Confused about what body armor plates to get?
Should you get Level 3…how about a curved plate…and should you add extra coating?
We’ve done the legwork of getting most of the body armor varieties out there.
So sit back while we cover all the important body armor basics. By the end…you’ll have a firm grasp of exactly what you need for your specific situation.
We’ll also throw in some carriers and personal recommendations.
Update: Check out our YouTube review of everything…being shot with 9mm through armor piercing 30.06 rounds.
If that helped, please subscribe to our YouTube channel since we’re adding new videos every week!
I received a bunch of armor from AR500 Armor (probably the most popular company in body armor) so I could write this unbiased review and test them out in the desert.
Spoiler…they work as intended.
Let’s get on with it.
Table of Contents
Body Armor Levels
Levels are an easy way to figure out what armor to get based on the possible threats you’re likely to encounter.
The go-to source is the NIJ (National Institute of Justice) and they have a nifty standard called NIJ 0101.06 for ballistic resistance.
The rough guidelines in ascending protection. Not sure of the different calibers? Check out our Caliber Guide.
- Level IIA: Tested for common pistol calibers such as 9mm & .40 S&W, no rifle protection
- Level II: Tested for slightly more powerful handgun ammo like .357 Magnum, no rifle protection
- Level IIIA: Tested for even more powerful handgun ammo coming out of longer barrel handguns (more velocity), no rifle protection
- Level III: Rifle protection up to 7.62 (.308) FMJ lead core
- Level IV: Rifle protection up to .30 caliber steel core armor piercing ammo, like 30.06 M2 AP
Just match up your threat levels above and get the armor. Easy peasy…right?
If only it were that simple…
First…it’s a voluntary system so not all manufacturers do it. Either for cost (lots of testing at labs) or they know they won’t pass.
One good test is to make sure the company and its products you’re looking at is on the Compliant Body Armor list. Sure enough…AR500 Armor is on it with their Level III and Level IV armor.
Another thing is that manufacturers can make up their own determination of Levels. It only counts when they say it reaches NIJ 0101.06 standards.
Still with me?
Body Armor Coating
There’s different coatings out there, but for AR500 Armor they use Paxcon. It’s the same stuff that you can spray onto the bed of your truck to make it super durable.
But for armor it adds the benefit of reducing “spalling,” which is the metal splatter when the bullet hits the AR500 steel.
It would suck to be protected from a hit only to have an artery cut from fragments.
When I tested it…the bullet passes through the Paxcon, hits the metal, and is contained. The built-up coating definitely helped more.
I would recommend getting it at least on the front plate since the front is where your arms, neck, and face would be prone to spalling.
AR500 Armor Testing Results
We were too close to the targets for NIJ standards of M855 and M193 5.56 rounds the first time we tested. So we went to the desert again with fresh plates.
We chronographed our guns and set up the targets at 50 yards.
For these levels, you’ll likely see soft armor.
Heard of Kevlar…right?
They are made of that and other proprietary fibers. Basically super strong string interwoven so that when a bullet impacts the vest, its energy is spread out quickly and doesn’t penetrate.
I wouldn’t recommend Level IIA unless price is a HUGE factor since Level II is very affordable and can stop up to .357 Magnum.
Level IIIA can handle up to .44 Magnum and longer barrels…but is more expensive. You also get the option of sticking with soft armor which is light (~1lb) and flexible…or moving up to AR500 steel (the material), which is cheaper but heavier (~5 lbs).
We tested the two types of Level IIIA armor…Rimelig which is cheaper and thicker…and their Hybrid which is thinner/lighter.
Both held up to 9mm and .357 Magnum rounds we shot at them.
But 5.56 rifle rounds went through them like butter.
Once you reach Level III onwards…you’ll be seeing hard steel plates.
Either coated steel (type of steel is called AR500, heavier but thinner) or polymer (UHMWPE, lighter but thicker).
This is where most body armor plates fall since you’re looking at rifle threats. III is rated up to 7.62 (.308) FMJ rounds such as the NATO M80.
You can check out the spalling of the regular Paxcon coat of M80 hits on the Level 3.
The steel held up with minor dents but our poor dummy sustained a lot of facial injuries.
We would definitely recommend bumping up to a buildup coat of Paxcon especially for your front plate.
With the buildup…the Paxcon effectively catches the round.
So it has to protect against the smaller 5.56 (.223) AR-15 rounds right?
Not exactly…it all has to do with velocity!
If you think you’ll be up against AR-15s sporting NATO ammunition like M855 (green tip) or M193…you better pay attention.
Make sure wherever you buy that it specifically states that it will stop M855 and M193 since those can still sail through Level III plates. M855 vs M193 for more info.
In our first trip, we were at around 20 yards and the M855 and M193 went through Level III plates about 50% of the time.
However, when we set up at 50 yards and within the NIJ standards, even the Level III stopped our M855 and M193.
BUT…it still had a little bulge. So if you were closer…it’d probably still go through.
For AR500 Armor…their upgraded Level III+ ) will stop M855 and M193 along with armor piercing Black Tip .308 (but not 30.06).
We tested these out and sure enough…no penetration or bulge from the fast 5.56 rounds.
And yes…true armor piercing M2AP 30.06 sailed through.
Also unique to AR500 Armor is their Level III+ Lightweight which sheds weight (10×12 SAPI is 6.5 pounds vs 8 pounds) but loses the protection of .308 armor piercing rounds.
They stopped the M855 and M193 threats.
But failed against the M2AP.
The Level III+ Lightweight (with build-up) is my favorite choice and worth the slight price increase.
That’s where ceramic plate Level IV comes in…it can stop the Black Tip 30.06 M2AP rounds.
And the lesser threats like a closer proximity M855 or M193. A little thicker but lighter when compared to coated AR500 steel.
We shot two M2AP rounds. The first one was stopped completely.
But the second ricocheted off to the side. However, we did hit the same cavity which was already weakened.
Although it has to be said if you’re getting hit by two M2AP rounds in the same place at 50 yards…you’re in the wrong place.
Body Armor Size, Fit, & Cut
Body armor is meant to protect the most important parts of your anatomy so you can stay in the fight. That boils down to the heart and its blood vessels…plus the diaphragm.
The rough guideline is to choose a plate that will cover your nipples so the heart is protected.
And to have it high enough so that the top is at your jugular notch. To find the notch, trace your sternum up until you reach a soft spot. Pressing down on it will make you choke.
I’m about 5’10”, 170 pounds, and wear a large t-shirt and size 42 suit. I’m holding a 10×12 plate.
If you’re bigger you’ll likely need the 11×14 plate. They also have smaller plates like the 8×10.
And also side plates (6×8) that can fit on the sides of your plate carriers.
Now let’s move onto the different cuts of the armor.
Advanced Shooters Cut, Left or Right Handed
We start moving into the proprietary names of each company. For AR500 Armor, they have the Advanced Shooters Cut in either Left or Right Handed options.
It gives a little more movement to the designated strong hand.
In the below example, look at the right-most plate which is cut more for a left-handed person.
Advanced Shooters Lightweight Cut
When the cut is much more pronounced, AR500 Armor calls it the Advanced Lightweight Shooters Cut (ALSC).
Other places will call it the Shooter’s Cut or Swimmer’s Cut. Only available for some protection levels like the III+.
It leaves a bit more unprotected but will give great mobility and cut down on the weight.
Body Armor Curve
You’ll also see the add-on options of adding a curve (or multi-curve) to your plate. Otherwise it will come flat.
I HIGHLY recommend getting it curved…at least for your front plate. If not both plates.
Your chest is likely not flat and even after an hour with a flat plate…you’re going to want to throw it away.
It’s worth the extra investment of ~$25.
You’ll also see Trauma Pads, which look and feel like thin soft armor…but are NOT ballistic protection.
They go behind armor to spread out the force when you do get hit. That way you don’t end up with a crazy bruise or broken bones. Also makes the plate armor comfier against your body.
AR500 Armor has some pretty decent plate carriers. See them all here.
The first one we tested was the Testudo carrier which was very padded, had a side cumberbund, and the most comfortable shoulder pads I’ve used.
Plenty of molle to attach anything you’ll need. Might get really hot though.
This is the Gen 1.
The Gen 2 maintains the comfiness level and has holders for side plates. Here is one fully loaded out with AR500 pouches.
The Emergency Personal Carrier (EPC) was really different and a cool concept. It can hold a plate…or more likely a soft armor panel. And you can keep it in your office or car to discretely have some protection.
And the Micro Carrier ($109) was perfect for the 8×10 plates. It’s straight front/back business with no side cumberbund.
Newer models include the Veritas with optional cumberbund which is a good mix of comfort/padding vs minimalism.
The Freeman which has some prorietary cut tiny-boy armor like the Micro but is even more minimalist.
And our current favorite…the Invictus.
The Invictus takes some cues from the Crye Precision JPC with its shoulder straps and laser cut molle.
You can run it super minimalist or add on pouches to your hearts desire. Although for extended wear I’d recommend getting some extra shoulder pads.
AR500 Armor has some sweet Carrier + Plates combinations. I’ll do my best to give my recommendations for specific scenarios.
Pistol Threats, Concealment, and Comfort
Go with the Level II or Level IIIA soft armor based on your budget and choose a carrier.
This one is easy…go with the Level II or Level IIIA soft armor based on your budget and get the EPC Carrier.
Rifle Threats, Non-Armor Piercing, Price Conscious
Start with at least Level III plate armor.
If it’s an emergency or “what if” situation you’re planning for…you can skimp on the multi-curve.
Otherwise I highly recommend getting at least the multi-curve for added comfort since armor won’t protect you if it’s so uncomfortable you never wear it. And buildup Paxcon to prevent frontal injuries.
Rifle Threats, Non-Armor Piercing
What if you’ve got a little more to spend?
I’d recommend upgrading to Level III+ or even Level III+ Lightweight. Remember…ounces equals pounds and pounds equals pain!
And be sure to go with multi-curve and even build-up Paxcon.
The carriers and loadouts open up for you too.
If you’re looking to add your own loadout…I like the feel of the Invictus. But there’s also plenty of combos.
Rifle Threats, Armor Piercing
First off…stay safe if you anticipate armor piercing rounds coming your way. Or closer encounter M855 and M193.
Opt for the ceramic Level IV Plates ($250). They only come in curved SAPI so that makes your decision a little easier.
You can add them to almost any of the Carrier Plate Combos.
By now you should have a firm grasp of the different types of body armor, and the specs you’ll likely need for your specific purpose.
If you didn’t get the chance to see us shoot all the armor…
Remember…it comes down to choosing between protection, mobility, weight, and even price.
Did you end up getting your armor? Or did we miss anything you’d like to see covered? Let us know in the comments! Then be sure to check out our favorite guns & gear in Editor’s Picks.
48 Leave a Reply
I may have missed it but what is the shelf life on an AR500 helmet?
Ar500 armor is by FAR the worst online customer experience I have ever had. After waiting over 5 months for my order, and numerous outright lies from their customer support, I have cancelled my order. PEWPEW should protect their brand, and get this review off of their site.
I do think this article needs some clarificaiton on the NIJ portion. I checked the website and it only appears that AR500 non-steel plates are on the NIJ website. I think this is at least worth a callout.
Ordered my set up spent over 600.00 dollars with this company waited 14 weeks emailed them twice and got a Ana mated response lead time when I ordered the vest and plates was 10-12 weeks did the live chat at almost 15 weeks and they did not see a problem with this so I respectively canceled my order and am awaiting my refund would not recommend this company to any one not professional at all and try to call them lol good luck I will gladly spend more money with someone else to get what I pay for in a reasonable amount of time
Aside from cost and weight, is there any great reason to not make a plate carrier that is, by itself, level IIIa soft armor, with full coverage at the sides, down to where most people wear their belt, and with a high-ish collar? My though process is that, sure, armor plates cover most areas pretty well, and getting shot in the gut may not be fatal in under two minutes, but I'd rather not have a bullet go through at all.
M855, out of a 20" bbl, at less than 50 yards, against III+ lightweight would be interesting to see the result of. I'm curious, because III+ lightweight is rated to stop M855 at less than 3000 FPS.
Ordered from them after Thanksgiving last yr, the lead time was stated as 4-5 wks got my 1st order in 3.
All I can say is, with Libtard politicians going nuts & trying everything to ban guns at every turn, & with supply chains breaking down due to Chinese Coronavirus frenzy, it's a wonder ANY business can keep up with orders. The time to buy was BEFORE you needed it so urgently.
I've been buying arms & ammo all my life. Just started stocking up on both on a larger scale & buying armor around 5 yrs ago.
I saw this stuff coming for decades, but couldn't really afford to be a prepper. If I could have, I'd really be sitting pretty right now.
Ordered from these guys. Approx. $550 in hardware. I saw the 8 - 10 week lead time when I ordered.... I found their competition stocks their equipment with practically no lead time. Maybe they should not run huge sales when they already have a 12+ week actual lead time, which is what my co-worker got. I ordered and receive from another vendor and decided to cancel my order. I sent an email and they said they were 12 day!! behind answering emails, which to me suggests they have a horrible business model. I have never seen a company operate in this way. I waited on the phone for approx. 45 min to cancel my order. The customer rep was polite and did it quickly. I have yet to receive my refund, but I did get a receipt emailed to me. I fume every time I open Facebook and see adds for greatly reduced prices on their product. Can anyone say, lawsuit. Eric, I would love your input on how they continue to operate this way.
can you tell us who it is that "stocks their equipment with practically no lead time"? I was about to pull the trigger here but don't want to wait that long if similar products area available now.
Still the same company a year later. Stay away from these guys, I ordered a carrier pack 11-2-20 and I'm still waiting for pieces of it.
Good luck getting your items. Waited for 12 weeks and canceled. Customer service said they was another 8 weeks behind.
Terrible customer service. I cancel Order after waiting 3 weeks and still not receiving. They can never tell you when it's going to be shipped and no manager will get on phone.
These guys at AR5000 have horrible customer service and the guy who replied to my email named Josh is extremely rude, a total snowflake and has no business in a customer service position. I recommend Any other dealer
They have terrible customer service. Had to cancel after not receiving item after 3 weeks with no explanation.
Yeah, the whole spelling thing might not be as much of an issue for me to believe completely if you guys had used a carrier to hold the plates on the mannequin because I'm sure it stops some of the spelling as well, but....you used a bare plate on the mannequin. So when I read this review I read it with a slight amount of skepticism on how much of an issue that really is. Other than that thanks for the review!
Spalling* damned auto correct
Sorry you had to deal with that, sounds like someone really dropped the ball. I just wanted to mention though that the Eric replying in the comments is not the same Eric you spoke with. Eric Hung is the author of the article and the editor-in-chief of Pew Pew Tactical.
Oops my mistake! Could you possibly take this down so I can rewrite it as there have been some developments after being able to speak with someone other than Eric. I fear this may not accurately reflect what has happened since and behind the scenes that I was unaware of until just recently. Thank you for your understanding.
P.s. Eric Hung, I apologize for the mistake! In the moment I made an assumption, which I should not have and know better than to.
Sure thing! Hope it all works out for you.
None of this stuff is NIJ CERTIFIED, as opposed to "rated," or whatever nomenclature this vendor uses. There's a big difference in those things – certification requires rigorous testing, and rating means some guys shot a few plates and they held up. Seems pretty irresponsible to not at least mention that distinction in an unbiased plate review. Not to mention the spalling that accompanies steel plates... Getting a round stopped then having the spall to the face is still gonna ruin your day.
Did you read the same article???
It mentioned certification, ratings and the fact that the armor tested was on the NIJ compliance list. The article also went in depth on spalling and the coatings and depth of coatings.
I bought the veritas with level 3+ LW plates. They feel pretty nice, kinda regret not going with the built up coating, but they were buy one get one free, so I cant complain. They are nice and light, but the multicurve didnt feel quite as curvy as the plates we had in the military. Maybe just because its steel and thinner. Also the cummerbund is totally needed for the veritas. I wish you guys would mention about local laws, I live in Connecticut, and there is no non face to face sale of body armor. The only reason I could have ar500 ship it to me was because I'm military.
Thanks for commenting! We'll see if we can put a little about local laws but it might be a beast.
Is this supposed to be an unbiased review? LOL.
Would love some feedback. We got a bunch of plates with no payment from AR500 and reported on what happened when we shot them?
I felt that this reads like a sales brochure - there was no mention of how impractical heavy steel plates are, single curve was recommended but no mention of multi curve, and no comparison to competitors or level III/III+ ceramic plates. Maybe you assume everybody already is highly knowledgeable when it comes to body armor, but from reading these comments it doesn't look that way.
This is a very solid review of AR500 steel armor, what happens when you shoot it, what options are available, and what the author recommends. I also could have swore I read “ounces equals pounds and pounds equals pain” up there as well, in relation to the consideration of the weight of steel plate armor, but you potentially missed that part along with the purpose of this article.
Just got the Freeman with basic coat level III flat plates front and back. My son traded me for some stuff. My question is this. I am retired as a sheet metal worker and, former army combat medic. Do you know of anyone who has either; 1. Rolled a curve in a plate and recoated? 2. Applied an ~ 1/4" - 3/8" build up of the paxcon material to a base coat plate?
I would like to do both to the plates I already have. Or just make my own plates and coat them with paxcon.
I haven't heard of anyone doing that although it sounds like you have the skills to do it. However, you'll likely void warranties with that.
Will small level 4 plates fit well in a size small Crye Precision JPC?
Hello I have a question about the conceal vest carrier, would the light weight AR500 level III+ light weight "swimmer cut" be good for it? or what do you recommend?
My confusion has to do with comparing brands. AR500 Armor looks and sounds great, but so does Safe Life Defense Armor. How do you compare one company's offerings to another company's?
What fits your budget, needs, and style the best. Make sure that any armor you consider buying is rated by National Institute of Justice. As long as the NIJ signs off on an armor being rated for something - you can trust that the armor will actually function as advertised.
Personally, I would also go with name brands. You want to be able to trust that their QC is on point. AR500 is on point, for example.
I'd start with their NIJ ratings, weight, and price. Best would be to have both in hand and even shooting both.
Got the Testudo 2 bundle with level 4 plates. Also got a kangaroo pouch with the bundle so I could carry 7 total AR mags. Dunno if I'll use the pistol holster but it's whatever. It's on sale right now and paid only $275 shipped for the Testudo 2 carrier, 2 level 4 plates, rifle mag pouch, pistol mag pouch, kangaroo pouch, and holster. Not bad when full price for all of it would be $560 shipped!
Where did you buy this bundle package? I would like to purchase the same setup.
What are the angles of the curved plates?
That I'm not sure, hopefully the pics give some good answer, but otherwise you might have to call them for an exact angle.
Nice write-up, but it reads as a review of AR500 more than anything.. More info on cost:benefit for the different kinds of plate materials and brands would have created a more well-rounded article.
Hi John, you're right. I'm working on getting more brands in there, and like you said...the different kind of plate materials.
Great read. Would love to see your thoughts on under cloths vest.
Hi Steve, I don't have much experience with that...but I know some people who do! I'll put it into our queue.
This guy knows his stuff, very well written. I read all his articles.
Thanks so much Cory!
I'm pretty ignorant of body armor, but that looked like a well written article, and - to me at least, very informative. Thanks Eric.
If you're considering getting some body armor you need to look at multiple different types and of armor what each are capable of defeating in regards to not just round types but the velocity of each round and the distance at which that given armor stopped you should also look into the amount of deformation the round inflicted on the armor while stopping the round. This article does bring up a number of very important issues that should always be considered when it comes to armor, and if it isn't something you're willing to wear due to discomfort or weight you likely won't have it on when you need it most. Also this was a good review of multiple ar500 plates, there are many other body armor manufacturers out there and different combinations of bullet resistant materials in armor manufacturers products that may be more what you're looking for to counter the threat you might be exposed to. Always remember as mentioned in the article a counter treat level rating is meaning less unless that level is certified by the NIJ and also keep in mind the NIJ doesn't have a rating level of level III+ and no matter what always look at the ballistic test data yourself so you know that an M855 going 3100ft/s will be stopped but an M193 going 2900ft/s will penetrate the armor and with that information you're better prepared to choose the protection for you. One last reminder the arms race between a more effective armor and a round that will defeat that armor is never ending so keep up to date with the newest innovations on both sides.