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Apex Armor Solutions Body Armor Buyers Guide

Updated: Mar 21

*Note* Feel free to skip to the bottom for the list of recommendations This is a general guide meant to help you make an informed decision when purchasing body armor or plate carriers based on your individual needs, budget and threat profile. This article will cover the properties of different armor plates based on their material types and NIJ rating as well as offer guidance on what situations or use cases they are best suited for.

Please note, the information in this buyers guide is only guaranteed to be accurate for quality Ceramic and or Polyethylene standalone armor plates that we sell on our website. While some information is universal, this guide does not cover steel plates (which we do not recommend under any circumstances). The information from this article can also apply to other quality and properly made armor plates, however some of this information may not apply to certain uncertified and imported Chinese plate models. Many Chinese plates lack industry standard design features and common industry quality control features, which can greatly affect performance.

All of our guides are free and we spend a considerable amount of time providing this information and ensuring it is accurate. If you find the information in our guides useful, we humbly ask that you consider us when you are looking to purchase body armor or plate carriers.

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What goes into body armor selection? What are some things to consider?

Body Armor is a personal subject, there is no one "best" plate for everyone, the best plate for you may differ from someone else. Its important to look at your individual use case, budget, threat profile and priorities. There are a plethora of different armor options, each with their own unique properties which make them better suited for different roles. Your needs (and budget) will determine what level plate will best suit you, as well as the best material type (or combination) to go with.

What are the different NIJ ratings and what are their properties?

The NIJ rating of an armor plate is incredibly important, not only in determining what threats it will stop, but it will also have a heavy influence on the weight of the product.

NIJ Level 4 Properties

Level 4 plates allow you to maximize protection and offers the most comprehensive protection against the widest range of threats. However, the general tradeoff is Level 4 plates will weigh more due to the extra material needed to stop larger caliber threats and AP projectiles. Level 4 plates will always be a Ceramic composite as steel level 4s would weigh 15-20lbs per plate and Polyethylene level 4s would be 4 inches or more thick. The official test round for Level 4 is one shot of .30-06 162gr M2 AP traveling at 2,880 feet per second.

A common misconception with our Level 4 plates is that they are not multi hit. This is far from the truth, all of our ceramic plates utilize adhesive bonded pressed polyethylene or aramid backers. This means the ceramic core is bonded to the ballistic backer with a strong heat and moisture resistant epoxy like adhesive. This keeps the ceramic core together after repeated strikes and localizes damage to the plate.

Our level 4 plates provide comprehensive multi hit protection against the .30-06 M2 AP test round as well as some larger (non AP) magnum rifle rounds such as 7mm Remington Magnum, 8mm Mauser and .300 Winchester Magnum. Our Level 4 plates also provide multi hit protection against 7.62x51mm M61 AP, 7.62x54R B-32 API (Armor Piercing Incendiary), 5.56x45mm M855A1, M855, M193, 7.62x39mm M43 Steel Core, BZ-API (Armor Piercing Incendiary), as well as 5.56x45mm M995 Tungsten Core AP and 7.62x51mm M993 Tungsten Core AP (out of 16" barrels). The way I like to put it is with level 4 plates, you will have protection against most calibers short of a .338 Lapua Magnum. Some of our plates can stop .338 Lapua Magnum, however the blunt force trauma will likely be too much to survive.

To stop such a comprehensive range of threats a thicker ceramic core is required to weaken and properly break up the projectile before the blunted and fragmented projectile is caught by the ballistic backer. This attributes to the higher weight in most Budget to mid end level 4s. For level 4 plates under around $700 per set, you will see average weights of 7-8lbs for a Size 10x12 or Medium. At this price point, your weight savings are limited due to price, higher end lighter materials are more expensive, which contributes to a higher overall price. We have one option that is between Mid/ High end, which is our Highcom 4S16s, which are 6.2lbs for a 10x12 shooters cut for $779 per set. For our higher end Level 4s however ($1,300+ per set) this opens the door to Boron Carbide/ Silicon Carbide ceramic, which is a lighter and harder ceramic material than the Aluminum Oxide Ceramic used in our Budget and Mid range plates. This allows you to maximize protection AND have a lower weight. Our Boron Carbide Level 4s are about 5.5lbs for a 10x12 or Medium plate.

Our Ceramic Composite Level 4 plate options include the following: Highcom: 4S17M, 4S17, 4SAS7, 4S16 Hoplite: 26300, 26605, 26148, 26135, 28590 RMA: 1155 & 1192

NIJ Level 3/ 3+ Properties

This will be split into two sections, one on Polyethylene Level 3/ 3+ plates and Polyethylene/ Ceramic composite Level 3+ plates. This is a trickier one to discuss, as the addition of the"+" label is unofficial and a common label used in the industry to describe a plate that has been tested for additional threats outside of the NIJ's default testing rounds (usually a "greater" threat). This is why it is important to look at individual product descriptions and see what the manufacturer states the plate is capable of stopping. All level 3 plates will stop at a minimum, the official NIJ test round for Level 3 is 6 shots of 7.62x51mm 147gr M80 ball at 2780 feet per second. Sometimes whether a Polyethylene or Ceramic plate is labeled Level 3 or 3+ can often depend on the manufacturer. Generally speaking, all level 3 ceramic composite plates will be labeled Level 3+. However, two Pure polyethylene plates with the same material composition and technical threat stopping capabilities can be labeled differently due to the manufacturers choice. For example, our RMA 1061-1064 series Polyethylene Level 3 plates have been special threat tested to the same calibers/ round types as our Hoplite 23526 or Highcom 3i10M Level 3+ plates and have the same physical ballistic capabilities (The difference really is simply weight) but the RMA's are labeled as Level 3, while the Hoplites as 3+. (Confusing, I know). As a general rule of thumb, our Pure Polyethylene level 3/3+ plates can stop at a minimum 6 shots of .308 M80 ball and 5.56 M193, while our Ceramic and Polyethylene Composite Level 3/3+ plates can stop at a minimum or 6 shots of .308 M80 ball, 5.56 M193 and M855.

Polyethylene Level 3/ 3+ Plate Properties

These plates are generally among the lightest plates available on the market due to the pure Polyethylene construction. Pure polyethylene plates allow you to maximize weight savings while allowing for excellent multi hit protection against FMJ/ lead core projectiles and soft point or hollow point projectiles. The tradeoff of pure Polyethylene plates is they will never provide hardened steel core or AP protection. Pure polyethylene plates are not capable of stopping M855 at muzzle velocity out of longer rifle length barrels without a ceramic component present. Level 3/ 3+ pure polyethylene plates can sometimes stop M855 out of shorter barrels at close distances, or M855 out of longer barrels at longer distances, however this is not something that I would count on. All of our Polyethylene 3+ plates give comprehensive multi hit protection against rounds such as .30-06 FMJ and JSP (soft point), 7.62x51mm (.308) M80 ball FMJ, 7.62x39mm M67 FMJ, 5.56x45mm FMJ, 5.45x39mm FMJ. Our Polyethylene Level 3/ 3+ plates are around 1.7-3lbs per 10x12 or Medium plate. These types of plates are excellent if weight savings are of the utmost importance and protection against steel core projectiles is not important. These plates are also always neutrally buoyant, which can make them a good option for Maritime operations. (Note neutrally buoyant plates are not positively buoyant floatation devices like life jackets). If you are not sure whether or not a plate is a pure Polyethylene plate the following is a good rule of thumb to use. If it is a Level 3/ 3+ plate, is under 3.5lbs for a 10x12 or Medium and M855 is not listed as a round it is capable of stopping, it is more than likely a pure polyethylene plate. Our pure Polyethylene Level 3/3+ plate options include the following: Hoplite: 23526, 23620, 3+ HASP shoulder plates RMA: 1061-1064 Highcom: 3i10M, 3S15M

Ceramic and Polyethylene Composite Level 3+ Plate Properties

These plates are generally an excellent balance between weight savings and protection. Ceramic and Polyethylene Composite Level 3+ plates generally will provide protection from steel core projectiles on top of what pure Polyethylene Level 3/ 3+ plates can already stop. So if you like the lightweight characteristics of pure polyethylene plates, but would like added steel core protection, a ceramic/ polyethylene composite is the way to go. The construction of these plates are often still primarily polyethylene, however the addition of the thin ceramic strike face is what gives these plates the ability to stop mild steel core projectiles such as M855. These plates are excellent if you are looking for a lightweight general purpose plate, but do not require protection from AP rounds such as .30-06 M2 AP, 7.62x54R B32 API or 7.62x51mm M61 AP. Nor from large caliber magnum cartridges such as 7mm Remington Magnum or 8mm Mauser. (The exception being the 3S9M which is rated for 7.62x54R B32 API and M61 AP, its technically a 3+ plate, but basically has a Level 4 rating).

Plates such as these provide the best balance between protection and weight savings, making them an excellent overall option for most people. Ceramic and Polyethylene Composite Level 3+ plates (such as the Highcom 3S14M and Hoplite 19513) weigh 3.6-5.2lbs per Medium/ 10x12 plate. Our Ceramic and Polyethylene Composite Level 3+ plate options include the following: Highcom: 3S9M, 3S9, RSTP, 3S14M Hoplite: 19513 & 3++ Shoulder Plates

Special Threat Plate Properties

"Special threat" is a non standardized rating which simply means a plate that falls outside of the NIJ testing parameters. Generally speaking these plates are plates that cannot stop the Level 3 7.62x51mm M80 ball test round, or cannot stop the 6 rounds required to pass level 3 testing. There two types of special threat plates, one being pure Polyethylene and one being Polyethylene and Ceramic Composite plates.

Polyethylene Special Threat Plate Properties: These plates have the same properties as Polyethylene Level 3/ 3+ plates but are generally made of less of the same material. This results in a plate that is lighter and thinner, however you do sacrifice protection against larger caliber rounds such as .308. These plates are generally limited to 5.56x45mm M193, 7.62x39mm FMJ and 5.45x39mm FMJ (and all lesser threats/ similar round types). These plates are great if weight savings is your utmost priority. These plates also often function well as backpack plates. Our Polyethylene Special Threat plates options include the RMA 1003 SRT.

Ceramic and Polyethylene Composite Special Threat Plate Properties: Ceramic composite special threat plates are traditionally meant for concealment or low visibility operations. They often utilize ceramic cores that are thicker than most Ceramic composite 3+ plates combined with a thinner backer. This creates a plate that often does not stop .308 due to the thinner backer and is heavier than many ceramic composite 3+ plates due to the increased thickness of the ceramic core. This sacrifices (some ballistic protection and (sometimes) weight savings) in order to create a thinner profile. These types of plates are best when they are 0.5-0.6" thick and are multi curve which makes them ideal for concealment and low visibility use. I do not recommend using plates like these as overt general purpose plates. Ceramic composite 3+ plates such as our Highcom 3S9Ms are more suited for overt general purpose use as they are both lighter and provide a higher level of ballistic protection. They are thicker, however if you are not using them for concealment, the increased thickness is inconsequential. Plates such as these in the budget to mid end range generally weigh 6lbs for a Medium or 10x12 SAPI. We do not have any ceramic special threat plates, apart from the Highcom RSTP 3+ ICW (2.9lbs, 0.55" thick). These have a special threat rating when used standalone.

What Are The Different Plate Cuts?

There are two primary common rifle armor plate cuts and that is the SAPI/ ESAPI cut and Swimmers/ "Swimmers Style" cuts.

SAPI/ ESAPI cut plates are your standard plate shape, military issued SAPI/ ESAPI plates come in this cut. The military standardized SAPI/ ESAPI sizing is 7.25x11.5 (XS), 8.75x11.75 (S), 9.5x12.5 (M), 10.25x13.25 (L) and 11x14 (XL). There are also civilian sized plates that utilize the same style profile/ cut in 8x10 and 10x12.

Swimmers cut plates are traditionally based off of the military Socom SPEAR swimmers cut plates which were literally meant for swimming in. They feature a more generous shoulder cutout for increased range of motion and mobility, which also makes shouldering rifles easier. This more generous cutout also means marginally less material coverage around the shoulders, which can decrease weight by a slight margin.

Then, there is a third type of cut, the "Shooters cut". This is a term that is used without consistency within the armor industry. Depending on which manufacturer you ask, "Shooters Cut" could mean 10 different things, ranging from 10x12 SAPIs, Swimmers cuts, proprietary cuts and more. However, the original shooters cut (before it was adopted inconsistently as a term) is shown below (in the middle). Generally these come in 10x12 and feature the same top profile as SAPI cut plates, but with additional smaller angled cutouts at the bottom. All of our shooters cut plates are in this shape. We generally categorize our Shooters cut plates with our SAPI plates as the profile is the same, this is to avoid confusion and fitment issues.