Choosing the right kind of gear and apparel for combat sports is often the topic of much debate, and it can be challenging to come to a conclusion – particularly for beginners.

There are a number of factors involved, including the type of game you’re playing, the level of realism required, your commitment to the pastime, and your budget.
One such conversation is the discussion surrounding the use of plate carriers vs chest rigs.

What are the differences? Why do players use them? Do you actually need one? What are they in the first place?

We’ll answer all these questions and more, and find out which is better for you when you’re in the field.

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Plate Carrier or Chest Rig – Too Long, Didn’t Read

Let’s get straight to the point for anyone who doesn’t have the time to read the full article. What’s the main difference between plate carriers and chest rigs?

  • Plate carriers are designed to protect your vital organs from small arms ballistics and/or knives.
  • Chest rigs are designed to hold magazines, ammo, extra gear, and equipment.

I would suggest using plate carriers if you’re playing a dedicated military simulation, or – of course – if you’re actually in harm’s way in a real combat situation.

Whereas, chest rigs are recommended if you intend on carrying plenty of spare ammunition, and/or if you require additional storage space while you’re in the field – both for sport and real steel scenarios.

But the beauty of these two items of tactical apparel is that they are designed to be worn together, and don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Plate carriers for ballistic torso protection – chest rigs for storing and carrying ammo and gear.

Bear in mind that plate carriers are going to be heavier and run hotter than a chest rig – which is why many players prefer the latter for lightweight comfort and mobility.

The choice is yours, but if you’re just starting out, I would say a good tactical chest rig to carry your magazines is all you really need.

What Are Plate Carriers?

Initially developed by the US Army circa 2009, the soldier plate carrying system (SPCS), is effectively a lighter, and more mobile version of a tactical bulletproof vest.

Typically available in camouflage or muted colors, the plate carrier literally carries ballistic protection plates in the form of small arms protective inserts, designed to cover the wearer’s torso front and back.

At first glance, you might think them to be too compact to cover the body, but remember they’re only designed to protect the vital organs.

However, side, stomach, and groin plates/armor can also be added, and the carrier can be modified to suit, with additional protection, camera mounts, pouches, and MOLLE attachments included – if and when required.

A typical, medium-weight carrier in a real steel environment weighs in around 22 lbs.

And unless you’re going full MilSim (Military Simulation), it’s not going to come close to that for paintball or airsoft.

For more on the differences between combat sports and real gear, check out that link.

Good replica plate carriers for combat sports can look and feel very much like the real thing, but many players prefer to obtain the actual gear worn by armed forces around the world.

Either way, it should be noted that plate carriers don’t come with plates. If you’re wanting to achieve that level of detail, you will need to purchase them separately, often at a very high cost.

soldier in tactical plate carrier vests standing and holding military helmet

Can I Legally Wear Body Armor?

In the US, provided you’re not a felon, it is legal for you to own and wear full-body armor.

While this is true for all 50 states, there are likely to be individual regulations depending on where you live, and you should check local laws in full before proceeding.

That’s just to cover my ass more than anything else.

Either way, law-abiding citizens have a right to defend themselves, and so wearing full plate carriers is allowed.

Elsewhere around the world, restrictions may or may not be in place – depending on the country. In the UK, for example, there are currently no laws prohibiting the use of body armor for civilians.

If you’re in any doubt, you can also ask at your local airsoft field for advice specific to your location, or an airsoft/paintball supplier in your town.

A darkly amusing exception is that it’s illegal to wear body armor while committing a crime in the US.

Presumably, this is so law enforcement stands a better chance of taking you down if necessary, but it might just be a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted…

Disclaimer – Riflepal does not condone criminal activity, and/or the use of body armor while doing so.

Plate Carrier Pros

Depending on the type of plate carrier, it’s possible to adapt the system to offer a two-in-one set up.

MOLLE attachments can help you do away with the need for a chest rig altogether, and you’ll have more storage options, AND the benefits of added protection.

If you’re at all concerned with pellet or paintball pain, then a plate carrier is certainly going to provide you with a decent amount of defense – with or without the inserts.

Combat sport ballistics aren’t fired close to the fps of real bullets, and you might barely feel the hit at all with some plate carriers. This is particularly advantageous if you’re indoors and playing CQB.

And if you happen to need torso protection in a potentially harmful situation back in the real world, then wearing one of these life-saving vests is a no-brainer – particularly for knife and small-arms defense.

Furthermore, they are perfect for training situations, if you’re ever using combat sports to practice for real-life scenarios.

Train how you fight, as they say. And this can also offer similar benefits of wearing weight vests or belts for that extra burn when exercising.

Some games might also allow you an extra respawn, reduced time in the deadbox, or other such tactical edge if you’re wearing a plate carrier with plates inserted.

Check with your local field or event to see if this bonus applies, and it will likely be dependent on the actual weight of genuine plates – so no cutting corners with the front and back of a large cereal box.

Plate carriers can also offer some decent protection against the cold, which can be advantageous if you’re running an airsoft game in winter. Follow that link for more information on cold-season play.

Plate Carrier Cons

Plate carriers can be heavy and restrictive – which is fine if you’re going for an authentic game, but not so much if it’s a casual skirmish in the summer, for example.

Add those heavy plates, and you’re going to be seriously weighed down. This is their major disadvantage, and the primary reason many players choose to avoid wearing plate carriers.

They might also cause problems if you are playing MilSim with a focus on carrying all your gear in a ruck. If that’s the case, look for a plate carrier that is compatible with a backpack.

Good carriers can be pretty expensive – certainly more so than chest rigs, particularly if you’re looking to actually fill them with plates – for the real steel experience.

Depending on the level of protection required, genuine bulletproof inserts can run into hundreds of dollars, which is going to be overkill for many airsoft and paintball players.

soldier with chest rig

What Are Chest Rigs?

Perhaps because of the misinterpreted name, chest rigs are often confused with plate carriers, but they are, in fact, not designed to protect your chest at all.

Rather than a full torso plate system, they’re simply a series of straps, belts, buckles, and webbing that attach around your shoulders and waist.

They can also be referred to as tactical vests, and contain pouches, pockets, bags, and other storage compartments for holding all the gear you need for the day.

Their primary function is to carry extra magazines, first aid kits, grenades, tools, radios, or any other items that might be useful in the field, both in combat sports and in real-life military and tactical situations.

They might also offer the option to add a sidearm, to keep a secondary weapon close to hand with a holster attachment.

Take a look at this article for the best tactical chest rigs on the market for some great examples of what’s currently on offer.

Chest Rig Pros

Chest rigs are much cheaper than plate carriers, and if you’re just starting out, this can make the difference when choosing between one or the other.

They are much lighter and less restrictive than a plate carrier – which can be particularly advantageous if you’re running a game on a hot day, or you’re playing a fast-paced game of speedsoft.

For a minimalist, mobile loadout, chest rigs can’t be beat – but you can still get setups that hold a one-man army’s worth of stuff if you so choose.

At the point of sale, chest rigs are generally designed to carry more ammunition than plate carriers – but that will change depending on MOLLE attachments added to the latter aftermarket.

Personally, when it comes to combat sports, I’m more concerned with running out of pellets or paint than I am protecting my torso, and so a lightweight, well-stocked chest rig is my preferred option.

Hopefully, nobody is firing any real ammunition in such an environment, anyway…

As mentioned, some chest rigs can double as a secondary firearm holster, and might have one built-in, or use the MOLLE system to incorporate additional weaponry.

This article on the best airsoft pistols should get your mouth watering on what you can add to this potentially badass loadout.

Chest rigs are designed to be worn with or without additional body armor, so you can still choose to wear one with a plate carrier if that’s the look and loadout you’re going for.

Chest Rig Cons

Chest rigs offer almost no protection from paint or pellets. While some are more heavy-duty than others, they’re not going to be a match for a plate carrier if you’re concerned about potentially getting hurt.

Speaking of, here’s a good article on airsoft vs paintball pain, which might also help you decide if you need a plate carrier or not.

Some chest rigs are designed to carry everything – including the kitchen sink. That might be a bit superfluous for some people, especially if you’re just starting out.

However, when going head-to-head with all the MOLLE attachments possible in a plate carrier, chest rigs won’t carry nearly as much stuff.

If you’re the type of player who likes to fill every available inch with guns and gear, then a fully kitted plate carrier is going to be a better option.

man wearing tactical gear and holding airsoft rifle

The Verdict

At the end of the day, your choice of loadout is going to depend on what you’re looking for, the games you’re running, and/or if you’re ever actually using this gear in a real, life-threatening situation.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that it’s purely for combat sports – in which case, being weighed down with full plate inserts is not really necessary.

But that’s not to say you can’t rock a lightweight plate carrier for an authentic look and feel, with the bonus of a MOLLE system to carry everything you need for war.

Your choice might also depend on the airsoft role you’re employed in, so take a look at that link for more info on what’s required from each team member.

More often than not, it’s going to come down to budget. If you can afford both, get both. If you can only afford one, choose the chest rig.

I know I’d rather have access to plenty of ammo when I’m running and gunning in a skirmish, than I would having full torso protection weighing me down and restricting my movements.

Think about what you’re actually going to need and use, rather than what you’re going to look like (which, admittedly, is a lot easier said than done for many combat sports players).

There’s no reason why you can’t rock a plate carrier and a chest rig – if you’ve got the money, and the physical ability. Many players own both, and switch things up accordingly, to suit their gameplay and armory.

For more information, and a basic starting point, take a look at this article on what to wear for airsoft, and go here if you’re more interested in what to wear for paintball.

Remember, for paintball, there’s a strong chance your gear is going to get covered in paint, so bear that in mind when choosing expensive tactical equipment and clothing.

And for either sport, you should give yourself an edge by wearing a pair of awesome shooting gloves – so follow that link for more.

Finally, for a more visual and detailed guide to this discussion, check out the video below from the ever-knowledgeable BB Warrior.

Summary

While the names might often be confused and interchanged, when it comes to plate carriers vs chest rigs, they’re two completely different things.

And you can feel free to wear them both, one or the other, or neither of them – depending on your own preferences, and/or gameplay.

Let me know which option you prefer and why, or if you just have any other comments to add on this interesting, continuing combat sports debate.

Stay safe out there!