There is a lot of confusion over the differences between a plate carrier and a bulletproof vest. Are both of these armors the same? Is one better for all missions and scenarios? Body armor has one primary purpose – to stop rounds and keep you alive. Both of these armors offer a solution but have very different features.
We’ll clear up any misinformation that might have come your way in this short read. Let’s get into it!
Table of Contents
- What Are Bulletproof Vests?
- What Are Plate Carriers?
- How Do Plate Carriers and Bulletproof Vests Differ?
- Plate Carrier or Bulletproof Vest – Which One Should You Choose?
- Key Takeaways
What Are Bulletproof Vests?
Bulletproof vests are tactical vests with soft armor capable of stopping level IIA, III, and IIIA ballistics from up to a .44 Mag SJHP (Semi-Jacketed Hollow Point) round and smaller-round rifles like the .22 caliber. Each vest has detailed specifications that explain exactly which ammunition the vest will stop.
The devil is in the details. You’ll need to read extensively about the vest you’re considering for purchase because there are now a great number of tactical vests for sale with different capabilities. You’ll need to know everything your armor can do and can’t do.
These vests are very lightweight in comparison to plate carriers with plates installed.
Ballistic Materials in Bulletproof Vests (Soft Armor)
- Kevlar Aramid
- UHMWPE (Ultra-High Molecular Weight Polyethylene)
These materials are very high strength, flexible, sharp point resistant, as well as very lightweight. Bulletproof vests are designed to offer two things in addition to their primary purpose of stopping bullets – concealability and mobility.
What Are Plate Carriers?
Plate carriers are heavy armored vests that hold removable bulletproof plates that provide excellent chest and back protection from AR (Assault Rifles) and sidearms. The plates can be easily removed and exchanged for stronger or weaker protection plates depending on the threat.
Most plate carriers have PALS (Pouch Attachment Ladder System) webbing for attaching MOLLE (Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment) pouches which increases the functionality considerably. This eliminates the need for a tactical vest.
Our top 5 best plate carriers review!
How Do Plate Carriers and Bulletproof Vests Differ?
There are some significant differences between the two armors that we will cover below.
If you have the luxury to choose armor based on comfort alone, you’ll choose a tactical bulletproof vest every time. This presumes you know you won’t be facing AR rounds.
You may not have any choice if you’re facing assault weapons. You’ll wear the plate carrier.
Are they comfortable? Not at all. Can you manage it? You must, there’s no real decision to be made there. You may NEED the plate carrier’s superior protection.
Comfort plays a role in the choice made by patrol officers, security guards, and others who will most likely face a smaller arms threat, not assault rifles.
While there are minimalist plate carriers, they are by design worn over top of clothing and are easily seen. If you are wearing one, people will definitely see it.
Minimalist bulletproof vests are much more concealable and can be worn under street clothes. They can be virtually invisible.
Plate carriers and bulletproof vests offer outstanding protection from incoming rounds. The plate carrier has a higher level of protection from high-speed rounds.
If you really want to geek out and learn more about body armor levels of protection than anyone you know, here’s a free download for you (PDF). Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor (https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/223054.pdf). This 89-page report was prepared for the U.S. Department of Justice by the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center.
Plate carriers are substantially heavier than bulletproof vests because they provide much better chest and back protection. Which is better for your mission – a bulletproof vest of 8 lbs. or a plate carrier of 38 lbs.?
The additional weight is worth it if you are sure you’ll be facing an AR threat like in war or law enforcement responding to shots fired.
Both tactical vests and plate carriers can be customized with MOLLE pouches. Tactical vests are made to be quickly removed if necessary. Plate carriers are more cumbersome to remove.
Plate Carrier or Bulletproof Vest – Which One Should You Choose?
When choosing a plate carrier or tactical bulletproof vest you have to prioritize your decision-making. The number one priority is the level of weapon you will likely be facing. If you’re on the battlefield, and increasingly in the streets of America, you’ll probably want Level IV protection with serious chest protection like a plate carrier can provide.
As I said before, the comfort level of your armor may not have any place in the decision. If you need a plate carrier, you wear a plate carrier. Simple.
It would be nice to be prepared for anything but who is going to wear a plate carrier everywhere they go?
For general self-defense preparedness, a concealable bulletproof vest is almost surely going to be enough.
Can You Wear a Plate Carrier Over a Bulletproof Vest?
Plate carriers are designed to be worn over other clothing, and yes, you can wear a plate carrier over a bulletproof vest if you choose to. In that situation, you’d be compounding the discomfort and lessening mobility to do so. It doesn’t make much sense since the plate carrier will protect you from the stronger and weaker rounds anyway.
It’s much more likely that you will wear your plate carrier over your clothes and then add a chest rig or bulletproof vest over top of it if you want to be able to remove it quickly to enter a vehicle.
I can think of one scenario where it would make some sense to put your plate carrier over your bulletproof vest. You go into a situation where you are expecting heavy incoming AR rounds and instead you’re facing handguns.
You want to become more mobile so you strip off your plate carrier and you’re instantly lighter and more agile to engage in a more dynamic fight.
In this situation, you’d likely want a battle belt with all you need because you can’t have all your gear attached with MOLLE to the bulletproof vest and the plate carrier strapped tightly over the top of it. Nor can you have your mags attached to the plate carrier because you just took it off!
As you’ve learned, bulletproof vests and plate carriers are different beasts. The answer to the question in the title is that neither one is best for all situations. Each mission will require a well-thought-out decision on your part to choose the best option.
Plate carriers are heavier, can stop many different rifle rounds, and can offer more PALS locations for MOLLE pouches. Their major drawback is their heavy weight, inflexibility, and cumbersome design.
Bulletproof vests stop slower rounds but are much more lightweight and allow easier movement and setup.
The one you choose, or the combination you choose, is dictated by the mission or scenario and which threat you are likely to face.
Written by Vern Lovic
Vern Lovic is a veteran of the United States Air Force. Stationed at Hickam Air Force Base where he served in the heart of the Pacific (PACAF) on Oahu, Hawaii. For the last twenty years he’s done hard time in Thailand jungles teaching visitors and locals how to manage their deadly venomous snake population. Read bio!