Over the past four years, police and fascist violence against demonstrators has escalated around the United States, with well over a dozen demonstrators murdered in 2020 alone. This is not the consequence of Trump’s presidency, but the result of intensifying social pressures that will not be relieved by another politician taking office. Unfortunately, ceding the streets to fascists and police will ultimately only increase the dangers to all of us. By taking the proper precautions, we can mitigate the risks while continuing to take action to build a better world. This guide reviews a wide range of protective gear, exploring the advantages and disadvantages of each so you can pick out what’s best for you. The life you save could be your own.
This is the third article in a series, following our guides to helmets and to gas masks and goggles. The contributors have spent countless hours gathering experience, data, and anecdotes and speaking to professionals in these fields. We will be updating this document on an ongoing basis as more information comes in. If you can offer suggestions or corrections, please contact us.
We’re going to focus on three styles of armor: sports armor, for mitigating impact weapons like bean bag rounds and batons; soft ballistic armor, or “bulletproof vests,” which defend against handguns; and plate carriers, which are designed to protect your vital organs from rifle fire.
Our threat models—the risks we are seeking to protect against—are changing constantly. A few years ago, protest armor was intended to protect against Nazis with knives and sticks. At the beginning of the George Floyd uprising in the US, the chief threat model involved police using various impact weapons. By the end of summer 2020, police were still shooting baton rounds and pepper-balls, but fascists shooting live ammunition had become a more pressing issue.
All armor involves pros and cons. Most armor reduces mobility, which is one of our primary advantages against police who are weighed down by both bureaucratic command structures and heavy gear. Most armor makes us stand out, rendering arrival and departure more difficult. Some armor incurs the risk of legal penalties. Being the only person wearing armor is often a bad idea unless it can be concealed. Still, normalizing wearing armor can make it easier for others to do so, and the more people do, the safer we all will be—both from direct attacks and from police efforts to target us for protecting our bodies.
Which kind of armor is appropriate will vary from one situation to the next. In many situations—for example, when speed or optics is paramount—it may still be best not to wear armor.
Armor can easily give the wearer a false sense of security. Shortly before we published this, there was yet another incident in which a fascist shot a counter-protester; the survivor was wearing body armor, but the bullet entered their body at a point that was unprotected. No one is invincible, no matter what they wear.
If you want to protect yourself primarily against batons and other police impact weapons, get a skateboard helmet, some hard-shelled knee pads, some children’s shin guards to wear on your forearms, and possibly motocross chest armor or a plastic fencing breastplate. If you want to add more protection, consider a shield, full leg armor, and a HEMA gorget—plastic or padded neck armor for people who fight with swords for sport. A guide to shields will appear later in this series.
If you want to wear something that protects you against handguns, get a wraparound IIIA vest, either from the leftist armorer Red Star Defense or from eBay. If you are buying from eBay, consider purchasing a surplus vest to save money. If you’re worried about knives, pay a bit more for a vest with stab resistance.
If you want to protect yourself from rifle rounds, get a plate carrier and a pair of III+ ceramic plates from Red Star Defense or elsewhere. This is heavy and harder to conceal.
The Old Days: The Tute Bianche and the Padded Bloc
Not all that long ago, the chief threat that many demonstrators faced in the United States and Europe was the blunt impact of police batons. In response, some demonstrators—notably the Tute Bianche in Italy—took to wearing helmets and padding and reinforcing massive inflatable inner tubes and other flotation devices to protect their bodies from the fists and clubs of the police. Some demonstrators in the United States embraced these tactics, which came to be known as “padded bloc.” A widely distributed zine, Bodyhammer, explored helmets, body armor, shields and shield walls, and an array of defensive tactics and formations in this vein.
Today’s demonstrators still stand to learn a lot from the tactics developed at that time, especially where they can be deployed in contexts where there is little threat of lethal violence or fascist attacks. Essentially, padded bloc tactics are most effective as a sort of militant civil disobedience aimed at slowing or inconveniencing an adversary who is not prepared to escalate to potentially lethal force. They are more useful for distracting and delaying than for winning offensive victories, but they can play a valuable part in a larger ecosystem of interlocking tactics and strategies.
In this guide, we will focus chiefly on forms of armor that can protect against knives and guns, in order to expand the range of options at the disposal of the modern protester.
We’re not lawyers. You should do your own research.
In the USA, it is federally prohibited for violent felons to own or wear armor designed to protect against bullets (referred to herein as “body armor”), except by special dispensation from an employer.
In addition to the federal law, each US state has its own laws regulating armor. In most states, it is illegal to wear body armor while committing a crime; being caught doing so could occasion additional charges. In Kansas, wearing body armor is prohibited at demonstrations, too. In Connecticut, you cannot have it shipped to your home. We have yet to obtain a solid answer regarding whether minors can own or wear body armor.
The legality of body armor varies widely from country to country. In some provinces in Canada and some territories in Australia, you need authorization or a license to wear it. The UK seems to have no laws restricting civilian use of body armor. The European Union bans body armor that is for “main military usage,” but this implies that certain forms of body armor are legal. It appears that body armor is legal in Japan and Hong Kong but prohibited in Argentina, Brazil, and Thailand. If you can share information about the laws in your country, please contact us.
Sourcing Body Armor
As of this writing, ballistic armor is hard to come by. The deepening political crisis has all sides scrambling to protect themselves; most retailers of both soft armor and hard armor are reporting delays on orders of at least two months. This makes it difficult to recommend specific products or retailers. We suggest learning about what you need and keeping an eye out for deals—or even just for notifications that a product is in stock.
At the same time, as the crisis appears to be deepening, it’s probably worth ordering now rather than waiting.
We know of one left-wing armorer, Red Star Defense. They manufacture their own ceramic III+ plates for a good price—currently $300 a pair—and retail IIIA soft vests for a very good price ($225), as well as selling plate carriers and tactical gloves cheaper than you can find elsewhere. They currently have a 4 to 8 week lag on armor orders. We recommend Red Star Defense because their goal is not profit but to protect the bodies of working-class revolutionaries.
Most body armor retailers aim at some combination of three markets: police and military personnel, right-wing paramilitaries, and private security (and, by extension, those involved in illegal capitalism). A few retailers also focus on protecting civilians and schoolchildren, promoting “bulletproof backpacks” and similar products that cash in on rampant gun violence in the United States.
The best market we’ve found so far for fast-turnaround body armor orders is eBay. New IIIA vests can be sourced from the UK and Canada ready to be shipped; surplus vests from the US should ship quickly as well, though the stock of those varies. Most surplus vests are surplus Kevlar inserts placed within new vests.
Opinions vary about surplus vests, but for the most part, they are considered acceptable. Because Kevlar degrades from UV exposure, it comes with an expiration date—usually five years from manufacture. Police departments replace their gear after five years. But the armor remains effective long after—in every test we’ve seen, expired Kevlar vests continue to defend against all the threats they were rated to protect against. It’s impossible to recommend using expired vests, because there’s no way to guarantee their safety—but used vests perform favorably and are substantially cheaper than new vests. In addition, ironically, retailers of police surplus vests tend to be the retailers who least aim their sales at right-wing and police markets.
You can purchase vests, especially surplus vests, in person at army surplus stores. We have heard from people who negotiated good deals for bulk vest orders by sending one person—whoever is likely to be most agreeable to the owners—into a store with cash in hand, ready to purchase.
There is also a market for body armor on Armslist, which is like Craigslist but for guns. It appears that some enterprising folks, anticipating the current crisis, have stockpiled a lot of gear and are selling it directly. There are reportedly a lot of scammers on the site; if you’re purchasing anything online, it’s best to pay with a service that offers buyer protection, like PayPal, rather than through Venmo, which does not. If the seller doesn’t want to pay for buyer protection, that itself is a red flag.
There are rumors that people using ArmsList have been set up for robberies. Consider meeting in a well-lit, public place during the day and bringing someone with you, especially someone who can legally conceal a firearm. You may wish to make sure that your clothing and vehicle do not give away your politics or other details about you. If you are purchasing with cash, pay only after you have obtained the item. When possible, buy from verified commercial sellers vetted by ArmsList.
Sports armor remains readily available. You can often acquire it secondhand for very cheap, although COVID-19 has made it more difficult to obtain it cheaply at yard sales and secondhand stores. You may be able to find quality knee and elbow pads at gun shows, as decommissioned military gear from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is flooding the market and driving down prices.
Sports armor offers a cheap and reasonably effective way to protect yourself from impact weapons, police batons, and, to some degree, knives. It offers no protection from gunfire. You can usually source it secondhand; much of it can be concealed under clothing. It will probably look better in court than ballistic armor. It’s legal for more people to wear it—it is less likely to occasion additional charges if you are arrested the way ballistic armor can. In the few instances we’re aware of in which people received “possession of criminal tools” charges for wearing padding, the charges were ultimately dropped.
The fundamental principle of sports armor is the “shell/soft” model of protection. A hard external shell (usually plastic) takes the impact of a weapon, preventing penetration and dispersing the force of that impact over a broad surface area. Beneath the shell, soft padding absorbs the impact. Effective armor requires both of these parts. Steel medieval armor, for example, relied on a thick layer of quilted cloth to reduce the impact of the blows. Some modern sports armor lacks a hard shell, including padded shirts and pants and boxing helmets; these are less appropriate for our purposes.
While ballistic armor is designed to protect your vital organs from gunfire, sports armor is designed to protect more of your body—for example, your shoulders, forearms, or joints, depending on the armor. Against police impact weapons, this can be crucial. Police are trained to aim most impact weapons at the navel or below; they often specifically target knees or limbs. Yet they also regularly shoot people directly in the chest, back, or head with impact weapons, and jab batons into the chest or abdomen or else swing at people’s backs or heads.
The top priority is to protect your head. After that, you can consider kneepads, as impacts to the knee are more disabling than strikes to much of the rest of your body. When impact munitions kill people, it is usually because they strike a person in the head or chest; chest injuries can break a rib, which can puncture a lung or heart. This is very rare, but protecting your chest isn’t a bad idea. Some people who anticipate close encounters with club-wielding attackers—such as far right demonstrators or police—also wear forearm guards, often repurposing youth shin guards. These can be used to block blows from a stick or a baton, although such guards hardly guarantee safety.
It is possible to make your own effective armor, although secondhand sports equipment is often available so cheaply as to render this unnecessary. When making do-it-yourself gear, make sure it follows the shell/soft model. For the shell, plastic is the lightest and generally best, but sheet metal can also work—as can rubber, wood, or even thick magazines. We know one protestor who wears forearm guards made out of old license plates. While not particularly rigid, orange road cone material is better than nothing and often readily available. You can repurpose the plastic of barrels or buckets in a number of ways. We’ve come across one particularly promising method of creating simple breastplates from 5-gallon buckets that we’re excited to try, though for our purposes it would require foam padding on the back.
For the “soft” in your shell/soft armor, closed-cell foam is usually the best thing. Yoga mat material is often cheap and effective. The blue foam from the $5 camping mats from WalMart is considered cheap and good by people who make their own sports gear. Even packing foam can work. Try attaching it with spray adhesive or, better, contact cement.
Some people have used the following method to make custom armor for free. Recover mattresses and 5-gallon buckets from the trash; cut the buckets into strips roughly matching the part of the body to be covered (thighs, shins, arms, and so on) and put the strips into an oven at low temperature. Don’t melt the plastic—just soften it a bit. Some people prefer to use scavenged ovens for this purpose rather than an oven they use to cook food. Meanwhile, rip foam out of the mattresses and tape that temporarily over the part of your body part to be covered. Take the plastic out of the oven and mold it over the foam; once it has cooled, use spray glue or contact cement to attach the foam to the inside of the plastic.
In our experiments with making DIY plastic knife-resistant armor, we discovered that any hard plastic plate will be substantially slash-resistant, but that armor requires fairly thick plastic to be stab-proof. One of our testers was not able to get a knife through most sheet plastic, but another tester was able to get a knife through almost every piece of plastic we put in front of them. Still, most stabs in a tumultuous brawl will not be full force and a hard plastic layer will provide substantial resistance even if it is not knife-proof. This degree of protection might still be the difference between a painful cut and a punctured organ. We have yet to test sports armor specifically against knives and impact weapons.
Medieval armor was generally designed according to the same principle as modern sports armor: a hard shell backed by padding. Those who wear medieval armor for sport today have done a lot of work updating medieval armor for modern purposes. Most of this can be adapted to protest use.
Steel armor tends to weigh more than plastic armor; its primary advantage over plastic armor is cut and slash resistance. This is less important to demonstrators who are looking to protect themselves from blunt impact.
Two modern groups that wear and understand medieval armor are the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) and those who study Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). Both tend to wear a combination of steel and plastic armor, but the SCA in particular has developed DIY plastic armor designed to protect all parts of the human body. Their designs are likely to be effective for demonstrators.
We cannot recommend steel for helmets, as the impact munitions police use deliver far more force than hand weapons do and deformation (denting) of steel helmets could endanger the wearer. We have researched this hypothesis, but have yet to test it.
Medieval armor makes for interesting optics. If you wear it overtly, it is bound to attract attention. Of course, both historically and in the modern era, armor has often been designed to look like clothing or be worn beneath it. The idea that people used to run around in shiny tin cans is largely ahistorical.
Medieval armor is not bulletproof—nor even particularly bullet resistant. To withstand bullets effectively, steel must be at least 1/4” thick and composed of an almost unworkably hard alloy.
Soft armor vests are lightweight, concealable, effective against handgun rounds, and variably effective against knives. Ideally, you want a vest rated IIIA, although level II vests are often more available in surplus and are better than nothing. Level II protects against the average 9mm round—the most common handgun round in the US—but not against the “self-defense” 9mm rounds that gun enthusiasts commonly use. Vests can easily be very expensive (some can be had new for $250 or so, but most are $400+). Used or surplus vests (which are still usually $200+) might offer less protection than new ones, although this is both debatable and difficult to test with any given vest. Soft armor probably offers the best balance of protection, weight, and concealability for most demonstrators who are concerned about handgun fire.
Soft armor employs many layers of strong plastic fabric. Each layer absorbs more and more of the ballistic energy of the bullet until eventually it becomes caught in the fabric itself.
Most soft vests use Kevlar (a brand name for aramid fibers, a type of plastic fiber), but Dyneema and Spectra (brand names for UHMWPE, another type of plastic fiber) are a newer and stronger material that is becoming more common in various types of armor.
This principle has been used in armor for millennia. The medieval gambeson was a quilted fabric made of many layers of linen; while those who could afford to do so wore it under other armor, some combatants—such as peasants in revolt—wore it alone. It was particularly effective against arrows, as layered fabric is specifically good at stopping penetration.
When you choose a soft vest, you must choose between a “wraparound” vest, which has large protective inserts that protect your sides as well as your front and back, and a vest that only protects you from the front or back—functioning almost identically to a plate carrier, except with soft fabric armor in place of the plates. Wraparound vests are preferable in almost every way except price—most of the cheapest IIIA armor only protects your front and back.
Like plate carriers, soft vests often come in both “covert” and “overt” styles [see below]. But since one of the primary advantages soft vests have over plate carriers is that they can be concealed, there seems to be little reason to consider an overt soft vest.
Soft vests come in two different types of plastic fibers: aramid and UHMWPE. You can’t go wrong with either one. Aramid fibers (like Kevlar) are a slightly older technology; they are heavier for the same level of protection. UHMWPE fibers (like Dyneema) are fancier, newer, lighter, more UV resistant, and less resistant to temperature changes—this means they are less capable of stopping a “contact” shot, when a gun is held directly against the vest, as the fibers can melt. There is some debate about whether this is a significant problem.
Aramid fibers are the most common type of plastic used in bulletproof vests. The most popular brand is Kevlar, made by Dupont. Aramid fibers were the first plastics strong enough to make into ballistic armor. One other brand of aramid fiber used in armor is Teijin Aramid (previously known as Twaron).
Aramid fibers break down from UV exposure. The outer shell of a bulletproof vest generally protects them from this.
Ultra-High-Molecular-Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE, sometimes simply called PE) is a plastic fiber that is increasingly common for armor of all types. Soft vests are made of layered fabric; hard plates are often backed with it or made entirely from it; modern military helmets are made from it instead of aramid fibers. It is stronger by weight than aramid fibers, so that armor can be made slightly thinner and lighter.
The two most common brand names of UHMWPE fiber used in armor are Dyneema (made by DSM) and Spectra (made by Honeywell).
While UHMWPE is not inherently UV resistant, it can be made so reasonably easily and Dyneema is considered substantially more UV stable than Kevlar. We have not been able to find comparable information about Spectra besides the fact that it is advertised as more UV resistant than many other fibers, presumably including aramid).
UHMWPE has a much lower melting point than aramid; some speculate that it degrades from heat as a result. We found footage of one manufacturer lighting their vests on fire for a full minute, then testing them and finding that they continued to stop bullets. The same manufacturer also tests contact shots against their vests, although we don’t know whether all UHMWPE vests would produce the same results.
In any case, it is generally unadvised to leave any soft vest containing UHMWPE in any environment that might exceed 180 degrees Fahrenheit, and they are still considered more vulnerable to contact shots than aramid fiber vests.
Plate carriers are practically the only game in town if you are looking to protect yourself from rifles. For a plate carrier, you need two things: the carrier—a fabric vest with sleeves to hold hard plates—and the plates. Generally, you want plates rated III+, ideally ceramic or a combination of ceramic and PE (polyethylene, usually the UHMWPE mentioned above). Side plates are likely overkill and needless weight and expense, as are level IV plates, the most protective armor. Hard plates are ostensibly more knife-proof than other forms of armor, but an overt plate carrier is so obvious that a determined attacker would simply aim where you aren’t protected.
Plate carriers are only designed to protect the most vital areas of your chest, an area sometimes referred to as the “kill box.” Most shooters are trained to aim for “center body mass” because it presents the largest target and offers the most vulnerabilities. With the exception of head wounds, wounds elsewhere on the body are less likely to kill you, so most armor systems do not prioritize preventing them.
Plate carriers come in “covert” and “overt” models just as soft vests do, with covert ones designed to be worn beneath clothing and overt ones designed to be worn over it.
It’s considered good form to pick your plates first and then match your carrier to them, though you can do it in the opposite order as well.
There are several things to consider regarding plates, including composition, size, cut, and curves.
Plates comprise a range of things that stop bullets. We’ll cover soft plates, steel plates, ceramic plates, and PE plates.
Soft plates are made of layers of the ballistic fabric discussed above in the section on bulletproof vests. If you’re looking for modularity, you could keep a pair of soft plates that you can insert into your plate carrier instead of hard plates when you want a lighter armor. Advantages: light, flexible. Disadvantages: poor protection.
Steel plates are the most common, but are going out of style. Steel plates are slabs of steel, about .25” thick. The most common alloy of steel is AR500, a particularly hard steel. It’s used primarily for armor, plow blades, construction and mining gear, and the like. Steel plates are easily 8 or 9 pounds apiece. (There is also an armor manufacturer called AR500; they make armor of all types, confusing matters.)
Steel plates are less popular now that ceramic plates are becoming more affordable. Steel plates are substantially heavier. When struck at an angle, they can cause bullets to ricochet, and they’re capable of causing “spalling,” in which tiny shreds of steel go flying. Vertical spalling is the chief concern, as that can go up toward your face.
The only steel plates worth considering come with a buildup of “spall coating,” which is usually the same stuff that truck bed liners are made of (such as the spray-on Rhino Liner), though we believe that some manufacturers use fiberglass sleeves instead. Many manufacturers come with options regarding how thick you want your spall coating to be. A thick (“build up”) coating is more important for the front plate than the back plate. Spall coatings will usually protect the wearer from two or three hits before there is more vertical spalling.
Now that ceramic plates are affordable, the main advantage of steel plates is that they are thinner than ceramic ones and more capable of handling more rounds at the same point of impact.
Ceramic plates are sometimes called composite plates because they are not usually made entirely of ceramic. They work by breaking down upon impact, absorbing most of the force of the bullet, which is then stopped by a second layer. Once, this second layer was usually composed of steel, but nowadays polyethylene is most common. Ceramic plates are generally between five and six pounds and .75” to 1” thick; the cheaper plates tend to be thicker and heavier.
In order of increasing cost and efficacy, the three most common types of ceramic are Alumina, Silicon Carbide, and Boron Carbide. Alumina has to be thicker and heavier to offer the same amount of protection as Boron Carbide, but is substantially cheaper. It might be better to buy multiple sets of Alumina plates to distribute to friends than a single fancy lightweight set of plates that only you can wear, although thinner plates are more concealable.
There are fears that ceramic plates might degrade from rough handling, but current opinion is that this concern is overblown.
One danger with ceramic plates is that to save cost and weight, most manufacturers use foam rather than ceramic along the edge of the plate. This is usually mentioned in the item description. One plate we handled had a full inch of foam around the edge—reducing an ostensibly 10x12” plate to dimensions of 8x10” in full effectiveness—although the PE runs edge to edge beneath the ceramic and it’s generally considered to be IIIA rated (enough to stop handgun rounds) on its own. Red Star Defense advertises “edge to edge” ballistic ceramic.
We recommend ceramic plates because they are substantially lighter and don’t have issues with spalling. However, they will not survive as many shots as steel armor, and because they are less rigid, they are more prone to backface deformation (denting), which transfers more of the force of impact to the wearer. You can mitigate this danger by using trauma pads, which are essentially just extra padding.
PE (polyethylene) plates are plates made entirely of UHMWPE. As with soft armor, it relies on multiple thin layers. Unlike soft armor, the layers are heat-laminated together. When a bullet strikes the plate, it breaks apart each layer one at a time, and this delamination absorbs force each time. Because this process can cause a fair amount of back deformation, most PE plates are backed by a layer of foam.
PE plates are substantially lighter than other hard plates—often less than three pounds. They’re also buoyant in water. But they are much thicker (1-1.25”) and therefore less concealable. Most importantly, we have not been able to source any plate rated higher than level III—it seems that armor-penetrating rounds cut right through the plastic layers. Because the AR-15 is the most common rifle threat in the United States and some available AR-15 ammunition options can penetrate level III plates, we cannot recommend them for safety.
Any hard armor containing PE, such as ceramic or standalone PE, should not be exposed to temperatures above 180 degrees Fahrenheit.
Roughly speaking, a plate should protect you from your collarbone down to a few inches above your navel and from nipple to nipple.
To make everything as confusing as possible, there are two different sizing standards in use in the USA. We’ll call them civilian and SAPI.
Civilian plates, which are what we are most likely to encounter, are available in 8x10”, 10x12”, and 11x14” dimensions. The 10x12” size is the most common.
SAPI (Small Arms Protective Insert) is the military acronym for protective plates. SAPI plates come in a very specific cut (the SAPI cut), but in five different sizes: extra-small (7.25x11.5”), small (8.75x11.75”), medium (9.5x12”), large (10.25x13.25”), and extra-large (11x14”).
The best way to size a plate is to measure your body, then choose the plate size that closest fits you. Of course, you may not have access to all the possible sizes.
Plates come in a number of different shapes: full cut, SAPI, shooter’s, and swimmer’s. The differences between these are minor, and each cut (besides SAPI, a military standard) differs from manufacturer to manufacturer. While most plates are sold in pairs, many people mix and match, with a regular SAPI cut back plate and a deeper shooter’s or swimmer’s cut front plate.
Full cut plates are essentially rectangles with the corners rounded off. They are not common but can be used for side plates or back plates. They may not fit in many carriers.
SAPI plates are the standard military hard plates. They have a nearly-45 degree angle cut from each part of the top. SAPI plates work well and offer a good deal of coverage. Actual military SAPI plates are not sold directly to the public, but manufacturers sell plates in “SAPI cut.”
Shooter’s cut plates are similar to SAPI plates but have slightly more of a cut away at the corners. Some manufacturers sell right-handed or left-handed plates and further accentuate the cut on the dominant arm for better mobility.
Swimmer’s cut plates have substantially deeper cuts away from the top corners, forming a vaguely teardrop shape. This sacrifices protection for mobility. Some people with breasts or other curves find a swimmer’s cut most comfortable.
Plates can come in three different curve styles: flat, single curve, and multi-curve. Once again, each brand has its own interpretation of each of these.
Flat plates are just that—flat. Most people don’t like flat plates, though some people wear them, especially on the back. Sometimes flat plates are cheaper.
Single curve plates are the most common. These are curved on the vertical axis to better wrap around your torso.
Multi-curve plates curve in multiple ways to better fit what the manufacturer believes to be their average customer’s body. These are generally preferable, especially for people with breasts or other curves. They’re often more expensive. Not all manufacturers offer this option.
Stand Alone versus In Conjunction With
Most plates we’ve discussed are Stand Alone (SA or STA) plates. These plates are designed to perform at their rated level by themselves.
It’s also possible to get In Conjunction With (ICW) plates. These are generally thinner and lighter but only perform at their rated level when worn in conjunction with a IIIA soft vest.
The modularity of the latter system has a lot to recommend it, but you will have to source a bulletproof soft vest with plate inserts (which are often more expensive) or else wear a plate carrier over your vest. ICW plates are harder to come across. The whole system is likely to be more expensive.
This style used to be the more popular military style, as it offers more protection, but current trends favor mobility over protection, and military forces seem to be shifting towards standalone plates.
When you buy armor, you might encounter “trauma pads.” This phrase actually has two different meanings. Before standalone plate carriers, In Conjunction With plates were called “trauma plates” and were inserted into sleeves on bulletproof vests to increase their ballistic rating. Now, however, “trauma pads” are usually non-ballistic foam inserts you put behind your hard plates in order to soften the blunt force trauma of an impact.
The value of trauma pads is hotly debated. They seem to be more important for ceramic plates than steel plates. It’s also increasingly popular for people to make do-it-yourself trauma pads out of yoga mat foam.
We don’t have enough information to come down hard on either side of this debate, but it might be worth getting or making trauma pads, especially if you have ceramic plates. It can’t hurt, and some people wear them just because they make the armor more comfortable, although they do add expense and thickness.
Do-It-Yourself Ballistic Plates
It is possible to make DIY armor plates. It’s probably only worth doing as a last resort. YouTube is a magical wonderland full of people testing various DIY forms of body armor. Some are easy to make; others are labor intensive. Some are affordable; others are expensive. We have not personally tested DIY ballistic armor and cannot recommend it, but there are situations in which armor is needed and not commercially available.
We’ve seen two common methods. The first involves laminating lots and lots of layers of Kevlar (better) or fiberglass (cheaper) with resin. This is labor intensive and not necessarily cheap, but it makes it possible to form the plates into various shapes. There are arguments about what kinds of resin work best; some people argue convincingly that using less resin enables the layers to delaminate upon impact and absorb more force.
The second method, which is substantially simpler and often cheaper, involves layering ceramic floor tiles—using the hardest ones available—with various thicknesses of steel and rubber. This method seems to make stronger armor that is less subject to back deformation. Some people argue that ceramic mosaic tiles offer better multi-hit capability, while others say that single larger tiles absorb impact better. It’s possible that aluminum oxide ceramic panels can be sourced from commercial manufacturers, possibly from China.
Some people combine these various methods in various ways.
One person made a thick, light plate out of DIY recycled HDPE from milk jugs that seemed to be roughly level 2 or 3A.
Another person proved that thick slabs of non-laminated UHMWPE don’t do any good as armor.
The cheapest and strangest DIY plate we’ve seen is a $12 plate made from items from the dollar store: baking pans full of rocks and glue with a hardcover book as spall protection. This stopped some rifle rounds but not many.
One person we spoke to has had some success cutting steel plates from suitably strong and thick steel found in scrapyards. Steel that is too hard will shatter upon impact; steel that is too soft will allow penetration—and if bullets do pass through, they might leave additional jagged bits of metal. If you’re going to take this approach, it is absolutely crucial to get enough extra material to test these plates. You can cut the plates to the desired shape with an angle grinder. DIY steel plates should absolutely be backed with trauma pads.
If you possibly can, you should get well-engineered, properly tested gear. Failing that, you had better carry out your own thorough tests on the gear you make yourself. One person who does so described the process thus:
1) Extensively research core concepts involved in the project, to understand considerations, potential points of failure, and potential reasons for failure. 2) Develop a minimal viable product standard that you hope to accomplish. 3) Determine the most basic test conditions possible, with as many variables eliminated as possible. 4) Develop initial prototype. 5) Test initial prototype. 6) Disassemble prototype to determine what worked and what failed, and to determine cause of failure. 7) Build next prototype with knowledge gained from testing. 8) Repeat. 9) Once you achieve a minimal viable product standard, start testing under increasingly harsh conditions—different temperatures, using different rounds, and so on—to determine resiliency and point of failure.
For a project like this, make sure you have access to a workshop and someone who knows how to use the necessary tools safely and effectively. The proper tools will make production and testing faster; they can also help ensure standardized outcomes.
Many vendors will sell you the carrier and plates as a set, in which case you’re ready to go. Otherwise, you’ll have to pick a carrier for your plates. Be careful to pick a plate carrier that accepts the specific size and cut of the plates you plan to wear.
Plate carriers generally consist of two parts: the vest itself, which goes on over your head, and a cummerbund—a velcro belt that connects the front and back panels at your side.
Plate carriers come in two primary styles, covert and overt.
Covert carriers are designed to offer the option of wearing them under other clothing. They don’t tend to come with as many pouches and loops and other tactical loadout options. For protestors, covert carriers are likely the best option. A black covert carrier under loose-fitting black clothing is unlikely to be noticed as body armor, especially in the dark or in a crowd.
This has several advantages. First and perhaps foremost, police are less likely to tag you as a troublemaker and target you for arrest or other violence. Just as importantly, armed attackers may be less likely to target you. With firearms, one of the primary arguments for concealed carry is that a trained attacker will target known threats first. Basically, if someone walks into a store and starts shooting, they are likely to target anyone they see carrying a gun first. The same principle applies to armor: a shooter is substantially more likely to consider someone wearing armor to be a threat, and therefore to aim at them first. Furthermore, if a shooter knows you are wearing armor, they might intentionally shoot you somewhere other than where you are protected. Overt plate carriers are designed with soldiers in mind, whereas “operators” (spec-ops) are more likely to wear covert vests for the aforementioned reasons.
You can wear covert vests modularly, with the option to swap in additional pouches and cummerbunds to switch the carrier to overt.
Unfortunately, the cheaper ceramic plates tend to be so thick that it is substantially harder to wear them covertly. If covertness is your top priority, consider saving up for more expensive, thinner ceramic plates. Although we cannot currently recommend steel plates, those are thinner as well.
By comparison, overt carriers are designed to be worn as the outermost layer and to function as a platform from which to hang gear. Traditionally, this means guns, magazines, communications equipment, first aid supplies, and whatever else a soldier needs for their purposes. We’re not soldiers, we’re protestors.
Overt vests still have a place, of course, for some people and some purposes. They convey militancy and preparedness and they normalize the use of armor. Overt vests in bright colors are often worn by first responders and others who need to protect themselves but are trying to identify themselves as noncombatants.
Plus, the ability to hang gear off a carrier is convenient for many purposes, such as radio communications and serving as a street medic.
MOLLE and Other Attachment Points
Military and tactical gear is often easily identified by the loops of webbing sewn all over it. This is called MOLLE (Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment): a military system designed to allow the attachment of additional pouches, packs, sheathes, and the like.
Some MOLLE is laser cut, particularly on covert carriers: instead of webbing loops, slots are cut into the outermost layer of fabric.
Hook-and-loop (i.e., velcro) attachment points are also common on tactical gear, which are used to attach morale patches or even small pouches. Morale patches include the various emblems and signs that the military use to designate units and that tactically-minded civilians use to express political and subcultural affiliation. What 1” buttons are for punks, morale patches are for tactical gearheads.
Some specific manufacturers use other styles of attachment points as well.
For most covert plate carrier purposes, attachment points are not necessary.
DIY Plate Carriers
For anyone experienced in sewing, making a plate carrier is a reasonably simple affair, as it is not itself a ballistic product. We would recommend that any aspiring plate carrier maker get a simple plate carrier to copy.
You can make straps from webbing; 500D Cordura seems to be the most commonly used fabric for the vest itself. Most guides suggest double or triple stitching every seam.
Plates load into the bottom of the front and back sleeves and are generally secured by a generous flap of hook-and-loop.
If your plate carrier is well-fitted, the armor should sit at your clavicle. With your armor on, lift your arms and twist around to make sure the carrier moves with your body. Breathe in deep to make sure it’s not too tight; at the most, it should feel snug when your lungs are fully expanded. Then test the fit by doing a Burpee or some other athletic activity to make sure that it nothing on the carrier moves around or falls out. ### Fitting Armor to Different Body Types
Most armor is designed to fit able-bodied, athletic cis men. The further from that category you are, the more trouble you may have fitting body armor. It can be particularly challenging to obtain armor in smaller sizes and armor for people with breasts.
Soft body armor vests are substantially more forgiving than plate carriers, but can still be less comfortable for those with more curves. Some armor manufacturers design soft armor vests specifically to fit curvier bodies. These are less likely to be found at lower price points, although we’ve seen some surplus “female” vests on eBay.
Small vests in general seem to be hard to find on the surplus market, as surplus vests tend to come from police departments.
Plate carriers offer even fewer options for people with breasts. The best option we’ve been able to find is to get a multi-curve swimmer’s cut front plate and wear either a tight-fitting sports bra or a chest binder.
Likewise, plates simply aren’t made in sizes large enough for all people. It seems that most larger people wear the largest plate they can (usually 11x14”), even if it covers less of their torso.
Being Hit While Wearing Armor
There is a lot of contradictory information available about what happens to the human body when you’re shot while wearing body armor.
When you’re shot while wearing soft armor, the impact of the blow still hits you and can damage you, although the injuries are generally minor as the impact is spread out over a somewhat larger area. According to one study, 85% of those who are shot while wearing a vest rated for the right kind of impact suffer no injuries or minor injuries such as slight bruising. Yet one EMT says that the police they have treated who have survived shots to their vests describe it as being hit with a baseball bat full force.
Plate armor is something else entirely. It’s hotly contested whether injuries and fatalities are common when someone is shot while wearing plate armor. We’ve personally talked to experts and seen tests and studies that contradict each other.
In general, if you are wearing armor that is rated for the impact you experience, you are unlikely to suffer a major injury. Unless you’re caught off balance, you’re unlikely to be knocked back or over. Steel, in particular, is effective at transferring the force of the bullet across its large surface, minimizing the force that is passed on to the wearer. Ceramic armor defaces more dramatically, but this effect can be minimized with trauma pads; it should not cause grievous injury to the wearer.
This is not universally the case, however. People do suffer cracked ribs and other blunt force injuries when bullets strike them while they are wearing armor.
People are likely to experience the same impact differently according to body mass. Larger plates disperse impact over a larger area.
Ballistics is a remarkably complex subject. We’ve spoken to a number of engineers and tactical enthusiasts about how to understand the risk of penetration.
Broadly speaking, rifle shots penetrate substantially more effectively than handguns or shotguns. They’re also considered substantially more deadly—though gun violence is a highly politicized subject and data is often skewed to support one position or another, and we’ve found contradictory reports about lethality claims according to caliber. The only exception to this rule is that .22 caliber rifles, which are common for small game hunting and for beginning shooters, are closer to handguns in terms of their penetration capacity than they are to other rifles.
Armor penetration is very different from overall power (the kinetic force transferred to the target by the bullet), which is different from “stopping power” (the ability of the bullet to neutralize a threat). Penetration is greater for faster bullets with a greater “sectional density”—that is, bullets that are heavier in relationship to their width. Thinner bullets are sharper and penetrate more effectively than larger bullets of the same mass. Armor penetration and stopping power actually work against each other: bullets that mushroom or fragment upon impact cause far more severe wounds, whereas bullets that maintain their shape more effectively are more capable of penetrating armor.
Most armor piercing ammunition works by using a steel or other hardened core that survives impact more effectively than lead. This ammunition is not generally available to civilians in the United States, although it is available to the military and police. This makes it less likely that militia groups and other non-state actors will be using it against demonstrators. It is not in common use by the police for a number of reasons: first, it involves greater risk of going all the way through the target and hitting someone else unintentionally, in what is called overpenetration; second, hollow point bullets (which mushroom upon impact) are more effective at killing unarmored targets, like the people that the police are usually trying to murder. The most common exception is 7.62x54r steel core surplus ammo, which has significant armor piercing capability, and anything in the 50 caliber range, which we are unlikely to see in domestic civilian conflict.
There are two types of bullets worth knowing about that are available to civilians and are likely to be carried by non-state actors who seek to harm demonstrators. First are steel-tipped (not steel-cored) bullets, generally referred to as “green tip” bullets. These were designed for the military to offer greater accuracy and penetration at long distance, but they are in common civilian use, especially in AR-15s. The second are the “+P” style of bullets, generally 9mm—the most common handgun round—though not all 9mm are +P. These are not designed for armor penetration, but pack a “hotter” load of more gunpowder that provides greater power and therefore more effective penetration.
Both of these threats can be stopped by appropriate and available body armor, such as what that we recommend herein. It’s worth being aware of these threats in order to understand why you might need an appropriate level of armor. Older and cheaper soft vests might stop most 9mm rounds, but not the +P rounds that are commonly carried by self-defense and gun enthusiasts.
Armor can be tested against several different standards to determine its efficacy. For products available in the United States, the most common by far are the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) standards, which we use throughout this article. These were designed with US law enforcement in mind. Many other countries use the NIJ standards for armor that is available to civilians. There are other standards in use throughout the world, as well.
The US army does not use level ratings, instead offering specific armor items that must meet a certain threshold. These tests are not as simple as “this armor protects against handguns” or even “this armor protects against 9mm handguns.” The ratings designate the specific cartridge, down to its composition and how much gunpowder it is loaded with.
Again, in short, if you are looking for soft armor, you want it to be rated to IIIA. If you are looking for hard armor, you want it to be rated at least III+, or “III special threat,” if it is to protect you against the common steel-tipped AR-15 rounds. Neither of these are officially part of the NIJ standards.
The NIJ standards are revised from time to time.
Level I: This level is no longer part of the standards. It protected against some .22lr (small game hunting rifle) rounds and .380acp (handgun rounds).
Level IIa: This protects against some handgun rounds, including some 9mm, .40, and .45 rounds.
Level II: This protects against more handgun rounds, including 9mm as well as some .357 rounds.
Level IIIa: This protects against nearly all handguns, including more .357 rounds and .44 magnum rounds as well.
Level III: This level is rated to stop most 7.62x51mm NATO rounds, a common military round. It is not rated against the AR-15, but will stop many AR-15 rounds (5.56 or .223, which are roughly the same).
Level IV: This level is rated to stop 30.06 (thirty-aught-six) armor-piercing rounds—the rounds fired by WWII-era battle rifles, which remain common for hunting.
The Coming Standards
The new NIJ 0101.07 standards will likely be released at some point soon. This revision will address the major holes in the current system, such as the gap filled by III+. It will replace the numeral system with two separate categories: HG (handgun) and RF (rifle). HG will have two levels HG1, which will map to the existing level II, and HG2, which will map to the existing IIIA. RF will have three levels: RF1 which will map to the existing level III, RF2 which will fill the hole currently met by III+, and RF3 which will map to the existing level IV.
Please read our full article about helmets here.
Most ballistic helmets are rated to the IIIa level and are designed to stop handgun rounds. A few newer military helmets can stop some rifle rounds, sometimes, from long distances. There are also rifle inserts available for some helmets to increase the protection level of the helmet, although these are not in common use, as most soldiers seem to prefer weight reduction to an extra level of protection.
IIIA glass visors are also available, which attach to helmets and protect the eyes. These are made of thick polycarbonate, the same plastic used in the manufacture of bulletproof glass.
While we will cover protest shields at greater length in a future article, it’s worth touching on ballistic shields: shields designed to protect the user from gunfire.
Most ballistic shields are rated IIIA for handgun protection or IV for rifle protection. They can weigh anywhere from 15 to 40 pounds. It’s very difficult to wield them in the ways that an ordinary shield is wielded.
While they’re somewhat common equipment for police, they are not generally used by the military or militias, nor are they generally applicable to self-defense or community-defense situations. They seem to be chiefly useful for raiding buildings.
A Note on Cut Resistance
Cut-resistant gloves and sleeves are available and affordable, but they are generally designed for the kind of incidental contact with sharp knives one might experience in a commercial kitchen. These are generally made of aramid (Kevlar) or UHMWPE (Dyneema) fabric, though some also contain woven wire. Cut resistance does not translate to stab resistance. A truly cut-resistant sleeve would be useful for defending against knife attacks, but the testing we’ve seen has not led us to believe the current products would be much help against determined attackers rather than workplace accidents.
Cut resistance is measured in the USA by the ANSI standards rating scale, running from A1 to A9, and in the European Union with the CE/EN standards rating scale, running from A-F (previously, 1-5). The ANSI standard rates to a higher level of cut resistance than the CE/EN standard.