"Do I need side plates? Are they necessary?"
This is a question we get asked fairly often and I think it was time we spoke a little on this subject. Simply put, if you are expecting to be shot at, I recommend wearing side plates or some kind of side armor. They are of course not without their downsides, but here we will discuss some of their pros and cons.
Lateral (side) shots make you more vulnerable to severe internal trauma. When shots are coming from the front and hit our chest at a zero degree angle, chances are the bullet will only pass through one organ. However, when penetrating shots enter from the side, you are more likely (almost guaranteed) to sustain injuries to multiple organs. Lets use for example an M855A1 round being shot at our lower torso from the right side. If you draw a straight line across to the other side, you will see the round has a chance of penetrating organs such as your lungs, kidneys, liver, pancreas, intestines and stomach. If you are being shot by FMJ rounds at high velocity, the bullet can also fragment and the individual fragments can travel at slightly different trajectories, also causing multiple organs to be hit.
Side Plate Coverage Area
*Please note, individual physiology differs from person to person, this picture is meant to serve as a general reference. For most individuals side plates will not cover the lower abdomen. Please see the picture down below for a more accurate representation of side plate coverage (for the average male).
Threats will not always be facing your front. This is an obvious one, as much as you can try to position yourself towards a threat, there is always the chance of threats to your left or right that you do not see, or you cannot deal with at the moment. Front and rear torso plates will not protect your vital organs from the side.
So if you are anticipating being shot at, I recommend considering rifle threat side plates, but as a compromise, Level IIIA (Handgun) rated side plates/ cummerbund armor is also available as an option.
Side plates are of course not without their inherent downsides. Side plates will be added weight and added bulk to your setup. This may limit mobility or agility, however this will depend on the individual person, their plate carrier setup and most importantly the side plates you choose. Whether or not this tradeoff is worth it, will be up to the individual to decide based on their own situation.
Typically for CQB (Especially SWAT or first responder officers like with the recent Nashville shooting) I will always recommend side plates. You want that added protection when entering rooms and fatigue is less of a factor due to extended physical exertion typically not being a factor.
For the civilian context, this could be for preppers planning on staying home during an emergency event. In these cases I recommend maximizing protection by going with a side plate that provides full coverage (like a 6x8), as well as going with the same level of protection on your sides as your front and rear plates. Typically in this situation I recommend a Level 4 side plate like the 2.4lb, 0.7" Thick Highcom 4SAS7s (HERE) or 2.1lb, 0.7" Thick, Highcom 4S16s (HERE).
Now its when you are looking to stay agile/ mobile that the necessity of side plates becomes more of a matter of personal choice. If you can, I recommend wearing *something*, unless you believe it will slow you down or hinder you way too much. Just understand the risk with not wearing side plates, is you expose yourself to lethal shots from the side, while wearing side plates may mean extra bulk that slows you down.
Typically in a case where maintaining mobility is a factor I recommend a middle of the road compromise. Which means wearing something like the Highcom RSTP Level 3+ ICW Side Plates (HERE), those are 1.0lbs and 0.55" Thick. Stops M193, M855 and 7.62x39 MSC standalone and .308 M80 ball with a backer. Or going with something like the Highcom 3S11 Level 3 Standalone Side Plates (HERE), these are thicker a 1.1", but maintain a weigh of 1.0lbs being standalone against M193, 7.62x39 MSC and, .308 M80 ball.
These allow you to have side protection without dealing with too much weight, or too much bulk. You of course could also go with side soft armor inserts, but keep in mind those only stop handgun rounds.
If I want side plates, how do I size myself for them? Side plates typically come in two sizes, the most common sizes are 6x6" and 6x8". For cummerbund soft armor, typically we recommend a 6x9"or 5x9" insert.
For the best coverage, I will always recommend 6x8 side plates. This extra height over 6x6 side plates gives coverage to portions of your lungs and liver. 6x8 side plates will always provide the best and the closest correct anatomical coverage of your vitals.
6x6 plates are a tradeoff. They are lighter and come with less bulk which means a less cumbersome setup. However 6x6 side plates only provide limited coverage of your vitals. As with all armor, it simply comes down to pros and cons, and weighing them against your mission. If 6x8 side plates will slow you down too much, its fine to compromise with 6x6 side plates.
For taller individuals, you should always be choosing 6x8 for the best coverage. For plate placement, I typically recommend centering the plates on the side of your body, but for some individuals, you may opt to have a forward bias (mounting them towards the front). This is generally something that some overweight people may opt to do.
So at the end of the day, if you anticipate being shot at, I recommend side plates. It may save your life and it will increase survivability. Just understand the tradeoffs and factor that into your individual situation when making a choice. There are many side plate options, and its fine to mix protection levels and wear Level 4 front and back plates with special threat or level 3+ side plates, or even just going with Level IIIA soft armor sides. Reduced protection on the sides is better than no protection at all.