Plate Carriers as a System

Maid doing her thing

Hey Goblin Gang, Nico here. Unlike the last couple videos where I talked about specific carriers, this time I’m going to talk about plate carriers as a more abstract concept, including traps as you shop for one. I’m trying to keep a kind of logical flow here, but I apologize in advance for when I end up going all over the place. This was originally meant as a video script, but I couldn’t deal with myself talking for an hour without any real visual interest, and I have no idea how to do a good video essay, so have it as a blog post instead. There’s a lot of links in this, and linking to something doesn’t necessarily mean I’m suggesting it. I also use a lot of examples from my military experience, but it’s still generally relevant to people on the civilian side.

Let me be the first to state that I have a problem

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about plate carriers already, and I’m going to spend a lot more in the future. I’m doing this because I think that a plate carrier is your most personal piece of gear, and the one that you’re going to spend the most time in physical contact with except your clothing. Because of that, your PC is going to be the core component of your full gear system. At the same time, the carrier itself is its own system.

A plate carrier performs three main functions: First, it holds hard ballistic plates, and maybe soft armor as well, to protect you. Secondly, it acts as, or in conjunction with, Load-bearing equipment to hold other equipment, like magazines, for quick and easy access. Finally, and this is the one that’s easy to forget, it interfaces with all the other equipment that you use or wear. This includes a rifle, your belt-mounted gear, a rucksack, and even your vehicle if you’re using one.

When looking at a plate carrier, you need to think about how it will work with any and all of your other gear.

The Market and You

Any time you’re looking at or considering different plate carriers, it’s within the context of the wider firearms market. In marketing terms, the firearms market is both very stratified, in terms of price level, and segmented in terms of purpose. However, no one really admits that, leading to a lot of unspoken assumptions that are rarely voiced or actively considered, and may be entirely contrary to your own purposes.

To further confuse things, there’s a lot of options available out there, with very similar marketing language used for all of them. Without trying several of them, it can be nearly impossible to figure out what works best for you. Unless you happen to have a bunch of friends with a variety of carriers, this can get expensive quickly. There’s also a lot of trends and some drama in social media communities around gear, with hype coming and going in waves around specific setups, color patterns, and so on.

To state some of my assumptions, I personally don’t really care for aesthetics beyond making sure colors match. I’m also not really into doing clones or impressions of gear I’ve seen, no matter how cool the guy wearing it was. If that’s your thing, you do you, I don’t really have much advice.

So, you’re looking for a plate carrier, how do you go about it? The first thing to do is sit down, and honestly think about what you need, what you want, and what your budget is.  Depending on your situation, your needs could be your own choices, or defined by your agency or unit. I understand that the Army has been allowing soldiers to use their own gear on a unit-by-unit basis, but they’re still going to have some standards you’ll have to meet. For example, my brigade standard was at least six plus one magazines- that last one usually went into my back pocket- an IFAK on our left, a GP pouch for NODs that that didn’t have a specific location, but almost always mirrored the IFAK, and a water source- meaning a CamelBak. For a while, one company commander also required us to have everything mounted on a chest rig, so we could do training “slick”, despite never actually doing training without IOTV’s. As a team or squad leader, I also was effectively required to have an admin pouch. As you can see below, this led to a heavily loaded vest.

My IOTV, as it was near the end of my career

I have no experience with LEO needs, but as a civilian, it’s up to you to figure out what you need and what you want. Try not to overload yourself. A good baseline, if you need one, is three magazines for your primary, a water source, and a first aid or trauma kit.

Your budget should include your carrier, your plates, all the pouches, accessories, and attachments, and any additional gear you’ll need like a belt. You should also expect to have to spend some extra as you shake down your kit and find things may not work like you thought they would. If, as you start shopping, you find that you’re going to go over budget, you should really think before you start to extend that budget. You may want to adjust your requirements, although you should also be careful of ending up with one sweet piece of kit that doesn’t do what you need. You can also start considering which pieces give you the most bang for your buck. For example, if plates are too expensive, a chest rig might get what you need to start training while you save up for the plates and carrier you want. You could also look into cheaper alternatives, especially early in the process, which I’ll talk about more later. 

Plate carrier design philosophy

Almost all plate carriers are developed for military or law enforcement use. With the militarization of police in America, that effectively means they’re made for the military. Furthermore, because Special Operations is where the customers have a bunch of money they can spend, and more specialized needs, most of the plate carriers on the market are targeted towards them. Depending on your personal situation, that may or may not be an issue. Plate carriers targeting the civilian market have usually been behind the curve on features, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re bad.

No matter the target market, every plate carrier has been developed to achieve a specific set of goals. As an individual, those goals may or may not align with yours. Broadly speaking, these goals are protection, carrying capacity, mobility, weight, cost, and extra features. A typical military vest’s goals are significant soft armor protection that can be scaled with additional attachments, capacity for any squad member’s basic load, acceptable mobility, weight and cost, and an emergency quick detach feature. With that feature list, you can find carriers that were never mass adopted, but which were clearly developed to compete in that space, like the Tyr Epic. The part of that which may align the worse with your personal goals is often cost, because buying as an individual will certainly cost more than a massive purchase contract.

Source: Tyr Tactical

Even though plate carriers are designed with specific goals in mind, the goal itself may be a compromise. This is especially prevalent among general purpose and mass issued carriers. Consider, for example, the differences between what a light infantryman, and a motorized or mechanized infantryman. The light infantryman, rucking everywhere, wants less weight and more mobility with plenty of quick access to magazines. A mech infantryman is more willing to take more weight, because he’s riding in the back of a Bradley into the fight. Even within those two categories, a rifleman, machine gunner, grenadier, and team or squad leader are going to have different needs but are all issued the same IOTV or SPCS.

Source: SOFREP
You know the difference between a vacuum cleaner and a Bradley?
There’s only one dirtbag in a vacuum.

I’ll go into this more in a later video or blog post, but every plate carrier out there falls into one of three categories: Full body armor, which has significant soft armor coverage, like the IOTV or CIRAS; transitional plate carriers, which has reduced soft armor coverage, like the SPCS or LBT 6094; and dedicated plate carriers, which don’t have soft armor coverage like the Ferro Slickster, Crye JPC, or most other designs available.

Image Source: HeroOutdoors, LBT, Crye Precision

Most dedicated plate carriers can have plate backers or trauma pads installed behind the plate, and several do have an option for side soft armor attachments. This makes them further straddle an already blurry line, but it’ll come down to how you, specifically, set it up. Soft armor does provide additional protection, especially against fragmentation and pistol rounds, and additional stiffness and structure to the cummerbund that you might like. However, it also increases the weight, bulk, and especially the cost of your carrier, especially if you’re getting it new. It’s also worth noting that some of that bulk is going to be there in a transitional plate carrier whether you install the soft armor. You should also be aware that some plates, especially military SAPI plates, are designed to work In Conjunction With soft armor, and may not offer the same level of protection without a soft armor backer.

With the expense of soft armor, and availability of good Standalone plates, most people looking to buy a plate carrier with their own money are looking at dedicated plate carriers. Circling back to my earlier point, many of these have been developed around specific niche needs in the SOCOM community. Some of those niches may not be relevant to you, despite a particular carrier’s popularity within the civilian tactical community. Two common examples of these traps are extreme lightweight carriers, and back panels.

The Back Panel Trap

Several plate carriers come with a way to quickly attach and detach equipment to the rear panel. For example, the LBX Armatus II uses a combination of Velcro and buckles, while the Spiritus LV-119 and Crye JPC 2.0 use zippers. Either system allows you to swap out what’s attached to your back quickly and easily. This is fantastic for quickly changing out your equipment as your mission set changes. However, that modularity comes at a high cost- an LBX back panel costs a third of the carrier, and the Crye and Spiritus options cost about as much as their respective carriers do. I’ll talk more about the modularity trap in a little bit. However, the real trap you run into is that stuff on your back is hard to get to, especially if it’s attached to your back plate. With a separate assault pack, you can take it off while leaving your vest on to get to whatever is in there. You may have noticed that I said that part of the purpose of a plate carrier is “to hold other equipment, like magazines, for quick and easy access”, without mentioning who has that access. In a team setting, something on your back can be accessed by one of your teammates, but as an individual, you need to specifically arrange things to be able to get to anything on your back. Like how I can shove bolt cutters or a Shockwave into the compartment on my LBT assault pack.

I can reach both of these on my back, but how much of a tool do you think I look like with them?

That’s not to say that back panels don’t have their uses. They’re great if you’re going to be rucking somewhere in kit, then dropping your ruck and attaching something else to your back. In fact, some LBX packs like the Titan 3-day are specifically built around that concept. However, if you’re not going to be rucking anywhere, or working in a team to do something, this can be an expensive alternative to just throwing on an assault pack or directly attaching a CamelBak. Additionally, gear primarily intended for use by your teammates should be something you discuss with your team, or will be ordered by a team leader, so take that into consideration.

The Lightweight Trap

As for extreme lightweight carriers, one of my biggest pet peeves in the gear community is the conflation of weight with comfort. For a somewhat extreme example, this laundry bag, and this mid-ruck that I lost during ETS can carry about the same amount of stuff. The laundry bag is significantly lighter than the ruck, but which one of those would you rather carry fifty pounds six miles with? Very lightweight carriers are purpose built for short, direction action missions with minimal gear. This advice is especially targeted towards service members buying your own gear, who may run into a situation where you’re required to carry so much equipment that you lose the benefits of a lightweight carrier, without any additional support provided by the vest itself.

Which would you rather carry heavy shit in?

Furthermore, I’d like to point out that the carrier itself is only a small proportion of the total weight of your vest system. My LBT QRCv2 in Medium weighs 2.9 pounds according to the LBT website. Fully loaded with lightweight, SAPI Medium Hesco 3810 plates, soft armor inserts, and no ammunition in the magazines or water in the CamelBak weighs about 22 pounds. The carrier itself is only 1/7th of the total weight.

No toes for you

Lightweight carriers work best as part of a total lightweight system, which requires proper planning from the start, and a requirement set that works with that goal. Trying to force the square peg of a lightweight carrier into the round hole of a general-purpose kit may lead to some issues for you.

The Modularity Trap

Modularity is one of the sexiest marketing buzzwords in the tactical industry. Ever since something that was supposed to make logisticians’ jobs easier got turned into “changing calibers in the field in response to battlefield conditions”, there’s very few new tactical products that don’t slip in the word “modularity” somewhere in their marketing material. This is especially true in softgoods, and comes in a couple of different forms, without getting too deep into these, which will be the subject of another video or blog post.

The first, and most common, is PALS, or Pouch Attachment Ladder System, webbing, which is also more commonly known as MOLLE webbing or the MOLLE grid, because it was a key feature of the MOdular Lightweight Load-bearing Equipment system. I’m being a little pedantic here, because even I typically just call it MOLLE attachment, but now you know the real term for it, and you can recognize it if you see it. This pattern of webbing, 1.5″ wide and 1″ tall with 1″ spaces between them is the modern standard for attaching gear to other gear using a variety of straps, clips, and other doohickeys too numerous to really list here. It’s rock solid, mounts stuff in flexible ways, and is incredibly common.

The second, and really the oldest one, is layering a separate chest rig or other kind of Load Bearing Equipment or Vest (LBE/LBV) over your carrier. This has a lot of benefits when combined with a slick type of carrier, like the LBT Slick that doesn’t have any provision for attachments on the front. It’s also very useful for when you sometime train or operate in full kit, and sometimes just with your LBE. For example, sometimes a unit will pack their vests into their rucks for a long march, but wants to be able to fight immediately in case of a surprise engagement or ambush.

The third is big Velcro panels across the belly, used to attach a separate chest rig or placard with the appropriate backing across the belly of a plate carrier set up for this, like the Ferro Slickster in my last video. At the same time, many modern chest rigs or placards have a pouch that takes Velcro inserts allowing them to be set to take whatever particular configuration you want, such as the Haley DC3RM Micro.  

An Esstac Triple Midlength Daeodon on my LBT6094QRCv2

There are also combinations of the above, especially as laser-cut MOLLE grids have become more popular, giving the benefit of PALS webbing without needing extra material on top. This can also be cut into a Velcro panel, resulting in a combination of all three of them.

So, what’s the catch? To misquote myself, modularity costs something which can be money, weight, or bulk. MOLLE attachments, which are common and cheap, add some extra bulk with three layers of webbing between the layers, and specialized attachments like the WTF straps, which cut down on the bulk can get expensive. In addition, while you can change things around, it’s not exactly quick when you do so. Dedicated chest rigs, especially ones that work well out of armor, end up with a lot of extra bulk and complexity in their straps once you layer them over a vest, and the padding on top of your vest ends up being worthless while wearing it that way. In addition, many modern chest rigs are effectively just placards that have strap attachments, leading to a potentially unfocused design, lacking in carrying capacity, if you’re using it as a chest rig. Finally, those elastic inserts are often inferior to dedicated pouches, and the layers of Velcro add bulk and cost.

Unfortunately, there isn’t really a perfect solution for everyone here. If there was, it would be a combination chest rig and placard that carried everything you needed, nothing you didn’t, without extra bulk in the shoulder straps, that stayed exactly in place when worn over kit. Accepting that this doesn’t exist, how do you try to get the most bang for your buck?

This really boils down to two things that occasionally contradict each other. First, don’t pay for a feature that you aren’t using. Secondly, just because you paid for it, doesn’t mean that you have to use it. In more detail, for example if you’re never going to use a chest rig/placard combo as the chest rig, maybe look into a dedicated placard with the same feature set that doesn’t cost as much. If you’re only ever going to use a single loadout, paying extra to be able to quickly switch loadouts may not be the best use of limited funds. On the other hand, most dedicated placards usually come with a bunch of extra GP, admin, or other small pouches that look cool and fill space across the front of the placard, like the Haley DC3RX. It’s really easy to see empty pouches and come up with a way to fill them; there’s almost always one more thing you can find that might be useful to shove into your kit. The trick often becomes just not using a pouch. For example, I have a DC3RM Micro with an SMG insert to hold Scorpion magazines for my AK-V. For me, fully loading it involved four magazines, a handgun magazine in the left-hand pouch, maybe a multitool in the right-hand pouch, and absolutely nothing in the center admin pouch.

Nothing in the pouch

I avoid giving specific recommendations in this article, but I’m going to give one here. If you’re going for a very basic front panel, I’ve found the Esstac 5.56 Triple Daeodon Midlength front panel is an excellent magazine panel without any added frills. The pouches are great, there’s nothing extra, and $65 ($68 with webbing, which I’ll always get even if I never use it) is pretty reasonable for a placard. If you want a bit more real estate- one extra “rung” of PALS- they have a taller version for the same price.  If you need more capacity, there’s also their four-wide version for big boys. Maid and I both have them standard on the front of our carriers, if you think that’s a good endorsement. 

Objectives for your Carrier

 Following on from my advice to establish your requirements, you should consider those as objectives for your carrier “system”. Your needs and your budget become primary objectives. Your wants become secondary objectives. Id also warn you against choosing a carrier first, and then defining your objectives around that carrier. On the other hand, wanting a carrier because you think it looks cool is perfectly valid; just be honest with yourself about that instead of trying to pre-justify away potential buyers remorse. As individuals, were doing this because its fun, so don’t feel like you need to justify everything as pure practicality. On the other hand, if you have a real practical need, the advice stands.

The primary objectives should be fulfilling your mission. Carrying as much as you need to carry comfortably for as long as you need to, in whatever situation you’re going to find yourself in, all within whatever your budget is. The specifics here obviously depend on your personal situation, but again, be honest with yourself for what you need to do. This section should also include interacting well with the other equipment that you’ll be using with it.

Secondary objectives are things that are nice to have, but you don’t necessarily need. This could include compatibility with equipment you may be planning on using in the future, but aren’t dead set on yet, additional ammunition capacity and so on. Making your carrier as lightweight as possible should always go here. Make sure your equipment does what it needs to do first, then chase weight savings. If all you want is lightweight kit, then just drop the plates altogether and go for a chest rig instead.

Evolution of your Personal Gear

So, you’ve got your kit, whether you bought it or were issued it. What do you do now?

First things first, make sure it fits as well as possible. Hell, if possible, you want to do this before you buy it. Ask around your group or unit to see if anyone has the particular setup that you’re looking for, and see if you can borrow it. This is a benefit of being in the military while you do this: you can buy a carrier, borrow a set of plates, and see how well it fits before you buy plates yourself. Another tip if you’re in the military and working with your issued gear is that you can trade your carrier and plates in for a different size, even if CIF is a giant pain in the ass to deal with.

However you do it, take your time with this step. Fit is incredibly important for long-term comfort, and no matter how long it takes you to get everything set up, once it’s set, you’ll probably never have to change it again. Feel free to experiment here too. For example, I flipped the cummerbunds on my IOTV to lift the side plates higher up on my hips, and stuffed elbow pad inserts into the wing pockets on the front panel for extra comfort under the side plates. On the SPCS, I bridged the back panel and the side plates with the IFAK and GP pouch (sorry, no pictures) for extra stability and tensioning the cummerbunds open.

There’s a lot of ways to test the comfort of your fit, but one of the simplest ways is to just wear your carrier around in your downtime. Kitted PT is another great test, and if you don’t do that, taking it for a long walk or run is another option that will also help your conditioning. Jumping up and down in kit, like some lazy leadership suggests, is a piss poor test, and you shouldn’t give that too much weight.

At the same time as you work on the fit, you should be trying different configurations of pouches and accessories that fulfill your minimum requirements. Again, this is a great time to experiment with different configurations and is also the time to use cheap options. If you’re currently in the military, use the standard issue pouches; they might not be great, but you have them for free and they do at least work. If you’re not, or just really hate the standard issue equipment (I understand), look at the Condor magazine shingles, which you can get for about $20-30 on Amazon (This is not an affiliate link), or other airsoft gear you can get even cheaper. It may not have the durability you need over a long period of time, but it’s cheap and lets you test out different configurations without putting too much money into it. Once you’ve got your configuration nailed down, replace the cheap versions with better ones. Or don’t, as you can see from the pictures of my IOTV, which was very late in my career, I kept using the Condor pouches through training because it worked well enough, and I didn’t care enough any more to pay for updated versions.

Details of my IOTV setup, Condor panel and flipped cummerbund

Once you have a solid handle on your gear’s fit and a good configuration for your basic requirements, load your kit with as much bullshit as you can think of and fit onto it. Again, do this on the cheap. Fit everything you think could be useful, or you ever find yourself wishing that you had. For me, this period was the same time I was required to have a chest rig, so I used a Specter Gear MOLLE chest rig and stacked seven double magazine pouches on it to carry a total of 14 + 1 (back pocket or rifle) magazines. It made for a fun live fire exercise, but I also never did it again, because that was stupidly heavy.

If you’re curious, a few other configurations I tried involved a BFG Ten-speed triple panel mounted upside-down on the front plate with the TAP connected over it on the front; I’d take the TAP off while in a vehicle since I was usually a CROWS gunner, and could put it on or not any time I got out. Another I used for a long time was three magazines across the front, then 2×2 on the left-hand cummerbund, which was great for prone, but I eventually settled on the 3×2 across the front so I could let my arms down instead of being forced into permanent invisible lats syndrome. As a grenadier, I’d usually just stuff my pockets, or use SAW drum bandoleers to carry 40mm rounds, and as part of weapons squad I’d just carry extra cans of ammo in an Eberlestock Halftrack, and combined they gave me with a curb weight, when the Bradley ramp dropped, nearing 400 pounds. 

Eberlestock Halftrack, from their website. I’d actually suggest their Terminator pack instead

Once you have your overloaded kit put together, adjust from there. While making sure you maintain your minimum requirements, you should be more willing to strip stuff out rather than adding things in. This is about the stage where I ended up in a team leader position, so adding an admin pouch to carry a notebook, map, protractor, pencil, pens, and markers became important, along with stripping out all the extra magazines I carried as a jackass rifleman. It’s also worth mentioning that you never really leave this stage. Whenever you have the chance and budget, try different things with cheap gear, and see if it works for you. You may confirm that what you have works, but you might also discover a new way to do things that works better for you.

Conclusion

As always, thanks for reading. There’s a good chance I’ll post more of my more abstract ideas that don’t make good videos here, along with Maid’s content. If you’ve got questions, comments, or corrections, either DM me on Discord if you know where to find me there, or on Twitter here. We’ve got a patch shop going, and we’re doing all of this out of pocket, so buy some patches to fund us keeping doing it. I’ve got a couple more video ideas coming, including one with some more specific recommendations on kitting up on a budget, so follow me here.

Go do Goblin Shit for John Company.

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