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Chris Fortenberry Jan 25 2023 20 min read

Best Body Armor [2023]: Ratings, Types, and Choices

Introduction

Body armor is an important part of an integrated plan to protect your most important property, your actual person. Unlike in the movies, body armor is not a 100% effective way to ensure you will come to no harm. That being said, as part of a comprehensive plan to protect your person, it is very effective.

In this article, we will look at what the best body armor is and what it protects against. We will look at the various features of modern body armor and tell you which body armor products will best fulfill your needs.

National Institute of Justice Armor Ratings

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is an organization that reviews and rates body armor. They have different rating levels, so purchasers and those who need body armor can acquire the appropriate armor for their needs.

Nij levels of protection
Photo Credit: Bulletproof Zone

The levels of protection are as follows:

  • Level IIa: tested for 9MM and .40 Smith and Wesson. No protection from rifle calibers.
  • Level II: tested for 9MM and .357 Magnum. No protection from rifle calibers.
  • Level IIIa: tested for .357 SIG and .44 Magnum. No protection from rifle calibers.
  • Level III: tested to stop 7.62mm Full Metal Jacket lead core ammunition.
  • Level IV: test to stop .30 caliber steel core rifle ammunition.
understanding armor protection levels
Photo Credit: the Justice Technology Information Center

New body armor standards are coming from the National Institute of Justice and will roughly come out to the following RF1 (Level III), RF2 (Level III+), and RF3 (Level IV). These are designed to better identify the protection provided by various armor.

body armor materials
Photo Credit: DiamongAge.org

Body Armor Materials: Kevlar vs. Steel vs. Polyethylene (PE) vs. Ceramic

There are four materials that are commonly used to make body armor. We will explore the materials, the pros and cons of each material, and help you make an informed choice when selecting your body armor.

Hard vs. Soft Body Armor

Before we examine the actual materials, we will briefly discuss the differences between hard body armor and soft body armor.

Soft Body Armor

Soft body armor is usually made of Kevlar or Polyethylene. It protects pistol cartridges, is more easily concealed, and is flexible due to its construction. Soft armor does not provide protection against rifle cartridges.

Hard Body Armor

Hard body armor is made of steel, polyethylene, or ceramic plates. These hard plates provide protection against both pistol and rifle cartridges.

Hard body armor also experiences less backface deformation as the harder nature of the armor prevents the force from the impact from going to a single point and damaging whatever is behind the armor.

It also allows the force to be absorbed by the rigid nature of the armored plates and distributed across the surface of whatever is contacting the plate.

Steel

One of the most popular and cost-effective options for body armor is steel plates. High-quality steel plates have many positive attributes to suggest them as armor. Unfortunately, the negative attributes of steel plates should give anyone considering them pause.

Steel can stand up to repeated strikes to the same point on the armor. This makes it better able to withstand precision fire than ceramic armor. High-quality steel armor is also extremely hard. This hardness allows it to withstand rifle fire very well.

Steel armor also has a long guaranteed shelf life. Fifteen to twenty years is normal when compared to ceramic which usually has a much shorter guaranteed shelf life period, often five years.

Weight is one of the first negative attributes you come to when examining steel plates. The weight and bulk of steel armor make it less than ideal for both regular law enforcement and civilians to wear for everyday use. Additionally, the bulky nature of steel plates makes them harder to maneuver in.

Finally, steel plates have a major issue that can make them dangerous. When a bullet impacts a steel plate, the bullet shatters or, if the angle is great enough, it has the potential to ricochet. This is different from ceramic, polyethylene, and kevlar, which absorb the project and in essence, catch it.

The shattering of the bullet is called spalling. Spalling creates a spray of shrapnel that has the potential to impart lethal wounds to the plate’s wearer and those near the wearer.

Kevlar

Kevlar is one of the best-known materials for making bulletproof vests or body armor. It is made of polyparaphenylene terephthalamide. The polymer is heated and turned into strands that are then woven together to create the sheets of, what we call, kevlar. The nature of the strands and the tight weaving of the strands create a product of extremely high tensile strength.

Kevlar is an ideal material for making body armor because it is both very strong, five to six times stronger than steel, and very light.

The biggest negative aspect of kevlar is that it cannot defeat high-velocity rifle rounds. Body armor is rated by the National Institute of Justice and the NIJ gives body armor levels to represent what the protection provided by the armor is. Kevlar lacks both level III and level IV protection. This lack of high-level protection severely limits the utility of the armor.

The fact that kevlar has higher tensile strength than steel, is durable, lightweight, and resistant to cuts makes it an ideal material for body armor. Those who need to wear body armor every day for their job will find it one of the easiest body armor to wear.

Ceramic

Ceramic plates are an alternative to steel plates. Lighter than steel, more than 30% lighter, and stronger and cheaper than polyethylene, ceramic plates are a hard body armor capable of offering protection equal to steel.

Ceramic is not perfect, though. It is not designed to withstand repeated shots in the same location. It is also prone to cracking after it has been struck by gunfire or if not treated appropriately.

Most ceramic plates have a five-year warranty, but studies have shown that properly cared-for ceramic plates retain their effectiveness past this warranty period.

Polyethylene

Ultra-High-Molecular-Polyethylene (UHMPE) or PE is a type of body armor that can be both hard plate or soft armor. PE is the lightest of the hard body armor on this list. The lighter weight means that PE is also the most comfortable hard body armor to wear. While PE is not as hard as steel, it provides almost equal protection.

One benefit of PE over ceramic is that it can take repeated hits, of Level III threat and below, without shattering. The quality of the manufacturing process plays a major role in the strength and effectiveness of PE armor.

The PE armor surpasses steel in three important categories. It is lighter than steel armor. It does not cause the bullet to shatter on impact and create spalling. Spalling is small bullet fragments that are very dangerous themselves. The best PE armor is also stronger than steel armor.

There are some drawbacks to PE armor. PE armor is susceptible to heat. Temperatures over 158° are known to weaken PE, so those working in the desert need to consider that. Likewise, anyone living in the southern United States should not store Polyethylene body armor in their car during summer heat.

Another issue with PE body armor is cost. The cost of PE can be as much as 300% more than comparable steel plates. You are trading money for comfort with PE since the weight reduction between PE body armor, and steel body armor is also up to 300% less for PE than steel.

Plate Cut

body armor shape comparison
Photo Credit: Spartan Armor Systems

There are four types of plate cuts when looking at hard armor.

Full Cut

A square or rectangle shape, this cut is often inserted into a case or backpack.

Shooters Cut

A rectangle with the top corners cut, this cut allows better movement and firearm manipulation.

Swimmers Cut

This cut best facilitates movements but at the cost of protection

Small Arms Protective Insert (SAPI)

This is the “mil-spec” cut and is a 45° cut on the upper corners.

sapi cut vs swimmers cut
Photo Credit: RMA Defense

Plate Carriers

Plate carriers are required for plate body armor. There is a wide selection of plate carriers from many manufacturers. When selecting your plate carrier, make sure you consider your purpose for your plate and tailor your choices accordingly.

Before you buy your plate carrier, make sure you check out our best plate carrier list and guide to picking out a plate carrier. It breaks down the various types and purposes of plate carriers and highlights the best options available.

Best Overall – RMA #1192

RMA DEFENSE LEVEL IV MULTI-CURVE MEDIUM HARD ARMOR PLATE (MODEL #1192)

Specifications

NIJ RatingLevel IV
Weight Per Plate5.9 pounds
Thickness.9 inches
Curve ProfileMulti-curve
MaterialCeramic and Polyethylene

Pros & Cons

Pros
  • Top end threat protection
  • Light-weight
  • Multi-curve
  • Both ceramic and PE protection
Cons
  • Price
  • Tested using NIJ standards but not NIJ certified

Our top overall choice is the RMA 1192 plate. This plate has been tested to meet the current NIJ Level IV standard and the upcoming NIJ RF3 certification standards. Weighing only 5.9 pounds, the RMA 1192 provides high-level threat protection at a light weight.

rma level iv body armor
Photo Credit: RMA Defense

Constructed of both ceramic and polyethylene, the RMA 1192 plate provides excellent protection for the wearer. The Level IV rating for the RMA 1192 means it is effective against handgun cartridges, intermediate cartridges like 5.56mm and 7.62×39, and full-power rifles cartridges up to 30-06.

Weight is an important factor when considering personal protection equipment (PPE). Carrying around body armor for an extended period of time, especially when coupled with the weight of other gear, can be exhausting. The 5.9 lbs weight of the RMA 1192 is definitely a benefit when compared to some level IV plates.

Another factor that sets the RMA 1192 apart from the other plates on this list and many other plates is the multi-curve profile. Compared to flat or single curve plates, the multi-curve nature of the RMA 1192 is better able to fit the contours of the wearer’s body and provide more comfort when being worn.

Overall the RMA 1192 does exactly what it sets out to do. The RMA 1192 provides high-level threat protection for the wearer while limiting weight and providing as comfortable of a fit as possible.

different levels of body armor tested by guns
Photo Credit: RMA Defense

RMA #1155

Level IV Ceramic Plate (Model #1155) NIJ .06 Certified

Specifications

NIJ RatingLevel IV
Weight Per Plate8.3 pounds
Thickness1 inch
Curve ProfileSingle Curve
MaterialCeramic and Polyethylene

Pros & Cons

Pros
  • Top end threat protection
  • 10 year manufacturer warranty
  • Price compared to top overall pick
  • Both ceramic and PE protection
  • NIJ Certified Level IV Protection
Cons
  • Heavy
  • Single Curve

The second RMA plate on this list, and first alternate choice, is the RMA 1155. This is another high-quality plate of body armor by RMA, and it has been tested and received the NIJ Level IV certification.

different levels of body armor rma
Photo Credit: RMA Defense

When looking for differences between our top pick and the RMA 1155, one of the main things to note is the warranty. The RMA1155 comes with a ten-year manufacturer’s warranty. This is an outstanding warranty and a major reason to purchase this plate.

Like the top overall pick, the RMA 1192, the RMA 1155 is constructed of ceramic and PE. There are differences in manufacturing, though. The RMA 1155 is an alumina oxide ceramic & polyethylene design, while the RMA 1192 is a boron carbide ceramic and polyethylene design.

This difference is why the RMA 1192 is 5.9 pounds while the RMA 1155 comes in at a hefty 8.3 pounds.

It’s important to understand that since you need two plates, one for the front and one for the back, you are adding over sixteen pounds of the total weight when running this armor. If you decide to add side plates, the amount of weight increases even further.

Don’t let the weight of the body armor turn you off from this high-quality plate, though. The attractive price point for two armor plates of RMA 1155 can be a major factor for many shooters, and the threat protection rating is Level IV.

The RMA 1155 is a cheaper, heavier, version of the RMA 1192. It will protect the wearer from Level IV threats and perform exactly as required by the wearer.

Mira Tactical Level IV

Mira Tactical Level IV

Specifications

NIJ RatingLevel IV
Weight Per Plate5.9 Pounds
Thickness.9 inches
Curve ProfileSingle Curve
MaterialCeramic and Polyethylene

Pros & Cons

Pros
  • Light-weight
  • 10-year warranty
  • Top end threat protection
  • Both ceramic and PE protection
Cons
  • Single Curve
  • Tested using NIJ standards but not NIJ certified
  • Manufactured in Asia, assembled in the USA

One plate that was in the running for the top overall choice but ended up as our second alternate pick is the MIRA Tactical Level IV plate. This plate is an excellent choice for body armor and provides NIJ Level IV protection to the wear.

Like our top overall pick, the MIRA Tactical Level IV is a lightweight plate. Tipping the scales at 5.9 pounds, this Level IV armor provides really great protection without adding the 10+ pounds of many Level IV plates.

One issue where the MIRA Tactical Level IV plate falls behind the RMA 1192 is location of manufacture. RMA manufactures their plates in Iowa whereas the MIRA plate is made overseas and assembled in the United States. For many this will not be an issue but, when specifically discussing body armor, some will take comfort knowing their armor was domestically produced and will disqualify all armor not made in the United States.

Regardless of your personal feelings on domestic vs. foreign production of body armor, the MIRA Tactical Level IV is a high quality option for body armor. The light weight, ten year warranty, and top level threat protection makes this a solid choice for your body armor needs.

Best Value – LA Police Gear Level IV Plate

LA POLICE GEAR LEVEL 4 (IV) BALLISTIC ARMOR RIFLE PLATELA Police Gear

Specifications

NIJ RatingLevel IV
Weight Per Plate6.5 pounds
Thickness1.125 inches
Curve ProfileSingle Curve
MaterialCeramic and Polyethylene

Pros & Cons

Pros
  • Affordable Price Point
  • Both ceramic and PE protection
  • High end threat Protection
Cons
  • Single Curve
  • Tested using NIJ standards but not NIJ certified
  • Made in China

Our value pick is the LA Police Gear Level IV Ballistic Plate. With these plates, LA Police Gear (LAPG) is selling a product designed to help those who can’t afford our overall top pick, the RMA 1192, or even one of our alternative picks. LAPG is helping everyone acquire the personal protective equipment they need.

The LAPG Level IV plates provide solid, if unspectacular, performance. They are not the thinnest plates we have looked at. They are not the lightest plates we have looked at. These plates do not sport multi-curve designs. What these plates do, though, is stop ballistic threats. 

The combination of ceramic and polyethylene protection is capable of protecting the wearer and helping ensure they survive a bad situation. The price point also means that those who purchase them should feel confident using them as needed and not always keeping them “in the garage,” so to speak. If you run your plates hard and they need replacement, the cost of a replacement plate will not require you to take out a second mortgage.

The LA Police Gear Level IV Ballistic Plate is a good value choice that will do what it claims.

Best PE Body Armor – Spartan Armor Systems Level III Elaphros

Spartan Armor Systems Level III Elaphros

Specifications

NIJ RatingLevel III
Weight Per Plate3.5 pounds
Thickness1.2 inches
Curve ProfileMulti-curve
MaterialPolyethylene

Pros & Cons

Pros
  • Light-weight
  • NIJ Certified Level III
  • Made in the USA
  • Multi-curve
Cons
  • Cost
  • Less protection than combo PE/Ceramic or PE/Steel plates

The Spartan Armor Systems Elaphros is our choice for best PE armor.

The Spartan Armor Elaphros hits a sweet spot between protection and comfort. The Elaphros is a lightweight UHMWPE, Polyethylene Body Armor. This makes it an excellent choice for those needing more protection than lightweight kevlar-based armor but not heavier Level IV armor. Two plates of the Elaphros weigh only seven pounds. This is less than some single Level IV plates.

There are companies who market their PE-based armor as having Level III protection without actually receiving the official NIJ Level III certification. The companies perform their own testing based on National Institute of Justice standards. The Elaphros is not one of those body armors. The Elaphros has official NIJ Level III certification and can be trusted to perform exactly as advertised.

ballistic resistance test
Photo Credit: Spartan Armor Systems

Being both light-weight and durable the Spartan Armor Systems Elaphros is a solid performer that provides the appropriate level of protection to those who need it without being heavy or bulky.

Best Level III/III+ – HESCO L210

Hesco L210 Special Threat Plate Set

Specifications

NIJ RatingLevel III+/Special Threat Plate
Weight Per Plate5.5 pounds
Thickness.59 inches
Curve ProfileSingle Curve
MaterialCeramic

Pros & Cons

Pros
  • Light weight
  • Affordable Price Point
  • Quality protection
Cons
  • Does not provide as much protection as more expensive plates
  • Tested using NIJ standards but not by NIJ certified

The HESCO L210 is our choice for best Level III/III+ body armor. A lightweight ceramic plate, the HESCO L210 is designed to provide some protection against common rifle calibers and rounds while at the same time being light enough and comfortable enough to permit everyday use.

hesco l210 lifestyle body armor photo
Photo Credit: T.Rex Arms

The HESCO L210 sits in a gray area in the official NIJ ratings. NIJ Standard-0101.06 sets out the requirements for the Special Threat Plate, and many manufacturers have plates that use this rating.

You frequently see this classified as Level III+. This means that the plate can defeat most rifle munitions without standing up to the most powerful rifle cartridges.

The weight of the HESCO L210 is excellent. Weight can be the downfall for those wearing body armor. Too much weight will wear out the wearer and lead to dangerous fatigue. The HESCO L210 tips the scales at a light 5.5 pounds. With two plates only weighing a combined 11 pounds, the HESCO L210 is very wearable body armor.

Couple the lightweight of the HESCO L210, its affordable price point, and the Special Threat Plate (Level III+) protection, and you have an excellent choice for body armor. The HESCO will meet most people’s needs without breaking the bank.

Best Soft Body Armor – BulletSafe Bulletproof Vest VP3 Level IIIA

BulletSafe Bulletproof Vest VP3 Level IIIA

Specifications

NIJ RatingLevel IIIA
Weight Per PlateChanges with vest size
ThicknessN/A
Curve ProfileN/A
MaterialPolyethylene

Pros & Cons

Pros
  • Made in the USA
  • NIJ certified Level IIIA
  • Great price for soft armor
  • Hard armor can be added to the carrier
Cons
  • Soft body armor does not protect against blunt force trauma

Our choice for the best soft body armor is the BulletSafe Bulletproof VP3 vest. The VP3 is an NIJ certified Level IIIA vest. This means the vest is certified for up to .44 magnum.

The BulletSafe VP3 vest is an excellent vest at an excellent price point. Soft body armor can be incredibly expensive. If you look at NIJ-certified options from brands like Safariland, you can easily find yourself shelling out over $1000 for a quality vest. The BulletSafe VP3 can be found for under $300 with the same NIJ IIIA certification. The excellent price point of this vest helps ensure anyone who needs this level of protection is able to acquire it.

The affordable price does not translate into cheap features on the BulletSafe VP3. The vest sports stab and slash protection, pockets for adding ballistic plates, and a breathable mesh back for comfort.

Supported by a five-year manufacturer warranty, the BulletSafe BulletProof Vest VP3 is our top choice for soft body, and anyone in the market should be confident purchasing one.

Best Steel – Spartan Armor Systems AR550 Body Armor

Spartan Armor Systems AR550 Body Armor

Specifications

NIJ RatingLevel III
Weight Per Plate8 pounds 10 ounces
Thickness.25 inches steel plus .25 inches coating
Curve ProfileSingle and Multi-curve available
MaterialAR550 Steel

Pros & Cons

Pros
  • NIJ Certified Level III, Special Threat tested Level III+
  • Made in USA
  • 20 year shelf life
  • Multi-curve available
Cons
  • Heavy
  • Steel
  • Greater potential for spalling than other materials

Our choice for the best steel body armor is the Spartan Armor Systems AR550 Plate. This is a NIJ-certified Level III plate. The AR550 plate provides high-level protection against rifle cartridges, and like many other Level III plates, it claims the Level III+ rating for special threat testing.

Steel armor plates have a complicated reputation. The risk of ricochets and spalling turns many people off from using steel armor despite steel’s proven track record as an armor. The Spartan Armor Systems AR550 Plate is a steel plate, so it must face the same set of questions.

To address the issue of spalling Spartan Armor Systems has coated its plate with Encapsuloc. Encapsuloc is Spartan Armor System proprietary anti-fragmentation coating and helps to keep spalling to a minimum and therefore protect the wearer.

For comfort, the AR550 Plate suffers the same problems as other steel plates. It is heavy. Tipping the scales at just under 9 pounds, this armor is not something you would want to wear all day. The AR550 Plate also benefits from the fact that steel armor can be very thin and still provide excellent protection. At only .25 inches thick with an additional .25 inches of coating, the Spartan Armor System AR550 plate is thinner than many other armor types while still providing excellent protection.

Not everyone’s circumstances are the same. Whether you need steel armor because of environmental factors, financial reasons, or something else, if you need steel armor, then buy the Spartan Armor System AR550 Body Armor with confidence. It is the best choice in the realm of steel armor.

How We Chose our Top Picks

We used the following criteria for selecting our top picks for body armor. First, we looked at the purpose of the armor. With varying threat protection levels, armor weights, and NIJ certifications it was important to select armor based on its purpose.

The second factor we considered when making our list was the weight of the armor. This goes along with purpose. If two different sets of body armor had the same threat protection level, but one weighed significantly more than another, that was an important consideration.

The third and fourth factors we used when making our list were whether the body armor had official NIJ certification and the price of the armor.

We also considered whether the armor was made in the USA or produced overseas. Trusting your armor is important. Many people feel that body armor made in the United States will have higher quality control standards than those made overseas.

Follow-up Buyer’s Guide

Now that you have read through our list a few more points to consider.

  • Body armor does not make you invincible.
  • When selecting your body armor, determine what potential threats you will face, then decide which type of armor you want.
    • Consider the different types of materials each potential body armor is made of. Use the above guide to help guide this selection.
  • Consider the environment your body armor will be used in. If the type of armor you chose can not stand up to the rigor of your physical environment, you need to choose a different material type.
  • Fit your selection within your budget. Body armor does not have an unlimited warranty. You need to be prepared to replace your armor at appropriate intervals, even if most armor (if cared for appropriately) will last longer than the warranty.

FAQs

Will I become bulletproof?

No! Body armor is a preventative form of protection that can and will fail. It is something you want to have in case you need it, but you hope to never actually use it.

Do I even need body armor?

This is a personal question. You need to consider your lifestyle, occupation, the locations where you live and work and many other factors to truly have an answer to this question. The simplest answer, though, is it is better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

How do I care for and clean my body armor?

Read the care instructions provided by the manufacturer. Some armor types don’t like being left in a hot car or being used in really hot environments. Some body armor should not get soaking wet. Know your warranty conditions and care for your body armor so that it will be in the best condition to protect you if the need arises.

Last Words

Body armor is an essential piece of personal protective equipment for those facing ballistic threats. Knowing which armor to purchase to meet your individual needs is essential. The RMA 1192 is our top overall choice because it provides top-level threat protection in a lightweight package that is comfortable for hard plate armor and can be worn for long periods of time.

Regardless of your choice of body armor, the armor on this list will serve you well and provide protection relevant to the listed NIJ protection level. Buy each with confidence, knowing you have made a good choice.

Chris is a firearms enthusiast and collector located in Texas. Chris’ passion for firearms started at a young age and was fueled by his passion for history. Chris used that passion to become a historian and feels that spreading the understanding of firearms functionally, socially, and politically is one of the paramount jobs of the 2nd Amendment community. He seeks to share his knowledge with those around him.

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