Body armor is a vital piece of equipment for law enforcement and military personnel, as well as civilians who want to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.
While there are many different types and brands of body armor on the market, one of the most important decisions you’ll have to make is what type of ballistic protection to buy.
In this article, we will review six different types of ballistic plates by our ranking criteria and give you our opinion on which are the best plates for plate carriers.
What To Look For When Buying Plate Carrier Plates?
Choosing the best plates for your plate carrier isn’t always easy. In fact, as the following section shows, there’s a lot to think about.
You’ll also want to check for NIJ certification when choosing plate armor. The NIJ runs a program for commercially available plate armor checking it complies with various standards the organization maintains. NIJ Certification means that ballistic-resistant body armor passed the organization’s Compliance Testing Program (CTP). If plates do not have NIJ Certification, it may mean that the manufacturer has not yet been subjected to testing, not that they didn’t meet the grade.
Armor Plate Protection Levels
The first thing to consider when selecting a plate for your carrier is the level of protection it provides. This varies depending on the type of armor, but generally speaking, plates come in five levels: level II, IIA, III, IIIa, and V.
Level II and IIA are the lowest level of protection and are designed to protect against small-caliber handgun rounds. Level IIIA is designed to protect against larger caliber pistol rounds and some rifle rounds. Level III and IV are the highest levels of protection, but they differ in that level IV will also stop armor-piercing rifle rounds while Level III won’t.
Armor Plate Size
Another factor to consider is the size of the armor plate you need. Plates typically come in fixed dimensions designed to fit plate carriers, Most are 8” x 10”, though you can get 9” x 9” or “10 x 12” (the latter being the most common size in this review). Most experts suggest choosing a plate size based on your height. If you’re normal height, go with regular 8” x 10” plates. If you’re over 6’3”, choose 10” x 12” and if you’re under 5’3”, go for 9” x 9”.
Soft or Hard Armor
You might think that all torso-worn body armor would be the same thick chunks of metal, but that’s not the case. There are actually two general plate categories: soft and hard.
Hard armor comprises plates made of steel, ceramics, or composite materials. Usually, these plates fit together via a third material to create a pliable armor shell.
Soft armor, on the other hand, is designed with flexibility in mind. Soft armor, such as Kevlar, is widely used for plate carriers but there are other variations, too.
You’ll also want to consider plate material. Some materials are light but offer limited ballistic resistance, while others are heavier and offer significantly more. The best materials are those that combine both, though these tend to be the most expensive.
Armor Plate Cut
Armor plate cut refers to the shape of the plates. “Full cut” is rectangular with rounded corners. Usually, you’d wear this type of plating on the back. “Shooters cut” is the most common cut and features cut-off corners that allow for better upper body movement. Lastly, “swimmers cut” is a more extreme version of the shooters cut, designed for highly active users.
The concealment level is also something you should consider. This refers to your ability to conceal the fact that you are wearing armored protection. Most highly-concealed armor is able to protect you against 9mm pistol rounds, even if it’s lightweight. It should be around 0.5 inches thick or less.
The last thing to consider is your budget. You can spend a fortune on plate carrier plates. But, as you’ll discover in this review, you don’t always have to. The most expensive ballistic plates tend to be proprietary materials offering more lightweight and maneuverability. Steel plates tend to be the cheapest, but they’re also heavier.
Quick View of the Best Plates for Plate Carriers
Best Plate Carrier Plates
In this review, we wanted to bring you the best plates for plate carriers on the market so you can be sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck.
So, let’s get right to it – here are our top 6 picks for the best plate carrier plates.
1. Spartan Armor Systems Hercules Level IV Ceramic Body Armor
The benefit of ceramic body armor is its high hardness-to-weight ratio. It comes in at around half the weight of conventional steel and offers more protection. (Ceramic is five times as strong as steel for 70 percent less weight).
Spartan Armor System manufactures its armor in the U.S. (Tucson, AZ, to be precise). And, as you might expect from a domestic producer, it gets full NIJ compliance testing for every product it makes.
So, what’s the performance of its Hercules Level IV Ceramic Body Armor like? Well, pretty good actually. The product will prevent piercing rounds up to .30-06 M2 Ap, meaning that it’ll deal with virtually anything you throw at it. It’s the sort of armor you wear when you don’t know what threats you’ll face.
But this plating isn’t just about impact resistance. There are also other benefits. For instance, each 10” x 12” plate weighs just 6.9 lbs despite its size and thickness. That’s considerably less than the steel equivalent. And you get full edge-to-edge protection, which is great if you’re the sort of person who worries about that stray bullet coming in front the side. On top of this, the ergonomics are pretty decent too, thanks to Hercules’ Advanced Compound Curve (ACC).
There is a downside, though. This 1.1-inch-thick armor, though, doesn’t give you good concealment. If you’re planning on buying it, you’ll need to wear it conspicuously, usually over your uniform. Hiding it will be difficult.
- Ergonomic design for people who need to wear armor all-day
- Among the most comfortable fit of any armor on the market
- High protection level
- Plates may be too large for people of smaller stature
- May not be compatible with standard load-outs
- Extremely thick: not ideal for concealment
2. RTS Ceramic Level IV Rifle Protection Plates
Like Spartan Armor Systems’ Hercules plates, RTS’s Ceramic plates are also rated level IV which means they can resist most rifle bullets. If you’re regularly in dangerous tactical situations as a private security agent, military officer, or law enforcement official, this armor is a godsend. It gives you confidence that you can resist just about anything. Ultimately, RTS designed this product to help you become more fearless in battle. With protection, you’re in a better position to take tactical risks than your enemy.
Why are the RTS Ceramic Level IV rifle protection plates so popular? It’s all to do with its hit capability. Standard plates can fail after being impacted from a single round, but RTS’s product can take multiple shots, thanks to its small ceramic square construction. During a hit, the affected plate section absorbs the impact, leaving the rest intact for other incoming shots.
As with the Hercules, the RTS ceramic rifle protection is a stand-alone insert with full NIJ compliance. Rather handily, it does not require level IIIA backing panels to perform as required. It is capable of stopping 5.56mm NATO, .308 M80, 7.62×45, and .30-06
RTS also claims that the plate is free from spalling, particularly compared to steel. Unlike the latter, ceramic doesn’t produce spurs during impact which can harm the wearer and cause injury and discomfort. An anti-spall coating is not required.
- Excellent anti-penetration capabilities, able to stop most, if not all rifle rounds
- Non-spalling: does not require the addition of anti-spalling material, reducing weight
- Capable of absorbing the impact of multiple shots
- Can stop rounds up to .30-06.
- Large plate size may restrict maneuverability
- Too thick to wear concealed
3. Shellback Tactical Prevail Series 10X12 Armor Plates
Shellback designed the Tactical Prevail Series to be a plate that operatives could wear day in, day out, no matter what tactical situations threw at them. As such, the item comes with all sorts of technologies to make it last longer and an impressive 10-year warranty, a real show of confidence by the manufacturer. The 600 denier Cordura nylon coating, for instance, makes it easier to insert into plate carriers. And the single-curved design eliminates the need to insert multiple plates. You get all the protection you need from a single 10” x 12” design.
It’s clear that the Prevail’s goal, like the Hercules, is to give wearers the confidence they need to make the best decisions in tactical situations. It’s a tremendous advantage in conflict situations and on the battlefield.
The Prevail is NIJ 0101.06 compliant so the list of rounds it defeats is impressive. The it can resist 9mm, .38, .40 S&W, .44, .45, .233 Ball, 5.56×45, 7.62×39, 7.62×51 M80 NATO, M855/SS109 and 7.62×63 M2AP making it a real standalone product. As such, it will stop almost all conventional rounds in their tracks.
However, it is not perfect. Its multi-shot protection and 1-inch thickness mean that it weighs a hefty 8.2 lbs, making it one of the heaviest products in this review.
Why does it tip the scales at such a high weight? The thick ceramic element plays a role, but it also has a polyethylene backing which other ceramic plates don’t include.
- Excellent stopping capabilities
- Fully NIJ compliant and tested up to protection Level IV against a wide array of ammunition
- Comes with a massive 10-year warranty
- At 8.2 lbs, it is considerably heavier than some competing products
- Comes in a 10” x 12” single-curved design that might be too bulky for some smaller users
- Only rated multi-hit up to five rounds
4. AR500 Armor Level III+ 11X14 ASC Left-Handed Multi-Curve Body Armor Plate
The AR500 Level III body armor plate isn’t trying to be the strongest or the lightest product on the market. Instead, it wants to offer police sheriff departments something inexpensive and scalable they can use on duty
Let’s start with the positives. AR500 Armor Level III+ can stop most bullets officers and regular citizens are likely to encounter in normal, non-war situations. The product is NIJ certified which means that it’s been subjected to rigorous testing. It can stop common types of street bullets, such as 5.56mm and 7.62mm. And thanks to its PAXCON coating, it looks great, too. And the multi-hit and “extreme hit” technology can stop many bullets in quick succession without injury or fatality.
It is also only 0.26 inches thick making concealment relatively straightforward. You can wear this armor under regular uniforms and most assailants won’t notice.
But, of course, there are some significant downsides. The shooter’s cut plate, for instance, is extremely heavy. For the regular version, you’re looking at over 11.5 lbs, which is more than most users will want to carry around.
And there are sizing issues, too. The 11” x 14” plate is enormous and may be too big for smaller folks. At this size, you may find it hard to find compatible plate carriers. And even if you do have one, you might find that maneuverability is so bad that the plate is a hindrance.
- Budget design, suitable for law enforcement organizations
- Only 0.26 inches thick, perfect for concealment
- Attractive Build-up PAXCON coating
- Heavy at 11.5 lbs
- Potential sizing issues for some wearers. The 11” x 12” design is non-standard
- Does not offer the same level of penetrative resistance as Level IV options
5. Best soft armor plates for plate carrier: Spartan Armor Systems Flex Fused Cores IIIa Soft Body Armor
So far in this review, we’ve only considered hard armor (those that use either ceramic or steel). But soft armor is rapidly catching up, and many users prefer it to the alternative.
That’s why we are so excited about Spartan Armor Systems’ Flex Fused Core. Tested by the NIJ up to level IIIA, it offers more than enough threat protection but without the annoying weight penalty.
Spartan Armor Systems primarily made this product to be versatile and rugged. They wanted something that would be equally capable in the city and in open combat situations.
Because of this, stealth was at the forefront of their minds. The Flex Fused Core is exceptionally low profile and can be worn under a jacket easily.
It’s also extremely comfortable – one of the first things we noticed when we tested them. It felt similar to wearing a heavy jacket: flexible without any of the compression or stiffness of a regular plate carrier.
The downside, of course, is that you don’t get full protection against rifle rounds. The Flex Fused Core system will stop .44 MAG SJHP and .357 SIG FMJ impacts, but it won’t prevent .30-06 from getting through.
In terms of multi-hit, Spartan Armor Systems says that the plate will stop up to six rounds. In our view, that’s pretty good considering it is only 0.35 inches thick.
It’s also impressive considering the weight. A 10” x 12” panel comes in at just 1.14 lbs, which is about five to seven times lighter than comparable ceramic plates.
- Exceptionally light at 1.14 lbs per 10” x 12” plate
- Flexible and versatile
- Suitable for concealment
- Only resists up to .44 MAG SJHP or equivalent (does not resist some rifle rounds)
- Low multi-hit capabilities
- Tested by NIJ up to level IIIA
6. Best side plates for plate carrier: RTS Ceramic Level IV Rifle Protection 6X8 Side Plates
Steel plates are heavy enough, but when you add them as side plates, the total weight of your loadout can become intolerable. It’s just too much weight to allow you to move freely. For this reason, RTS developed its 6” x 8” ceramic plates to bring the weight down. The brand wanted to dramatically cut total weight so that more people could benefit from its products.
RTS targets its side plates at private security firms, law enforcement, and the military but anyone can use them. It brings them a product that can enable them to respond to the toughest, most dangerous situations with confidence and peace of mind.
Certainly, when wearing this side plate armor, that’s how you feel. It is reassuringly robust, but not at all heavy. And just like regular front and back level IV plates, it can resist up to .30-06 piercing rounds, which is quite impressive for a product that is so skinny.
It also comes with the same technologies as other plates in the RTS range, including anti-spalling and the ability to stop multiple AP rounds. There’s also a handy waterproof coating that preserves the material’s ballistic integrity, even if you get sweaty or dunked in water.
- Level IV-rated stops most common calibers
- Capable of resisting multiple shots at short range
- Suitable for military and law enforcement
- Brittle composition
Here are some of the key lessons from this review:
- Ceramic plates are considerably stronger and lighter than steel, but much more expensive
- Most manufacturers offer multi-hit technology, meaning that you can be hit several times at close range and the plate will continue to protect you
- Soft plates are great for concealment but they don’t offer the same level of protection as some of their harder counterparts.