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Buying Affordable Body Armor: What to Know

By: Greg Chabot

The subject of body armor can involve many factors. The focus of this article will be on rifle rated armor plates for civilian use, with the goal of helping the reader make an informed purchase. I have made this journey and will share what I have learned along the way.

You probably know that the purpose of body armor is to stop or slow down projectiles and prevent them from entering the thoracic (chest) cavity. Any armor, regardless of material, can be defeated, hence why the term “bullet-resistant” is used now instead of “bullet-proof.” Armor does not make one invulnerable – this is a common misconception by the uninformed. Getting shot while wearing armor hurts, and you can still be injured by blunt force trauma or spalling (bullet fragmentation).

When buying armor, take the time to learn the threat levels. You can then determine the amount of protection you may need. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) sets the testing standards to rate armor. Hard plates are rated level III and IV. There is also a level III+ that is an industry standard, not an official NIJ standard at the time of this writing.

All armor, regardless of material, has cons besides cost. On the cost front, I consider a set of plates under $600 USD affordable for working folks.

AR500 Steel

AR500 Steel is by far the most common and affordable armor available to civilians.

Pros:

  1. Very cost effective; plates can cost as little as $50 USD.
  2. Available in many cuts and curvatures for comfort. Thinnest of all the materials.
  3. Unlimited shelf life
  4. Will hold up to the rigors of training.

Cons:

  1. Weight: heaviest of all the materials. Gets uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time.
  2. Spalling unless the plates are coated.
    The main drawback of AR500 steel is the weight. It is heavy. If you shop around, you can find cuts and sizes that will be lighter than other cuts. To mitigate spalling, most vendors now coat their plates with truck bed liner. It is worth the extra money to buy plates that are coated. Check YouTube for videos that will show the advantages of coated steel plates. I would also buy trauma pads to mitigate blunt force trauma from a round hitting the plate. My first set of armor as a civilian was AR500 plates from ar500.com. They have an excellent site and great customer service. There is also AR550 and AR650 level III+ plates available.

Ceramic Plates

Ceramic Plates are rated level IV and offer the most protection from threats.

Pros:

  1. Multi-hit rated.
  2. Weigh less than steel.
  3. Best balance between cost and weight.
  4. Can be had in different shapes and sizes and curved for comfort.

Cons:

  1. Not as durable as steel for training purposes.
  2. Most have a five-year shelf life depending on manufacturer.
  3. Plates will lose integrity with each hit from a bullet.

Ceramic level IV plates offer the best value in my opinion. Sets can run from $350 USD and up depending on the vendor. Weight wise, the average plate should run around five pounds per plate. On the downside, ceramic is not as durable as steel. If dropped from a height, they could crack, which will sacrifice the integrity. The only way to tell if a plate is cracked is to get them X-rayed. Ceramic plates are made for the rigors of the battlefield. You don’t have to treat them with kid gloves, just be aware they require some care. Most manufacturers give their plates a five-year shelf life for litigation reasons. If you take care of your plates, they should protect you well past the expiration date.

Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene Plates

Last on this list is UHMWPE (Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene) plates. Commonly referred to as Poly plates.

Pros:

  1. Lightest of all materials. Some plates only weigh three pounds each.
  2. Semi-buoyant for those who live or work near or on water.
  3. Comfortable to wear for long periods. Can be made in different curves and shapes for comfort.
  4. Spalling is completely mitigated. Plates are multi-hit rated.

Cons:

  1. Cost. Out of all armor, UHMWPE is the most expensive.
  2. Extra care is needed for storage.
  3. Can be defeated by armor piecing rounds unless a breaker plate is utilized.
  4. Plates are very thick and might not work with all plate carriers.

UHMWPE has many advantages over other plate materials. Being the lightest of all the materials gives end users the advantage of being able to don their armor quickly in case of emergency. For those who might have to wear their armor for long periods, the comfort cannot be beat. Though most sets run a little over $600 USD depending on vendor, the weight savings might be worth the extra money. The plates are rated for level III. Level III+ plates are available; they have a ceramic breaker plate integrated within the plate. The breaker plate does add some weight, but it will mitigate threats from armor-piercing rounds. I personally use level III+ UHMWPE plates from spartanarmorsystems.com. I like to save weight, and UHMWPE works for my needs.

Unfortunately, the weight savings does come with some drawbacks. Poly plates are heat sensitive. If you were to store them in a car trunk during the summer, the heat could cause denaturing, rendering the plates ineffective in stopping threats. The plates are the thickest out of all the materials. The best description I can give is it’s like wearing a cereal box; if you are worried about keeping a low-profile, UHMWPE might not be the best choice. Most vendors give their UHMWPE plates a five-year shelf life.

Tips For Buying Body Armor:

Do your research
The best tip I can give to you is do your research. There is quite a bit of material out there, and this article barely scratched the surface. The NIJ standards are readily available online to help you choose your threat level. For a product to be certified by the NIJ, vendors must submit samples for testing to be accredited and listed on the NIJ site.

Buy from a reputable vendor
Regardless of what material you choose, do yourself a favor and buy from a reputable vendor. Your life may depend on your armor doing its job. Trying to save money by buying from unknown sources or surplus plates could prove to be fatal. Just think: Is that “Great Deal” worth your life? I have personally bought plates from ar500.com and spartanarmorsystems.com without regret.

Train with your armor on
I want to stress that after making your choice, go out and train with your armor on. Training will give you a chance to set up your gear and adjust for comfort. If your armor set-up is not comfortable, you will not want to wear it. Body armor will change how you shoot, which is another reason to train in it.

Hopefully this article will give readers some guidance and direction for choosing body armor. It’s not that difficult once you do some research and figure out what your specific needs are. Many vendors offer plate and carrier packages for those on a budget. Readers can follow this link to see which vendors are accredited by the NIJ: https://www.justnet.org/app/tims/CPLReport.aspx

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.