Don’t Do it Wrong! How to Properly Wear Body Armor

Body armor, improperly worn, is a liability rather than an asset.

More and more these days, people are taking a vested interest in their own safety.  A piece of that equation is body armor.  And when it comes to ballistic armor, specifically hard plates that you will find in a plate carrier, proper placement is paramount.  Otherwise you are just wearing a weight vest…

Taking a step back though, what is the purpose of armor?  To protect our vitals right?  To be honest though, our whole body is pretty damn vital.  I personally am not wanting to give up any of it, but when it comes to armor, we have to compromise.  The idea of a full suit of ballistic plates, similar to the knights of old, is hugely impractical on the premise of weight alone, not to mention cost or manufacturing.  So what are we looking to protect?

Ballistic plates are offered in different cuts. The one on the right more of a “Swimmer’s Cut” which allows more range of motion and less interference with your butt stock.

We want to invest in protecting the high ticket items.  The most vital spots while still maintaining mobility.  This has been accomplished over and over throughout the ages with the use of helmets and various forms of armor that covered the torso, from the cuirass to brigandines.  Over the years our vital organs haven’t changed.  We have “switches and timers” in our body.  By way of example, our brain is largely a switch.  If it gets injured, it can turn us off.  Meanwhile some of the biggest “timers” in our body is our heart and lungs.  When damaged, the time starts running out…  So putting helmets aside, other than to say to wear them properly sized and buckle the chin strap, lets look at plate carriers.

Plate carriers have become increasingly popular because they provide for most people, the best balance of protection, mobility and cost.  While there are armor systems out there that use soft armor the cover the whole torso, the most common set up is a plate carrier.  Typically consisting of a set of ballistic plates, front and rear plate bag, shoulder straps connecting the two and either a cummerbund or strap made of webbing connecting at the sides.

The Brigandine Plate Carrier by SKD Tactical, shown with optional shoulder pads, magazine shingle and pontoons.

So what are we protecting and how to we get there?  Going back to the big ticket items, we want to protect our heart, major arteries coming off of the heart, the lion’s share of our lungs and as much of our spine as possible.  This is accomplished by properly sizing our plates as well as properly adjusting our plate carrier.

When it comes to properly sized plates, most people are well served by 10”x12” ballistic plates (10” wide and 12” tall).  Which is good, because it is kind of a industry standard, consider it a medium.  They offer larger ones as well as smaller ones.  Keep in mind though, most peoples torso, to include heart and lungs, aren’t hugely different in size.

When sizing plates as well as adjusting your plate carrier, here is what we want.  The bottom edge of our plate should extend at least 1 1/2” below the bottom of your sternum.  This will make sure the plate protects most of your diaphragm.  That is the muscle across the bottom of your rib cage responsible for your breathing.  The plates width should ideally cover or be in line with your nipples on your chest.  This covers your heart and most of your lungs without being overly wide to cause mobility issues.  

The plates need to ride high and centered to cover our most vital anatomy.

And most importantly, and usually the place where body armor is notoriously worn wrong, we want our ballistic plate to ride up high.  The top of your plate should cover your Super Sternal Notch (that little notch at the top of your sternum).  Behind that is your aortic arch.  You could be on the operating table surrounded by surgeons, and if that gets cut, you will bleed out.  We can test and see if our front plate is positioned correctly by tucking our chin.  Usually if you can dip your chin and touch the top edge of your plate, it is high enough.  Also, this is the placement while standing.  If it rides up while sitting, no worries, but when we are up and active, this is the height we want it.

Our rear plate should largely mirror the placement of our front plate.  A way to go about that is feel at the base of your neck where a bone protrudes some, that is your C-7 vertebrae.  We want our rear plate about 1” below that.  That will give us the same coverage from behind as we receive from the front.

The cummerbund or side straps should be adjusted so that no matter your body position, the plates stay covering your vitals.

Some of you are probably wondering about side plates right now.  What if I get shot in the side?  It’s a bummer, but there isn’t much that can be done…  Taking a look at anatomy, where our heart lies in our chest, it is up high.  To actually protect your heart from lateral shots, you would have to tuck a side plate up under your armpit.  That is not practical on any level.  It would drastically interfere with mobility.  Usually when people wear side plates, it is because it is mandated at a unit or department level.  And they are usually worn wrong, hanging low, over maybe a little bit of your lungs and guts.  

I’m not saying there aren’t important things going on down there in your abdomen, but we go back to the most bang for the buck when it comes to body armor.  Protecting what we can while maintaining mobility.  Because the best medicine is to eliminate the threat and not get shot, not soak up bullets.

A note on plate sizing and cut.  As I mentioned before, plate sizing is pretty straight forward with 10”x12” being the most common.  Within those dimensions though, ballistic plates are offered in a number of thicknesses for different threats (stopping different calibers) as well as cuts.  The cut of the plate refers to the angles and shape of the plate.  Some are flat, single, double and triple curved.  The latter conforming most to your body.  Some, such as swimmer’s cut, have a smaller footprint with the edges cut in more drastic as they taper towards the neck.  These plates offer more mobility at the cost of a little more exposed are at the top of your lungs.  Another benefit of the swimmers cut is that it tends to interfere less with stock placement when shouldering your weapon. 

The quality and rating of ballistic plates can vary a lot. Make sure you get plates appropriate to the most likely threat you will encounter.

And lastly on sizing of your plate carrier for your ballistic plates.  Make sure the carrier you chose is sized and cut for the ballistic plates you will be using.  If your plates are too large for the plate bag, you probably won’t even get them in the carrier.  Conversely, if they are too small, you will more than likely not be able to adjust the set up correctly to cover your vitals.  The plate will constantly slide down, below your super sternal notch.

One last aside to consider, some companies offer different cuts of plate pockets for the front and back.  This allows the wearer to have a swimmer’s cut plate in front for maximum mobility and a larger standard shaped plate in the back giving them more protection.  Totally dependent on need.

By following these steps, hopefully you can properly size your ballistic plates to your plate carrier and adjust the armor so that it covers your vitals.  Improperly worn armor is just a weight vest…

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About the author: Ivan Loomis has spent a lot of time outdoors, backpacking and camping as well as extensive international travel. Eventually, he landed in the Marine Corps in the late 90’s. After a hiatus from the service to race the Baja 1000 a couple times, he reenlisted with the Air Force. Departing that he wound up in a large metropolitan Police Department for a spell before landing in the Security Contracting world.One constant through these experiences was gear and weapons. Having spent time in a lot of environments and with the opportunity to field a lot of equipment, he’s grown fond of well-made gear.He now shares those experiences, adventures, and knowledge through contributing articles and videos to various publications, including his own site: www.kitbadger.com

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Kemuel Velazquez September 14, 2020, 8:42 pm

    I am ny Puerto Rican marine gulfwar combat veteran!?
    Interested in getting the right vest for me but hope ut does not cost alot!? Send me the info to my email!

  • Mark Potter September 14, 2020, 6:50 pm

    BTW withnthe sun at your back we cant see shit that you’re trying to show.

  • Mark Potter September 14, 2020, 6:47 pm

    So down to the sternum. Another expert saying being gut shot is OK.

  • Slim September 14, 2020, 9:12 am

    Good info! But what about regular body armor that smart people buy?! You know, vests! Nobody wears these even close to correct and would be nice to get into on those since plates to me are back ups to the best the protects everything it’s wrapped around. Good article, but half covered the info needed.

    • Domo September 14, 2020, 1:40 pm

      Vests may be more practical than plate carriers but no vest that I know of is rated to stop a rifle caliber round. If it did plate carriers wouldn’t be required. Great article!

      • Slim September 14, 2020, 8:14 pm

        No doubt. That’s why I said this is a back up set up as I’d call it. If you check statistics you’ll find that in CQ situations in civilian gun rights are almost always done with pistols so a regular vest is absolutely 100% better than just a plate that barely covers a real man’s chest with a full wife beater sized best on and if you feel like you need the plates which is say why not, then add them for the rifle rounds you expect to catch with your body and part they are precision marksman who never miss and not you only in the plate… Kind of seems dumb when I say it logically huh?! So to me it’s not one or the other, its both even though in reality if your shooting it out with an AR or AK which the AR is my rifle of choice and clearly lots of wack jobs spray and pray crowd shooters then I truly doubt the vest even if it was rifle rated which as you say which I also agree aren’t really any rifle rated vests that we could ever afford(or at least me for sure)would help anyways. Ever see an armored trucks windows shot(windshield to be specific)with a standard AR with regular old M855 green tips? One round hits and shots, second smokes right through like it’s not there at all. So again doubt any rifle even a smaller caliber like 5.56 in my opinion is at best for armor that again i could ever afford as well as I’d bet 80% of the population won’t stop but maybe a round or two and then it’s over. FYI… The president wears a full head neck to ankle bullet proof suit every place he goes and yet it’s not sure think or even noticeable. So that’s why I mention money. If you have enough you can buy pretty much anything and have it made to much greater protection then a normal grunt gets to go into a real war zone. Also not sure if Trump wears the suit since he does anything he wants, but watched a history channel special a year or so back that was on Obama and what he wears at all times and also as much as they were willing to share about the “beast” I think it’s named which is the new limo car made so that’s how I know and bet it can be found easily via Google. Also FYI… pretty sure Obama’s suit is rifle rated and is barely thicker than a normal suit. That’s just my two cents!

  • James September 14, 2020, 9:11 am

    I wasn’t truly looking for one , but a friend of mine was selling a set of Spartan plates & carrier vest. ( He needed $$). I bought it . At 9 lbs for each plate , i thought it would feel heavier, but , it’s pretty balanced ( not that i will jog jogging in it ). And with vehicle my seat set all the way back on it’s rails , i could drive with it on , if need be . Would be awkward driving with an additional utility/ammo carrier vest on top .

  • Beau September 14, 2020, 2:46 am

    Great and informative article sir!! Especially for those dipping their toes in the refreshing waters of self protection (aka the gun-curious). I hate to open a can of worms for you, but could you also present a follow on article regarding armor in conjunction with everyday carry/messenger bags and backpacks? Keep up the great and informative writing, we need voices like yours to speak for us!!

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