Gone are the days where we felt secure wearing our Level 2 soft armor to any call for service. The use of plate carriers by police and responsible citizens is on the rise. You might be asking why. Simply, a lot of yesterday’s soldiers are ending their time in service and know just how beneficial plate carriers can be. They are bringing that knowledge back to the streets in the US and passing it on to others.
Plate carriers are a great thing because you can dump that “Active Shooter” bag in your cruiser for a plate carrier to help you carry the same equipment but you also provide yourself with better ballistic protection. We are talking about the kind of ballistic protection that was once reserved for SWAT. You can put a plate carrier on right over top of your uniform shirt and move out smartly toward your objective. Most plate carriers come with MOLLE or PALS webbing on the front & back as well as the cummerbund. You can attach any number of pouches to the carrier. For example, you could have extra rifle and pistol magazines, shotgun shells, an Individual First Aid Kit (IFAK), utility pouch with glow sticks, door chocks, nutrition bars, and a gas mask pouch. Attach a hydration system to the back and you pretty much have what you need for an extended engagement.
With that said, you can’t just go buy a plate carrier and some “RIFLE THREAT” plates and go out expecting it to stop all rifle threats. The best thing you can do is contact the manufacturer of your soft vest and ask them what hard armor plates will protect you from rifle threats weather you’re looking to stop regular ball ammo or true “High Hard” armor piercing.
I am going to try and cover the levels of protection as simply as I can. There is no substitute for actually contacting an armor dealer or manufacturer for technical specifications. A lot of the lighter weight plates are meant to be used in conjunction with NIJ Level 3A soft armor. That doesn’t mean you can get any Level IV plate and use it with any Level 3A soft armor. Frequently, plates are meant to be used with a particular model of soft armor to properly provide the level of protection advertised.
For the most part, patrol is wearing Level 2 soft armor and unless the manufacturer states otherwise, that is not going to give you the protection you need against rifle level threats when paired with a “Rifle Threat” plate, You’re going to need to look at “STAND ALONE” plates that are not required to be used in conjunction with NIJ Level 3A soft armor. The down side to “Stand Alone” plates is the weight; they are considerably heavier but that’s the price you’re going to have to pay if you’re not wearing Level 3A soft armor.
In case you’re curious, the Holy Grail for protection offered by hard plate armor is the ability to stop .30-06 M2 Armor Piercing (Black Tip) ammunition with a “High Hard” steel core penetrator. This is what military ESAPI (Enhanced Small Arms Protective Insert) plates are designed to stop but to offer that level of protection, they are to be used in conjunction with soft armor. The military also has their own set of testing protocols for certifying armor; they do not use NIJ standards.
Let’s be clear about something, the majority of rifle ammunition you are going to encounter is not true armor piercing. True armor piercing ammo with a “High Hard” core is rare and very expensive. One type of ammo you are highly likely to encounter is surplus M855 “Green Tip” 5.56 mm. This ammo is sold as having a penetrator but it is not “High Hard” and therefore considered by the military and law enforcement to be ball ammo.
Here are the current standards of Protection for NIJ 0101.06.
- IIA: 9mm FMJ and .40 S&W
- II: 9mm FMJ and .357 mag.
- IIIA: .357 Sig and .44 magnum
- III: (Usually hard armor plate) 7.62x51mm M80 ball
- IV: (Usually hard armor plate) .30-06 M2, AP (Armor piercing)