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.
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 (done, but haven’t written it yet)! Spoiler…they work as intended.
I’ve also created a video that goes through everything if you’re more into audiovisual learning:
Like to read? Let’s get on with it!
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.
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?
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 ($65) is very affordable and can stop up to .357 Magnum.
Level IIIA ($75-150) 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).
Once you reach Level III onwards…you’ll be seeing hard 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.
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 will cut through regular III plates like a hot knife through butter. M855 vs M193 for more info.
Also unique to AR500 Armor is their Level III+ Lightweight ($110) which sheds weight (10×12 SAPI is 6.5 pounds vs 8 pounds) but loses the protection of .308 armor piercing rounds. My favorite choice and worth the slight price increase.
After desert testing…what I found is that if you’re close to the threat (I tested at ~25 feet with a 16″ barrel)…meaning the velocity is still quite high…the M855 and M193 bullets still have a chance to go through.
That’s where ceramic plate Level IV ($155) 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.
Phew! We’re done with levels…now moving onto…
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.
When you choose your plates…a lot of it will be balancing mobility and protection. You’ll see that the armor is cut at the top so you can move your arms easier.
The SAPI Cut is when the cuts are even. It offers good protection and decent mobility.
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 Shooters Lightweight Cut. Other places will call it the Shooter’s Cut or Swimmer’s Cut. Only available for some protection levels.
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.
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 and neck would be prone to spalling.
You’ll also see Trauma Pads ($30), 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.
The primary one was the Testudo ($125) 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. Note…Gen 1 models didn’t fit side plates but Gen 2 models do.
The Emergency Personal Carrier (EPC) ($49) 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.
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
Rifle Threats, Non-Armor Piercing, Price Conscious
Start with at least Level III ($65) plate armor.
If it’s an emergency or “what if” situation you’re planning for…you can skimp on the multi-curve and Paxcon build-up to save money.
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.
The Urban Go Plate Combo ($199) is perfect since it provides a curved Level III for your front and a flat rear plate. Other colors available.
Looking for something with pouches already? I like the Sentry Plate Combo ($235).
I personally don’t like the loadouts with a pistol going side to side on your armor. It’s hard to draw, you’re usually pointing it at someone, and if you have to ditch your armor…you’re out of your sidearm.
Rifle Threats, Non-Armor Piercing
What if you’ve got a little more to spend?
And be sure to go with multi-curve and even build-up Paxcon.
The carriers and loadouts open up for you too.
I’d opt for the Banshee Combo ($385) for its loadout and side cumberbund where you can put additional pouches.
I’m a sucker for Multi-Cam, but there’s other options like Black, Tan, and Olive Drab for most of the carriers.
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.
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!