July 08, 2020
By James Tarr
For a number of years now I’ve wanted to acquire body armor hard plates. I have a Kevlar soft body armor vest left over from my law enforcement days (a Second Chance Monarch, Threat Level II), but I’m a ‘worst case scenario’ kind of guy when it comes to preparation, and the title of this magazine isn’t ‘Be Kinda Ready’. Soft body armor is both discreet and effective against most handgun and shotgun rounds, but it falls short when dealing with rifle rounds. Basically they zip right through. Modern hard plates though can stop many rifle caliber threats. Not only that but they have become quite economical. I recently did some extensive research before buying a set of hard plates and a plate carrier. Some of what I learned may help you if you’re in the market for hard armor.
The first thing that surprised me was the cost of hard armor. I was expecting it to be more expensive than soft body armor, but in fact it’s about the same price or cheaper if you’re talking steel plates. Soft body armor is a multi-layer weave of Kevlar or other proprietary fibers, and many of the vests are designed to be as thin and comfortable as possible for all day wear. Of course the more comfortable the vest, the more expensive it becomes. By comparison new 10x12 inch (the most common size) steel plates run between $80 and $140 apiece depending on options (more on that later). This means you can get two plates and a carrier for as low as $200. That’s less than what I paid for my soft body armor twenty years ago.
You’ll find a number of retailers offering steel hard plates. Do your research and don’t just go for the cheapest option. Two companies who seem to be very popular in the commercial hard armor (steel plate) market are AR500 Armor (www.ar500armor.com, 602-501-9607) and Steel Defender (870-210-4041). Many other companies selling armor are in fact just vendors for AR500 Armor or Steel Defender.
Hard armor plates should have a NIJ (National Institute of Justice) rating of III or IV. Level III plates are rated to stop 7.62x51mm 147 grain M80 ball and lessor threats (including all pistol and shotgun rounds). Level IV plates are rated to stop .30-’06 166 grain M2 Armor Piercing ammunition and lessor threats. Different materials, including ceramic, polyethylene and steel are used in hard plate manufacture and each has certain advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage of a steel plate compared to ceramic or polyethylene is its very economical nature. Due to their very affordable pricing I’ll concentrate solely on them here.
While economical and robust steel plates due have two drawbacks. The first is their weight, they tend to be heavy. The next is spalling. While bare steel plates are available (usually painted black to prevent corrosion) I do not recommend them. Bare steel plates lack the ability to capture bullet/armor fragments (spall) which can still wound or kill you. If you’ve spent any time shooting steel targets, you’ll have observed that the bullets just don’t stop and drop to the ground in one piece below the target. They shatter and send shrapnel/spall in every direction. The same thing happens when a high velocity projectile impacts a steel body armor plate.
Ceramic and polyethylene plates eliminate spall, but they are much more expensive than steel plates. One solution for steel plates is Line-X. If you’re unfamiliar with Line-X it is a spray-on coating similar to a hard rubber. The US military some time ago realized it works very well to reduce shrapnel and spall. It has actually been sprayed on the inside walls of buildings to reduce fragmentation/disintegration in the event of an explosive attack. Line-X coating also drastically reduces spalling off of steel hard plate. Due to this AR500 offers two levels of Line-X protection, a basic coat and a built-up option which adds ¼-inch to the thickness of the plate and nearly eliminates spalling. I highly recommend buying plates with a built-up coating of Line-X.
Most armor companies offer packages—i.e. two plates plus a plate carrier all at a reduced price. Dozens of companies make plate carriers, but one of the most popular, and economical, seems to be from Condor (which does not sell direct to the consumer). I ordered a package (two 10x12 inch coated plates plus an OD green Condor carrier, triple AR mag pouch, gloves and hat for about $300) through a third party vendor (www.tacticalshit.com) that was having a Christmas sale. While not terribly expensive (they retail for about $40 separately) the Condor plate carrier seems well made and is coated with MOLLE for the mounting of gear. It has heavily padded shoulder straps (which you’ll want) and the insides of the plate pouches are lightly padded as well to protect your torso.
While you can buy rectangular plates, most plates these days have angle cuts at the top so they won’t interfere with the proper shouldering of a weapon. 10x12 inch plates will cover the heart and lungs of most people, and a good section of the spine, but leave the head, pelvis, and sides of the ribcage exposed. 6x6 inch side-plates are available for side coverage, but they add bulk and weight. Larger 10x13.5 inch chest/back plates are also available, but they increase weight and you’re carrier must have a pocket large enough to accept them.
Most standard plates are ¼ inch thick 500 Brinell hardness steel, and a 10x12 inch bare plate weighs 7.8 pounds. This means a carrier with two plates will be roughly 17 pounds hanging off your shoulders. If you want to hang some pouches off your plate carrier and fill them with loaded weapon magazines, you’ll be adding even more weight. Be aware that no matter what hard armor you buy, you’ll be adding a good bit of weight and bulk. The weight and bulk is fatiguing, especially compared to soft armor. More so if you are out of shape, so keep this in mind.
In addition to the weight, steel plates sandwiching your torso also tend to trap the heat. Ever seen cops standing outside in freezing weather wearing nothing but their uniform shirts and wonder why they’re not cold? Thank their body armor. I refer to wearing soft body armor as living inside a Kevlar furnace. While they don’t tend to get the wearer as hot as a soft armor vest, hard plates inside a thick carrier will trap heat.
For certain situations hard plates can provide a good bit of peace of mind. High quality steel body armor plates are capable of stopping multiple hits from pistols and rifles. Just remember though, to be most effective you need to include them in your training. Remember, steel plates will add a noticeable amount of weight which will fatigue you and slow you down. If you are out of shape and unaccustomed to wearing them, the disadvantages could outweigh the advantages in certain situations. However they could save your life, so choose wisely and above all else train with them if you buy a pair.