When making the jump into your first set of ballistic armor, it can be a bit overwhelming. There is an endless list of features, methods, and characteristics that need to be considered before prying open your wallet and lying to your wife about how much it cost.
Some of the main considerations are plate rating, fragmentation protection, specialty coatings, material, durability, multi-hit rating, plate cut, and curve of the plate.
We are going to dive into each of these items to help you navigate the murky waters of body armor consideration.
Plate ballistic rating
The first thing that needs to be evaluated and considered is the ballistic rating of the plate. The National institute of Justice (NIJ) has set industry standards for testing ballistic plates, and assigns an armor rating based on its level of protection. This is not only to assist companies in properly marketing their products, but it also assists the consumers by helping them to choose armor that meets their needs.
The NIJ has created different tiers depending on what common calibers each plate is capable of stopping. It is important to note that they do not test all calibers with all plates. Firstly, this would get outrageously time consuming, difficult, and expensive, but it would also require new testing every time a new cartridge was released. For this reason they stuck to common NATO cartridges and common handgun cartridges. Refer to the chart to see what each level is tested against.
Another important thing to note is the use of terms like “NIJ Certified” and “tested to meet or exceed NIJ standards”.
For a plate to be NIJ certified, stacks of sample pieces and full plates have to be shipped to a certifying authority for the testing to be conducted. This process can be lengthy and very expensive, especially for newer companies. Many companies choose to do the testing in-house as the standards and testing criteria are all outlined step by step in the NIJ document on ballistic ratings. This allows for companies to determine their products' ballistic rating, in a fair and structured evaluation without burdening them with huge upfront costs that would then get passed onto the consumer.
Fragmentation protection, or frag mitigation, is a huge issue when it comes to ballistic plates, especially steel plates.
When a projectile comes into contact with an object that is denser then itself, it essentially disintegrates as all that kinetic energy is forced back onto itself. The issue this causes is that all of that copper and lead has to go somewhere, and it will typically follow the curve of the plate and be pushed out in every direction.
You can imagine how this could make for a very bad day if you are the one on the receiving end of this transaction.
Some Plate materials are inherently better at preventing fragmentation, like ceramic plates, but they present their own issues and challenges.
Steel plates require a second median to prevent fragmentation; such as soft armor, specialty coatings or liners. The effectiveness of each of these medians is a hotly debated topic within the armor community, with each type having a dug-in fan base.
It is my opinion that soft armor is the best option, but it is also the most expensive option and does have a max shelf life that needs to be considered.
As long as you have considered your options and made the best choice for your application, any fragmentation protection is better than none at all.
For steel plates there are several variations of coatings that assist in preventing fragmentation from leaving the plate.
This is another highly contested topic as there really is no set standard for what is considered effective and what is not.
Many companies offer some type of plastic dip, or rhino liner coating, that does prevent some fragmentation. An advantage to this type of coating is that it is very inexpensive, and is better than nothing, but it adds more weight and bulk to an already heavy plate, and it is not free from failure.
There are many videos of people who have been able to induce failure in these coatings by delamination.
Delamination means that the coating is separated from the plate and now has a gap that the shrapnel can travel through to the edge of the plate.
There are also Kevlar liners like the one offered by Predator Armor. Kevlar has the advantage of being a ballistic material that is significantly lighter then rubberized coatings and less prone to delamination, it is around the same cost point as most coatings offered by other companies and doesn’t add more bulk to the plate.
We have already alluded to the different materials used for ballistic plates.
AR500, or AR550 steel, and ceramic plates are the 2 main materials used for hard ballistic plates, while Kevlar blends are used for soft armor inserts and vests.
There are pros and cons to each type that you have to consider, such as durability, max life, multi-hit ratings, weight, cost, and fragmentation protection.
Steel plates are by far the most durable, have a longer max life and are much cheaper than their ceramic counterparts. Unfortunately, this comes with a reduced fragmentation protection and a large increase in weight.
Ceramic plates are very durable, but it is difficult to spot damage to the plate without an X-ray. They can’t take as much abuse as steel plates, since each projectile that hits the plate will damage it slightly, but they are still rated for multiple impacts. They are typically significantly lighter than steel plates, with some companies releasing options that are actually buoyant. They also offer built in fragmentation protection that doesn’t require a second median to be effective.
Unfortunately, a good set of ceramic plates will also cost about three to four times as much as the similar rated steel set. This barrier for entry is a huge roadblock for many people looking to get into body armor.
For anyone that uses their kit, or trains, on a regular basis (which should be everyone), durability is a huge consideration that needs to be looked at.
Mistakes happen. Your kit can fall off of the tail gate of your truck, land on a sharp rock when getting into the prone, or a box could be dropped by an inattentive mailman during shipping. All of these things have the potential to cause damage to your plates.
Steel plates are much more forgiving for abuse since they are a solid material, while ceramic is much more prone to taking damage as it is a more fragile material that has no flexibility.
Another issue is spotting the damage once it has been caused.
For steel plates this is easy, but with ceramic plates it is more complicated. The only true way to be sure that a ceramic plate doesn’t have damage is to get it x-rayed. Ceramic plates also have a reduced lifespan, with most experts recommending replacement after about 5 years, while steel plates have an expected life over 15 years.
This is another term that gets thrown around a lot without too much explanation as to what it actually means. In essence it is self-explanatory, it means a plate can be shot multiple times and still prevent penetration.
But what does “multi” actually translate to? Does it mean 2 or 20, what calibers are rated for multiple impacts? These are questions that need to be addressed when considering your options.
By NIJ standards, each level of protection is rated for multiple impacts, but not all plates are created equal once you pass the bare minimum standard.
Ceramic plates take damage from each impact no matter the caliber or velocity of the round, and will eventually fail. Steel plates offer the advantage of not taking notable damage from smaller calibers or slower projectiles. Meaning that they can take considerably more impacts before failure occurs.
Plate cut or shape
Now that you have considered all of the other characteristics and features, there are really only two left to address.
First, is the shape of the plate.
If you have been on any armor company website, you will notice they typically offer many different shapes or cuts of plates. All this means is that it is meant to be used for more specialized applications.
If you need the ability to transition to a rifle, or a rifle is your primary weapon system, then something like a “shooter's cut” might need to be considered. This particular cut allows for more room around the pocket of the shoulders so that it is less awkward to shoulder and utilize your rifle.
If you need something that offers even more freedom of movement, then something like a “swimmers cut” could be what you are looking for. Both of these offer significant improvements for mobility from a rectangular plate, but still offer protection to the vital areas of the torso.
Some companies offer different curvatures for their plates or between front and back plates. This option increases the comfort of the plate when wearing it. Having a plate conform to your torso is an aid in mobility, as it is less awkward to move around in. It is typically an extra charge to get a curved plate versus a flat one, but it is a worthwhile upgrade, especially if you will be wearing your kit for extended periods of time.
We have now gone over all of the basic characteristics that need to be considered before making your first plate purchase.
Each of these will have their own priority, that you need to determine, that matches your application and your budget.
Now, go fourth, do research, buy American, and most importantly train hard.