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Body Armor 101: What You Need to Know

From the archives: RECOIL Magazine Issue 15, November/December 2014

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane…

Ever since mankind started attacking one another with pointy objects, man has also thought of ways to defend himself. One of those ways has been the use of personal body armor — whether ancient warriors clad in boiled leather, Samurai dressed in intricate lamellar armor, or medieval knights of old with their iconic plate armor and shields.

The advent of firearms and ever more powerful ballistic performance outpaced the development of technologies for protective equipment that could be deployed in a practical manner. Flak jackets (those issued in the Korean and Vietnam wars were constructed of nylon) could help stop fragments and slower or smaller-caliber bullets, but were not effective against typical firearm threats. Metal (steel) plates were required to provide more protection. The end result, not unlike an average teenage boy’s attempts to reach second base with his first sweetheart, was heavy, uncomfortable, sweaty, and awkward.

Then in 1965, Stephanie Kwolek, a chemist at DuPont tasked with creating fibers for use in tires, invented a para-aramid synthetic fiber known as Kevlar — giving rise to the so-called bulletproof vests commonly seen today. And good old-fashioned steel has been supplanted with other materials and manufacturing processes to protect against more lethal threats.

Critical to protect warfighters on today’s battlefield as well as law enforcement personnel on the streets at home, protective body armor also continues to spark the interest of civilians who might find themselves in harm’s way or wish to be prepared. While it’s fun to focus on shooting and putting rounds downrange, don’t neglect a good defense. Generally speaking, civilians may purchase and own protective body armor, as long as they aren’t felons. Committing crimes while wearing armor can also result in additional penalties. Note also that Connecticut’s laws require one to purchase body armor in-person from a local retailer; mail order sales aren’t allowed. Be sure to double check the regulations in your area. That being said, a number of armor manufacturers have policies restricting or prohibiting sales of their products to civilians, and companies and distributors have various requirements for customers to demonstrate their eligibility.

Soft Versus Hard Armor

There are two main types of body armor: soft and hard. Soft body armor is what many might envision when thinking of police officers — a vest made of flexible materials worn around your torso. Typically, there are inserts (front and back) made of the protective ballistic material, sealed against the elements and held inside of a carrier. The inserts may also extend around the torso to provide side coverage. In some cases, both inserts and carrier are custom built to the end user’s exact measurements, providing maximum coverage and comfort. In others, they are available in various standard sizes (e.g. small, medium, large, etc). Custom armor is usually also available specifically for female users, modified to fit their body contours. Carriers may be designed to be worn under clothing for concealed use, or exposed for load carriage and tactical applications.

Hard armor is constructed of rigid materials and, at the expense of weight and flexibility, provides increased protection against greater threats. Because hard armor plates are rigid and can significantly restrict mobility, they are generally sized and placed to protect specific parts of the anatomy only — front, back, and sometimes side as well. In its most basic form, a rifle plate starts as a flat, exactly rectangular shape. But that doesn’t match the human body too well unless you’re a Lego character, so plates are typically available in various shapes, sizes, and curvatures. For instance, plates with a “shooter’s cut” or “swimmer’s cut” have the top corners clipped to allow for more natural buttstock placement and articulation of the user’s arms and shoulders. Single curve plates are curved along a single dimension, while multi-curve plates are contoured along two or more dimensions, to better fit your torso. Keep in mind that if you look more like Homer Simpson than Tim Kennedy (see page 90), you may have difficulty finding plates contoured to match your Duff Beer-fueled shape. Usually this means living with a smaller plate and less coverage in order to accommodate your body type.

Plates designated for standalone use provide the level of protection specified by the manufacturer all by themselves, while those marked as ICW (“in conjunction with”) require a soft armor backer behind the plate to live up to their rated protection. This is important to understand to obtain the protection that you are expecting. Some plates may have conditional ratings — for instance, Level III protection when used alone and Level IV with a soft armor backer (see below for more on ratings). Similar to soft armor inserts, plates are secured inside carriers and are typically offered in standardized sizes. Given the increased bulk of rifle plates, they are more difficult to conceal, but some more discreet (i.e. thinner) options are available (often referred to as “low vis” in the industry).

stack-of-armor

Materials and Construction

Modern soft armor is constructed of synthetic, super strong materials — typically aramid fibers (e.g. DuPont’s Kevlar and Teijin’s Twaron) and/or ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene, often referred to as UHMWPE (we’ll call it polyethylene for the purposes of this article). Trade names for polyethylene include DSM’s Dyneema and Honeywell’s Spectra. They stop incoming bullets by deforming them and absorbing their energy; the bullet stops before it penetrates the material. Note, however, that you will still experience blunt force trauma behind the point of impact.

Be sure to avoid vests made of Zylon, a wonder fiber that was used in high-end lightweight vests starting in the late ’90s, but was found to deteriorate much quicker than expected when exposed to light, heat, and moisture. Armor is no longer made with Zylon, but be wary of them on the secondhand market and double-check any older vests that you own if you aren’t sure — they are not safe to use.

Hard armor is typically made of metal (usually steel, but sometimes other alloys), polyethylene, ceramics (e.g. aluminum oxide, silicon carbide, or boron carbide), or a combination thereof. Steel plates are relatively thin and very durable, providing inexpensive multi-hit protection from a number of threats. However, they are quite heavy, create spalling from bullet fragments that spatter in all directions, and cannot stop many armor-piercing (A.P.) and high-velocity rounds. Polyethylene plates are exceptionally light, but also rather thick; the thinnest variants can be quite expensive. They are multi-hit capable, but generally speaking cannot stop military-issue 5.56mm M855 rounds (commonly referred to as “green tip”). They are also buoyant.

Ceramic plates provide a lot of protection, pound for pound, can be had in discreet low-profile forms, and are commonly utilized to defeat A.P. rounds in the Level IV spec — but they can command a price premium and usually deteriorate quicker from closely spaced hits. Ceramics also require more careful maintenance and care, as rough handling or impacts may cause tiny cracks that compromise ballistic performance. Ceramic plates should be X-rayed on an annual basis to check for any cracks. Note that steel plates are found with flat or single curve contours, while ceramics and polyethylene are carefully sculpted to various shapes, often allowing them to fit better. Hybrid plates, such as those made from a combination of steel or ceramic and polyethylene, are becoming more common options to combine the strengths of each material.

Carty Ingram of Chesapeake Testing, an independent ballistics testing lab, advises that much of the same raw materials are more or less available to everyone, so companies that have perfected the manufacturing and design process, properly weaving and forming material, are the ones who deliver consistent performers.

Ratings and Certifications

One constant when it comes to protective gear is that nothing is completely bulletproof. However, it is extremely important to have standards that you can count on when it comes to products that you stake your life on, like body armor, and when it is difficult for end users to test or verify the capabilities of the products.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), a division of the Department of Justice, has been setting voluntary body armor standards since 1972. Its testing standards set the baseline for expectations of performance of body armor in the United States. The most commonly seen ratings (the latest NIJ 0101.06 revision) certify protection from the following specific threats:

Handgun Calibers

  • Level IIA: 9mm FMJ 124-grain bullets at 1,225 fps and .40 S&W FMJ 180-grain bullets at 1,155 fps (six shots)
  • Level II: 9mm FMJ 124-grain bullets at 1,305 fps and .357 Magnum JSP 158-grain bullets at 1,430 fps (six shots)
  • Level IIIA: .357 Sig FMJ 125-grain bullets at 1,470 fps and .44 Magnum SJHP 240-grain bullets at 1,430 fps (six shots)

Rifle Calibers

  • Level III: 7.62x51mm FMJ steel-jacketed 147-grain bullets (M80) at 2,780 fps (minimum of six hits)
  • Level IV: .30 caliber armor piercing bullets (.30-06 M2 AP) at 2,880 fps (single hit)

It is important to note that a ballistic package that is certified to a particular level is only tested to the specific protocol for that single level. It is not cumulative. In other words, a Level IV certified plate is not tested against the Level III protocol unless it is also submitted separately for Level III certification — so a Level IV plate is not necessarily “better” than a Level III, and a plate that defeats a single hit from an M2 round may or may not defeat multiple M80 hits. Do not make any assumptions about performance if the product in question has not been professionally tested with the round in question.

While the NIJ standardized testing is rigorous in its own right — in particular due to its large sample size (24) and physical conditioning requirements (in which vests are submerged, heated, cooled, and tumbled for 10 days) — the FBI and DEA have developed their own test protocol to subject body armor to additional, more stringent demands. The FBI protocol for soft armor utilizes a single type of projectile, a 9mm 124-grain bullet at 1,375 to 1,450 fps, for its primary tests, though current-issue service rounds and 9mm Winchester SXT 127-grain +P are also tested. As compared to NIJ protocol, the FBI tests utilize gelatin backing material behind the ballistic package rather than clay; include edge shots (approximately 1.75 inches from the edge of the ballistic panel) and contact shots (muzzle touching); conduct wet, heat (140 deg F) and cold (minus 40 deg F) testing immediately in those conditions; and require 20 rather than 24 ballistic panels for testing.

The DEA test protocol for soft armor requires eight panels for testing and focuses on 9mm 124-grain FMJ bullets at 1,400 fps for primary testing. It adds fragmentation testing and contact and edge shots with the primary testing round as well as 9mm 127-grain +P Winchester SXT and .40 S&W 165-grain Speer Gold Dot HP. Its wet, heat (150 degrees F) and cold (minus 20 degrees F) testing are also conducted immediately in those conditions. DEA rifle plate testing utilizes .223 Rem Winchester Ranger 60-grain, 5.56mm M855, 7.62x39mm mild steel core, and 7.62x51mm M80 ball ammo, with three rounds of each delivered to a test plate, respectively.

So if you want the highest levels of tested protection, look for armor that is both NIJ certified and FBI or DEA compliant — but be prepared to pay a premium.

Key considerations and tradeoffs

The most important thing for you to think about when considering body armor is what you really need it for. Even if money is no object, selecting body armor is still an exercise in tradeoffs:

Level of protection: What might your likely threats be? What types of weapons and ammunition are typically employed by those you might encounter? Are you in a conflict zone where you face small-arms fire and A.P. rounds? Are you a police officer in a rural area where poachers regularly carry hunting rifles? Are you a jeweler in a big city where assailants usually employ handguns? It’s important to be brutally honest about this and look for products that will provide the appropriate level of protection — going for more than you realistically need will cost you on other dimensions. If you carry a firearm on duty, it’s important to ensure your body armor will defeat your own ammo, lest it be used against you. Also, don’t make any assumptions about ballistic performance of any products; the only assumption that you should make is that they will only defeat the specific threats that they have actually been tested for.

Weight, mobility, and comfort: Generally speaking, more protection equals more weight. And more weight equals less mobility and comfort, and potentially more likelihood that you might opt not to wear your armor sometime that you end up really needing it. In addition, don’t wear your armor loosely to make it more comfortable; armor is tested and certified while snug against backing material and may not perform to spec otherwise.

Local environment and activities: What is your operational environment like? What activities do you need to perform while wearing your body armor?

Concealability: A need to conceal your armor will push you toward thinner and less bulky choices. Ironically, with hard plates, thinner usually equals heavier since the lightest polyethylene options are also the thickest. Your local customs and weather also play a factor, as colder weather and heavy clothing are more forgiving than a scalding hot area where people regularly wear T-shirts and shorts.

Care and maintenance: All body armor should be treated with care, but some materials require more than others — in particular, ceramics as described before. Ingram notes that even soft armor can be damaged; for example, if you fold or roll up your vest and throw it in the trunk the same way every time and don’t store it with care, the fibers may begin to bend or move when repeatedly stressed in the same spots. If the seal on your vest’s armor is punctured or broken, allowing the ballistic materials to get wet, performance will suffer. Exposure to extreme heat or cold is also a real concern.

Cost: The more money you have to throw at the situation, the more choices you have to optimize these considerations (e.g. lighter, thinner, etc). But there will still be tradeoffs — for instance, if you require protection against armor-piercing rifle rounds, the use of ceramic materials will achieve this, but have some downsides as described above.

In the end, armor that you can afford and will actually be wearing when an incident happens is far better than a T-shirt — over the past 10 years of FBI crime statistics, 36 percent of police officers feloniously killed were not wearing body armor.

If you remember nothing else from reading this article, please remember these important messages: (1) select and consistently employ body armor that matches the threats you expect to encounter and (2) only rely on what your armor has been specifically tested and certified to defeat. So please do your research and think carefully (and realistically) about your needs and situation.

The following pages contain a variety of protective bad-assery currently available on the market, from the latest and greatest (and also priciest) to the eminently affordable. Listed are retail pricing, which readers should note can often be significantly higher than street prices. Conspicuous in their absence are some big-name brands whose policies restrict sales to civilians. Note that some distributors may require civilian buyers to have a CCW or other proof of a clean record.

Proper Fit for Rifle Plates

lungs-and-heat-diagram

Keep in mind that rifle plates are intended to protect your most vital organs, without unduly restricting your mobility and ability to fight. Therefore, they should be positioned to cover your heart, respiratory diaphragm, and vertebral column. One common mistake is to wear your plates too low on your torso — don’t do this, as your heart is much more important than your gut! To position your front plate, feel for the soft spot at the top of your sternum and adjust your carrier to put the top of your plate there. The rear plate should be positioned similarly on your back — one way to find this spot is by feeling for the most prominent vertebrae at the base of your neck, then place the top of your plate a couple finger widths below it.

Selecting a larger or smaller plate size represents a compromise between coverage and mobility. The subject matter experts we consulted consistently advise end users not to choose plates that are unnecessarily small, simply because they are more comfortable and make it easier to shoulder your weapon. A helpful rule of thumb is to ensure your front plate is at least wide enough to cover your nipples.

Soft Armor

Bulletsafe Bulletproof Vest

bulletsafe-bulletproof-vest

Rating: IIIA Equivalent (Abbreviated test)
Material: Polyethylene
Size: Medium
Weight: 5.1 pounds total (carrier 0.9 pounds, inserts 2.1 pounds each / 1.26 lbs/sq ft)
Thickness: 0.55 inches
MSRP: $299
URL: www.bulletsafe.com
Notes: Bulletsafe streamlined every aspect of its business, from product design to logistics, in order to offer body armor as economically as possible. No custom sizing here; the vest is available in six sizes from small to 4XL. The front and rear soft armor inserts are the same. Products are sold direct to consumer and via retailers, but the company doesn’t target agency contracts that require significant sales overhead. And their products are manufactured in China. The carrier has Velcro-adjustable shoulder straps and side straps as well as plate pockets front and rear. While comfort, weight, fit and finish naturally do not match the other more expensive vests here, Bulletsafe achieved its goal, bringing its vest to market at an extremely low price of $299. They also offer a simple 10×12 rectangular ballistic panel for $99 to stow in backpacks, briefcases, or other bags.

Armor Express Seraph II Concealable Package with Revolution Plus Concealable Carrier

armor-express-seraph-ii-concealable-package-with-revolution-plus-concealable-carrier

Rating: NIJ II, plus 5.7x28mm 40-gr SS197SR, .44 RemMag 240-gr Hydra-Shok, .357 SIG 125-gr Gold Dot HP, 9mm 127-gr Ranger T-Series
Material: Twaron Microfilament Flex Woven Aramid and Dyneema SB70
Size: 1715 (as shown)
Weight: 3.35 pounds total (carrier 0.73 pounds, rear insert 1.38 pounds, front insert 1.26 pounds, Seraph II armor 0.79 lbs/sq ft)
Thickness: 0.24 inches
MSRP: $1,178
URL: www.armorexpress.com
Notes: Features the Seraph ballistic package, which is Armor Express’s lightest body armor, available in Level II and IIIA ratings. The top-of-the-line Revolution Plus carrier has a Scent-Lok lining, padded shoulder straps, elastic, and Velcro side and shoulder straps, zippered insert pockets with Velcro retention, and a pocket for front trauma plate. The carrier and armor inserts are custom made for the end user based on his or her measurements. We found this vest to be quite comfortable and nicely detailed. The easy grip side straps were convenient as well.

Point Blank Alpha Elite AXII

point-blank-alpha-elite-axii

Rating: NIJ II
Material: Dyneema Force Multiplier Technology
Size: Large
Weight: 5 pounds total (carrier 1.1 pounds, front insert 1.7 pounds, rear insert 1.9 pounds, trauma insert 0.3 pounds, armor 0.63 lbs/sq ft)
Thickness: 0.33 inches
MSRP: $1,390
URL: www.pointblankenterprises.com
Notes: We tried to get medium-sized products for this guide to make it easier to compare, but our sample of the Alpha Elite vest is quite large, so total weights are not directly comparable with other products. At just 0.63 pounds per square foot, the Dyneema Force Multiplier Technology armor in the Alpha Elite is the lightest in this guide (and available in IIIA as well). The carrier is well designed, with optional shirt tails, elastic side straps with Velcro, body side mesh, antimicrobial fabric, and neoprene shoulder straps to which armor inserts attach via Velcro. The zippered insert pocket has a trauma plate pocket inside. A 5×8 inch soft trauma insert is included. The vest is custom made to measurements taken of the end user.

Survival Armor Paragon LW IIIA with Vertex Carrier

survival-armor-paragon-lw-iiia-with-vertex-carrier

Rating: NIJ IIIA, plus 9mm 127-gr SXT+P+, .357 Sig 125-gr GDHP, 5.7x28mm (40gr V-MAX SS197, 28-gr JHP SS192), 7.62x25mm 85-gr FMJ Tokarev, Ultra Defense (USM4 9mm 50-gr, USM40 60-gr, USM45 78-gr)
Material: Twaron and Dyneema hybrid
Size: 2216-1716
Weight: 4.5 pounds total (carrier 0.6 pounds, front insert 2 pounds, rear insert 1.9 pounds, armor 1 lb/sq ft)
Thickness: 0.26 inches
MSRP: $1,595
URL: www.survivalarmor.com
Notes: Made to measure, this Survival Armor vest is comfortable, well-fitted and full featured. The Paragon armor is certified to IIIA specs and more, with a long list of special threat testing. A Level II variant can also be had. The Vertex carrier features moisture wicking anti-microbial material, neoprene shoulder and side straps with Velcro adjustments, a front plate pocket with compartments for a trauma plate, and zippered compartments for armor inserts with Velcro retaining tabs.

TYR Tactical Pico Direct Action Carrier with T52/SP Soft Armor

tvr-tactical-pico-direct-action-carrier-with0t520sp-soft-armor

Rating: NIJ II, plus FBI, DEA and SOCOM compliant
Material: Kevlar and Dyneema (armor), PV (carrier)
Size: Medium
Weight: Total 13.65 pounds with ULV rifle plates (carrier 2.9 pounds, soft inserts 0.75 pounds each / 0.82 lbs/sq ft, plates 4.6 pounds each)
MSRP: $956
URL: www.tyrtactical.com
Notes: A prime example of overt plate carrier systems, TYR Tactical’s flagship Pico-DA is a very well thought-out and constructed piece of kit, with soft armor inserts boasting compliance with the toughest standards. A long list of well-executed features includes Velcro adjustable shoulder straps with removable padding, slotted base cummerbund, Velcro adjustable side straps with elastic, removable triple mag pouch, removable zippered back panel, body side spacer mesh/padding, and plate pockets with dividers to accommodate soft inserts and hard plates. The carrier is made of TYR’s PV hybrid material, a laminate of 500-denier Cordura nylon and 200-denier Kevlar, providing seven to 10 times the strength and abrasion resistance of regular Cordura with 40-percent less weight. Available in small, medium, large and XL (to match plate size), and in MultiCam, coyote brown, ranger green, and black. Shown with optional Lower Abdomen Platform with matching soft armor package ($165).

Hard Armor

AR500 Armor Curved Trauma Plate (Advanced Shooter’s Cut)

ar5000-armor-curved-trauma-plate-advanced-shooters-cut

Rating: III Equivalent (standalone)
Material: Steel with Extra-thick Layer of PAXCON Anti-Spall Coating
Size: 10×12 inches
Contour: Single curve
Weight: 9.7 pounds
Thickness: 0.58 inches
MSRP: $110
URL: www.ar500armor.com
Notes: These steel plates are just about the cheapest rifle protection you can get. For even greater affordability, a flat version is available for $65 and a curved one with standard PAXCON coating for $85. At nearly 10 pounds a piece, you can get a workout while enjoying Level III protection. With its durable PAXCON coating, these plates are pretty much worry free. AR500 Armor offers several other sizes and shapes, including side plates, rectangular back plates, and backpack plates. NB, if you’re shopping for steel plates, don’t even think about getting any without an anti-spall coating, unless you enjoy picking bullet fragments out of your throat.

Armor Express Delta III SA++

armor-express-delta-iii-sa-plus-plus

Rating: NIJ III (standalone) plus DEA compliant (Winchester Ranger 60-grain .223, 5.56mm M855, 7.62x39mm mild steel core, 7.62x51mm M80 ball)
Material: High-density alumina with composite fiber, polyurethane coating
Size: 10×12 inches (shown)
Contour: Multi curve
Weight: 6.5 pound
Thickness: 1.2 inches
MSRP: $892
URL: www.armorexpress.com
Notes: A hefty plate from Armor Express, the Delta III SA++ is DEA compliant and Level III rated. It is also available in a 8×10-inch size.

Armored Mobility Inc TAC3S

armored-mobility-tac3s

Rating: NIJ III (standalone), plus 5.56mm (M855, LeMas Urban Warfare, M193), 6.8mm 110gr OTM, 7.62x39mm M43 steel core FMJ, 12-gauge high-velocity slug, .300 Win magnum
Material: Compressed polyethylene with steel strike face, anti-spall polyurethane coating
Size: 10×12 inches
Contour: Single curve
Weight: 7.3 pounds
Thickness: 1 inch
MSRP: $675
URL: www.armoredmobility.com
Notes: A hybrid rifle plate combining the benefits of polyethylene and steel, the TAC3S has shown remarkably strong multi-hit performance from many threats in additional testing by researchers like Dr. Gary Roberts. And the choice of materials provides great durability and minimal maintenance. But nothing is free, as all of this comes at the expense of weight.

BulletSafe Ballistic Plate

bulletsafe-ballistic-plate

Rating: III Equivalent (standalone), IV Equivalent (ICW, IIIA backer)
Material: Ceramic aluma-oxide and polyethylene, with fabric cover
Size: 10×12 inches
Contour: Single curve
Weight: 5.9 pounds
Thickness: 0.8 inches
MSRP: $169
URL: www.bulletsafe.com
Notes: This is a no-frills rifle plate that won’t necessarily wow you on any of its specs until you look at the price. Then you might just say “Wow.” BulletSafe does it again with another bargain-priced offering. Note soft armor is needed for Level IV protection.

Midwest Armor Venture FM3

midwest-armor-venture-fm3

midwest-armor-venture-fm3-alt
Rating: NIJ III (standalone), plus 7.62x39mm PS ball / MSC
Material: Polyethylene, with polyurea coating
Size: 10×12 inches
Contour: Triple curve
Weight: 2.4 pounds
Thickness: 1.1 inches
MSRP: $699
URL: www.midwestarmor.com
Notes: The lightest level III plates in this guide, Midwest Armor’s FM3s really need to be worn and compared against other plates to truly appreciate the weight savings. Note they are still over an inch thick. Available in nine sizes and cuts, plus side plates. The polyethylene plates are positively buoyant, and the polyurea liner provides protection from UV, salt water, gasoline, and JP fuels. Midwest recently introduced the 1.25-inch thick FM3+ plate ($599), adding ceramic to the mix and allowing it to stop M855. This nearly doubles the weight, but at 4.7 pounds for a standalone III plate that also stops M855, the FM3+ is still quite manageable.

DKX Armor DKX Max III

dkx-armor-dkx-max-ii
Rating: NIJ III (standalone)
Material: DSM Dyneema polyethylene, with polyurea coating and polycarbonate back skin
Size: 10×12 inches
Contour: Double curve
Weight: 2.9 pounds
Thickness: 1.3 inches
MSRP: $649
URL: www.dkxarmor.com
Notes: DKX’s very lightweight all-polyethylene offering is multi-hit rated, buoyant, and durable. It has an embedded RF chip for identification and inventory tracking. DKX offers an extended seven-year warranty, longer than the five-year industry standard. Side plates are also available. The Max III plates are also shown here in a Phalanx Defense Hydra plate carrier ($389, 3.7 pounds). Developed in conjunction with DKX, it’s designed to accommodate several plate sizes using suspension straps inside the plate pockets. While a nice feature for those that need the flexibility, if you can swing a dedicated carrier, we preferred ones sized specifically to fit the plates.

Midwest Armor Venture FM STX

midwest-armor-venture-fm-stx
Rating: Special threat (standalone) rated for 5.56mm (M855 and M855A1) and 7.62x39mm (PS ball / MSC and API BZ)
Material: Ceramic and polyethylene, with polyurea coating
Size: 10×12 inches
Contour: Triple curve
Weight: 4.3 pounds
Thickness: 0.56 inches
MSRP: $499
URL: www.midwestarmor.com
Notes: These are very low-profile standalone plates at just over ½-inch thick, perfect for low visibility use where primary threats are AR and AK type weapons. The ceramic and polyethylene construction provides a balance of weight and protection. Note that they are not level III rated for 7.62x51mm, but do stop M855A1.

TYR Tactical Ultra Low Vis Ballistic Plate

tyr-tactical-ultra-low-vis-ballistic-plate

Rating: III equivalent (ICW, II backer), plus 5.56mm (M193 and M855), 5.45x39mm, and 7.62x39mm (mild steel core and API)
Material: Ceramic with polyurethane coating (coyote brown)
Size: 10×12 inches (medium)
Contour: Multi-curve
Weight: 4.6 pounds
Thickness: 0.47 inches
MSRP: $796
URL: www.tyrtactical.com
Notes: TYR Tactical offers these extremely low-profile ICW plates, which go perfectly with their various PICO carriers and soft armor packages — combined they are a great system with a good balance of protection, weight, and mobility for many theaters here and abroad. Available in small, medium, large, and XL.

Tencate Cratus 5200SA

tencate-cratus-5200sa
Rating: NIJ III and IV (standalone), plus 5.56mm (M855 and M855A1), 7.62x39mm (API BZ), and 7.62x54Rmm (API B32)
Material: Ceramic and polyethylene with polyurea coating
Size: 10×12 inches
Contour: Multi-curve
Weight: 7.3 pounds
Thickness: 1.4 inches
MSRP: $288 to $350
URL: www.tencate.com
Notes: Tencate does not sell directly to end users or agencies, but rather supplies its plates to various armor OEMs. Tencate manufactures a wide range of hard armor in its Ohio plant, utilizing nearly every type of material, from alloys to polyethylene and ceramics. The Cratus 5200SA is a brute of a plate that will stop a number of nasty rounds, including M855A1. It’s thick and heavy, but if you have A.P. rounds flying your way, you’ll be glad to have them. It’s a mid-priced Level IV standalone plate, available in 14 sizes.

Velocity Systems VS-P34-1012

velocity-system-vs-p34-1012
Rating: NIJ III (standalone) and IV (ICW, IIIA backer)
Material: Ceramic with black fabric cover
Size: 10×12 inches
Contour: Multi-curve
Weight: 6.1 pounds
Thickness: 0.6 inches
MSRP: $336
URL: www.velsyst.com
Notes: Quite thin for Level IV plates; with ceramic construction, they are also relatively heavy. Note plate backers are required to provide Level IV protection. Velocity offers soft armor plate backers (VS-13A, $360/pair) made of DuPont Kevlar that provide NIJ Level IIIA protection and meet SOCOM and IOTV fragmentation requirements. Medium versions weigh 1.1 pounds each; the soft armor is also available in other cuts to provide greater coverage for standalone use or in conjunction with plates. We noticed the contour on Velocity’s plates seemed better suited for our athletic staffers than those addicted to pizza, beer, and cigarettes.

Other

221B Tactical Maxx-Dri Ultra Comfort Vest

221b-tactical-maxx-dri-ultra-comfort-vest

221b-tactical-maxx-dri-ultra-comfort-vest-material-close-up
Rating: No ballistic protection
Material: Polyester-derivative mesh
Size: Medium
Weight: 0.37 pounds
Thickness: 0.24 inches

MSRP: $70
URL: www.221btactical.com
Notes: Meant to be worn between an undershirt and a ballistic vest, the Maxx-Dri vest is designed to provide a breathable layer under your body armor to increase comfort and reduce perspiration as well as more evenly distribute the weight. Invented by a police officer with the Wall Township, New Jersey police department, it is composed of a polyester derivative mesh fabric. Available in small, medium, large, XL, and XXL, sized to approximate a regular T-shirt.

Velocity Systems VS-PBZ

velocity-systems-vs-pbz
Rating: III equivalent (ICW, IIIA backer), plus multi-hit rated for 5.56mm (M193 and M855), 5.45x39mm, 7.62x39mm (mild steel core and API BZ)
Material: Ceramic with MultiCam fabric cover
Size: Medium (9.5×12.5 inches)
Contour: Multi-curve
Weight: 4 pounds
Thickness: 0.52 inches
MSRP: $956
URL: www.velsyst.com
Notes: Not cheap! But look at the specs. If you have the scratch, these are impressive low-profile ceramic plates. Don’t forget these are ICW plates, so figure soft armor plate backers into the weight and price equation. Available in small, medium, large, and XL.

TYR Tactical Huron Medium Upright Vehicle Storage Bag

tyr-tactical-huron-medium-upright-vehicle-storage-bag

Rating: n/a
Material: Nylon with TYR PV reinforcements
Size: 14x14x7 inches
Weight: 1.1 pounds
MSRP: $70
URL: www.tyrtactical.com
Notes: A handy bag to store armor featuring a zippered top flap with ID pocket, four grab handles and loops for shoulder strap, female Velcro on inside of bag, and stiffeners to keep shape. The bottom is reinforced with TYR’s trick PV material. Available in MultiCam, coyote brown, ranger green, and black.

Sources

Chesapeake Testing: www.chesapeaketesting.com

FBI Uniform Crime Reports: www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/ucr

National Institute of Justice: www.nij.gov

NIJ Database of Certified Body Armor: www.nij.gov/topics/technology/body-armor/Pages/compliant-ballistic-armor.aspx

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