Apex Armor Solutions Body Armor Buyers Guide

Updated: Nov 16

*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 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 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. 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. These sacrifices (weight savings and ballistic protection) are made 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 RMA 1092s 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 currently do not have a Ceramic composite special threat plate.

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.

Proper Sizing And Fitment of Armor Plates (Remember, you buy a vest to fit your plates, not the other way around) General rule of thumb is the edges should line up with your nipples or cover them slightly. Wear your front plate so the top of the plate is two finger widths below where your sternum ends. Then the bottom of the plate should end about 1-3 inches above your belly button WHEN YOU ARE SITTING DOWN.

What I have generally seen is your plate size is 1 size below your shirt size (for men). Remember, the armor plate is meant to cover your vitals, not your entire torso.

For 85% of individuals a 10x12 or Medium SAPI (9.5x12.5) will work to cover their vitals. Even for overweight individuals its important to remember that your internal organs and ribcage do not expand as you put on weight. So while you may want a larger plate such as a Large or an XL, often times a 10x12 will provide you with sufficient protection for your vitals. Although for larger individuals I do generally recommend a large, as that provides more coverage, but does not come with as much of a weight or mobility penalty as XL plates bring.

Body Armor Plate Recommendations:

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.

This section covers individual examples and recommendations for plates that are sold on our website. This section will cover different types of plates from different budget ranges and different protection levels, outlining the situations they are best suited for.

1. Best Level 4 Plates Under $500 (Best Balance Between Weight/ Protection)

These are the most balanced level 4 options and offers the best value for most people.

We recommend the Highcom 4S17M 10x12 Multi Curve Shooters Cut Plates or 4SAS7 10x12 (or 8x10) Single Curve Level 4 plates if you are looking for a great balance between price, protection and weight. The 4S17M/ 4SAS7 10x12 Level 4 shooters cut plates are 7.2lbs per plate, while the 4SAS7 8x10 Level 4 shooters cut plates are 5.5lbs per plate.

The 4S17Ms are 0.9" Thick while the 4SAS7s are only 0.7" thick.

This makes these a fantastic option if you are looking for a big weight and thickness reduction compared to our RMA 1155s without a big jump in price. These Highcom plates are still of course NIJ Certified and US made. These are also Multi Hit Capable as well with the ability to also stop 3 shots of .30-06 M2 AP and 10+ hits of M855A1.

4S17Ms and 4SAS7's 10x12 Shooters are the best and lightest level 4 option under $500. These also conveniently come in SAPI cut if you need specific smaller or larger sizes. For most people, these are what we recommend. 4S17M and 4SAS7's provide the same ballistic protection, the 4SAS7's just have a marginal advantage in thickness reduction. Highcom is one of 6 major US manufacturers that makes everything in house and presses their own backers. They have been making armor since 1997 and have 17 certified models on the NIJ Certified Products List. Many years ago Highcom was one of the first US armor manufacturers to be willing to sell their armor to civilians, 5-8 years ago most companies would not sell to civilians. They are however a lesser known brand due to the fact that they primarily OEM and complete major contracts for the military/ government.

2. Mid Price Level 4 Plates: (Maximize Protection) This is the next step up in price from the lower cost budget Level 4s.

We recommend our Hoplite 26605 Multi Curve Level 4 series plates if you have a middle of the road budget and would like something lighter than budget Level 4s. These offer reliable multi hit protection at a slightly lower weight due to a different lighter backer. I recommend these plates for people who require magnum caliber rifle protection and or AP protection and would like to maximize protection. Additionally, the Hoplite 26605 series Level 4 plates come in the full range of Small through XL SAPI sizes, which allows you to more finer tune your sizing. While 10x12s cover the vitals of most individuals, some people may want to size down for greater mobility, or size up for greater protection. 26605 SAPIs are 7.5lbs for a Medium plate. The Swimmers cut 26605 is also a great middle of the ground option for slimmer/ fit individuals. These plates allow you to save a little weight due to the more generous shoulder cutouts and they give increased range of motion. 26605 Swimmers are 6.5lbs for a 10x12 plate.

We recommend the Highcom 4S17M or 4SAS7 Multi Curve Level 4 SAPI Cut Plates if you are looking for a full range of SAPI Cut Sizes (XS-XL), but at a lower price. The Medium 4S17M Multi Curve SAPI is just $498.99 per set, which is $176 less per set than the Hoplite 26605s. They are just a little bit heavier, but boast the same level of protection and are also NIJ .06 Certified. Incredibly popular option and a great plate for most people, especially those looking for a Small, Large or XL plate.

Highcom 4SAS7's are a slightly lighter and thinner (0.7" thick) version of the 4S17Ms. Excellent option for those who care about the thickness of their plates. Very slight price increase over 4S17Ms.

3. Higher End Mid-Weight Level 4 Plates: (Maximizing Protection at a balanced weight)

These plates offer the maximum amount of protection (Level 4) at a balanced weight and price point. These are the lightest and thinnest level 4's under $1000.

I recommend the Highcom 4S16 Mid Weight Level 4s for those who are looking for a middle of the road Level 4 option that offers a balanced weight and price point.

Priced a bit higher than Hoplite 26605s, the Highcom 4S16s are also lighter and thinner than our 26605s.

These are an excellent option for someone wanting plates that are slightly lighter and thinner than most other options, but are not quite as expensive as our Lightweight level 4s. Highcom 4S16s offer incredibly balanced specifications, the 10x12 Shooters Cut is just 6.2lbs per plate. The Highcom 4S16s in 10x12 Shooters Cut are the lightest level 4s you can get under $1,000. This offers the same amount of protection as our more expensive RMA 1192s at half the price ($779 per set) and only 0.5lbs more weight. This is an excellent option for anyone who cannot afford lightweight level 4s such as the RMA 1192s.

4. High End Lightweight Level 4 Plates: (Weight Savings & Maximum Protection)

These are generally the most expensive plates on the market due to the high end materials used. However the properties of these materials allows these plates to maximize protection while maintaining a lower weight. Our lightweight Level 4s are made of harder but lighter Boron Carbide ceramic. Boron Carbide is the 3rd hardest man made material, right behind cubic boron carbide and diamond. These are on average 2-3lbs lighter than lower cost aluminum oxide ceramic level 4s.

We recommend our Hoplite/ LTC 26300 Lightweight Level 4s if you want the absolute best performing plates on the market available to civilians. These are made with a hot pressed boron carbide ceramic core and an HB212 polyethylene backer. The 26300s have an increased price as compared to the 1192s due to its proprietary manufacturing techniques and higher end materials used.

There are typically 3 primary manufacturing processes for boron carbide, reaction bonded, sintered and hot pressed. Hot pressed boron carbide is regarded as the strongest and best material type for ballistic plates. HB212 is the strongest type of polyethylene with the highest tensile strength. HB212 is finer and has a higher ply count compared to other polyethylene types, which means the 26300s have a backer with more layers of polyethylene pressed together. This combined with an autoclave bonding process results in one of the strongest plates on the market.

The 26300s are 5.5lbs for a SAPI Medium and come in the full Small-XL SAPI size range, as well as 8x10 and 10x12 Swimmers cut. The 26300s have significantly increased multi-hit performance and significantly lower backface deformation as compared to the RMA 1192s. These plates are the closest civilian option to current Socom issued military plates.

5. Mid Price Level 3+ Ceramic and Polyethylene Composite Plates: (Prioritize Weight Savings) This is generally the price range where quality Ceramic composite 3+ plates start to appear. These plates are an excellent middle ground in terms of weight and protection and are an excellent option for individuals who do not require magnum caliber rifle protection or AP protection.

We recommend the Hoplite 19513s for a lightweight Level 3++ option that saves weight without sacrificing major protection from common rounds. These plates do not provide protection against AP rounds such as .30-06 M2 AP or Magnum hunting rifle rounds like 7mm Remington Magnum or 8mm Mauser like our Level 4 plates do. However they still do provide protection from common rounds such as 7.62x54R LPS, .30-06 FMJ, 7.62x51mm M80 Ball, 7.62x39 MSC/ API, 5.56 M193, M855 and M855A1 at full velocity. These are only 5.2lbs for a Medium so they are lightweight, while still providing great protection.