Looking to prevent extra holes in your body?
The world of body armor is confusing…with misinformation abound and tons of technical stuff.
But we’ve got you covered.
The Pew Pew Tactical team and network has been wearing all different types of armor for years. And we’ve shot up a BUNCH of body armor.
And before we run through our recommendations…we’ll walk you through the important technical aspects so you can choose the best armor for your end-use and budget.
Ready? Let’s go!
Table of Contents
Will I Become Bulletproof?
They’re bullet-resistant, meaning that they increase the rates of survival, decrease the severity of injuries that occur, and give you a better chance.
All body armor can be defeated–it may just be a matter of what is shooting at it or how many times you’re hit.
And don’t think you can simply get up after getting shot while in body armor…chances are you’re going to be in a world of pain with possible broken ribs and internal bleeding.
That’s a TV/movie trope.
And lastly…be sure to check out threat level ratings when shopping for armor, too. Get the level which is appropriate for the types of threats you might face.
Now… let’s squash some misconceptions on body armor legality.
Body Armor Laws in the U.S.
There’s a myth that it’s illegal for civilians to own body armor, and it certainly seems true when you’re shopping around.
Some companies will only sell to you with the proper documentation indicating your status as an LEO or military member.
Truth is–all civilians in the U.S., with the exception of felons, can legally own body armor.
There may be some local regulations, so you should check out your local laws to make sure you’re in the clear.
Don’t just take our word for it.
And unfortunately after mass shootings…there’s been some lawmakers calling to add body armor regulations on regular civilians.
Do I Even Need Body Armor?
Even if you don’t work in a vocation that requires protection from flying lead, there’s still plenty of reasons to want a set of body armor…
Main one is…because you can. Second is because you’ll look cool. But here’s some of our other favorites…
Ok let’s get this one out of the way…there’s some pretty inexpensive (and long lasting) hard plate body armor packages if you’re planning on protecting your home or roaming for supplies.
You probably don’t have time to don some armor…but piece of mind is a good reason. I recommend a Tough Hook system.
You’ll probably look more like a goober if you’re donning plates at the local range. But if you shoot in the open (or go to terrible ranges)…it doesn’t seem that bad of an idea.
Live action role playing…uh, yea…we don’t do this…we swear 🙂
The main reason for our team wearing body armor.
It gives you a workout, an excuse for why you were slower than your buddy, and protects against potential negligent discharges.
Our editor Eric always wears his for night shoots as do most of his squad…
And now…there’s new competitions called Tactical Games which mixes CrossFit and shooting…where you gotta wear a 15+ pound rig.
The training begins!
But first…what’s the two biggest types of body armor?
Soft Armor vs. Hard Armor
There’s a staggering variety of body armor types and rating codes, so don’t feel bad if you’re left scratching your head.
We’re going to break down the details a bit for you.
One of the first categories you’ll discover is soft vs hard armor.
Police officers and and anyone looking for a more comfortable but less protective armor option usually go with soft armor.
It’s made out of a flexible, incredibly strong woven net fabric (like Kevlar) that stops the projectile and spreads its impact energy across the entire vest.
This type of armor is commonly found in complete vests, but also can be found in inserts that can be added to bags, carriers, or behind stronger plates.
Soft armor can protect against many pistol calibers, as well as other threats like knives (if rated) and debris.
Hard armor is…hard.
It’s also harder to conceal but it offers far more protection.
It is constructed from either steel plates, ceramic composite, or ultra high molecular weight polyethylene (plastic).
Generally, hard armor plates are worn in a plate carrier, which is a vest that fits over your other clothing.
Hard armor plates have a variety of ratings, but the strongest can stop some pretty serious rifle rounds.
Body Armor Threat Levels
Body armor levels are yet another confusing aspect of shopping for armor.
These standardized ratings, however, are set by the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice, based on tiers of threats.
Even with these ratings, it’s important to keep in mind that a combination of factors can affect the effectiveness of a vest. These include but are not limited to bullet material, bullet mass, and especially velocity.
That’s why when you dig down into the weeds…the ratings are set for certain calibers AND velocity.
Unfortunately that means even if you have a protection level for a certain round…if you’re too close and the round hasn’t had time to slow down…you’re still screwed.
Our recommendation is to check the manufacturer in the NIJ’s database (slow load) of tested companies
and body armor models. All of our choices down below are already vetted!
The body armor industry has stepped up with their own III+ rating, which falls somewhere between the to NIJ Level III and Level IV ratings. Just know that this rating isn’t made by the NIJ and it can differ between companies.
Here’s one example:
Check out more details on body armor levels, common threats, and a huge list of body armor at The Prepared.
Now…what do we recommend?
Go with Level IIIA soft armor if you only think you’ll have handgun threats…or if concealment is the priority.
For best bang-for-the-buck hard armor…go with Level III+ that stops 5.56 M193 and M855 since those are relatively common rounds. Some brands will also call them “special threat” protection.
For max protection…or if for some reason you’ll be against true armor-piercing rounds…get something Level IV ceramic.
Keep those in mind as we dive deeper into the world of body armor…
What is Body Armor Made Of?
AR500 Steel Plate Armor
Armor made from material such as AR500 steel is the most affordable hard armor on the market at around $70-100 a plate (you’ll want a front and back).
But it’s also the heaviest at 8+ pounds each plate normally.
It’s seriously durable since most range targets are constructed out of AR500. And it can also can maintain its integrity for years if properly stored.
It can stop almost all handgun rounds and most non-armor piercing rifle rounds. But one threat to keep in mind are very high-velocity rounds such as the 5.56 M193 which can still zip on through Level 3 armor.
It’s a small hole…but it went right on through…
Another thing to consider is spalling, or the frag that flies off from a hit.
Even if the round doesn’t penetrate your armor…you’re going to have a bad day if sharp metal hits your throat and face.
Enter Paxcon, or any other kind of surface spray for AR500 based armor. It helps keep in the spalling…but we’ve found you want the build-up layer for it to be truly effective.
You can hope your carrier catches the majority of it…or suck it up and get the build-up.
If money is no object, ceramic armor can stop some pretty extreme bullets, like the fast M193 and M2AP (30.06 armor-piercing).
The trade-off is that this is the most expensive at $200+, most bulky option in terms of thickness–but it is lighter and is normally Level IV.
Ceramic armor isn’t the most durable…so if you drop it or fall on something while wearing it…you will likely have to replace it.
It’s also mostly rated for a single hit or multi-hits not in the same area. The lighter, thinner, and more hits a ceramic plate can take…the most it’s going to cost.
We go super in-depth Testing Ceramic and UHMWPE Armor here.
Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene Plastic (UHMWPE)
Plastic may not seem the most protective, but it falls somewhere between ceramic and steel on factors like cost and durability. UHMWPE plastic is super light at around 3 pounds a plate–it even can float on water.
But it is a great deal thicker than its steel counterparts.
Common rounds, like the M855 green tip, may punch through plastic, but it offers protection from pretty much all
pistol calibers. It stands up to repeated shots, but only about as well as ceramic.
How to Fit Body Armor
Obviously, the better fitting your armor is, the more comfortable it will be and then better protection it will offer.
Too large or too small plates may not cover you properly, and poorly cut shapes can restrict your movement or leave uncomfortable pressure points.
Here’s what to look at when it comes to choosing the right size of armor.
There isn’t really an industry standard when it comes to sizing plates, and wrong-sized plates usually can’t be returned for safety reasons, so you want to get it right the first time.
10” by 12” is the most common armor plate size along with tiny bois (8” by 10”) and big bois (11″ by 14″).
You can find other sizes, as well, but these are the easiest. Pay attention to the manufacturer’s sizing charts, and get a little help measuring yourself if you need it.
You want to be sure that the armor plate touches your sternal notch (follow down from your Adam’s apple to where you’ll gag when you press in).
You’ll also want the width to cover your nipples.
It’s going to look a lot higher than you think.
The point of armor is to protect your heart and lungs, not your guts.
Cuts & Shapes
Most manufacturers produce armor in just a handful of shapes, but you’ll choose depending on the type of coverage you’re looking for and your body’s unique shape and motions.
These shapes are:
- Rectangular: These plates offer the most coverage, but the least mobility. They’re also popular for back plates, since they cover so much.
- SAPI: These plates offer a lot of the same coverage of rectangular plates, but the upper corners are removed to give you better range of mortion.
- Shooter: These plates are similar to the SAPI, but the corners are cut more aggressively down. May be handed, where one side is shaped differently to accommodate a buttstock for right or left-handed shooters.
- Swimmer: These plates are aggressively cut down on all corners, offering the least protection but the most mobility.
Again…it might vary among manufacturers who come up with their own cutesy names.
Curved and flat plates both exist–but each has different uses. Plates can curve from top to bottom, or from your chest to your belly, but they can also curve from side to side, or shoulder to shoulder.
Your body is curved, so it’s well worth your comfort to spring for the curved chest plate, even if it’s a few dollars more. Curved plates are contoured to the natural shape of your body, so they often have the best fit.
Flat plates can be good for back armor, but you may still find that uncomfortable. Choose what fits your body best.
After all…you don’t want to feel miserable wearing it.
Choosing the Right Body Armor
Now that you have a grasp on all the intricacies of picking out body armor, it’s time to choose the right one.
Ultimately, it comes down to you–your protection needs, your budget, and your body.
We’ve got a few recommendations…starting with soft armor, moving into hard plates, and then ceramic.
Best Body Armor
Almost all manufacturers are under a big lead time due to current events…so be aware!
Best Soft Armor for Civilians & Law Enforcement
1. Safe Life Defense Level 3A Vest
A light and comfortable all-in-one solution that can be worn outside to be super concealable.
Here’s John in a small that weighs a little less than 6 lbs.
The Safe Life Multi-Threat Vest in Level 3A gives you a lot of coverage on your torso and sides. Check out the panels that go into the vest.
Plus it’s strike and slash resistant…and doesn’t add too much width to your sides.
Plus it comes in other variants such as First Response, Level 3A+, High-Vis, and Tactical Molle.
We’ve been wearing it around the office and so far it’s very comfortable as advertised.
Stay tuned for our shooting tests! But for right now highly recommended for an all-in-one handgun rated low-profile vest.
2. AR500 Armor Level 3A Hybrid
We’re big fans of AR500 Armor (yes, confusing name) who is likely the largest player in AR500-based armor. And who we’ve tested ourselves.
Check this video out for all their offerings:
As well as our full review of all their products.
They also make Level 3A soft armor which defeats almost all pistol calibers up to .44 Magnum.
They held up to our mags of 9mm and revolvers full of .357 Magnum.
Easy to conceal under clothing with their covert carriers…and light at around 1.5 lbs.
We like their “Hybrid” model which is thinner and lighter than their “Rimelig” model.
Pair it up with a Concealment Carrier and no one except you will know.
3. Safe Life Defense FRAS (Flexible Rifle Armor System)
Something new that we saw at SHOT Show 2020…flexible rifle armor!
The FRAS system is much thicker/heavier compared to the regular Level 3A system above but it’s still reasonably soft and bendy where it counts.
Keep in mind before this if you wanted rifle rated armor you’d have to go hard plates.
This system covers much more of your torso compared with plates.
The weight is around the same as going with a super light carrier and plates (small is around 15 lbs).
Check out the amount of plates a single FRAS replaces…
We’re going to train with this one soon but one possible drawback is that the cumberbund isn’t too stretchy and might inhibit heavy breathing. Oh yea…and it’s a pretty penny.
We’ll report back with some testing but this is really cool if it can replace plates in certain situations.
Next up…the ability to defeat rifle rounds!
Best AR500-Based Steel Armor Plates
4. AR500 Level III+ Lightweight
We’ve tested all of AR500 Armor’s different steel armor…and our favorite (and what we wear most of the time) is their Level III+ Lightweight Steel Body Armor.
As we mentioned, Level III+ isn’t an NIJ rating, so pay attention to the details. AR500 uses independent testing and is very clear about what their armor can and cannot handle.
Level III+ takes care of the zippy M193 5.56 rounds (which are standard NATO rounds).
Plus…it’s much more lightweight and thinner than their regular III+ counterpart.
We’d also recommend going with their curve for comfort and build-up layer of Paxcon to mitigate spalling.
What’s your take on the AR500 Armor Level III+ Lightweight?
5. Spartan Armor Level III+
Another big player in the AR500-based steel armor space is Spartan Armor.
Their plates look better and they have more movement-inducing cuts compared to AR500 Armor.
They also use a nicer feeling/looking coating comparatively and a rubbery material on the back…if that matters.
Again, we’d go with their Level III+ plates for proper rifle protection.
They are NIJ certified and we’ll be bringing their plates out to the desert soon for our own testing!
We recommend upgrading to the Full Coat Frag Mitigation Coating for additional protection from shrapnel. It will increase the weight of your plates a bit, but will protect you from spalling.
How about something lighter but at the cost of a little thickness?
Best UHMWPE Body Armor
6. Spartan Armor Elaphros Level III UHMWPE
If you want ultra-light protection that still will defend you against rifle-rated threats, check out Spartan Armor Elaphros Lightweight Level III UHMWPE body armor.
These plates were designed for operators who needed maximum maneuverability but still wanted great protection at an extended distance. They’re also stab-resistant for close-quarters protection and are multi-shot rated.
Manufactured using Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE) Hybrid Fibers, these plates weigh in at a mere 3.5 pounds per 10×12 plate.
We shot them up in our standalone Ceramic & UHMWPE Body Armor review.
It took Tula 7.62×39 strong and had some more extensive rear deformation from M80 (7.62×51). But you’d probably surive.
Stopping Wolf .223 was easy and we actually had a difficult time finding the impact.
And although the Elaphros technically isn’t rated for the faster M193…it survived that as well. However, it did get stopped by M855 Green Tip.
Lesson here is…if Level 3 is all you need…this will do it.
Spartan offers a 5-year warranty, and these plates have a 5-year shelf life.
But if you’re looking for a little more protection…check out…
Best Ceramic Level IV Body Armor
7. AR500 Level IV Ceramic
If you’re looking for a little bit more serious protection and don’t mind the bulk, AR500’s Level IV Ceramic/PE armor might be what you’re looking for.
Like the AR500 steel plates, you can find their ceramic plates in a variety of cuts and sizes.
You’ll pay a little more per plate than you would for similar steel plates, but you do get an extra level of protection from high-powered rounds.
These plates run about an inch thick, and weighs about 8.3 pounds a plate. They also come with a 10-year manufacturer’s warranty and have a 10-year shelf-life.
Oh yea…and they stopped a couple shots of 30.06 M2AP armor piercing rounds.
If you’ve got the dough…
8. RTS Tactical Ceramic Level IV
RTS Tactical is a relative newcomer but they’ve made a name for themselves with ultra-affordable ceramic level IV armor at ~$150 a plate.
Scary…having affordable and level IV in the same sentence…
One thing that’s different is that they are some thicc bois at 1.1″ and 6.3 lbs.
The weight is actually ok but you’ll need a more conventional carrier rather than something more minimalist since it likely won’t be able to hold it.
My Crye JPC 2.0 did not like it at all.
But there’s enough YouTube videos out there showing decent punishment. And I received a third party ballistic test result from them.
We finally got the chance to test them in our Ceramic & UHMWPE series.
An initial 7.62×39 shot landed dead center and the plate has very little cavitation.
However, additional hits from M80 ball caused severe damage and effectively put the plate out of the running.
Some .223 rounds after started deflecting and the final Black Tip rounds cut the plate in half…something we didn’t see in other Level 4 plates.
Unfortunately our sequence of rounds didn’t lend the plate well to a direct Black Tip hit to start off with…but for the price it did really well against 7.62×39.
If you’re going the affordable route…check out their plate/carrier combos so you can be sure it will fit.
The carrier is decently built but a little cumbersome by today’s standards. Still good if you aren’t using it day in and day out.
9. Velocity Systems Special Threat Ceramic Plates
When price is no object for the right protection.
Their body armor is top-of-the-line and trusted by law enforcement and military personnel, and it’s for a good reason.
The Velocity Systems Special Threat Ceramic Plates are multi-strike rated and tested against 7.62×39 Mild Steel Core, 7.62×51 M80 Ball, 5.56×45 M855, and 5.56×45 M193, which puts this armor at around a level III+ (though Velocity doesn’t specify).
These plates only come in a 10×12 inch traditional cut size, but they’re tripled curved to hug the contour of your body and are 0.60 inches thick.
Each plate weighs 6 pounds, which does put them on the heavier–but more protective–end of things.
It can be hard to get ahold of Velocity Systems armor since the company will only sell directly to law enforcement or military, but it can be found at other retailers.
10. RMA Level IV Multi-Curve
Is RMA really the king of armor?
Their Level IV’s come in at a super hefty 8 pounds per plate and are 1 inch thick.
Off to the desert for testing!
Our first 7.62×39 round took a good chunk of ceramic but didn’t manage to fully penetrate…on all other plates we could see the backing material.
Plus…no backface deformation that we could tell.
Our M80 7.62×51 shots managed to sneak one round through when it was very close to a previous hole.
The same thing occurred with Wolf .223 as the end of the strings got through as the plate got more and more damaged.
However…the M2AP Black Tip was stopped…and with almost no rear deformation.
A second round of Black Tip was not a good time though…
The price is good at ~$160 a plate for certified Level 4 protection. It’s a little heavier but rear deformation is almost nonexistent for the shots it stopped.
But if you’re looking for good multi-hit protection you might want to move on.
We reached out to RMA and we’ve gotten you a 5% discount with code PEWPEWTACTICAL5.
11. Mira Tactical Level IV
We love our Mira gas masks as reviewed in our Best Gas Masks article.
But how does their armor fare? Specifically their Level IV.
Again…take a look at the details in our Ceramic & WHMWPE test in the desert. But here’s the gist.
It was the only Level IV plate to take two direct M2AP hits.
But let’s back it up…
They are pretty light at under 6-pounds per plate and .9 inches thick.
Our starting Tula 7.62×39 rounds didn’t cause any issues although a good amount of ceramic was blown out…par for the course.
The next M80 shot took out another chunk of ceramic but had no rear exit hole. However, there was a decently noticeable distension in the back.
The second M80 shot somehow got deflected upwards. Commendable in stopping two 7.62×51 rounds when others failed.
Onto four rounds of .223…only the last one got through after the previous three seriously compromised the area. Not bad.
At this point we were afraid the plate was not going to survive any M2AP Black Tip rounds.
It caught the first one which tied it with the previous ceramic plates.
And amazingly caught a second round.
If you’re looking at an all-around Level 4 ceramic plate…the Mira Tactical Level IV is a great choice.
- Decent weight at 6 pounds and .9 inch thick
- Stopped 2 rounds of M2AP Black Tip
- Only failed on the 4th shot of .223 in a compromised area
We’ve gotten you a discount as well…save 15% off armor with code PEWPEW15.
We’ve gone through all our civilian options…
Now how about something for our boys in blue?
These are from well-known companies that sell exclusively to police and military. Sorry, normies!
They are usually custom fit since they are meant to be worn all day long.
12. Safariland Matrix Ballistic Panel
If you were looking for something more concealable than a plate carrier, Safariland should be one of your go-to’s. Trusted by law enforcement, Safariland offers a variety of soft ballistic panels, including the Matrix Ballistic Panel.
This soft armor is rated Level II, which means it protects against stabs and most pistol caliber threats. It’s thin and lightweight so it can be concealed under clothing or uniforms, but offers a significant amount of coverage and protection.
It’s less than a quarter of an inch thick, and its ergonomic design makes it much more comfortable to wear on duty or for long periods of time.
It pairs with a covert carrier, which will allow you to wear this armor under your clothing.
13. Safariland SX Ballistic Panel
Another pick from Safariland, the SX ballistic panel is the thinnest, lightest, and one of the strongest panels on the market.
It’s rated Level II, so you still get protection from many pistol calibers and stab threats, but it is a mere 0.16 inches thick.
Safariland designs their ballistic panel with comfort and ergonomics in mind. Protecting your life doesn’t have to mean neglecting your comfort!
Like the Matrix panel, the SX needs to be worn with a covert carrier.
14. US Armor Enforcer 6000
Want to know what other brand of body armor is trusted by law enforcement? US Armor creates custom-fitted armor solutions, like their Enforcer 6000 soft body armor.
These ballistic panels cover threat levels at either Level II or Level IIIA, depending on which model you select. The Level II panels are 0.17 inches thick, while the Level IIIA panels are 0.26 inches thick–making this an extraordinarily comfortable covert armor to wear.
US Armor also uses Outlast Fabric technology, which helps keep the wearer cool and dissipates heat handily.
While US Armor does offer standard sizing, they’re best known for their custom fittings so your armor can be tailor-made to fit your form.
The downside is–custom-fitted armor requires a bit more work, a bit more time, and, of course, a bit more money as well.
Check out US Armor’s Master Product Catalog and get in touch with their sales team to place your order.
Now…time for the best carriers and accessories!
Best Plate Carriers & Trauma Pads
Whether you’re planning to pick up some standalone plates or spring for a set, there’s still plenty of must-have accessories to go with your shiny new armor.
We mentioned it a few times above, but all the stand-alone plates that we talked about are worn inside of a plate carrier–a tactical vest with special pockets designed just for your body armor plates.
You can find carriers with velcro and MOLLE so you can attach all your gear to it, and you can also find carriers that can be hidden under your clothing for more subtlety.
Choosing your plate carrier will depend on the type of plates or panels you buy.
You may be able to mix and match brands between your plates and your carrier, but when in doubt–stick with the same brand. Some armor systems work best when all parts are from the same manufacturer.
That being said, let’s look at some of our favorites!
We’ll start with the AR500 Testudo Gen 2 Plate Carrier, which is sized for AR500’s larger plate offerings. It features a fully adjustable cummerbund and shoulder straps, 3D Mesh technology to increase breathability, and plenty of gear-mounting options.
There’s also the AR500 Veritas Modular Plate Carrier, which is the smaller version of the Testudo. It has all the same great features, it’s just sized for smaller plates and smaller bodies.
Prices accurate at time of writing
Prices accurate at time of writing
Both the Testudo and Veritas carriers are available in coyote, olive drab, multi-cam, and black.
For a super-light option, check out Crye Precision’s AirLite SPC. The entire system weighs just over one pound, so you can cut the weight without sacrificing your protection. The mesh design also offers superior breathability.
You can get it in ranger green, multi-cam, black, and coyote.
If you’re looking for a covert carrier, we’ve got you covered with the Safariland M1 Covert Carrier. Not only is it low-profile and highly durable, but it’s easily washable, which is a big plus for people wearing protection every day.
The anti-microbial, wicking mesh lining will keep you dry and cool all day long for a truly comfortable covert body armor.
It’s available in a variety of colors, including tan, olive drab, navy, black, and white.
A current favorite of ours is the Ferro Concepts Slickster which is super low profile but can be built up with additional kit.
We do an in-depth review here that includes a video.
If you’re looking for no-frills, low-profile approach of the original Slickster, but looking for some high-speed quality of life improvements — the Advanced Slickster might be exactly what you want.
I know what you’re thinking, and of course, we have a video for it also!
You may not realize it, but body armor plates are only designed to stop a bullet–not make it comfortable. Body armor absorbs the ballistic energy of a bullet to some extent, but you’re still going to feel pretty dang sore afterward.
One way of mitigating the soreness is by wearing a trauma pad, like the AR500 Trauma Pad under your armor.
These are non-ballistic pads, which means that they don’t provide additional protection. What they do instead is instantly harden upon impact, increasing the rigid surface area of your armor and helping to decrease the amount of energy transferred from your armor to you.
Prices accurate at time of writing
Prices accurate at time of writing
AR500 offers trauma pads cut to match all of their different plate sizes, so all you have to do is match them to your plates.
Choosing body armor isn’t something that should be taken lightly. After all, it’s your life you’re entrusting to a few inches of steel, ceramic, or plastic, so you want to feel confident in your decision.
We hope we’ve helped you find some great options, but be sure to do a little research into what threat protection level suits your needs and take time to measure yourself, so you can find the right armor plates.
For most civilians…we highly recommend AR500 Armor’s Level III+ Lightweight as the way to go. One more time for our video!
If you’re going with UHMWPE or Ceramic…our budget choice is the RTS at about $150 a plate.
But our best protection favorite is the Mira Level IV…which was the only plate that stopped two rounds of armor piercing 30.06. Remember to use code PEWPEW15 for 15% off!
Best Body Armor [Tested]: Hard Plates & Soft Armor is written by Allison Goodwin, PPT Editor for www.pewpewtactical.com