Plate carriers are an altogether common sight for Americans, and have been for some time. Be they worn by police officers and tactical squads, or American warfighters serving in the Middle East and elsewhere, plate carriers afford wearers ballistic protection from common rifle threats while also integrating load-bearing capability.
There are as many plate carriers on the market today as anything else, a seemingly bottomless well of choices, each promising an advantage for the wearer in one of several regards: Cut, profile, modularity, weight, durability and additional features all factor into the calculus that a potential buyer must perform in order to choose the plate carrier that best suits their needs.
This is challenging enough for a seasoned buyer of body armor, but can become absolutely bewildering if you are a beginner in a subject!
In an effort to cut through the noise and help you zero in on good options no matter what your budget or objective is, we will be providing recommendations and an overview of the best plate carriers you can get on the market today.
Plate Carrier? You Mean a Bulletproof Vest?
Not exactly. While a plate carrier that is equipped with a hard plate can provide ballistic protection, most plate carriers do not provide any ballistic protection of their own in the form of soft armor; they might be equipped with soft armor inserts, but most carriers are made from nylon or nylon derivatives, not bullet-resistant material.
Bulletproof vest is the colloquial name for soft body armor, so dubbed because they are made from soft, flexible materials compared to the hard, unyielding steel, ceramic or “poly” plates carried by, er, plate carriers.
Soft armor provides varying levels of protection from handgun fire and sometimes shotguns. Hard armor will certainly defeat most handgun and shotgun fire, but it is most valued for its ability to defeat varying types of rifle fire.
NOTE: Ballistic protection, especially from rifles, is a fairly complicated subject, and one you should not skim over. Various plates rated for one modest rifle threat may in fact not stop a “lesser” threat. It is your responsibility to know exactly what your armor solution will and will not stop.
Your average plate carrier will have room to carry two armor plates, front and rear, and can oftentimes be expanded with additional armor on the sides, shoulders and even the groin or neck.
This supplementary armor (save for the sides) is typically soft armor intended to stop blunt force trauma, fragments and handgun rounds. Without hard plates, and lacking any soft armor in conjunction, a plate carrier itself offers no ballistic protection.
The vast majority of plate carriers are also completely festooned with loops of webbing or other attachment systems that will allow the user to place patches where needed. These pouches will hold ammo, medical supplies, and other mission essential equipment.
Some plate carriers are especially set up to serve as a sort of all-in-one solution to load carriage, having points for other attachment systems that allow a backpack to be directly attached to the rear facing of the plate carrier.
Essentials for Choosing a Plate Carrier
As the saying goes, there is a shoe for every foot, and there is a plate carrier for every budget, every desire, and every need.
Depending on your application oh, you might need the leanest possible plate carrier to make it nominally concealable under light outerwear or you might need one with the maximum amount of expandability and additional features to accommodate changing conditions and mission requirements quickly.
Choosing most special features like this is strictly personal preference; no matter what you need you can be assured that there is a high-quality manufacturer out there that can suit your needs.
Something else to consider is what type of armor plate you plan on inserting into the plate carrier’s pockets. Not all armor is created equal, neither its capabilities nor its shape or thickness, and the most plate carriers will only specifically accommodate one or two types of plates.
You might be able to make a non-standard plate work in your plate carrier, but chances are it will be less than ideal when it comes to comfort and fit unless it is “universal” and as with most things, “one size fits all” doesn’t fit any size well at all…
Speaking of comfort and fit, a word of warning and I hope you’ll forgive me if you were the part of the readership that already knows this: I see an awful lot of guys running around on the range and elsewhere wearing plate carriers without any plates in them, turning the plate carrier into a floppy and inefficient load-bearing vest or chest rig.
If you do not need or want any ballistic protection from armor plates, don’t buy a plate carrier with the intention of sticking pouches all over it, and using that for load-bearing gear akin to a tactical vest.
Plate carriers depend upon the plates they carry to give them stability and rigidity, and without them you will likely be disappointed and how your ammunition and additional gear carries.
The Best of the Best Plate Carriers
The plate carriers on the list below represent a selection of some of the very best available on the market today. No matter who you are, no matter what kind of plate you prefer and what your budget is you can be confident that there is something on this list for you.
If you want excellent all-around protection that affords you plenty of capability to expand that protection if you happen to be facing short-duration but high-intensity threats, we’ve got you covered.
If you need the thinnest, lightest and lowest profile plate carrier to help you stay covert or wear it with plain clothes and get away with it, we’ve got you covered for that too.
No one else can really pick your plate carrier for you (unless you work for Uncle Sam!) So make sure you understand your requirements and place the correct priority on them if you want to make sure you nail your choice on the first try.
1) Tyr Tactical EPIC
Tyr Tactical is a well-known manufacturer of tactical gear and ballistic protection, and their EPIC – Enhanced PICO Integrated Carrier, naturally- is a feature-packed offering that is probably just the ticket if you want an excellent all-around plate carrier that features reliable and fast cutaway in case of injury.
This carrier is built with an advanced antimicrobial mesh spacer which improves ventilation when tight against your body while also wicking away sweat. Their patented Ballistic Vein technology furnishes a platform that holds the external carrier in the proper shape and place to eliminate sagging while keeping soft armor insert panels and precisely the correct spot.
Using advanced synthetic materials to cut weight well also dramatically increasing abrasion resistance over legacy offerings, the EPIC is truly an epic choice for an all-purpose plate carrier.
2) RE Factor Tactical/Ferro Concepts Advanced Slickster
Created as a joint partnership between RE Factor Tactical and Ferro Concepts, the Advanced Slickster plate carrier builds on Ferro Concepts tried-and-true Slickster base, and affords the wearer an armored solution that is equally at home during high visibility operations as it is in low profile ones where discretion is a virtue.
The carrier features cord routing on the front for microphones and PTTs, integrated pockets for ammunition and other essentials, two built-in radio pouches, a built-in admin pocket and a cummerbund with additional pockets for magazines.
Laser-cut MOLLE is appreciated as it contributes weight savings to an already lightweight package. About the only thing I can take away from it is that the thin straps are definitely in need of pads which are available but sold separately. Consider those a must if you are using it for high-visibility applications.
Get the Advanced Slickster Plate Carrier here.
3) 5.11 TacTec Plate Carrier
The TacTec plate carrier from 5.11 is a middle-of-the-road and budget-friendly option, but nonetheless packs in competent human engineering and plenty of room for expansion. This plate carrier will accommodate medium or large SAPI plates that are up to 24 mm wide.
A cummerbund is standard and can attain a maximum 52 in. circumference with the elastic at no draw, and up to 57 in circumference when fully expanded, making it highly adaptable to weight loss or gain.
Yoke-style shoulder pads are built-in for even weight distribution, and an expandable drag handle stays stowed until you need it.
This plate carrier also features the highly desired one-handed quick release function in case you need to ditch it quickly. It is constructed from 500D nylon, a long-running but generally dependable choice of material.
4) Tactical Tailor Low-Vis MBAV Plate Carrier
Tactical Tailor is an old and highly respected name in the tactical gear market, and their legacy is carried proudly forth with the Low-Vis MBAV plate carrier.
Designed to afford the user high ballistic protection while always maintaining a low visible signature, this plate carrier is just the ticket for plain clothes or low-observable Ops.
The front of the carrier is comprised entirely of soft loop velcro, allowing the use of Tactical Tailor’s own hook-and-loop ammo pouches, but if that does not suit your fancy, the Hypalon gear hanger enables you to mount several models of popular chest rig directly to the carrier.
This works both ways because it can allow you to quickly ditch your fighting load to cut weight or just lower your profile when needed. This carrier is designed to be used in conjunction with Ceradyne plates or ESAPI plates with soft armor backers.
Get the Low-Vis MBAV Plate Carrier here.
5) Gray Ghost Gear SMC Plate Carrier
Soft goods manufacturer Grey Ghost Gear is known for forward-thinking and user-centered equipment, and the SMC plate carrier is no exception. The SMC carrier- which stands for Shoot, Move, Communicate- was designed in secret by GGG as the ultimate lightweight, all-seasons plate carrier.
The front of the carrier features laser cut webbing for the mounting of pouches as well as an abundance of velcro at 12 and 6 o’clock. A cummerbund is standard, that also features PALS webbing, and can hold hard armor plates for side protection.
The two main plate pockets will carry a pair of 10×12 in. hard armor or most large-sized SAPI plates. Note that soft armor is not included.
Get the SMC Plate Carrier here.
6) Velocity Systems SCARAB LT
Velocity Systems SCARAB line of plate carriers is one of the most popular on the market today, and for good reason. The SCARAB LT carrier has patented innovative swiveling shoulder straps that will alleviate fitment issues that often lead to strains and hot spots.
The shoulder straps are fully adjustable for length, and also feature a padded, protective sleeve that is useful for cable routing. The front of the carrier features an expandable “kangaroo” pouch, buckles suitable for integration and rapid removal of additional equipment and carriage, and zip-on back panel compatibility.
This carrier holds plates that are sized according to the size of the carrier itself, specifically ESAPI cut plates. Interchangeable cummerbund options, and plenty of room for additional pouches make the SCARAB LT a sure winner in its category.
7) Tyr Tactical PICO DSX
Tyr Tactical’s second entry on this list, the PICO DSX shares some features with the EPIC plate carrier above, but adds their innovative and rugged Taktic Buckle system for two-second donning and doffing using only one hand.
The front plate pocket is gusseted incorporating a four-way stretch weave on the outer perimeter. This ingenious solution allows the plate pocket to expand in all directions to accommodate a variety of plate thicknesses.
Supplementary storage isn’t left wanting either, with several flush chest pockets on the front, webbing straps for routing cables and plenty of traditional PALS webbing for the attachment of MOLLE pouches. This feature-rich plate carrier is also quite light, weighing in at just a hair under 2 lbs.
8) Crye Precision JPC
Crye Precision, makers of fabulous camouflage patterns beloved by the tacticool and seasoned professionals alike, also makes what is probably one of the leanest and slickest plate carriers on the market, the JPC, or jumpable plate carrier.
This super trim skeletonized package weighs in at just over one pound and gives up very little in terms of customization. Particularly noteworthy is the cummerbund featuring Crye’s Skeletal Cummerbund system that allows pouches to be mounted externally or internally on the cummerbund.
This sheds even more weight while reducing bulk and adds some much-appreciated ventilation, although it omits the capability of mounting side plates. This is another super-lightweight plate carrier, and even the largest size weighs in at only one and a half pounds.
Get the Crye Precision JPC here.
9) Mayflower Assault Plate Carrier
Enhanced mobility and ample surface area for mounting essential equipment are the calling cards of the Mayflower Assault Plate Carrier, or APC. The front has an integral admin pouch for small items and elastic loops within to retain them.
The bottom of the front facing also has an integrated ammo pouch that is the perfect size for AR-15 magazines. If that won’t work for you the entirety of the front and the cummerbund is covered in PALS webbing.
The bottom three rows of the webbing have soft loop velcro for attachment of patches or hook-backed velcro pouches.
This plate carrier is expandable with padded shoulder sleeves, inserts for the front pouch SwiftClip kits and more. Plate sizing is based on the size of the carrier and is designed to accommodate ESAPI and swimmer cut plates.
10) Agilite Gear K5 Plate Carrier
The Agilite Gear K5 plate carrier boasts some of the best human engineering of any plate carrier on the market. With a modest frontal profile and ultra-low profile cummerbund, the lightweight K5 is noteworthy for excellent padding and comfort all around, making it perfect for long-duration missions or movement.
Shoulder and under plate padding are excellent, while the cummerbund stretches to allow the vest to cinch up tightly against the body, preventing bouncing while running or climbing, but also allows it to yield slightly when needed.
The suspension of the plate carrier utilizes a special V-shape to spread the weight over the most surface area possible on the body, relieving pressure.
Lastly, the rear-facing of the plate carrier has hook up points that enable the AMAP II or AMAP 30 assault packs to connect to it or disconnect from it in seconds. No longer will you have the struggle with threading on miles of MOLLE straps to integrate your pack!
A plate carrier is a must for protecting oneself from the ever-increasing threat of rifle fire. Your armor plates after all won’t do any good without a carrier!
A properly sized and specified plate carrier will add to your capabilities by providing intelligent storage, expandability for increasing threats or low-observability when the time comes to stay off the radar.
Choosing the wrong carrier can mean your plates might not fit correctly or you could be seriously uncomfortable. Far from ideal when you might need to wear it for an extended period of time.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.