The two primary criteria that should drive your choice of plates is a.) what will you be using the plates for, and b.) how much are you will or able to spend. If the plates are probably going to spend most of their time in storage rather than on your person, your options are probably much more open. If you need to wear it for your job, you will probably have constraints that will narrow which plates you consider. Many new armor manufacturers have popped up over the last decade. The increased competition has help push prices down into a range where a pair of plates won’t break the bank.
Why is Sizing Important?
Selecting the right plate and carrier size is essential for mobility and your ultimate protection. The primary function of a ballistic protection system is to guard the major organs. You will need to choose plates large enough to ensure coverage of this area.
Adversely, rigid armor too large can hinder range of motion, making it uncomfortable or even impossible to perform daily functions. It’s important to note that the standard sizing for ballistic protection does not compare with typical retail sizing. For example, if you wear a size large in street clothing it is unwise to assume that a large plate is right for you. Fit will vary based on the measurements of your specific torso.
The Self-Measurement Process
Ballistic protection is available in a number of shapes , sizes and curvatures (As seen above). Torso plates provide front and back chest protection. 10 x 12 inch plates are typically known as a “middle of the road” size, covering most individuals. Most carriers are designed with this size in mind. Using the chart below, pick the closest size to your measurements.
To determine plate width, measure across your chest from nipple to nipple. Be sure to keep the tape level across your chest. Next, take a measurement from your sternum notch (the top of your sternum) to your belly button. Subtract 2-3 inches to find the desired height for your plate.
When considering what size and cut to get, you should consider how much coverage you need / want and how that balances mobility / flexibility with comfort. A small plate will cover less of your body, but it will be lighter, and you will likely have greater range of motion with your arms. Larger plates obviously cover more of your body will weigh more and may limit your arm range of motion. Large plates relative to your body size may make it difficult to shoulder your rifle, punch out with your pistol, or reach across your body for some piece of gear.
Plates come in many sizes. The most common is 10” (width) x 12” (length) which should provide adequate coverage and mobility for most body sizes. The goal is to protect the most vital organs (heart / major blood vessels / spine. The plate should cover from your jugular notch, the notch at the top of your sternum where your clavicles meet, and extend to the bottom of your ribcage. The bottom of the plate should not extend closer than a few inches above your beltline or you may have issues sitting with your carrier on. The human heart is slightly biased to the left in your chest, so your plate should also be wide enough to ensure coverage. If you’re a larger build, you may need to consider a larger plate, with 11” x 14” being a common L/XL size. Conversely, smaller builds may want to consider something like an 8” x 10” plate. Larger and smaller than average plates may be more difficult to find and may be more expensive due to the extra material used or a lack of demand.
There are a few choices in the type of cut sold by most manufactures. Full cut armor is essentially a big rectangle. These are typically meant for your rear plate on some carriers or for other non-carrier applications. If you can even get it into your carrier, a full cut worn in the front plate bag will seriously limit the range of motion of your arms and will probably not be comfortable. Shooter’s cut is the most common, which applies an approximately 45˚ or greater angled cut to the top corners of the plate. This gives your arms a greater range of motion and facilitates proper shouldering of a rifle stock. The Shooters cut is also the cut most carriers tend to accept. A similar cut is the SAPI/ESAPI cut (Small Arms Protective Insert / Enhanced SAPI). The SAPI was originally a ceramic plate designed to work in conjunction with soft armor underneath, but has now become known as a particular cut. It features a similar 45˚ cut to the top corners, but typically provides less arm mobility than a Shooter’s cut. Finally, the Swimmer’s cut has the most extreme cut to top corners providing the most flexibility at the expense of protection. A Shooter/Swimmer’s cut plate should be paired with a carrier specifically made for that cut so that it will minimize side-to-side movement of the plate.
The shape of your plate should also be considered. Plates that are flat and have no curvature to them (say if you laid it on the ground) are not typically meant to go on your person. Flat plates are usually for some special purpose like being used as an insert in a backpack. They will not be comfortable to wear and may provide less than optimal coverage. Single-curve plates have a single curve (go figure) that runs along the vertical axis of the plate. This allows the plate to conform to your body, providing greater comfort and coverage. There are also multi-curve plates that have vertical and horizontal axis curves. Although they may not necessarily add more protection, multi-curve plates tend to be much more comfortable than single-curve plates. This increased comfortability will also come with an increased price. If you must wear your carrier for extended periods of time, it may be worth the investment.
Single curve or Multi-curve?
Oftentimes, users will ignore the importance of a plate’s curvature. It’s all the same level of protection, right? Yes- but your choice will have a profound impact on the performance, comfort and durability of your ballistics.
Single curve plates are generally more simplistic in design, wrapping around the user’s body for a more universal fit. However, there are pros and cons…
Pros: More cost efficient and versatile
Cons: Less comfortable for certain body types
Implied by their name, multi-curve plates are more planar in shape. Also labeled as “triple” or “double” -curve, they are congruent with the more complex contours of the chest and lower torso.
Pros: More comfortable fit and improved flexibility
Cons: More expensive
The threat level rating of a carrier indicates what a plate can reliably protect you against, can be a bit confusing. The NIJ provides the most common standard and certification. Level IIA is typically soft armor and is rated to protect from 9mm and .40 S&W fired from a short-barreled handgun. A step up is level II, also typically soft armor, and can protect against a .357 magnum. Levels IIA and II offer lightweight low-profile options to protect against some common short-barreled handgun projectiles. They are not certified to protect against higher powered handgun rounds, rounds shot from long-barreled handguns, or rifle rounds. Level IIIA are certified to stop .357 SIG and .44 Magnum rounds fired from long-barreled handguns, but not rifle rounds. IIIA options come in both soft armor and plates and are relatively affordable. Level III plates are another step up in protection, certified to stop 7.62mm FMJ lead core ammunition fired from a rifle. You will typically see a price jump between IIIA and III with the additional protection from rifle rounds. Finally, NIJ threat level IV certifies protection from .30 cal steel core rifle ammunition. Level IV plates tend to be the most expensive, are often heavy if made from ceramic, but provide the highest level of protection.
There are more specifics to the threat ratings and ammunition each imply protection from. For example, the NIJ Standard-0101.06 for a level III involves being tested with “with 7.62 mm FMJ, steel jacketed bullets (U.S. Military designation M80) with a specified mass of 9.6 g (147 gr) and a velocity of 847 m/s ± 9.1 m/s (2780 ft/s ± 30 ft/s)”. This implies a upper bound for what a Level III certified plate can stop. There are hundreds of guides online that show other rounds each threat level certification is implied to be able to stop.
There are some other considerations to NIJ certification. You will sometimes see “in conjunction with” or ICW as opposed to “stand alone” or SA designations. ICW means that a plate may achieve Level IV certification if it is used in conjunction with, say, level III soft armor underneath. On its own, the plate may only measure up to a level III. The NIJ puts armor through temperature and humidity tests and a “tumbler test” to simulate several years of regular use of the armor. NIJ testing also considers “backface deformation”, or the amount of force your body will absorb from a round impacting the plate. Ceramic and Polymer plates are designed to absorb and disperse energy from the bullet throughout the plate. They break and deform in order to do so. Steel plates, on the other hand, do not deform or break much. Any energy that isn’t absorbed by the plate, or dispersed into the round itself causing it to shatter, will be absorbed by your body. A little google, and my weak understand of physics, suggests that a 55gr .223 round can impart a little more energy into your body than Mike Tyson sucker punching you. This can break ribs and cause internal bleeding in the worst case. Another thing to consider is that the NIJ testing conditions are not exhaustive by any means. The temperature and humidity (the pH and purity of the water used to humidify the room), the distance from the muzzle of the barrel, and angle of the shot, and the placement of the shot are a few of a slew of highly controlled parameters to make testing consistent between armor samples. These testing conditions may not reflect conditions encountered outside of the lab. Some manufacturers can request special threat testing from the NIJ for specific rounds or threat conditions. Others may even send samples to independent labs. These extra tests do not carry additional NIJ certification levels, but you may see some manufacturers advertise that their plates are certified to a specific threat level and also exceed this level given some other testing. A quality manufacturer should make their NIJ certification or independent laboratory testing available in some capacity. There are also countless videos and demonstrations online from manufacturers and reviewers. Be aware that a single sample sizes or poorly controlled testing conditions may not provide adequate evidence to draw strong conclusions for or against the capabilities of a plate.
General rule of thumb is that minimum level of protection you should wear is dictated by the weapon you carry.
One last consideration when buying a set of plates is the longevity of the plate and the warranty of the manufacturer. Steel and ceramic plates tend to have longer lifetimes and warranties, whereas polymer plates, which are often more sensitive to environmental conditions like temperature and humidity have shorter lifespans and tend to have shorter warranties. If you are using your plates on the regular for work, it may not be a huge factor to have to replace them every five years or so, but depending on budget you can typically save money with a longer warranty plate. If you’re purchasing plates for home defense, you are probably not going to wear them out quickly, but would probably prefer not to have to replace them if your worried about the manufacturers guarantee expiring.
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