Body armor has come a long way over the last few decades. From the basic flak vests of the Vietnam War, modern ballistic plates are capable of stopping high-powered rifle rounds effectively. One of the key parts of modern body armor is the ballistic plate carrier vest. Today we’ll be reviewing the best plate carriers available to help you find the one that best fits your needs.
What is a Plate Carrier
A plate carrier is a piece of tactical gear designed to hold ballistic plates. They can include additional soft armor such as kevlar or be simple strapped vests that position hard or soft plates over your vital areas.
They were pioneered by the military but have since become widely in demand for law enforcement and civilians alike. Tactical plate carriers usually offer additional features and function as tactical vests.
Best Plate Carriers
- VISM By NcSTAR Discreet Plate Carrier Vest
BuyRead Our Review
- Armor Express Rapid Base Plate Carrier Vest
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- VISM Quick-Release Plate Carrier Vest
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- Voodoo Tactical MOLLE Armor Carrier Vest
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- 5.11 Tactical TacTec Plate Carrier
BuyRead Our Review
- Voodoo Tactical X-Lite Gen II Plate Carrier
BuyRead Our Review
- Shellback Tactical Banshee Elite 2.0 Plate Carrier
BuyRead Our Review
There are tons of tactical plate carriers available today. You can choose between basic models that do little besides hold body armor and feature packed ones designed to be the central element of your tactical loadout.
VISM By NcSTAR Discreet Plate Carrier Vest
The Discrete Plate Carrier Vest from VISM by NcSTAR is a plate carrier designed for an undercover look. It has hook and loop fastened pockets on the front and pack capable of holding soft or hard ballistic plates.
The shoulder straps are adjustable as is the wrap around cummberbund. This allows you to get the perfect fit and feel while still positioning the plates properly for maximum protection.
It doesn’t offer additional pockets, pouches or MOLLE webbing, but is perfect for wearing under other clothes when trying to keep a low profile. It’s also very affordable and pretty comfortable to wear.
You can customize the look of the carrier vest with the hook and loop panels on the front and back. These allow you to attach patches, unit identifiers or other information.
Armor Express Rapid Base Plate Carrier Vest
The Armor Express Rapid Base Plate Carrier Vest is a highly adaptable lightweight plate carrier. It’s designed to hold level 3 and 4 ballistic plates up to 1.25 inches thick.
It uses a hook and look shoulder adjustment system for comfort and has a quick release clip on either side that makes it easy to quickly put on and take off. Both the front and back of the vest are fully covered with MOLLE webbing.
This allows you to attach all kinds of gear pouches, pockets, and additional equipment. It also has hook and loop fastener panels on the front and back to put department, unit or personal patches and identification panels.
The Rapid Base Plate Carrier Vest lacks some of the more advanced features of similar vests but makes up for it with excellent build quality and a focus on the key features that make a great plate carrier.
VISM Quick-Release Plate Carrier Vest
The Quick-Release Plate Carrier Vest from VISM is a standard SAPI vest. It offers full coverage from neck to navel and has substantial comfort and utility features.
As the name suggests it has a quick-release pull tab that allows you to near instantly remove the vest in an emergency. It has padded adjustable shoulder straps and a fully adjustable cummerbund.
This allows you to find the most comfortable fit for your vest without changing the positioning of the plates. Both the front and back of the vest are covered with MOLLE webbing and hook and loop panels for unit patches or other personal identifying patches.
Voodoo Tactical MOLLE Armor Carrier Vest
The Voodoo Tactical MOLLE Armor Carrier Vest is a compact plate carrier system designed with modular uses in mind. It has a wraparound cummerbund style design that allows you to fit additional soft armor plates into the side of the carrier.
The shoulder straps are padded and adjustable, as are the side areas. It’s sized to fit 10” by 12” plates and has seven rows of MOLLE webbing on the front and back.
It also comes with hook and loop fasteners on both sides of the vest that allow you to display department or unit patches. The Armor Carrier Vest offers a comfortable and highly adjustable fit and allows you to change the level of protection you need.
5.11 Tactical TacTec Plate Carrier
5.11 Tactical has spent close to 30 years producing high-quality tactical gear and clothing in use by law enforcement and military organizations around the world. Their TacTec Plate Carrier is a fully loaded tactical carrier system with all the features you could ask for.
It has fully adjustable and padded yoke style shoulder pads to better distribute the weight of your ballistic plates. The carrier itself can hold and correctly position medium to large size ballistic plates for the most optimal coverage.
It has full MOLLE webbing on the front and back panels plus a water resistant coating to protect it from the elements. Important features include a one-handed quick release and an extendable GrabDrag handle for emergency evacs.
The TacTec carrier has multiple comfort and identification extras as well. There are large airflow panels on either side plus hook and loop areas to display department, unit or other patches.
Voodoo Tactical X-Lite Gen II Plate Carrier
The Voodoo Tactical X-Lite Gen II is a lightweight plate carrier system designed for comfort and maximum mobility. It’s designed to 10” by 12” ballistic plates in a minimalist setting.
It has a fully adjustable cummerbund and shoulder straps for a customized fit. If you prefer to go truly minimalist you can remove the cummerbund altogether.
The body is made from breathable mesh panels with a MOLLE webbing exterior. This allows you to attach any additional gear you need.
The Voodoo Tactical X-Lite Gen II is a light and highly customizable plate carrier. It lacks some of the premium features found on other carriers but does allow high levels of customization and mobility.
Shellback Tactical Banshee Elite 2.0 Plate Carrier
The Shellback Tactical Banshee Elite 2.0 is a top quality tactical plate carrier designed for serious operators. It’s made from premium materials and includes all the most sought after features for a plate carrier system.
The shoulders on the Banshee 2.0 are fully adjustable and padded. They’re designed to lay flat on your shoulders and distribute the weight of your gear as evenly as possible. They’re covered with hypalon routing strips to help guide things like com wires and hydration reservoir tubes.
The front and back of the Banshee 2.0 is covered with six rows of MOLLE compatible PALS webbing and pile tape to allow the placement of various patches. The interior of all surfaces is made from a lightweight mesh material designed to help you stay cool and comfortable even when highly active.
The included cummerbund is fully adjustable and designed to hold three AR style magazines on either side. It can be removed via quick-release buckles and replaced with a simple nylon strap for reduced weight and improved comfort.
Overall the Shellback Tactical Banshee Elite 2.0 is a premium plate carrier at a premium price. It’s loaded down with all the features in demand by tactical operators but is noticeably more expensive than similar vests.
Buyers Guide to Buying the Best Plate Carriers
Choosing the best plate carrier really depends on your own needs. If you’re a tactical operator working in high-risk environments you’re going to have much more demanding requirements than your average citizen.
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Below you’ll find a breakdown of the most common features to look for in a plate carrier system.
Plate carriers are relatively inexpensive and are generally the cheapest part of a tactical carrier system. The plates themselves often cost several hundred dollars for a full set, with other tactical gear like night vision and optics significantly more expensive.
You can get a basic fabric carrier vest for well under $100. If you want any kind of soft armor built into the plate carrier you’re looking at above $100 and can quickly get into several hundred.
Ballistic plates can save your life, but they can also become a liability in certain situations. If your plate carrier gets caught on something or you find yourself suddenly submerged you need a way to quickly drop your plates.
The best plate carriers have a quick release tab or handle built in that allows you to near instantly separate the two sides of your plate carrier and slip free. This can be a literal life saver under desperate circumstances.
Drag handles are a little talked about but very important part of tactical gear. On plate carriers they show themselves as discreet but reinforced hand sized straps.
These allow you comrades to grab hold of you and drag you to safety should you become incapacitated.
MOLLE and Other Attachment Points
MOLLE, short for Modular Lightweight Loadbearing Equipment, is the most widely used attachment system for military gear and pouches. It’s basically a ladder style arrangement of cloth strips at a specific size and placement.
MOLLE makes it really easy to attach any milspec gear, pouches, bags or other equipment. Pretty much any military gear made within the last 20 years will be MOLLE compatible.
It’s not really an option, but we don’t recommend you purchase any plate carrier that doesn’t have MOLLE compatibility.
Shoulder Strap Padding and Adjustments
Everyone’s body is a little bit differently shaped and proportioned. Adjustable shoulder straps are essential for a good fit in your plate carrier.
These allow you to position the actual ballistic plate directly over your vital areas. As an added bonus adjustable and padded shoulder straps provide for a much more comfortable experience through a day of wearing a plate carrier.
The majority of plate carries double as a tactical vest. They’re designed with numerous pouches and straps for more gear, or at the very least ways to attach these additional pouches.
Mag pouches – Mag pouches are specially sized to hold the magazines for your chosen firearm. You can get them for just about any handgun or long gun. Most militaries using the M16/M4 style combat rifle use 5 to 8 full magazines as a standard combat load.
Make sure you’ve got enough MOLLE space on your plate carrier to accommodate the amount of ammo you need.
Gear pouches – Gear pouches are your standard zipper or clasp pouch designed to hold just about anything. There are generic versions designed to hold lots of smaller items or highly specialized ones for holding things like flashlights, maps, and even different types of grenades.
All modern gear pouches will be MOLLE compatible.
Dump pouches – A dump pouch is basically a drawstring rigged or velcro pouch designed to hold miscellaneous items. They’re commonly used as a pouch to put additional loose ammunition, spent shell casings, partially fired magazines or other various gear.
They don’t have a specific purpose but are very useful for holding a wide variety of gear.
Pistol holsters – A chest mounted pistol holster is commonly used by tactical operators and SWAT members who need to carry a secondary firearm but don’t want a waist or leg holster slowing them down. You can find a MOLLE compatible chest holster for most major handguns.
These always need some form of active retention such as a button/velcro strap or similar. They aren’t designed for fast access.
The majority of plate carriers are designed as vests. This allows them to position their plates over your vital areas and reduces the overall weight.
If you want to add more protection to your plate carrier a cummerbund lets you position additional soft armor over your sides and lower back. It also gives you additional points to attach gear.
Flashlight, Sight, and Ocular Attachments
Many tactical plate carriers are designed to hold the entirety of your gear. They have either built in or MOLLE space available for specialized optics, flashlights, and other tech gear.
This allows you to protect potentially very expensive tools like night vision and holographic sites while still having them readily accessible.
Body Armor Ratings
Many plate carriers have integrated soft body armor as well. This is measured using the NIJ standard. Different levels of protection you’ll see for soft armor in your plate carrier include:
Level IIA: Useful against 9mm to .40 rounds fired from short-barreled pistols. Ineffective against rifles.
Level II: Useful against 9mm to .357 magnum rounds from short-barreled pistols. No effect on rifle rounds.
Level IIIA: Useful against .357 and .44 magnum rounds from long-barreled pistols. Ineffective against rifles
Body armor above a level IIIA begins to incorporate ballistic plate armor. This is where your plate carrier vest comes in.
No plate carriers will use bullet resistant soft armor below a level IIA.
Types of Ballistic Plates
There are several different varieties of ballistic plates available. Each offers a different level of protection, comfort, reusability, and weight.
Ceramic Plates – Ceramic plates were developed over the last few decades and were used to great effect during Operation Desert Storm. They’re fully capable of stopping high-powered rifle rounds, lightweight, and widely available.
That’s not to say that they’re light, any ballistic plate is going to be a noticeable weight in your kit. The biggest downside to a ceramic plate is how they stop a round. Ceramic plates are designed to shatter upon impact, making them useless after taking a single round.
SAPI Plates – SAPI plates, short for Small Arms Protective Inserts, are specially designed ceramic plates coated with a fragment trapping material. They’re generally made from boron carbide or silicon carbide ceramic.
They offer great protection for a reasonably weight but suffer from the same downsides as other ceramic plates. They’re only capable of stopping a single round from any one direction as the plate shatters on impact to reduce energy transfer.
The added fragment protection can help keep shrapnel and other fragments from causing secondary injuries.
Polyethylene Plates – Polyethylene ballistic plates are the lightest type of hard body armor available. They’re made from densely woven materials like Kevlar and are designed to twist and melt the round upon impact.
They’re some of the most comfortable ballistic plates because of their lighter weight, but they suffer from the same downside as ceramic plates. They’re one time use.
Steel Plates – Steel plates have been used in body armor for centuries. Modern steel plates are designed to stop high-caliber rifle rounds and do a great job of it. They’re also reusable for multiple rounds as the steel doesn’t deform from the impact of the rifle rounds.
The downside to steel ballistic plates is their weight. Most steel plates are noticeably heavier than any other type of ballistic plate.
Weight and Durability
Weight is less serious a consideration than you would think when picking out a plate carrier vest. The vest itself is often the lightest part of a full tactical loadout.
The plates will always be heavier than the vest, as will the magazines, optics, and other equipment. We recommend you prioritize durability and comfort enhancing features like padding over saving a few ounces.
As long as you know the conditions you’ll be using your plate carrier in it’s easy to pick out the features you value. This makes it much easier to choose the best plate carrier for your needs.