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’re bulking up on our actual testing reviews too.
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
Why Do I 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–and not too many of them involve a nuclear fallout-riddled wasteland.
Here are a few reasons civilians buy body armor:
- Home Defense: Throw on your armor over your jammies before you head downstairs.
- EDC/Active Shooters: Choosing armor to carry in your backpack or keeping it in your office or vehicle can offer peace of mind.
- Sheltering in Place: If things go sideways, your home is a good place to take shelter, so why not have armor on hand?
- Patrolling/Scouting: After SHTF, what do you do if you need to go out for food, supplies, or safety?
- Range Safety: Okay, so hopefully you won’t need armor at the range, but training in it can prepare you for when you do need it. It also can protect you during dynamic shooting drills, when accidental discharges or falls are more likely.
- Competition: A little more safety never hurt…and now there’s some competitions that require armor plates!
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, such as Connecticut’s law requiring in-person purchases.
Some states and cities are trying to ban body armor, but so far, none of these motions have actually become law. But as always…check with your local laws since these things change quickly.
Is Body Armor Actually “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. Don’t be fooled into thinking body armor makes you invincible.
Types of Body 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.
Soft Ballistic Armor vs. Hard Ballistic Armor
One of the first categories you’ll discover is soft vs. hard armor.
Soft armor is generally what is worn by police officers and anyone looking for a more comfortable, but less protective armor option.
It’s made out of a flexible, incredibly strong woven net fabric (like Kevlar) that catches the bullet and absorbs the energy across the entire vest.
This type of armor is commonly found in all-in-one vests, but also can be found in inserts that can be added to bags or behind stronger plates.
Soft armor can protect against many pistol calibers, as well as other threats like knives and debris.
Hard armor is much 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, 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.
All-in-One Plates vs. Multi-Piece Armor
Some armors require additional pieces to be included, like soft ballistic plates, in order to offer the full protection.
Multi-piece kits can be confusing to figure out, but the key here is looking for “ICW” in the rating. That stands for In Conjunction With, and means you’re going to need another part to get that rating.
This system is pretty much just a hold-over from military procurement needs, so only one part needed to be swapped out instead of a whole kit.
We recommend that most new buyers start with what is called stand-alone armor, or armor that is rated as-is, without additional add-ons needed.
Covert vs. Combat Plates
The final distinction you should know is the difference between covert and combat armor. Covert armor is designed to be worn underneath your clothing. It may still “print,” or leave a visible outline, but it is much more subtle than a tactical plate carrier.
Combat armor is what many people think of when they think about body armor–these armor systems show up on our troops, in movies, in video games, and on TV. Heavy armored plates slide into special pockets on tactical vests, which are worn over your clothing.
How is Body Armor Rated?
Body armor ratings 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. Bullet material, bullet mass, velocity, barrel length, and even shady marketing tactics all can mean that your armor doesn’t stand up to the test.
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:
What is Body Armor Made Of?
We talked a little bit about what armor was made of above, but we wanted to take a deeper dive into what hard armor is made of, specifically. There are a few varieties out there, each with its pros and cons.
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 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 Paxcon…but we’ve found you want the build-up layer for it to be truly effective.
If money is no option, ceramic armor can stop some pretty extreme bullets, like the fast M193 and M2AP (30.06 armor-piercing).
The trade-off, however, 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.
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.
Common rounds, like the M855 green tip, will 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 a common armor plate size, as is 8” by 10”. 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.
If you want to drop a little extra, US Armor offers custom-fitted armor sets!
You want to be sure that the armor plate touches your sternal notch (where your collar bones meet) and extend to the bottom of your rib cage. The point of armor is to protect your heart and lungs, not your guts.
You’ll also want the width to cover your nipples.
It’s going to look a lot higher than you think.
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: Good for back protection or full coverage when you don’t need a lot of mobility.
- SAPI: Rectangular, but the top corners are clipped down to allow for better arm movement.
- Shooter: 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: 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
So, 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
Best Soft Armor for Civilians
1. 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.
Now how about something for our boys in blue?
Best Law Enforcement Soft Armor
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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
at US Armor
Prices accurate at time of writing
Prices accurate at time of writing
Check out US Armor’s Master Product Catalog and get in touch with their sales team to place your order.
Best AR500-Based Steel Armor Plates
5. 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?
6. 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.
Best UHMWPE Body Armor
7. 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.
Spartan offers a 5-year warranty, and these plates have a 5-year shelf life.
Best Ceramic Level IV Body Armor
8. 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…
9. DFNDR Level IV Plates
Obviously, rifle-rated plates are going to give you a little more protection than pistol rated plates, but you do have to make a trade-off when it comes to bulk and weight, which can be a hard choice to make.
DFNDR’s Level IV Rifle Rated Plates make that choice a little easier. These heavy-duty plates have been tested at muzzle velocity and are multi-hit rated, giving you lots of protection, but they’re also incredibly light.
These armor plates are constructed from Fiber-Lite Laminate, a UHMWPE and resin composite, with a Crystalline Ceramic Strike Face and a Spall-Tek coating to protect you from spalling. They’re on the thicker side, at 1.1 inches thick, but come in a variety of sizes and cuts.
What we liked about DFNDR’s plates is that they came with a state-of-the-art Trauma Mitigation Base, which helps absorb ballistic energy so it doesn’t transfer through the plate and into your body.
DFNDR backs these plates with a 5-year manufacturer’s warranty.
10. 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.
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.
Finally, 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.
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!
Did this help? Any other brands we should check out and test in the future? Let us know. All this talk about M193 defeating regular Level III armor? Check out our Best 5.56 Ammo article.