Review: Shellback Defender armor plate carrier

I used to be able to reassure myself by saying, “I might own guns, but at least I’m not one of those LARPers who walk around in body armor.” But as 2020 has broken so many of us, it made me break down and become “that guy.” I spotted a good deal on the (unfortunately named) Shellback Tactical Defender Active Shooter Kit, and after verifying that the plates are ceramic and Level IV and that Shellback is a well-regarded brand, I jumped on it.

Shellback Defender and plates

Here’s what you need to know:

  • The $420 Shellback Tactical Defender Active Shooter kit has everything you need: two plates (one each for front and back), a plate carrier, and a carry bag
  • The Shellback Defender doesn’t have a cummerbund, eliminating the option of side armor and limiting accessory attachment points
  • The plate carrier is made in China, so the long-term durability might be questionable
  • But the carrier has a lifetime warranty and the plates have a ten-year warranty
  • The kit should be sufficient for emergency purposes

Buying like an idiot

I didn’t know a lot about plate carriers, and never really intended to drop the money on one, since a good carrier and plates are big investments. But between the wackiness and unrest of 2020 and a proposed bill that would make body armor difficult for civilians to buy, I was tempted. Then I saw a deal at LA Police gear: the aforementioned Shellback kit with the carrier and plates for $349.99, and I had a coupon code on top of that to snag the whole thing for about $326 after tax.

I wanted to buy a complete kit, because I was confused about plate sizes, and I was afraid that I’d buy a fancy plate carrier only for the plates to not fit, or vice versa. A lot of these products are aimed at professionals who allegedly know what they’re doing, so the vendor websites are often unhelpful.

More: Best body armor plates and best plate carriers

I placed my order in early July with the expectation that it would take ten weeks to arrive—it actually took 13! During that time, I helped with research for our plate carrier guide and was thrown into the deep end of plate sizing and cuts. Long story short, you size yourself to the plates and then buy a carrier that fits the plates. Ideally, you make a cardboard cutout of the plate size and cut before you invest.

That’s not what I did. I saw one size, said “close enough,” and hit the buy button. Such is panic buying in 2020.

I don’t have deep regrets and things have largely worked out, but don’t buy how I did! Read our plate carrier guide and make smarter choices.

The kit itself

An interesting thing happened between when I ordered the Shellback kit and when it arrived: Shellback revised the Defender plate carrier to switch from standard PALS/MOLLE webbing to laser-cut. What that means is instead of fabric loops to attach accessories, there are slits cut into the material itself. In terms of cash money, it was a great deal for me, since the new kit sells for around $420, so I got the kit at about a $100 discount.

The included plates are the Shellback Prevail 10”x12” Model 4S17 with a single curve in a shooter cut. Each plate weighs 7.2 pounds, so 14.4 pounds total. They feature a ceramic face with “composite backing” and a 1000 denier Cordura nylon cover. Shellback says they’re certified by the National Institute for Justice for Level IV threat protection, and they can stop the common .223 and 5.56 rounds used by the AR-15. Actually, they are rated to protect up to 7.62 x 63 mm M2AP rifle rounds, and even armor-piercing rounds.

The plates themselves seem fine, though it’s hard to truly review them without taking a bullet while wearing one. If that unfortunately ever happens, I’ll be sure to update the review. If I do not update the review, assume they’re not very good. The plates are made in the United States and are backed by a 10-year warranty.

Shellback Prevail plates in box

I expected the plates to be hard, but they’re surprisingly soft. The ceramic is covered in some sort of squishy material, which makes the plates more comfortable and I assume protects the ceramic itself. I especially appreciate that since I always bump my head on a plate when I put the carrier on.

The Shellback Tactical Defender is a simple affair, which is fine by me. I’m not a soldier with a mess of gear to pack, I just need a couple of extra magazines, a tourniquet, and maybe a radio. And hopefully, I never need my plate carrier at all!

More: Best tourniquet

The Shellback Tactical Defender comes in three colors: Black, Coyote, and Ranger Green. The first-generation model is also available in bright red, in case you want to roleplay as a British Redcoat. I guess the one advantage of a red plate carrier is that it hides blood. I went for Coyote because I’m a sucker for Marine Corps. colors (see my review of the ILBE load-bearing system).

I find the quality of the carrier to be a bit questionable. It’s made in China and arrived with a few loose threads. But while I haven’t torture-tested it, I’ve literally taken it into the field and so far it’s fine. The plate pockets are secured with strong hook and loop fasteners, and I haven’t had any concerns about the plates falling out. The Shellback Defender is backed with a lifetime warranty.

A plate inside its pocket.
A plate inside its pocket.

One thing I really like about this carrier is that since it rides hide on my chest, it doesn’t get in the way of anything on my belt. I can comfortably reach my Leatherman and my sidearm on my everyday gun belt. There’s no need to wear a special war belt or leg holster.

Drawing a pistol in the Defender
The carrier doesn’t obstruct my ability to access gear on my belt or draw my pistol.

The kit also comes with a bag to store and carry the carrier and plates. The material is a bit thin, and the fit is a little tight, but it holds my carrier and the attached radio gear and magazines. More on what I put on my plate carrier in a bit.

The Defender bag with the plates

The Defender in the bag

One unusual thing about this plate carrier is that it doesn’t have the typical cummerbund that wraps around your sides. Instead, there’s just a simple strap with a buckle. But I don’t have any desire to put side armor in, so this isn’t a deal-breaker, though it would be nice to have extra gear attachment points. However, I do find it easy to adjust the straps so the carrier isn’t too tight or too loose.

The Defender's side straps

Another thing I find a bit annoying is how the shoulder straps are adjusted. The adjustment points are covered by shoulder padding, which is fixed in place with strong hook-and-loop fasteners. What I’ve found works best is to rip open the padding, but leave it in place, and adjust the strap. Thankfully, I didn’t have to tweak the straps too much until I got them where I wanted them.

The carrier description states that the included magazine pouches and tourniquet holder are “integrated,” but that thankfully isn’t true. The carrier has a kangaroo pocket lined with hook and loop fasteners and the carrier includes a placard with the integrated magazine pouches and an additional pouch without a bungee fastener. It also includes a weird little flap of cloth that’s supposed to be a tourniquet holder, and that fits into the pouch.

Tourniquet pouch
The tourniquet pouch.
Bird's eye view
A bird’s-eye view of the plate carrier pouches.

My theory about the odd tourniquet holder is that it lets Shellback market the kit as a defensive item rather than an offensive one. I do like carrying a tourniquet, but I simply rubber-banded one to the front webbing. I put a BaoFeng radio in the tourniquet pocket, but you could easily shove an additional magazine in there instead.

PC with mags, radio, and tourniquet
My current setup.

The placard fits into the kangaroo pouch, but not easily. Since everything is hook and loop, you’re having to fight the fasteners while shoving it into the pouch. Unfortunately, I don’t have any tips for cramming it in there, just be patient. I’ll say that the hook-and-loop fasteners used on the Defender hold extremely well, for both good and ill.

More: How to use a tourniquet

The Defender plate carrier features a drag handle, though I’m not sure you could drag an entire person with it. It seems a bit thin for that. It does serve as a carry handle for the carrier itself.

Defender drag handle

One last kink I’m working out is how to handle comms. I have a throat mic headset and a hand mic for the radio. I don’t want to fool with wires attached to my body if I’m throwing this thing on in a hurry, so I’ve been experimenting with keeping the hand mic on my left shoulder, cop style. Unfortunately, the clip on the BaoFeng mic couldn’t hold two pieces of paper together. I’ll keep tweaking it and see if I can find something workable.

Mobility, mobility, mobility

Mobility is key with modern-day armor. You need to be able to run, crawl, and shoot without major encumbrance. Happily, I don’t find this armor restrictive. I adjust it to cover from my neck notch to the bottom of my rib cage, so my vital areas are covered while my torso can bend freely. I’m not Mr. Universe, but I don’t find walking, running, or crawling on the ground to be difficult while wearing it. I do, however, get very sweaty. If I were to wear it for a significant length of time I’d want a moisture-wicking shirt.

Crawling in the field in the Defender
Literally crawling in a field while wearing the Shellback Defender.

More: Dress like a prepper: the wonders of wool/nylon blends

I also don’t have any issue moving my arms or shouldering a rifle. I’ve tried shooting from different positions and reloading, and it all goes pretty smoothly.

Worth it?

Do I regret my purchase? Absolutely not, because I don’t know what the next year holds, armor is back-ordered all over, and I’m very glad to have some.

Questions about the plate carrier aside, there are some big upsides to this kit. For one, it’s actually in stock. A plate carrier on your body is worth a dozen in the warehouse. The plates sell for $176.99 each, so if you buy the kit at $419.99 you’re getting the plate carrier for $66.01, which sells by itself for $119.99. If you can find a sale as I did, even better. It’s about $70 cheaper from LA Police gear, but there is an 8-10 week wait.

If you’re kind of cheap like me and you want armor ASAP, the Shellback Tactical Defender Active Shooter Kit fits the bill. Given how cheap you’re getting the plate carrier for, you won’t feel too bad if you decide to upgrade it later.