As long as firearms have existed, people have been trying to find a way to defeat or deflect them. From the steel plate armor of the Middle Ages to modern day ceramics and polyethylene, armor has grown and developed alongside firearms technology in a constant arms race to outpace each other.
Both arms and armor have had their successes, but luckily for us, we live in a time where body armor is mostly winning that battle. Modern body armor can now stop the vast majority of common threats, including nearly every handgun cartridge around.
Firearms can be effective defensive tools, but they can only neutralize a threat; they can’t truly protect you from harm. Body armor is the flipside of that coin, protecting against harm but without doing anything to stop the threat. Both, combined, give you the highest level of protection possible, which is why you’ll typically see them used in conjunction, such as by military and police officers.
If your profession takes you into harm’s way, body armor is practically a necessity.
What is the Best Body Armor?
In the world of firearms, accessories, there’s really no “best” anything. Some brands or models are better than others, but everything has its place and purpose.
When shopping for body armor, it’s not about which vest or plates are best, it’s about which are going to be best for you. Your body armor needs to fit your use case very precisely.
For example, soldiers generally wear body armor that utilizes armor plates. Sometimes these plates are used in conjunction with soft armor, but you’ll rarely find a combat loadout without plates. This is because their profession tends to involve rifle fire, which soft armor is ill-equipped to defend against.
On the other hand, users who need concealable body armor, such as professional security or plain-clothes police officers, are almost always going to choose soft armor. You may have seen this type of armor referred to as a bulletproof vest, although the name is somewhat misleading—”bullet-resistant” would probably be more accurate.
It’s very difficult to conceal armor plates; no matter what you do, they’re almost always going to be immediately identifiable as tactical gear, even underneath clothing.
The most common ballistic threats in the United States come from handguns, not rifles, so soft armor is generally an adequate defense for most domestic use, and it’s orders of magnitude more concealable. It’s also generally more comfortable for daily use or over long periods. However, certain specific roles within police and security professions, such as S.W.A.T. or entry teams, may be at higher risk for rifle fire and require plates for sufficient protection.
Before you begin selecting body armor, consider your application. Take a hard look at your situation and determine if rifle fire is a realistic threat, or if you need protection against bladed weapons as well as ballistic. Consider whether or not you will need to conceal your armor beneath regular clothing, or if it will only be used in an overt role.
You’ll also want to consider your comfort—some people have a greater tolerance for the irritation of wearing rigid plates all day than others. Weight will also play a factor here, as heavier plates will put more of a strain on your back and can exacerbate hot spots created by your carrier.
Whatever body armor you ultimately choose, it must be NIJ Certified.
The National Institute of Justice is a federal organization under the Department of Justice. They have several functions, but testing body armor to ensure it functions as intended is the one we’re concerned with.
The NIJ determines the categories of body armor, called levels. Each level is rated to stop certain threats; the higher the level, the more powerful rounds it can defeat. Plates that are NIJ certified have gone through a rigorous testing process to prove they are capable of performing to at least the minimum standard of their level, and are subject to random testing to ensure quality never slips.
It’s important to note that it is individual plates or vests that are certified, not manufacturers. Just because a manufacturer has one model that is certified does not mean that all their body armor has gone through the testing.
Sadly, this testing procedure is expensive, so NIJ Certified armor tends to be more costly. Even so, we heavily recommend NIJ Certified armor—you’re going to be trusting your life to these plates or this vest, so you want to be as sure as possible that it will perform when it counts.
You may also see armor labeled as “NIJ Tested” or “Tested to NIJ Standards.” While neither of these is necessarily indicative of inferior armor, neither is an actual certification. “NIJ Tested” can be used to advertise any plate submitted to the NIJ for evaluation, whether it passed or not, while “Tested to NIJ Standards” is frequently used by manufacturers that follow a similar protocol to the NIJ, but do their testing in-house or through a third-party lab.
If you’re not sure if a particular plate is NIJ Certified or not, you can look it up in the NIJ’s official database of approved armor.
Body Armor Levels
As we mentioned, the NIJ has established several levels of body armor, each verified to stop specific threats. However, it’s worth noting that it is certified to stop those threats only.
For instance, a vest rated to stop 9mm rounds may fail to protect against .22 Magnum, despite the latter generally being considered a less powerful round. These levels also only apply to specific ammunition types, so a vest rated to stop lead-core 5.56x45MM NATO rounds can fail to stop M855 steel-core ammo. The same goes for higher-pressure ammunition, such as +P or +P+ cartridges.
The lowest level of protection, Level IIA armor is tested to stop 9mm and .40 S&W ammunition fired at common handgun velocities. It may or may not stop those cartridges from longer barrels, such as from a carbine.
Level IIA is typically seen in soft armor vests, such as those commonly worn by police.
While buyers tend to eschew Level IIA armor in favor of higher levels, it’s a viable option for certain users. IIA armor protects against the most common threats out there and does so while being the lightest and most flexible option.
The stiffness and discomfort of stronger armor can often lead to users choosing to forgo wearing it. It’s much better to have a Level IIA vest on your chest than a Level IIIA vest in your closet. If you value comfort highly and don’t anticipate any unusual threats, Level IIA armor is worth consideration.
Level II armor is tested to stop 9mm and .357 Magnum ammunition, again at common velocities. As with IIA, Level II armor is usually soft armor, typically in the form of a vest or garment. It’s suitable for most of the same applications as Level IIA armor but offers additional protection against less common, higher-powered rounds.
The highest level commonly found in soft armor, Level IIIA is tested to stop .357 SIG and .44 Magnum cartridges. IIIA armor is a great option for someone who wants maximum protection in a soft armor vest format. However, it’s important to keep in mind that IIIA armor offers no protection against rifle rounds, and can still be defeated by high-velocity pistol cartridges.
Level IIIA vests are extremely common among police officers and other professional users who require maximum protection against handgun threats, but for various reasons are not able to routinely wear armor plates.
Level III is the lowest level commonly found in hard armor. This armor is designed to stop rifle cartridges and is specifically tested to stop 7.62x51mm M80 ammunition.
When shopping for Level III plates, it’s important to verify whether or not they are standalone plates. Unlike the lower levels of armor, Level III plates are available in varieties that are rated to stop Level III threats on their own, or in conjunction with a soft-armor vest.
If a plate is rated to Level III when used with a vest, it will probably not offer sufficient protection against Level III threats on its own. These types of plates, sometimes shortened to ICW or “In Conjunction With” plates, are best used within the manufacturers system. Mixing ICW plates with soft armor from a different manufacturer could conceivably cause the resulting system to offer less protection.
This is the highest level currently tested by the NIJ, and is tested to stop .30-06 Springfield M2-AP cartridges. Note that the “AP” designation there means that they are not tested with standard M2 military ammunition, but with the armor-piercing variety, sometimes colloquially known as “black-tip” ammunition. These are extremely tough plates and tend to be fairly heavy and bulky.
You may notice that .223 Remington and 5.56x45mm are not mentioned anywhere in these levels, and that is because those rounds are not currently used in any of these tests. As such, none of these plates are guaranteed to stop these cartridges, although many manufacturers have independently tested their Level IV plates and found them sufficient to stop 5.56mm rounds.
The NIJ is currently in the process of revising the testing process and performance standards of body armor, in part to better address common rifle threats. While there is no definite date when the new standard will be put into effect, it is coming.
Special Threat Plates
This is not an NIJ level. Instead, special threat plates are more like a marketing term. There’s no real standardization of this designation, but several manufacturers offer them, each with different levels of protection.
The existence of special threat plates comes from the lack of common, modern cartridges in NIJ testing. Most individuals are not likely to come under threat by armor-piercing .30-06 ammunition in this day and age. Instead, 5.56mm, 7.62x39mm, and .308/7.62x51mm are the most common likely threats.
Special threat plates attempt to address this disparity. They’re engineered to stop these common, less-powerful rounds but still be lighter than Level IV plates. The exact rounds they protect against will vary, so read the description carefully before choosing special threat plates.
Because this level of protection is not an NIJ standard, NIJ certification is not possible for these plates. In this case, you should refer to the trustworthiness of the manufacturer, as well as their internal testing protocol and any field use.
Armor Plates vs Soft Armor
Armor plates and soft armor represent the two major categories of body armor. As previously mentioned, armor plates mostly deal with higher-energy threats like rifle rounds, although lower-level plates and plate backers do exist. Soft armor almost exclusively addresses handgun rounds, except for vests that combine both soft and plate armor.
But, there are a whole host of other differences as well, all of which may factor into your decision on which to buy.
Armor plates come in a variety of different sizes, shapes, weights, and materials.
The most common type of armor plate is ceramic. While ceramic may not sound all that tough, it’s actually extremely durable—on the strike face, at least.
Ceramic armor is extremely hard, creating an impassable barrier for bullets it’s rated to stop, but also absorbing some of the energy of the impact by cracking. This allows ceramic armor to stop some very high energy threats, and a wide variety of them, but with relatively low multi-strike capability.
Multi-strike capability refers to armor’s ability to be shot and continue to protect against ballistic threats. Most armor can take more than one hit before protection degrades, but eventually, all armor will fail. How long that takes to occur can vary between materials.
Another material frequently used in armor plates is high-density or high molecular-weight polyethylene (HDPE or UHWMPE). HDPE is quite a bit lighter than ceramic but offers similar protection, making it a strong option for lightweight body armor.
However, HDPE is not without drawbacks. It suffers from deteriorated performance at the edges of the plate and tends to have a harder time stopping high-velocity rounds with a small diameter—such as certain 5.56 cartridges. It’s also bulky, despite its low weight, and can deform when exposed to high temperatures, so think twice before keeping it in your trunk.
Several modern plates now use a hybrid design, blending ceramic strike faces with HDPE backers to create a plate with most of the protective capability of ceramic but some of the weight reduction of HDPE.
Lastly, some armor plates are made of steel. Steel armor tends to be a controversial topic.
Steel plates are unquestionably the best when it comes to multi-strike capability and overall ruggedness. They’ll never deform from heat and can’t be damaged by dropping them on the ground from normal heights.
However, unlike other types of armor, steel does not “catch” an incoming bullet. Instead, steel armor is so strong that it shatters it, dispersing the incoming energy through the expelled fragments. If you’ve ever shot at steel targets, then you’re familiar with the effect.
This, unfortunately, means that every time steel armor is struck by a bullet, tiny fragments are expelled, which can present a danger to the wearer. Most steel armor comes with a thick layer of anti-spall coating on the strike face, the efficacy of which is subject to some debate.
Regardless of which type of plate you ultimately choose, armor plates are most suitable for applications that permit overt equipment to be worn. They generally aren’t an option covert roles or plain-clothes officers, because they can’t be concealed very effectively, and tend to draw attention when worn overtly in an environment where that is not typical.
Since armor plates are essentially the only form of body armor capable of defeating rifle rounds, they are highly recommended for any application in which rifles are likely to be a threat.
It’s important to note that, unlike soft armor, armor plates generally do not come with any way to wear them. You’ll need to buy a standalone plate carrier.
Plate carriers, like plates themselves, come in an enormous variety of options. Some are minimalist and entirely slick, while others are covered in MOLLE webbing and ready to be decked out with magazines and first aid kits.
Which one is best for you will depend on your use case. If you’re not sure what to buy, we recommend taking a look at our Guide to Plate Carriers.
Whatever carrier you buy, it’s important to make sure that it is fitted properly. Unlike tactical vests or other clothing, plate carriers are not sized directly to your body, but to your plates.
It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. Most plate carriers offer plenty of adjustment for a wide range of body types and shapes, so you usually don’t need to be concerned about the plate carrier fitting your body. However, the plate bag—the part of your plate carrier that holds the armor plate—needs to be precisely fitted to your armor plate.
If you’ve measured yourself and determined you need a 10″ by 12″ plate, then your bag needs to be sized to fit, regardless of whether that means buying a small, medium, or large. An improper fit between your plate and plate bag will mean that your plate can move around in the bag, and may not be covering your vitals fully when you need it most.
Soft Armor typically addresses only pistol threats. It’s usually made of some variety of aramid fiber, the most common variety of which you may be familiar with: Kevlar. Kevlar is a brand name for a specific fiber made by DuPont, so while you may hear soft armor referred to as a Kevlar vest, it’s not always actually made of Kevlar.
Soft armor utilizes woven aramid fibers to catch bullets and disperse the energy they impact with. Because this type of armor is essentially a stiff, extremely durable cloth, it’s able to be fitted to your body much more snuggly than any plate.
This means that soft armor is often considerably more comfortable than plate armor, but even more importantly, it’s able to offer protection to a larger area of your body.
Armor plates typically only cover the chest and back, and even then, leave the edges of your body exposed. Side plates are available, but they will still leave a gap between them and the chest and back plates. Because soft armor is flexible, it can offer full coverage of nearly your entire torso, with only small exposed areas around your armpits.
This makes it the optimal choice for applications in which handgun rounds are the primary threat and rifle fire is unlikely, such as certain types of police work or private security. Soft armor is often thin enough to be worn concealed as well, particularly in the case of Level II and IIA armor.
Your life matters; if you take the precaution of carrying a concealed handgun to protect it in the line of duty, it’s worth considering adding body armor as well. Firearms are extremely effective tools for self-defense, but cannot protect you in the same way that body armor can.
Before buying body armor, consider how, where, and when your armor will be used. Evaluate the likely threats you will face and the pros and cons of each type of armor. Of course, if you still have any questions, feel free to reach out to our team of experts at 713-344-9600 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.