Concealed vests vs. external combat plates
There’s a reason why street cops wear concealed vests but warfighters wear external plates. A street cop is mostly concerned about knives, broken bottles, and small pistols – not high powered armor piercing AR-15s. Cops also don’t have to carry things like magazines with extra ammo for their own assault rifles or hydration packs and accessories over long distances. For them, the lessor protection of a vest is worth the benefit of lighter weight and better body comfort.
Combat veterans and survival experts aren’t unanimous, but most seem to agree that in a prepping scenario it’s better to protect against a wider range of threats even though it means wearing visibly obvious armor and bearing more weight.
One veteran posted in a forum, “If I’m on a scouting mission to a local store to salvage food for my family, I’m a lot more worried about people with a shotgun than people with a knife. It doesn’t matter if they can see I’m wearing armor or not. In fact, I’d probably prefer they can see that I am so it prevents them from attacking me to begin with.”
For this reason, our reviews for best body armor for prepping are limited to external combat plates. We’ll do a separate review of concealed armor in the future.
Threat level ratings
When you start poking around the world of body armor, you’ll see product descriptions talking about Level 2, Level 3, Level 3a, Level 3+, etc. What does it all mean?
Because of the military and other law enforcement buyers, they’ve tried to create standards measuring different tiers of threat protection. Basically, what are the list of weapons and ammunition that a piece of armor can “defeat.”
“Level 3+” is popular with current marketing and product trends. But you’ll notice that 3+ (or III+) isn’t a NIJ standard category. The industry made improvements to the standard Level 3 category, namely by making plates that can stop all of the normal Level 3 threats but can also stop “armor piercing” or “green tip” 5.56 / .223 AR-15 ammo. Which puts it somewhere in between a NIJ Level 3 and Level 4. So they all kind of agreed on that “standard” marketing language and description, even though it’s not a NIJ or military recognized standard yet.
The reasons why one bullet might defeat an armor plate when another bullet doesn’t comes down to two main things: how hard and heavy the bullet is and how fast it’s moving. This is why a Level 3+ plate can defeat the common AR-15 ammo (5.56 / .223) but cannot stop common AR-10 and hunting rifle ammo (7.62 / .308).
In the image above, the copper part shown alone is the bullet that flies and hits the target. Notice the .308 round has a bigger, heavier bullet and more gunpowder inside the brass casing. Which means it hits faster and harder than the .223.
Here’s a video showing armor piercing rounds in a common AR-15 defeating a Level 3 plate:
“Armor piercing” ammunition uses those two factors. A harder metal like tungsten is used as the core or all of the bullet and the round uses more and/or hotter burning gunpowder to increase the bullets speed.
“Bulletproof” doesn’t actually mean bullet proof
People and movies often call these “bulletproof vests,” but that incorrect label gives the wrong impression that the armor is actually bullet proof. Kind of like how the label “silencers” gives the wrong impression that a gun suppressor will make your shots silent or sound like the soft pew-pew noise in action movies.
Short of owning a tank, nothing you would realistically use is actually bullet proof. Every piece of armor can be defeated, whether it’s by an extreme weapon (e.g. a high powered 50 caliber rifle) or simply from repeat shots or stabs from a common weapon.
All-in-one “stand alone” plates vs. multi-piece products
Something new buyers often overlook is that some armor is designed to be used with multiple pieces. For example, there are some older style hard armor plates that must be layered with a separate soft pad in order to provide the threat level rating they claim. Without the complete package of pieces you are not protected.
Manufacturers and websites don’t always do a great job explaining this or labeling which product is which, so be careful. It can also be easily confused with labeling like “soft armor vs. hard armor” because sometimes one piece is hard and the other is soft.
Because your prepping must be simple and practical, we recommend going with stand alone all-in-one armor rather than the multi-piece versions. To be frank, there aren’t really any advantages to the multi piece versions.
The reason there are multiple piece systems is because of the military. They wanted to be able to replace a hard plate due to wear and tear without replacing the whole thing. This doesn’t apply to you since your armor will be sitting in a box until SHTF.
Our quick pick: AR500 Level 3+ Steel Plates
Best body armor for most people:
AR500 Advanced Shooters Cut Level III+ Body Armor
Our quick pick for most people is the AR500 Steel 10″x12″ Level III+ Advanced Shooters Cut plate. AR500 Armor quickly became a well known brand when the application of “AR500 style” steel (which is a trade name for a type of hardened steel) became popular because of it’s cost and durability advantages over the ceramic and fiber based alternatives.
AR500 Armor did a good job marketing their product with lots of reviewer handouts and well done test videos that directly showed their product defeating various guns and ammo – even as far as driving their forklift over the product. So it’s no surprise they took over Youtube and became one of the more well known brands.
The Level III+ threat rating is good enough to meet our recommended minimum protection level. That means you’ll be protected from common gun rounds like the .223 in the AR-15 and .308 in the AR-10. Even some of the faster “armor piercing” rounds will be defeated.
We linked to the 10″x12″ version, but if you’re larger you might want the 11″x14″ version. No matter what, be sure to add their anti-spall coating to protect your neck and arms from any bullet shrapnel fragments. We also like the multi-curve form factor, which can make a big difference in how comfortable the plate lays against your chest. Although, we have tested other manufacturers with a better curve and form factor.
We dislike that the AR500 plates use non-standard sizing. For example, the 10″x12″ plate is an older dimension that police departments used to wear. But recently things have standardized against the military SAPI sizes. This can make the AR500 plates fit a little too snug or a little too loose in your plate carrier.
Customer support and packaging are fine. It can take up to a few weeks to arrive once you order your plate. The plate can sit in a box for up to 20 years without issue and can take tons of abuse. Most of all, the AR500 steel style armor plates dropped the cost down to ~$100 compared to $200-$500 alternatives.
Why no budget pick?
When it comes to body armor there isn’t really a specific budget pick. The AR500 armor is already pretty reasonably priced for something that literally stops bullets from killing you. For any cheaper alternatives, we wouldn’t dare linking to them until there was enough evidence they saved lives in the field.