Friday, August 28, 2020

Ballistic Armor: Plate Carriers

Not actually Erin.
& is used with permission.
You've selected your ballistic plates based on your needs and have the protection, cut, and material you want. The next step is wearing them, and for that you need a plate carrier, which is nothing more than a tactical vest with special pockets for your plates. (Note: Despite the word "plate" in the name, there is no reason you cannot use soft armor in a plate carrier.)

There are many brands of carrier on the market, and unlike plates it really doesn't matter who makes your carrier so long as it has good reviews for durability and reliability. After all, a carrier is nothing more than a stitched nylon (usually 1000 denier cordura) vest and a choice of options. In my opinion, it is the options which make or break a plate carrier. I have listed these in my (quite opinionated) order of importance.

Straps vs. Cummerbund
A plate carrier has, at a minimum, two pieces: the front and the back. These are attached to each other by straps that fasten in a variety of ways; buckles and velcro are the most popular. Once you have it adjusted for your comfort, leave the shoulder straps in place; that will make putting it on much easier.

You put it on a plate carrier by grasping it by the shoulder straps (or near them on the front piece) lifting it up and over your head, then sticking your head between the plates so that the straps sit squarely on your shoulders. This much is universal. After this, what happens next depends on what your carrier has.

If you have a strap type carrier, there will be two straps with YKK-style buckles on either side. How you fasten them is a matter of preference; some prefer to buckle them separately, others like to keep them buckled and then tension the straps into position. My preference is to keep my weak-side strap already buckled and tensioned, so that all I have to do is fasten and then tighten my strong-side strap. The main benefit of a strap type is that they are faster to put on than cummerbund types. 

If you have a cummerbund type carrier, after you have lowered the carrier onto your shoulders you will need to lift the cummberbund retaining flap on the front of your vest (this is secured with at least 6x12" of velcro, so it might take some effort), grab the dangling end of the cummberbund on your weak side, and bring it into position on the velcro. Once you've done that, switch hands and do the other side. Finally, lower the retaining flap into place. The main benefit of a cummerbund system is that it allows you to wear side plates. 

Regardless of which system you have, the carrier should be loose enough that your movement is not restrictive -- check to see if you can smoothly raise/shoulder your weapon and acquire a sight picture -- yet tight enough that most of its weight is borne by your chest instead of your shoulders. Cummerbunds have a slight advantage in this, although a quality strap type carrier is more than able to do this.

A quality (i.e. non-budget) plate carrier will come with the ability to have a cummerbund attached to it. If your primary intended use of ballistic plates is to protect yourself while you investigate a 'bump in the night', I would forgo the use of the cummerbund and keep mine in a strap configuration. The cummerbund can be added later, if necessary.

MOLLE Webbing
You need this. Fortunately, MOLLE webbing comes standard on practically every plate carrier.

Things to put on your webbing:
  • Magazine pouches 
  • an IFAK specifically for gunshot wounds
  • a flashlight
  • a knife
  • a radio (or a cellphone in a dedicated pouch)
  • a water bladder
The water bladder is probably a surprise. I include it not just for the obvious reason, but for the fact that most level III steel plates and level IV ceramic plates weigh in the 7 to 8 pound range and that one gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds. If you can only afford a single plate, get a 4 liter bladder (1 gallon = 3.785 liters) for your back to balance it out. 

Be advised that the more you put on your carrier (specifically ammunition), the more uncomfortable it will be to wear for a long period of time. For this reason I would specifically recommend against placing a sidearm on your carrier; wear it on your belt instead. 

Drag Handle
This is a strap on the back of your carrier, close to the nape of the neck. As the name suggests, this is a handle so that if you are wounded, one of your buddies can grab it and drag you to safety.

Do you need it? Hopefully not. Fortunately, these seem to come standard with every plate carrier I've seen. The nicer versions have a big healthy loop at the back, and the cheaper versions are essentially a strip of MOLLE webbing that hasn't been sewn into sections. 

Interior Padding
A foam lining in the inside of the plate carrier, usually with a sweat-wicking mesh as its outer layer.

This is usually one of the first options cut in budget plate carriers. You don't specifically need it, but it's very nice to have, especially if you wear your plates in the heat and/or for an extended period of time.

Shoulder Pads
These are typically aftermarket pads which wrap around the shoulder straps to give you more protection. In my opinion you shouldn't need them as the weight of the plates should be born on your chest and back, not your shoulders. However, you may disagree. I suggest trying your carrier without the shoulder pads, and then adding them later if you feel they are necessary.

Velcro Strips
These are convenient but not necessary. They are useful for the military and police to show names, units, jurisdictions etc but most people won't need them.

That said, they can be put to use. Blood type is a very popular option, and if you are working at night reflective strips can be useful.

I would recommend against patches that could arouse the ire of authorities, such as Punisher skulls.

Administrative Pocket
This is a fancy term for "There's a velcro pocket at the top of your front carrier." They aren't very large, however. I suppose you could put your Driver's Licence and Carry Permit in them?

Don't pay extra for this.

Next week: the conclusion of this series with a "Miscellaneous" post.

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