body armor choosing the Right Armor Plates

The Ultimate Guide to Choosing Between Kevlar Vests and Body Armor Plates

by Jeff Edwards

The first rule of any engagement is that you must be prepared if you want to stand a chance to win. Selecting the right armor can have a major impact on your overall protection level, and could mean the difference between life and death.

In a 1910 interview, famed frontier lawman Wyatt Earp spoke of the lessons he learned witnessing one gun fight after another. In that interview, he stated that “the most important lesson I learned from those proficient gunfighters was that the winner of a gunplay usually was the man who took his time.”

He would then go on to clarify that “I do not wish to be misunderstood for the time to be taken was only that split fraction of a second that means the difference between deadly accuracy with a sixgun and a miss.” 

With just a split fraction of a second for the margin of error, the last thing you want to fill that time with is wondering whether or not the body armor you have chosen is up for the task at hand. 

It was during the Bronze Age and its improved metal working techniques that brought the full potential of armor into the light. Now one could take a hit with a sword, spear, or arrow and hope to live to tell the tale. 

That was the case until a fortuitous discovery by an American chemist who was simply trying to make lighter tires. Stephanie Kwolek was working for DuPont when she discovered Kevlar in 1964 and with the Vietnam War kicking into high gear, it didn’t take long for the military applications to be realized. 

By the early 1970’s the National Institute for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice began recommending the use of Kevlar for bulletproof vests as opposed to nylon. With advancements in carbon fibers, ceramic plates and polyethylene, we now have body armor that can take multiple hits from 5.56 and 7.62 rounds while maintaining integrity. 

But which one's better? Body armor protection plates or Kevlar? Let's find out!


Table of Contents

  • 01

    Understanding Body Armor

  • 02

    Types of Bulletproof Protection

  • 03

    Armor Plate Types

  • 04

    Choosing the Right Bulletproof Protection

  • 05

    Maintenance and Care

  • 06

    No Second Place Finishes in a Gunfight

Understanding Body Armor

When you hear the snap and crack of a bullet flying in your direction, you are in a fight whether you want one or not. When a round strikes you center mass in the chest, you are not only in a fight, but you are likely in a fight with someone who knows what they are doing. Body armor is essentially the confidence you need to remain in that fight. 

The first question you are going to ask yourself is if the scenario you are planning for requires soft or hardened armor. Softened armor is more flexible, concealable, and can be pistol rated to stop low velocity threats. It's designed to give you more freedom of movement, while also offering a balanced degree of protection.

Hardened armor provides rifle rated protection, but it comes at the cost of weight and flexibility. Such armor pieces are quite heavy, and you can go from level III to level IV (armor-piercing protection) plates.

The next piece to understand is that not all body armor is the same. The National Institute for Justice (NIJ) is the only nationally accepted body that does meticulous testing and rates ballistic body armor.  

Types of Bulletproof Protection

Soft Body Armor

Soft body armor is usually made from Kevlar and other synthetic fibers. While the latter's generally the most popular, there are several other companies making synthetic armor that's usually at a more lightweight level.

What we are looking at here is NIJ Level II and Level IIIA classifications by the old standard. According to the new standard that would be HG1 and HG2. Beyond that you are reaching rifle rated protections, which would require full-on ballistic armor. 

Generally, police officers usually wear soft protection, as the plates are lightweight and offer relative comfort. However, when SWAT teams are called on to the scene, the armor level goes up significantly, with officers donning level 4 protection to ensure their safety.

Hard Body Armor

Hard body armor is usually made of steel, ceramic, or a combination of both, and is designed to stop rifle rounds (both 5.56 and 7.62 rounds). These ballistic plates are obviously bulky, but level IV body armor enables wearers to take multiple hits and still remain in the fight, something that was unheard of just a few decades ago. 

During the past 20 plus years of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), the amount of reports coming in of service members taking direct hits from an AK and walking away unscathed are astounding. That conflict is perhaps the best case study and advertisement for body armor that has ever existed. 

Armor Plate Types

There are three types of plates in use today: steel, polythylene, and ceramic. 

Steel plates are hard, heavy, and durable. Not only will they stop a bullet, but they’ll take multiple hits over and over. A concern regarding steel plates is related to what’s known as spalling. Spalling is when a bullet strikes the plate and pieces or fragments of the plate itself are now projected back into the body. This doesn’t always happen and quality manufacturers should spare no effort in minimizing this risk. 

Ceramic plates are made of advanced ceramic materials such as aluminum oxide, silicon carbide, boron carbide, and others. There is a common misconception that ceramic plates are 100% immune to spalling and fragmentation, but that simply is not true. On the plus side, these ones are considerably lighter than their steel counterparts.

Polyethylene plates are the new kids on the block and are made of ultra high molecular weight polyethylene fibers. They are relatively lighter and can stop multiple hit. As you can probably tell, these ones are more expensive, mainly because they're often made in the USA, and are capable of stopping high-powered rifle rounds, despite being lighter.

NIJ Levels of Protection

Regardless of the material, the most important part is understanding what kind of hits your plate can take. Thankfully, the National Institute of Justice lays it out in simple terms with its updated rating system:

HG1 (formerly Level II) - tested to stop handgun rounds such as a .357 Mag JSP 128 grain with a velocity of 1430 ft/s.

HG2 (formerly Level IIA) - tested to stop handgun rounds such as the .44 Mag JHP 240 grain with a velocity of 1430 ft/s.

RF1 (formerly Level III) - tested to stop rifle rounds such as 7.62x51mm M80 Ball NATO FMJ Steel Jacket 147 grain with a velocity of 2780 ft/s and a 5.56mm M193 56 grain with a velocity of 3250 ft/s. 

RF2 (new threat level) - tested to stop the rounds of RF1 as well as 5.56mm M855 61.8 grain with a velocity of 3115 ft/s. 

RF3 (formerly Level IV) - tested to stop rounds such as the 30.06 M2 AP 165.7 grain with a velocity of 2880 ft/s. 

Plate Carrier vs. Kevlar Vest

Now that you’ve got your plate material and identified the proper rating needed to protect yourself from the threat, you’ll need something to hold the plate in place. The carrier can also improve protection overall.

A plate carrier in its basic form is just nylon woven together designed to keep the plate in front of your vital organs. Combining softer armor such as a Kevlar jacket with a pocket to hold a level 4 plate offers greater protection. However, it comes at the expense of weight and mobility. Plus, wearing body armor with level IV plates is going to get you feeling hot very quickly.

The final question you have to ask yourself is whether or not you want a minimalist plate carrier or a tactical vest. This holds the armor in place with an array of pouches and MOLLE gear type system. It’s really a question of function. 

The added gear may come in handy, but it could also limit your mobility and ability to quickly get into a prone firing position if needed. A tactical vest like a basic plate carrier offers no additional protection. It might be a good rule of thumb to consider that if you don’t use it then don’t add it. 

Choosing the Right Bulletproof Protection

If the reason you need armor is for general crowd control, you could do well with soft armor. However, there is more to consider. The team here at MIRA Safety is biased towards hard armor as we understand that the average person will statistically run their whole lives without getting into a gunfight. That’s a good thing. The problem is that it just takes one second place finish in a gunfight to end your life. 

body armor plate
 Source: MIRA Safety

Choosing the Right Armor Plates 

Choosing the right plates is the source of confidence to remain mentally unflustered by the urge to hurry in a gunfight. We recommend our Level IV (RF3) armor plates, which are designed to protect against gunshots. If you want the best body armor, we recommend pairing these with a viable body armor system. 

Our plates are made from a combination of ceramic and polyethylene which offers the best of what modern technology has to offer. Standard ceramic plates will often fracture after a single strike, but reinforced with polyethylene they can now take multiple hits. Tested to NIJ standards Level IV (RF3), this place can stop armor piercing rounds of multiple calibers to include 5.56, 7.62, .308 and .30-06. 

You can also augment your protection with added side plates that fit a variety of plate carriers. This means when you get hit in the chest you don’t have to look down to see if you are bleeding. 

Maintenance and Care

Now that you’ve got your confidence, let’s talk about how to care for your body armor to ensure maximum lifespan and effectiveness. We know you’ll be training regularly with your armor and it is always a good idea to wipe down and inspect the plates after use. You don’t need to use any cleaning agents as a soft dry cloth will do. However, it is the inspection of the plates that is paramount. 

Store the place in a cool dry place without exposure to direct sunlight. You don’t want to store them anywhere too hot or too cold to prevent any warping or moisture that could compromise the plates. We’d highly recommend that you don’t store them anywhere where they have a risk of falling to the ground. 

Store them securely with proper care and your plates will be there for you on the day when you need them most. Our plates come with a 10 year warranty as we’re proud to back the work we do right here in the United States. 

No Second Place Finishes in a Gunfight

There are many on the outside of tactical life who think body armor is purely defensive. As if it is just there in case a stray round comes your way. The rest of us understand the truth that if your body armor has been put to its intended purpose then someone is trying to kill you and your only option is to try and kill them back. 

Body armor is an offensive weapon because it keeps you into the fight. It is the sum desire of the team here at MIRA that none of our customers ever get that second place trophy in a fight for their life. We’re going to keep you engaged with top notch gear and the latest information to see that this is the case. Sign up for our newsletter and together we’ll keep training for the day others dread and we will be ready. 

body armor plates
 Source: MIRA Safety