There's a lot more to wearing a plate carrier than simply putting it on. A poorly configured or incorrectly worn plate carrier will, at best, hinder your mobility or restrict access to your gear when you need it most. At worst, it can endanger your life.
It's worth noting that plate carriers are specifically designed to carry both gear and armor plates; without plates, the carrier won't fit correctly and may not have sufficient support to keep your gear firmly in place. If you don't need armor plates, consider acquiring a chest rig, vest or duty belt instead.
For those who do need a plate carrier, this guide will review their significant pros and cons, introduce the most important considerations for configuring them, suggest gear to attach to them and identify gear best carried elsewhere.
Like most things, plate carriers have their upsides and downsides. The biggest of each include:
Increased carry capacity
Quick access to critical gear
Weight carried high on the torso makes traveling on foot less tiresome
Minimal impact on crouching, kneeling, and bending
Reduced body heat dissipation
Stealth and cover penalties (difficult to lie prone)
Reduced agility and dexterity in some respects
Despite their drawbacks, plate carriers are versatile and well-rounded pieces of tactical equipment. Although every operator and situation are different, it's rare for a plate carrier's cons to significantly outweigh its pros.
In order to both protect you and carry your gear effectively, your plate carrier must be sized and fitted carefully. Ideally, you'll have some input during the shopping or selection phase, but if your department or agency issues plate carriers via the “take it or leave it" method, you may have to do the best you can with what you're given.
All armor plates are not created equal. Some carriers can accept multiple styles of plates, whereas others are designed for one particular cut or model. Never force or jerry-rig a plate into a carrier not designed to hold it; doing so could reduce its effectiveness. Ensure that you know the different types of armor plates and select the right kind for your needs and carrier. To determine which plates are best for you, read up on the basics of body armor.
Finally, note that adjusting your carrier is often much easier with a friend's help. Some models have straps or adjustment points that are difficult to reach by yourself, and taking your carrier on and off to adjust it while it's loaded with gear is a time-consuming pain. For best results, don the carrier empty, then insert the plates and attach your gear, then have a friend help you make adjustments as needed.
There are three main types of ballistic armor plates: ceramic, steel and polyethylene. Each excels in particular respects but falls short in others. Shop Ballistic Plates
Ceramic plates are generally the most common types of plates used. They're fairly heavy, though not as heavy as steel plates. They offer excellent protection against pistol, shotgun, and even high-velocity rifle rounds, but they almost invariably crack on impact, meaning that they'll be significantly less effective if they take additional hits. Damaged ceramic plates should be replaced as soon as possible.
Steel plates are heavy, often prohibitively so. However, they're much more durable than ceramic plates, and some models can even take 50 hits or more before failing. They tend to be less expensive than ceramic and polyethylene plates. Be aware that steel plates are particularly vulnerable to spalling (projectile fragmentation). Bullets that impact a steel plate are more likely to shatter and ricochet, and fragments may strike other parts of your body, your equipment or even your teammates. Steel plate manufacturers use various design strategies to minimize this risk, but it hasn't yet been eliminated entirely.
Polyethylene armor is considered by many police and military experts to be the gold standard — it's ultra-light, buoyant, affordable and capable of stopping multiple small-caliber rounds before failing. However, it has two major drawbacks: its effectiveness is reduced in extremely hot environments and it's unlikely to stop high-caliber rifle or pistol rounds.
Carefully consider the placement of your holster, pouches, and other accessories. Distribute items evenly across your front and sides so you aren't too heavy on one side. Ensure that radio cables and hydration tubes are routed cleanly and properly, and that nothing interferes with drawing, shouldering, or holstering your weapons. If you need side plates, be sure to account for the extra weight and to carefully consider how they will affect access to your most critical gear.
Most tactical experts recommend limiting the amount of stuff you carry on your torso for a number of reasons. Excess weight and bulk limits your mobility unnecessarily and can interfere with drawing, aiming or firing. Too much weight will also tire you out more quickly, and if you have too many items on your carrier, it can be difficult to remember what's where, especially in the heat of a firefight.
Generally, you should carry only the most essential items on your vest or plate carrier:
Primary weapon ammunition (3-6 rifle mags or 20-25 shotgun shells)
Critical trauma medkit (tourniquet, Quik-Clot, needle decompression kit)
Whether you carry your sidearm on your chest, belt, or thigh, it's usually best to carry extra pistol mags on your belt. Even with practice, quickly accessing pistol mags on your chest can be a challenge, especially with your rifle or shotgun ammo already taking up a lot of space.
As far as your knife goes, if you can spare the room, you might consider affixing it hilt-down near your dominant-side collarbone so you can quickly draw it with your off hand. However, if you put your knife there, make sure it's far enough toward the center of your chest that you can still easily shoulder and fire your primary weapon. Alternatively, consider carrying your knife main-gauche style (horizontally on your belt, at the small of your back). This configuration is likely to be more widely compatible with various gear setups. To find the right knife to affix to your carrier or belt, check out our guide on how to choose a tactical knife.
Most other supplies should go on your belt or in your backpack. Keep your plate carrier as uncluttered as possible. Once you have your carrier set up in a way that's comfortable and that makes for easy access to your most critical items, train extensively with it until you know your gear placement inside and out.
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