I like having body armor. I first bought some to wear while covering civil disturbances, but I was always happy to have it around in case of trouble around my home. My early stuff was soft armor that could be worn concealed and was intended to stop handgun rounds. Choosing body armor is a great conundrum, however. You have to consider the threat you might face and how much weight and bulk you can carry as well as how it affects your mobility. We will be looking at armor here that can protect you from most rifle fire rather than soft armor to defeat handguns. This means we’ll be looking at hard plates that are bulky and heavy compared to soft armor. The plates in question today are the DKX Max III ones available from JRH Enterprises. Before I talk about them, though, I want to go over the options for this sort of protection so you can better determine the best answer for your needs.
The most common plates in prepperdoom these days are probably steel ones made from AR500– a tough, hardened steel alloy often used for targets. It usually comes in 10×12 inch plates with the top corners cut off at an angle to make them more ergonomic for shooting; these plates usually sell for between $60 to $100 per plate. It has a number of advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantage is that it will take many hits from most rounds, though 5.56mm M193 can reliably get through it at close range. This is a very common round, so I see this as a serious concern. There are some companies making enhanced steel armor that can stop M193, and if I were buying steel these days I would seriously consider the upgrade.
The second problem with steel armor is weight. Each plate typically goes to about eight pounds in weight. If you add a rear plate and the carrier, you will reach over 20 pounds, which starts to slow most of us down quite a bit. My own rig includes side plates, a couple of rifle magazines, two pistol magazines, and a two-way radio; the result is 30 pounds. I don’t plan to move around while I’m wearing it, and I hope I don’t fall down either.
The third problem is that steel armor stops bullets by breaking them up into small pieces. Where those pieces go is something of a concern. They usually fly off the edges of the plate and they are big enough to do serious damage. Should any parts of your body be in line, it can and likely will be hit. Your chin and arms (which may well be extended holding a firearm) come to mind and have lots of vulnerable blood vessels that could be opened up with these fragments. Eyes could also be at risk. Some argue that it is better to absorb bullet fragments than bullets. While I agree, after looking at the area around steel targets, I have a major concern about the damage fragments can cause.
This can be mitigated at extra cost (and weight) with coatings or Kevlar jackets, such as the ones at D-Rmor Gear https://drmorgear.wordpress.com/products/spall-guards/, but these systems won’t last as long as the plates. Bullets literally tear the coatings and jackets apart. The jackets and coatings add weight and your armor is now approaching 10 pounds per plate, so build some muscles. I originally bought plates before the fragmentation concerns caused armor vendors to come up with solutions, and I have been steadily replacing them. The uncoated plates will go in my car behind the seats.
The next common form of armor is ceramic. Ceramic plates have a number of compositions, and they usually weigh less than steel. The price can be breathtaking, starting at several hundred dollars and hitting $1,500 or more, but they can provide amazing levels of protection. The ceramic material absorbs the bullets, and as they do so the plates crumble and fracture. Some can take many hits, while others only handle a few. Many ceramic plates are somewhat fragile and can crack if dropped. Agencies that use them are encouraged to routinely x-ray them to ensure they are still sound. This is a huge drawback for my needs.
Ultra High Molecular Weight Poly Ethylene/Dyneema Plates
A relatively new player in the field something called Ultra High Molecular Weight Poly Ethylene (UHMWPE). Dyneema is a version of UHMWPE made into fibers and used for a number of products requiring great strength, like fishing lines, high performance sails, and ropes. When used for hard armor, the fibers are compressed into hard plates. The manufacturing processes are proprietary, but I assume they involve adhesives and possibly heat. Another product of this sort is Spectra.
DKX Max III Lightweight Armor Plate
The beauty of it stuff is how light it is. The U.S. made DKX plate JRH Enterprises was kind enough to loan me comes in at 2.9 pounds. After wearing a set of steel, this is like the difference between pushing my car and riding in it. The feeling of mobility is marvelous after trying to move and shoot wearing steel. It is thicker at 1.1 inches than a coated steel plate that will run from .5 to .75 inches, but the weight is what matters the most to me.
Another stunning thing about it, after you get over how light it is, comes when you put it in water. It floats! As a rotten swimmer, who is sometimes around water, that appeals to me. There is no way I would go near water wearing steel armor, but this stuff would actually help me avoid drowning.
Another good point about the DKX armor is that it is certified to the National Institute of Justice’s 0101.06 standard https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/223054.pdf for Level III body armor. This requires plates to withstand six hits from 7.62x51mm NATO M80 ball ammunition with steel jackets. This is not an armor-piercing load, nor is it the hardest commonly encountered round to stop, but it is a very respectable level of protection.
I’ve watched several videos of DKX plates being shot and viewed photos of them afterwards, and I think they could handle more than six hits without problems as long as the shots don’t stack on top of one another. Eventually, however, the plates start to disintegrate and bullets begin going through. They cannot take as many hits as steel, but by the time a coated steel plate has taken this many hits, the material that protects you from fragmentation isn’t going to be working well, so you will be facing that danger.
Stopping the 5.56x45mm used in the AR platform is not required for Level III performance, but the DKX plates will handle 5.56mm M193 with the 55-grain full metal jacket (FMJ) bullet just fine. Unfortunately, the manufacturer confirmed that it will not stop 5.56mm M855 ammunition with the steel penetrator, which is the primary drawback I see to this armor. Apparently the steel core is able to slip through the compressed fibers, which stop bullets by friction and absorbtion. Lead bullets are simply swallowed up by the armor, which is a good thing as it contains the entire bullet so there is no fragmentation to endanger the wearer.
An unfortunate side effect of the recent M855 hysteria fomented by the current administration is that this ammunition will probably become more common in the future.
The other drawback to Dyneema type armor is sensitivity to heat. The plate is marked to avoid heat greater than 175 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat apparently causes the material to delaminate and lose the density that stops projectiles. This means you should not leave it in your vehicle, since vehicles can easily reach those temperatures in the summer. I don’t currently store armor in my vehicle, but if I did it would be steel.
Soft armor is also made out of the type of fibers used for Dyneema, and it has gotten a bad rap for not handling contact shots well. That does not appear to be a problem with the hard armor. I have seen photos of a DKX plate that took a contact shot from a .30-06 followed by another from a 5.56, and it stopped both rounds. There was greater damage to the plate and more deformation on the back than when shot from a few feet away, but it appeared capable of handling yet more abuse.
I wasn’t able to obtain a plate that I wouldn’t have to pay for, so I didn’t shoot it. The NIJ certification and the videos and photos I’ve seen of it being shot were sufficient to convince me that it works as specified by the manufacturer. If someone does change their mind and wants to give me one to shoot, I will be happy to do it and report back here.
One thing I don’t like is that it comes with a radio chip that contains the armor information and serial number. DKX says it contains no user information and can only be read from two inches, but I wish it weren’t there. It also requires a specialized device to read it.
The plate carries a 7-year warranty, which is longer than typical for this type of product. JRH sells them for $525 each or $1,000 for a pair. JRH also carries the 11×14 version for $565 that weighs about four pounds. I would seriously consider this size if buying a set, as the extra coverage is comforting. It would, of course, add bulk and weight. The two extra inches of length might make it hard to wear in a vehicle or while lounging about watching the tube.
These plates are curved to better fit one’s anatomy, and the top corners are cut away to allow a shooter to better use a long arm. The cuts are the same on both sides, so the plate is ambidextrous. The curves don’t quite match my body shape (I need to lose 10 pounds), but it makes the plate much more comfortable and easier to move around in than the flat plates.
The bottom line is that I plan to buy this one and move one of my steel plates to other duty. The carrier will be a bit unbalanced with a steel plate in the back and this in the front, but I have pouches to carry junk on the front, so that will even things out a bit.
So you decided to buy hard armor. Now you need a way to wear it. Unlike most soft armor, which comes with a carrier, plates are often purchased stand alone so that you can pick how you want to wear them. Hard armor is usually called a plate, hence the need for a plate carrier.
Most plate carriers have Pouch Attachment Ladder System (PALS) webbing so you can hang Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment (MOLLE) on them. There are a gazillion forms of MOLLE pouches and other items that you can hang on your carrier, enough that you can render yourself completely immobile if you wish. As long as one is reasonable, though, it makes a lot of sense to attach gear to the carrier so you can put everything on at once.
There are also plain, minimalist carriers without the webbing, including some that are optimistically advertised as concealable. I have my doubts about concealing hard rifle plates under a shirt, but it could be done under a jacket if desired. Personally, I think soft armor works far better for concealment, but that limits you to protection against handguns instead of rifles.
The $90 Chinese-made Condor EXO carrier offered by JRH Enterprises is of the first sort, festooned with useful PALS webbing, front and back as well as on the cummerbund that wraps around you to hold the front and back in place. The cummerbund has pockets for soft armor side plates to increase coverage. Not all carriers offer this option without buying additional accessories, but if you want to use hard side plates with the Exo for protection from rifles, you will need to add optional pouches. Even the shoulder pads have PALS webbing along with loops to guide the tubing from a hydration bladder.
There is a large pocket in the front for maps and a similar small pocket in the back that is not reachable by most of us when wearing the carrier. There is a drag handle so your friends can pull you to safety if you go down.
The EXO comes in two sizes– small/medium and large/X large. Both the shoulder straps and the cummerbund are adjustable for fit.
It is available in black, tan, and olive drab OD. I completely agree with the recommendation by JRH to avoid black. Black may look cool to some, but it is much more visible in the field than olive drab or tan. I live in a green, southern environment, so OD is a no brainer for me.
If you aren’t satisfied with just OD and tan, you can try some of the spray paint from Aervoe to make it blend better. I use it to salvage some of the “Universal” Camouflage Pattern (UCP) gear that is hitting the market on the cheap as the Army sheds the ineffective and despised pattern.
As well as hard plates, you can fit soft armor into the Exo. Some hard armor requires backing with soft armor for full protection, so this is a necessary feature. You could also shed the plates in a lower threat environment and still retain protection from handguns or if mobility was of more importance than protection.
These things are usually secured by having the cummerbund attach to the front of the vest with Velcro. There is frequently a flap that goes over the cummerbund; that is the case with the EXO. The flap and cummerbund are usually well stuck together in storage and you have to squabble with them to get the carrier on. On the Exo, there are tabs that allow you to keep the flap disengaged from the front of the carrier, and that makes it easier to get on.
Carriers add weight to the armor and other goodies you carry add more than you might expect. The Exo weighs about four pounds, which isn’t bad. The two carriers I own run seven and five pounds, so the Exo saves a bit of weight but probably at the cost of sturdiness.
I was highly suspicious of Condor gear. I’ve had two earlier model carriers go through my possession, and one had several bad seams. The other seemed a bit flimsy. The EXO seems far better than those two carriers, so I suspect Condor is improving their product. For the price, the EXO seems serviceable. I personally own U.S.-made surplus Diamondback carriers purchased on eBay, which are extremely heavy duty, but as pointed out earlier they weigh more. They also cost more.
Our noggins contain some valuable stuff, so protecting them is a good plan. I used to wear them when covering civil strife for newspapers. Over the years, I’ve had two– an old steel M1 that was probably from the Marines, judging by the red rank stripes on it, and some sort of generic police riot helmet with a face shield. In those days, I was most worried about being hit with a rock rather than bullets.
These days, I want ballistic protection from bullets. The old riot helmet offered none, and it turned into a sticky, decomposing mess from being in my hot car for many years. The M1, according to my research, should stop a .45 ACP round and would probably stop .38 Specials and some 9mm loads as well. I really wanted more protection than that.
The military also wanted better protection and adopted the Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops (PASGT) in the 1980’s, which included a Kevlar helmet. The better protection came from the Kevlar and the fact the helmet itself is larger. As far as I can determine, the Army does not have its helmets rated by the NIJ and until recently, the military specs (MIL-H-44099A) are focused on fragments from things like artillery and grenades, rather than bullets. That said, there are a number of videos that show PASGT helmets stopping 9mm and .357 magnums floating around the Internet, which clearly means they offer some level of protection against bullets. I have also seen reports from law enforcement agencies that tested surplus helmets from federal grant programs, which indicate similar results. Nonetheless, stopping bullets was not part of the design specs, although there are commercial PASGT helmets on the market that are claimed to meet NIJ Level IIIA just to confuse things.
The claimed Level IIIA performance raises another issue. While the NIJ does rate ballistic helmets, they use a different set of certifications for them than for body armor. Rather than levels, they use types– Type I for .22 to .38 Special, Type II-A for lower velocity 9mm and .357, and Type II for higher velocity 9mm and .357. These are rounds from a handgun that will have a lower velocity than those from a carbine or submachine gun. If you see a helmet that is certified to meet an NIJ Level, ask questions. They should be touting that it meets an NIJ Type certification, not a level. They can certainly say it meets a level standard, but they can’t give it a level certification since the NIJ doesn’t do that for helmets.
While the PASGT offers more protection than the M1, it weighs up to 4.2 pounds depending on size; that’s a big increase from the 2.85 pounds of the M1. This isn’t good for necks and spines. Then they started adding night vision to the mix to further increase the load.
Besides the weight issues, there were complaints that the helmet’s extra coverage hindered situational awareness since it covered the ears. The helmet also often slipped forward while shooting prone and blocked vision. The suspension system was found at fault for comfort and insufficient protection against impacts, so the military, starting with the special ops community, went looking for something better.
Advanced Combat Helmet
The result is the Advanced Combat Helmet (ACH) that JRH loaned me for review. With this helmet, we got a requirement to stop 9mm 124 grain bullets at 1,400 feet per second, what you would get from a submachine gun. This is a very potent threat to defend against, and it exceeds the NIJ Type II certification. It does this with an improved formulation of Kevlar.
While the military doesn’t bother with NIJ ratings for them, the ACH loaned to me by JRH is made in the U.S. by BAE– one of several approved manufacturers of the helmet for the military. BAE claims that its protection is equivalent to Level IIIA. This claim is made for most of the ACH’s marketed to law enforcement.
It also comes in lighter than the PASGT, ranging from 3 to 3.6 pounds depending on size, which is better than a half pound less than the PASGT. This helps considerably. Some of the weight loss is due to the slightly reduced coverage, which is mainly around the ears where awareness is helped at the cost of some protection.
The suspension system is designed to provide more comfort as well as much better protection from bumps than the PASGT. It is also more secure on one’s head.
I have a PASGT; after alternating between wearing it and the ACH, I have to say the ACH is an improvement in comfort, and it interferes less with being able to see and hear. Weight is the biggest difference, but the ACH is trimmer than the PASGT, which helps a lot. My PASGT has been updated with a more modern suspension and padding system that is very similar to what is in the ACH, so it is a lot more comfortable than it was originally. That means the ACH is a major improvement over the original PASGT in that regard. The new suspensions for the PASGT came about to reduce trauma injuries in Iraq that were being prevented by the ACH helmets the special ops guys were using before the regular Army got them.
Modular Integrated Communications Helmets
You will probably also read about Modular Integrated Communications Helmets (MICH) if you do research on this stuff. MICH was an Army Special Operations Command project, and it led to the ACH. There are variants of the MICH that cut off the ear coverage to better allow headsets to be used, but the standard MICH is essentially the same helmet as the ACH.
Again, this is a product I hope to buy when funds are available. The ACH must defeat a very hot 9mm load which makes it better than the PASGT. Enhanced comfort and awareness are also big. It also struck me that the wearer presents a slightly smaller silhouette, which certainly doesn’t hurt either.
If you are going to make an armor purchase, it is worth your while to spend time investigating it. There are tons of material on the Internet and more videos than you can probably stand watching on YouTube about armor and helmets. Be careful though as not all of it is reliable.
I found a lot of helpful information on the D-Rmor Gear site. It is primarily an informative blog, though he does sell some supplemental armor products, like the jackets for steel armor mentioned above. His site contains a lot in one place and is carefully presented. I spent many hours doing research before making my buys and wish I had found his site earlier.
The biggest problem you face in deciding what to buy is probably cost, but after that you need to balance mobility vs. protection. I thought the DKX offered an excellent balance of the three. The same is true of the ACH helmet.
– SurvivalBlog Field Gear Editor, Scot Frank Eire