Today, I am going to talk a bit about the opposite of guns. What is the opposite of a gun, you might ask. Peace? Love? Puppies? No morons, it’s body armor. For those of you just unfrozen from a 200 year cryo sleep, body armor stops bullets before they can enter your meatspace and STEVE SMITH you to death. And no, I don’t know who would know about STEVE SMITH but not understand the concept of body armor, but I’m sure if he exists he’s reading this at some point. There are 5 official levels of body armor as defined by the National Institute of Justice: NIJ level IIa, II, IIIa, III, and IV. III and IV are hard armor plates rated for rifle rounds, while everything else is soft armor only rated for handguns. Soft armor is what is usually used by police officers since it is lighter and flexible and can be worn more comfortably for long periods of time, while plates are worn by military for their ability to stop rifle rounds. I do not know much about soft armor since I don’t own it and I have never used it, but I would only recommend soft armor if you need to wear it for long periods of time or need to do a lot of walking while wearing it and don’t anticipate rifle fire. For most civilians I cannot think of a case that would justify wearing soft armor as part of your everyday loadout, and since it would be inferior in a SHTF situation, I don’t recommend it at all. If there is some situation where you need to wear armor inconspicuously then soft armor is probably the only thing that will work, but again I cannot think of many realistic situations outside of police work that would warrant it. There is another reason why I don’t recommend soft armor: It deforms when hit. Unlike a hard plate, soft armor will bulge to absorb the impact of the bullet. That means that while the bullet won’t actually enter your body, it will still feel like you got punched in the gut by Mike Tyson. Stopping the first bullet is no good if you’re laying there gasping for air immediately afterwards.
So that leaves hard plates. There are two commonly available types of plates: Ceramic and steel. Ceramic plates are the more traditional variety. These are sometimes referred to as SAPI or ESAPI plates, although that technically is a specific brand used by the US military. The advantages to ceramic plates are low weight and no spalling (I’ll get to that in a minute). Ceramic plates usually weigh half as much as equivalent steel plates, which means less weight for you to have to carry around. The disadvantages are cost, shelf life, and durability. Ceramic plates break when hit. That’s how they stop the bullet. But that also means they cannot take 2 hits in the same place. A ceramic plate can only withstand a few hits before it becomes completely worthless. Ceramic plates can also break if dropped onto a hard surface or if something heavy is dropped on top of them.
Steel plates are the newer variety of plates, and they come from a bit of good old redneck engineering. See people were looking for reusable targets they could shoot. Some people tried mild steel like you find at the hardware store but they figured out that rifles will punch holes clean through that stuff. They eventually found out that abrasion resistant steel (known as AR500 steel) was strong enough to stop most rifle rounds and they started making targets from them. Eventually someone realized you could make some very inexpensive plates that could stop a lot of bullets. The advantages of steel plates are price and durability. Theoretically, a steel plate can take hundreds of hits without failing and there are videos showing level 3 plates taking upwards of 90 rounds before failing. The disadvantages are weight and spalling. Steel is heavy, and lugging big heavy steel plates around is going to suck. These plates usually weigh around 8 pounds a piece, which works out to 15-30 pounds per set. The other issue with steel is spalling. As I said before, ceramic plates break when hit. Steel plates actually shatter the bullet, but when that happens it makes a bunch of high velocity shards spray out from the face of the plate. These shards probably won’t kill you but they will hurt, and if you get hit with enough of them in a soft vital spot like your neck it can make your day pretty bad. To help mitigate this, all decent plates come with a layer of spall coating on them to help catch the fragments. It’s usually a modified version of truck bed liner. I tried making my own plates using roll on bed liner and it didn’t go so well, so I recommend buying them pre coated. It may cost a little more but it’s worth it.
Now let’s go into protection levels. I told you before that there are 2 levels of hard plates, III and IV. That’s not entirely true. There is a third category that has come out recently called III+. III+ is not an official NIJ rating. It was created by manufacturers as a bridge between level III and IV plates. So what is III+? Well, level 3 plates stop normal rifle rounds and level 4 plates stop armor piercing rounds. Some normal rifle rounds are armor piercing under certain circumstances, however. Level 3 plates are designed to stop 5.56, 7.62×39, 30 06, and 308. However, M193, which is considered a non armor piercing 5.56 round, will defeat a standard level 3 plate. To remedy this, companies came out with 3+ plates, which will stop everything level 3 plates will stop, plus M193. Level 4 plates are designed to stop everything short of hardcore rounds like 300 win mag, 338 lapua, and 50 bmg. Level 4 armor will stop any normal gun. To my knowledge, level 4 armor is only available in ceramic, but I could be mistaken.
So what should you buy? Before we go into this I want to remind people that this is my opinion and you may find contradicting info elsewhere. Just remember that I am not trying to sell you anything. With that in mind, my answer on what you should buy is: it depends. I will tell you that because of the widespread proliferation of AR 15s and M193 ammo I strongly recommend not using anything below a 3+ rating. Beyond that, its a question of budget and desires. If you want to be able to stop basically any bullet fired at you, then level 4 is the only way to go. Remember though, you will only be able to take a few hits before the plate is compromised. If extreme durability is more important to you, a 3+ steel plate is probably your best bet. If you have a bit of money to spend and want a lightweight setup, 3+ ceramic plates are going to be your recommended option. Personally I run 3+ steel plates in my carriers. AR500 armor currently has level 3+ plates starting at 90 bucks a piece and level 4 plates at $115. It doesn’t get much cheaper than that for brand name armor.
One final piece of advice: Get a curved front plate. Curved plates are much more comfortable, especially if you’re a little round yourself, like me. You only need 1 curved plate. Back plates can be flat. Women should run 2 flat plates (this info came directly from an AR500 salesman). Their, uh… features make flat plates more comfortable.