May 11, 2020
By James Tarr
Soft body armor has its pros and cons. It is much more comfortable to wear than hard armor plates, and is in fact concealable, but Level II and IIIA soft body armor will not stop rifle fire. Hard armor, on the other hand, will. Level IV armor will pretty much stop everything you’re likely to be shot with. And although getting shot while wearing soft body armor feels like getting hit with the business end of a baseball bat, hard body armor soaks up much of the impact force. The bad news? Hard armor consists of plates, which are very hard, heavy and hard to conceal. Or two out of those three….
Several years ago at SHOT Show I saw an armor manufacturer showing off “plastic” hard armor plates. I took note of them due to their weight and construction. Considering the military is using ceramic in their plates I didn’t immediately dismiss this idea. Recently I received a set of these for review from one of the biggest names in the armor industry, AR500.
Technically these are UHMWPE (Ultra-High Molecular Weight Polyethylene) plates. The biggest selling point of polyethylene (PE) plates is their weight, or lack thereof. Being relatively light, this is also how they are usually advertised, as “lightweight” body armor. For example my 10x12 inch shooter’s cut plates weigh only 3.3 pounds apiece, and actually float. Seriously. Most 10x12 inch steel plates start at eight pounds apiece and go up from there. And they very definitely do not float.
So, what are some of the disadvantages of polymer body armor plates? First, they are more expensive than traditional steel plates. New and cutting-edge technology is always more expensive than the older stuff, and depending on the manufacturer PE plates cost 2-3 times what steel plates do. These AR500 UHMWPE plates currently retail for $320 apiece, and I’ve seen some brands as high as $699. They are also much thicker than inexpensive steel plates, these from AR500 measure 1.3 inches. Prolonged exposure to high temperatures can also degrade Polyethylene plates. So do not store them in your trunk on a hot summer day.
Polyethylene plates are typically rated to stop a Level III threat, meaning 7.62x51mm NATO M80 ball. In practice a typical Level III Polyethylene plate will stop 7.62x51mm NATO M80 ball, 7.62x39mm lead core FMJ, 5.56x45mm 55-grain M193 ball and handgun cartridges. However, one thing to be aware of is they will not typically stop 5.56x45mm 62-grain M855/SS109 (green tip) FMJ-BT ball. 5.56x45mm M855 ball, unlike the older 55-grain M193, has a mild steel “penetrator” nose cone under the jacket. M855 is relatively common here in the US, you can purchase it at Walmart, so something to be aware of.
Many people think if they're going to go to all the trouble to get hard body armor that it should stop everything out there, and I definitely see that point of view. However, I would like to point out that the vast majority of .223 Rem/5.56x45mm ammo being shot through ARs by civilians here in the US is not M855 “green tip”. Sales figures from ammunition manufacturers and importers have shown that some variety of 55-grain bullet remains the favorite. Many civilians, as well as LE agencies, prefer a load which offers noticeably better terminal performance than the Cold War era M855 load. However, M855 ball is widely available.
So, let’s go back to the weight issue, as that’s the biggest selling point of these plates. 3.3 pounds per plate, plus the weight of a plate carrier, and you’re still only talking eight or nine pounds total. I'm from Michigan and have worn winter coats that weighed more than a plate carrier with the two polymer armor panels. When you put it on you don't really notice the weight as much as you do the hardness against your body, and the thickness of the plates. What you do notice is your mobility and endurance is not degraded nearly as much as with inexpensive steel plates.
Just how do the Polyethylene plates compare to inexpensive steel armor plates? The Polyethylene plates are dramatically lighter, both in your hand and on your back. Shockingly lighter. Eight pounds per steel armor plate doesn’t sound that much heavier, right? Trust me, it is. Two steel plates plus carrier will put you at close to twenty pounds. Those heavy steel plates will reduce your mobility and fatigue you much quicker compared to Polyethylene plates. If you’re thinking of adding magazine pouches to your plate carrier add another pound per loaded AR magazine. Then you’ll probably want to add a blow-out kit, a knife, maybe a hydration system. Before long those 20-pound steel plates have become thirty pounds.
If you picture yourself running through an urban wasteland, clad in body armor, trusty AR in hand, fighting off the zombie apocalypse, I get it. Heck, I live near Detroit, so I train for it. But the sad fact of the matter is most Americans are not in good enough physical condition to handle sustained exertion of any kind, much less exertion while weighted down with heavy body armor. And it’s not just weight. Body armor, whether soft or hard, traps heat. A standard 30-lb plate carrier/plates/mag pouches combo may not seem that heavy when you throw it on and walk around your living room for 5 minutes. But what about wearing it for hours or days at a time as you walk your property line after a Florida hurricane, trying to protect yourself and your family from looters? The lighter weight Polyethylene plates offer a real advantage in this regard.
I cannot imagine slapping a traditional carrier holding steel plates on a younger child and have them do anything but complain about how heavy it is, even if bullets are flying and cars are exploding and buildings are collapsing around them. The idea of even being in a situation where you might need to put body armor on your children is horrific, but that's the world we live. For picking out a hard body armor set for children or your significant other (who probably will be against the idea to begin with), being able to provide her with something that doesn't weigh as much as a wheelbarrow around her neck will probably be greatly appreciated.
What about the AR500 UHMWPE Polyethylene plates themselves? They feature a durable black 600D nylon cover with edge padding. On the back you will find a label with their NIJ 0101.06 Level III certification. They are “stand-alone” plates, meaning they do not require Level IIIA soft armor panels behind them to attain their threat rating. They are also multi-hit capable, meaning they are capable of stopping multiple shots from: 7.62x51mm NATO M80 ball at 2,800 fps. They are also rated to stop 5.56x45mm M193 ball at 3,150 fps and 7.62x39mm ball at 2,380 fps. The “shooters cut” 10x12 inch plates feature an ergonomic single curvature for a better fit and provide positive buoyancy in a marine environment. Plus they are made here in the USA. Maintenance on them is as simple as checking the nylon cover for fraying, the edges of the plate for any distortion and wiping clean with a cold damp cloth. Price is $320 per plate.
If you're going to accept the reality that bad things sometimes happen to good people and that's why you want to have hard armor available to you as an option, I think inspector Harry Callahan said it best when he said, “A man's got to know his limitations.” A man should also know his options. AR500’s lightweight polymer plates will help expand yours.