lawyers and this certainly is not legal advice. If you have more specific questions, consult an attorney in your state.
Generally, Federal Law does not prevent people from buying, selling, or shipping body armor to their homes. Most people, in most cases, can just order from the links above and have no worries whatsoever.
If, on the other hand, you are a felon, there’s a pretty good chance you are prohibited from buying body armor.
States and localities, though, are free to set stricter laws — Louisiana prohibits wearing armor on school property or at school-sponsored events and in Connecticut the sale of body armor cannot be done online or over the phone — it must be done in person.
As with all things firearm-related, do the homework beforehand. If you’re unsure, it’s not a bad idea to speak with a local expert or even print out the relevant laws and keep them tucked somewhere handy in your plate carrier, just in case.
Why Would You Need It?
Hitting some hard armor at range
As mentioned above, gunfights are bad news and unless taking a hit from any caliber firearm is to be avoided. Body armor offers some protection to your vital organs, which helps prevent internal damage from a bullet strike.
If you can keep those organs from being damaged at the outset of a fight, then you have a larger chance of coming out on top — or at a minimum surviving to see another day.
In the case of concealable vests or backpack armor, body armor is a last line of defense if things should turn disastrous in places where we do not normally carry full tactical kits, like school, grocery shopping, or places where people congregate.
A set of level IV plates in a plate carrier is maximally protective but relatively bulky. There’s no blending in when you’re packing a 7 lb plate over your t-shirt. Thus, we recommend considering lightweight options as well.
One thing to consider is lead times: often, armor is not in stock and brands will note when they plan to produce more. Should you place an order, waiting weeks is not uncommon, so armor — much like purchasing a suppressor — is a decision you’d need to make well ahead of any need to use it.
Soft Armor vs. Hard Armor
In general terms, body armor comes in two categories, hard and soft.
Soft armor is typically sold sewn into vests, though some vests have ways to replace worn or expired panels (soft armors typically have an expiration date after which they may lose some effectiveness). Most of the time this armor is meant to defeat handgun-level threats.
Hard armor, on the other hand, is sold as standalone plates or in kits. It is much heavier than soft armor, and a lot less flexible, but can offer much higher levels of ballistic protection.
While hard armor will stop more rounds than soft armor — and much more powerful cartridges — it does have some drawbacks. Aside from weight, hard armor can also spall- throw off little chunks of material or bullet fragments if hit. That spall can injure and kill, which is why many quality pieces today come with anti-spall coatings.
Body Armor Threat Levels
The National Institute of Justice, or NIJ, tests armor mainly for law enforcement purposes but releases those tests and sets of standards, which manufacturers use to rate and compare their products. NIJ-certified armor is ranked, generally, in six categories, which I’ll summarize below. AR500 and Spartan both provide good resources on the topic.
- Level II: light armor, usually soft. This can resist small pistol calibers up to about 45ACP.
- IIIA: this can resist heavier pistol rounds including .44 magnum
- III: This, typically hard armor, can begin to resist single strikes of slower rifle rounds such as 7.62×39
- III+: This may resist a strike from faster rifle rounds such as 5.56mm NATO
- IV: Almost always ceramic, can resist strikes from 30-06, and sometimes multiple strikes.
Keep in mind that all of these are generalities: samples get tested and certified, but things like distance, angle, and muzzle velocity can affect how body armor will perform.
The best armor is between your ears: cover and concealment do more than body armor could ever hope to in a fight.
Materials Used in Body Armor
There are three main categories of materials that are commonly used in body armor.
The first, Kevlar or ballistic nylon, is typically the basis for light and soft armors. These materials are most often found in Level II armor, and these plates are designed to protect against handgun-caliber rounds but offer little protection against rifle rounds. With that said, these are super-tough fabrics that remain light and flexible.
Steel is used in hard armors offering Level III and III+ protection. It stops rounds by being stronger and harder than bullets hitting it. It’s heavy and does not bend, but can be comfortable if the fit is right when paired with the right plate carrier.
High-quality steel armor will come with anti-fragmentation coating to prevent rust and spalling. If you are willing to pay for it, curved steel plate sets are available to make them ride better on the body.
Ceramics, often found in Level IV armor, are advanced materials that deliberately shatter when hit by bullets. Because the shatter is constrained to the location of impact, most Level IV sets can resist multiple rounds.
It’s expensive and heavy, but ceramic is, in terms of protection, the best armor out there today.
How to Fit Body Armor
First and foremost, armor and plate carriers should fit reasonably tight. You should always be able to move and breathe, but if there is a lot of slop in the fit, the armor may move. Any shift will make the armor less effective.
This is also no time for vanity sizing. Use a tape measure and consult the sizing charts that are on the sites we’ve provided. Get armor and carriers that make sense for your size and body type.
In terms of cut, there are some tradeoffs. Square plates are the best, as they cover the majority of your torso, but they can be a little uncomfortable when shouldering a rifle.
Shooter’s cuts remove the top corners from the plate allowing for more mobility at the expense of a little protection. Swimmer’s cuts take this further by removing both the top and bottom corners and are meant for folks who need maximum mobility while wearing plate carriers.
Additionally, plate carriers are designed for specific plate sizes. Keep those measurements in mind and order plates that fit your carrier. To minimize guesswork, buying all-in-one kits that pair a carrier with its intended plates ensures everything works as intended.
Plate Carriers and Trauma Pads
Trauma pads sit between the plate and your body, helping prevent back face deformation and dissipate impact energy, reducing the force transmitted to your body.
Plate carriers, as the name implies, are rigid vests which carry the armor plate, and often include load-bearing MOLLE to provide a platform for mounting accessories such as magazines or other kit. The above all-in-one kits are high quality, fit well, and work with the recommended plates above.
Similarly, trauma pads like the ones linked above are, in our view, a must-have accessory for a set of body armor, especially if it’s intended to be used in active duty defensive situations.
If you want to buy plate carriers separately, we recommend two more for different purposes.
The Veritas Lite Plate Carrier by AR500 is, as the name implies, light. Built for 10×12” plates and minimizing bulk, this is a solid plate carrier for those who want a light rig that you can wear for long periods.
This would be perfect for taking classes at ranges, or for keeping in case of emergencies.
If you need to wear body armor under clothes, the AR Concealment Plate Carrier is a fantastic perforer. No MOLLE, simple straps, and no-nonsense. It even comes in a few colors so you can match it to your undershirt, which I highly recommend wearing to keep the plate carrier from getting sweaty. Ideally, no one will even know you’re wearing it.
The important thing in picking a plate carrier is the pocket measurements: you want plates that are the same size as the carrier to avoid any movement and play in the fit.
Body armor is a deeply personal product. It’s not something you’ll wear often, but when you do it has to perform flawlessly to do its job right.
While we’ve provided the basics of body armor, product recommendations, and fleshed out some terminology and technology you need to understand to make an informed body armor choice, nothing will take the place of trying products on and ensuring the fit, performance, and materials are exactly what you need. Take your time with body armor and you won’t regret it.
- Cornell Legal Information Institute, Federal Body Armor Law
AR500 Armor, Advanced Threat Level Information
- Spartan Armor System, NIJ Information
- Spartan Armor Systems, Body Armor Buying Guide
- Criminal Defense Lawyer, Janet Portman, Is it Legal to Own a Bulletproof Vest? Are there Federal Regulations?
- Cordura Nylon
- NIJ Guide to Body Armor
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