This is one of the most common questions we are asked “Why don’t you carry Hesco plates?”. We chose not to carry Hesco for a reason and we did not come to this decision lightly. Its an incredibly popular brand that frankly requires no marketing, however they have the most NIJ safety audit failures and recalls of any hard armor manufacturer. This is a difficult topic for me to speak on, as many people think I am slandering a competitor when in reality, we don't make armor and can choose to sell any company/ brand we choose. Trust me when I say this, it is a lot easier to make money selling whatever popular brands youtubers are promoting, rebranded Chinese armor or steel plates. I choose not to, because I am sick and tired of the deception and carelessness in this industry. I think its the responsibility of anyone who knows better to warn people about potentially poor choices or problems within the industry. Honestly... if people even knew HALF of what was going on within the industry behind closed doors, you would be shocked.
We were initially interested in becoming a Hesco dealer in late 2019 to mid 2020 and this is when I really started researching into this topic, reaching out to other members of the industry and piecing together bits and pieces of information myself. Hesco has failed 4 NIJ FIT safety audit tests (on the 3610, 3400, 4600 and 4400), subsequent re-tests resulted in the 3610 and 4600 being recalled. I don't think most people are aware of how serious this is.
Hesco is an ISO 9001:2015 certified company which means for NIJ FITs they are only subjected to One Test Per Plate Model every Two Years. In essence, the NIJ sends a third party to the Hesco facility and selects 4 plates for level 4 and 2 plates for level 3 to be sent off to a NIJ accredited laboratory for shoot testing. Plates must be made within 48 hours. The only way to fail the shoot test is for a test round to completely penetrate the armor panel. Even if your backface deformation goes above the NIJ accepted maximum of 44mm, it still is not a failure unless you suffer a penetration. Hesco failed this 4 separate times on the 4400, 3400, 4600 and 3610. After a FIT failure occurs, the NIJ issues an advisory publicly on its website (which is accessible by anyone) advising people that said plate model has failed routine testing and that the issue is being investigated. The NIJ temporarily suspends the product from the NIJ certified products list, and a root cause analysis is performed with Hesco to determine the reason for the failure. If they believe that the issue is one off and fixable, they submit for Re-FIT and test again. If it passes the Re-FIT, the product is reinstated.
From speaking to the President of Hesco, Jeremy Gray via email, the 4400 failure was due to an improper heat treat on the armor plate. Basically the 4400 is a monolithic piece of Alumina Ceramic with a fiberglass backer. They place the backer and the ceramic core in an oven with a sheet of adhesive between the two parts. This bonds the backer to the ceramic core and finishes curing/ hardening the Ceramic. An improper heat treat can leave inconsistent hardness within the armor plate and cause the backing material to not bond properly to the ceramic. This can create air pockets and weaknesses in specific parts of the plate. It was deemed that the 4400 was a one off failure. However, I have visited other armor manufacturers, and one thing I noticed was they had pallets full of discarded plates. When I asked them what those were from, they told me the majority of them were from improper heat treatments. This means this is the most common problem a ceramic plate can face during manufacturing, and proper quality control should catch these issues. The 3400 I do not know the circumstances on this failure. The model was reinstated, however Hesco replaced it with the 3401 and then the 3402. They claim they upgraded the material, but I'm not sure what really happened there.
The 3610 and 4600 failures/ recalls however are the more serious ones (in my opinion) and these show potentially more serious issues.
I also know the details of the 3610 failure from speaking with Hesco. For the first FIT, the plate failed on Shot #5 out of 6. A 7.62x51mm M80 ball round was poking through the rear of the backer which constitutes a complete penetration. While the round did not completely exit the plate, it still did penetrate the rear of the plate. They did a root cause analysis, shot 50 plates, found 0 penetrations and submitted the 3610 for Re-FIT along with that years batch of FIT tests. The 3610 failed a second round of FIT tests, this time Shot #2 out of 6 penetrated. Again, in the same manner, the M80 ball round poking through the rear of the plate. Again, constituting a complete penetration, however the entire round did not exit the plate. After this, the NIJ issued another advisory, telling people that the 3610 has been permanently suspended from the NIJ Certified Products List and that all users should discontinue use of the 3610 immediately.
As mentioned before, the 3610 Re-FIT was submitted along with other plates due for FIT that year. That was the same time when the 4600 failed its first FIT. I don't know the circumstances of the 4600 FIT failure (its honestly incredibly difficult to find the circumstances for FIT fails most of the time). However the 4600 later on failed RE-FIT as well, which lead to the same fate as the 3610. NIJ issued an advisory, warning people to discontinue use of the 4600 as there were ongoing and serious safety issues that could not be resolved.
Permanent suspensions from the NIJ CPL are an incredibly serious event. Permanent suspensions are only reserved for the most serious of issues, it means your plates have to fail testing at least twice. This is always due to a serious issue affecting safety that could not be resolved or requires a re-design of the plate. Redesigning a plate or changing the materials used requires recertification and a different model number. This actually does not happen very often for NIJ certified plates.
Now one thing that I was incredibly interested in was why there were those issues with the 3610 and 4600. With the 3610 as I mentioned before, it failed 1 initial FIT, then they tested another 50 plates with no issue, then it failed again. I can only imagine with the 4600 they did the same process and had the same results.
Speaking with a former Hesco dealer (who shall not be named) as well as doing some investigation on my own, myself and a few others came up with a hypothesis that Hesco has not been properly building in safety margins in their plates. In plate manufacturing there is always a variation in the ceramic core. It can sometimes come out a little thinner or a little thicker. This is why you need to overbuild your plates at least a little bit to account for this variation. If you do not build in this safety margin, but instead have a plate that is just on the brink of reliability, manufacturing variation could cause your plates to fail. If it comes out a little thicker, that's fine, but if it comes out thinner... it will fail. One thing we noticed was Hescos plates are often lighter or thinner (by a statistically significant margin), however there are only so many ways to make plates with the same materials. We noticed that the new 4601 to replace the 4600 was 0.2" thicker and 0.4lbs heavier. For a level 4 plate, 0.4lbs is not a small margin. This leads us to believe they built in the safety margin that was not present before. Additionally, I compared weights between their 4800 and the Hoplite/ LTC 26300 and RMA 1192. (All sizes in Medium) the Hesco 4800 was only 5.1lbs while the LTC 26300 was 5.5lbs and the RMA 1192 was 5.9lbs. A 0.4lb difference between it and the 26300 is not insignificant. We know that the LTC 26300 is using a heat pressed boron carbide ceramic core with a top of the line HB212 backer. If the Hesco is using a slightly lower end backer, we should see an increase in weight. Higher end backers generally are a little lighter, but there is no better (that I know of) than Dyneema's HB212.
Therefore the logical conclusion for me, is they are using less material, or less ceramic and more backer. This is consistent with their 4800LV plate, which does not have padding on the front or rear of the plate. This makes a thinner and lighter plate, however it does not pass NIJ backface deformation standards or the NIJ drop test (according to a Hesco dealer). In my opinion, this plate should be sold/ marketed as a Level 4 ICW (non-standalone) or a Level 3++ standalone plate instead of as a "Special Threat" plate with the same model number prefix as their heavier standalone variant. Many Hesco dealers however will label the 4800LV as a level 4 plate. In my opinion, if a plate does not pass all aspects of the respective NIJ level, it should not be labeled as such. The Highcom 3S9M for example is a Level 3++ plate that is rated for 7.62x54R B32 API and 7.62x51mm M61 AP. While it is capable of stopping the Level 4 M2 AP test round, the backface deformation is a little higher than the NIJ standard. Therefore it is labeled as a Level 3++ plate and M2 AP is not listed as a threat it is rated for.
Not having a proper safety margin built in would also explain the inconsistent performance we saw with the 3610 during testing. The initial FIT was likely done with one batch, their 50 plate evaluation with another batch(es) and their Re-FIT with another. Manufacturing variation would explain the small variation in performance between batches, which generally is not a problem if proper safety margins are built in.
There are only a select number of ballistic material manufacturers in the US and Europe that are capable of making quality ballistic materials for body armor. The materials used in the armor we sell is all name brand material from the best raw material suppliers, no cutting corners by importing from China. This means that all the major US armor manufacturers are all actually using many of the same raw material suppliers, Hesco included. Hesco is currently the only major hard armor manufacturer with so many FIT failures, in fact none of the other major companies (apart from Ceradyne with their Socom plates) have had any recalls. This leads us to believe that the faults are with design or quality control at the end of the production line, rather than issues with raw materials. If the problem were with raw material quality control, we would have seen the same problem with all the other major brands who use the same material suppliers.
Of course, this is my opinion, and my opinions on why the 3610 and 4600s have been recalled are simply my hypothesis or educated guess based on my knowledge of the industry and with the evidence I have to work with. I am not here to make any accusations, I am simply here to state the facts, and my hypothesis on why these issues are occurring.
One of the reasons we carry Highcom Armor and work so closely with them is their dedication and commitment to putting reliability first. They have been manufacturing armor in the US since 1997 (25 years as of when this was written) and have 17 NIJ certified models. In those 25 years, they have not had any NIJ FIT failures or recalls on any of their hard ceramic or polyethylene rifle plates.
Highcom is one of the only companies in the US with a recreation of a full NIJ Ballistics testing lab in their manufacturing facility, they are not cheap to build and only makes sense if a company is testing plates regularly. (Link to read more on their lab HERE).
What this allows them to do is to do quality control batch testing on all incoming ballistic material, all batches of armor before being shipped and more comprehensive R&D.
The NIJ unfortunately does not require any type of batch testing for manufacturers, you can make and ship off your plates without confirming their reliability first.
Many companies will do minimal testing due to cost saving, such as only shooting a small handful of plates during the R&D stage, only testing one plate every material batch or doing batch testing in an on site range with a penetration/ no penetration basis only. This often does not paint a full picture due to the small sample size and lack of comprehensive data (velocity, backface deformation, etc). Highcom does comprehensive R&D and batch testing in house, then sends samples off to third party NIJ accredited labs for confirmation of their data.
One thing I learned about them is they overbuild many of their plates on purpose. This is why sometimes some models are a little heavier than competitors. This isn't because they don't know how to make a thinner or lighter plate, this is because they wanted to avoid underperforming due to manufacturing variation, then some more. With many in the industry, its a constant battle to have an edge over competitors in terms of specs and prices. However with our current technology, there is only so many ways you can do the same thing. If a plate is significantly lighter or thinner, there is a chance they are not using full ceramic coverage, or they are shaving off material (reducing reliability) to make their specs seem better and more enticing. Highcom doesn't do this and its shown in their NIJ audit history.
Hopefully this offers some insight for people who have been wondering. We really prioritize reliability and protection over all else. Its in my honest professional opinion that having a lighter or thinner plate does not matter at all if your plates cannot perform consistently or stop threats every single time. Many manufacturers sacrifice protection and reliability in order to have a thinner or lighter plate and gain an edge over competitors. Some companies market Special Threat Plates meant for concealment (that sacrifice a significant amount of protection and weight savings for a thickness reduction) as general use plates. I feel this is doing a great disservice to the customer/ end user and I refuse to participate in it. Reliability is and should be the number one goal, it doesn't matter how much thinner or lighter a plate is if it doesn't stop threats every single time.
I'll never sell a plate I wouldn't personally wear, and I'll never sell faulty lifesaving products that cut corners. There is just simply too much of that going on as is, and I do not want to add to it.