What comes to mind when you think of body armor?

Leather jerkins? Full plate metal suits? Flak jackets? SWAT vests? Perhaps whatever the latest adaptation of Batman is currently wearing?

This life-saving technology has come a long way since its inception, and there are several options available on the market for protecting your torso and vital organs from ballistics and stabbing weapons.

In this article, we take a look at the plate carrier vs the bulletproof vest, and discover which is the right choice for you.

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Bulletproof Vest or Plate Carrier – Too Long, Didn’t Read

Let’s keep things brief, perhaps for anyone who just wants the quick answer and doesn’t have time to read this short article.

Bulletproof vests – often called “soft” body armor, bulletproof vests are commonly worn by law-enforcement, security personnel, armored-car guards, and other such occupations.

They are designed to stop small arms fire and knives – threats that are easily concealed by a potential assailant. Vests are lightweight and mobile, and can be worn under jackets and other clothing.

Plate carriers – often called “hard” body armor, are more synonymous with the military, but can be used by other armed forces, and civilians if they so choose.
They are a popular choice for MilSim combat sports – such as airsoft, for example.

Plate carriers are designed to stop higher caliber weapons, including assault rifles. They’re heavier, and bulkier, and are worn when a potential threat is likely or expected – and not necessarily hidden.

Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, and there’s more to it than can be summarized in a couple of short sentences. Read on for a more detailed look at body armor technology.

Disclaimer: This is a well-researched, thorough article from experienced writers. Under no circumstances are we to be regarded as body armor professionals, and extreme care should be taken when purchasing and using such equipment at all times.

tactical player wearing bulletproof vest

What is a Bulletproof Vest?

Armor designed to stop firearm projectiles has roots as far back as 1538, and while these life-saving garments are nothing new, as weapons tech has developed, defense against them has needed to keep up.

As such, today’s bulletproof vests are made from modern, densely-woven fabrics, designed to stop small arms fire, knives, and other stabbing weapons. Kevlar is a common, successful, and popular material used here.

You’ll also find it in some of the better tactical shooting gloves, so follow that link for some super-durable options for your loadout.

In this context, we’re talking about “soft” vests, which are mainly worn by law enforcement, security personnel, and some civilians.

They use layer upon layer of Kevlar to provide protection against handguns, without restricting the freedom to move.

Velcro or other straps and hardware are used to attach it to the body, and ensuring a proper fit is essential for getting the most out of the armor.

Remember, without adding extra protection and panels, both a plate carrier and vest are designed to cover your vital organs, only. They should be positioned just above the navel.

A typical type II vest will usually weigh around eight pounds.

Pros and Cons

The main advantage of a bulletproof vest over a plate carrier is that it’s much more lightweight. As such, you’re more mobile, with unrestricted movement – which can be invaluable when you need to move fast.

If you need to climb anywhere, get into or out of a vehicle, or do any action you need to be limber, then a bulletproof vest is the way to go.

It’s also a lot more comfortable to wear. Vests are designed to offer a snug fit to the body, and can easily be concealed and worn undetected beneath additional clothing – depending on the type of armor.

They also run much cooler than plate carriers, which makes them ideal for use in warmer environments. And speaking of concealment – depending on the vest, nobody has to know you’re wearing it.

Aside from the added comfort, bulletproof vests usually cover more of the torso than plate carriers.

While attachments are available for the military version, most vests will already cover the sides of the body as standard. Under the arms can be a very vulnerable area with a well-placed attack – particularly from knives.

Finally, vests are much, much cheaper than plate carriers. The plates alone in those things are likely to cost you more than the bulletproof vest – depending on the type and if you’re running front and back plates.

However, as you might expect, bulletproof vests have their limitations. If you’re faced with high-powered assault rifles, armor-piercing rounds, or any high caliber weapon, you could be in trouble.

Even with the small arms fire they’re designed to repel, eventually, given enough hits, they’re still going to fail.

Bulletproof vests are not guaranteed to keep you alive, they’re just to give you a much better chance of surviving if you happen to take a couple of rounds to the torso.

And while a vest might be able to withstand, say, a shotgun blast with no penetration, there’s still a chance of a fatality from the blunt force alone.

They don’t offer nearly as much storage or gear-carrying options as plate carriers, so if you need to load up with extra equipment, here’s a variety of tactical bag articles that might come in handy.

Alternatively, a quality tactical jacket could be worn over the vest and offer more places to stash valuables, tools, and/or equipment.

soldier in tactical plate carrier vests standing and holding military helmet

What is a Plate Carrier?

The Soldier Plate Carrier System (SPCS), is actually a version of a bulletproof vest designed to protect against rifle and heavy-caliber arms fire.

The carriers themselves are fabric vests with compartments to add the protective metal plates. On their own, they’re pretty useless as a defense against ballistics.

Plates can be made from steel, ceramic, or polyethylene, and soft body armor can be worn behind them for additional protection.

Don’t confuse them with chest rigs – which offer little protection but plenty of extra magazine storage.

Plate carriers come in all shapes and sizes, from fairly simple vest designs, to bomb-proof suits of armor with multiple plate attachments in key zones.

It’s rare that you’ll see plate carriers in public, as they’re more commonly found in theaters of conflict, and worn by military personnel in situations of genuine threat.

However, they’re becoming very popular for combat sports enthusiasts, who like to achieve a high level of realism in their games.

This article on the best tactical plate carriers will provide more information.

Plate carriers often feature the MOLLE system (Modular Lightweight Load carrying Equipment), for assistance in carrying extra gear and equipment.

They are easily identified by their muted colors or camouflage patterns, scientifically developed to offer the best chance of remaining hidden in the field.

A medium-weight plate carrier and plates can weigh as much as 22 lbs, while the heavier-duty plates capable of stopping something like an AR-15 can be considerably more.

Pros and Cons

The most notable advantage for a plate carrier is that it’s going to offer more protection all round. It can stop higher caliber weapons, including straight shots.

Aside from this, a quality plate isn’t going to fail. You can smash that thing with hundreds of rounds, and it should remain intact – unlike the bulletproof vest.

Plate carriers come with option extras, such as additional protection plates, hook and loop hardware, and other gear you can attach to the base vest for extra defense and practical use.

As such, you can use your plate carrier to literally carry a lot more gear. And coupled with the MOLLE system, you can even bring the kitchen sink if you want.

First aid kits, tools, flashlights, sports cameras, and more can be added, particularly if you include a good tactical helmet with your loadout, with extra attachments and modular capabilities.

The major downside of plate carriers is obviously the weight. Some plates can reach up to around 40 lbs – maybe more – and that’s before you’ve added any extra gear.

soldier with chest rig

And they can run very hot in warmer climes – certainly when compared to a lighter vest.

Plate carriers are also not very subtle – not only will you know you’re wearing one, but so will everyone else around you. Fading into the background is not an option, particularly in an urban environment.

There is also a risk of bullet spalling with plate carriers – because the projectile can ricochets off the plate, and that shrapnel can go anywhere.

As such, you might well need to wear special anti-spalling plates, or additional soft armor/trauma pads to protect vulnerable areas, such as your throat.

Last, but by no means least, plate carriers can be very expensive – particularly if you’re buying the best possible plates, and all the bells and whistles that go with them.

Unless you know you’re going into a hostile situation, it’s highly unlikely you’ll need to spend that kind of money, although the price has come down in recent years.

NIJ Protection Levels Explained

The National Institute of Justice in the United States has developed a series of body armor protection levels that provide a guide as to what a vest can and cannot stop.

There are currently five levels – IIA, II, IIIA, III, and IV. You might wonder where level I is – but those vests date back to the 1970s, and are no longer of any use today.

Each level is designed to stop increasingly higher caliber weapons and offer more protection to the wearer. The video below is a little dated, but it will still give you a good idea of what each level is capable of.

Final Verdict

If you’re choosing between a plate carrier or a bulletproof vest, it will likely come down to your job, your location, and the expected threat level.

For home/street use, concealed carry, freedom-of-movement, and mobility in the face of potential small arms and knife threats – choose a bulletproof vest.

For deployment to high-threat regions, faced with potential rifle ballistics, and higher caliber weapons – go with a plate carrier.

Or, if you’re simply looking to get into combat sports, and striving to achieve maximum realism. Take a look at this article on airsoft gear vs military gear for some fascinating – and surprising – comparisons.

Generally speaking, most civilians aren’t ever going to need either.

FAQ

Can I wear a bulletproof vest in public?

Providing you’re not a convicted felon, then you can legally wear a bulletproof vest in most states in the US. Elsewhere in the world, it is likely to be more restricted.

As always, check your local ordinance before doing so, but you do have the right to protect yourself.

Is it illegal to wear a bulletproof vest to school?

Illegal – no, allowed? It depends on the school. Some education centers might be okay with it, others might request you take it off. Again, check with the powers that be before proceeding.

Do bulletproof vests protect against all bullets?

No. If we’re talking about soft vests, then they’re only designed to stop lower caliber weapons, such as small arms fire.
I will refer you to the video above, which explains the class of vests, and what they can and can’t protect against.

What plate carrier do Navy SEALs use?

There are a number of recommended brands out there that are used by the military, law enforcement, and other armed forces around the world. Check out this article as a good starting point for tactical gear.

But hey, don’t just take it from me, take it from an actual Navy SEAL, and watch the video below.

Are plate carriers useful?

Yes and no. If you’re looking for MilSim realism in an airsoft game, then a plate carrier would be a useful addition to your loadout.

If you’re military personnel in a combat zone – then a plate carrier might well save your life.

But if you’re just going down to the grocery store for some eggs, perhaps it’s a little on the superfluous side. You’re also going to stick out like a sore thumb, so keeping a low-profile is off the table.

It just depends on what you need it for, when, and where.

Summary

I hope this article has been informative when it comes to plate carriers vs bulletproof vests. While the objective for both is still the same, they are very different in practice.

Let me know which one you’ve gone for and why. Or if you have any relevant knowledge and experience you’d like to share with the community. Is there anything vital that we’ve missed?

Stay safe out there, folks!