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 (done, but haven’t written it yet)!
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.
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
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?
And be sure to go with multi-curve and even build-up Paxcon.
The carriers and loadouts open up for you too.
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.