In part one of this series we discussed some of the basic principles of load carriage as well as the use of belt based systems. In this part we will continue the discussion by focusing on chest rigs, and body armor based systems. The basic principles from part one still very much apply and we will revisit some of them as we proceed.
Very few things are truly new or innovative, most are in fact improvements on concepts that have been used in the past. The chest rig is certainly no exception. Going back all the way to the First World War we can find examples of chest rigs being used to carry grenades and stripper clips, fast forward to the Second World War were American “pathfinders” often wore rigger modified chest mounted pouches for their Thompson sub machineguns, and we can look at the Chinese, Soviets, and Rhodesians with their penchants for chest rigs; needless to say it’s pretty clear that the concept has merit.
Let’s start with a couple of general principles that I have found when it comes to chest rigs:
Slim- Keep the overall rig as slim as possible, too much bulk makes getting into the prone or many other low positions difficult if not impossible. Additionally when worn in a vehicle too much bulk can negatively impact the ability to drive, egress, or manipulate weapons.
“Pregnancy test”– The simple test that I use to determine if my load is too bulky is the pregnancy test…No guys this isn’t the same test that you make your mistress piss on in order to determine the outcome of the rest of your life, but rather takes its name from the fact the pregnant women can’t look down and see their toes. The same premise here after I don all my kit if while standing perfectly upright I can’t see my toes then I have too much stuff on my front.
Light- One of the most common complaints that I hear from guys about chest rigs is “It makes my back hurt.” OK got it….This tends to come from a combination of two factors. First being core strength; the stronger ones core is the easier it is to compensate for the increased weight of the rig upfront. The second factor is weight. Guys tend to put WAYYYY too much crap on a chest rig. In case nobody has figured it out yet, Ammo is heavy, a loaded 30 round M4 mag weighs about a pound and a 30 round AK mag weighs twice that, so the guys with “Mega rigs” like the one pictured on the right with 12 rifle magazines, 2 pistol mags, 2 frag grenades, a large IFAC, 2 smoke grenades, a pistol, a knife and all the rest of the stuff that folks seem to think that they can’t live without quickly adds up to 30+ pounds on their front. I don’t care how strong your core is that sort of an unbalanced load for a prolonged period is going to put strain on the lower back. So be sensible about the load. I find that 4 magazines and a basic IFAK to be about perfect.
Position- How the “chest” rig is worn can play a role in comfort and utility as well. The name chest rig is often somewhat of a misnomer, in realty the optimal position for wear is more of the upper belly or lower chest. To that end let’s consider a few things as they relate to position of wear. When worn very high on the chest it can make accessing magazines difficult and nobody likes getting hit in the chin or mouth while performing a combat reload. Additionally as humans our center of gravity is at our hips and the farther we move the load away from that center of gravity the more profound the impact on balance will be as well as the greater the strain upon the lower back. Ultimately this is each individual’s preference. I generally wear a chest rig so that the top of the magazines rest at the bottom of my pectoral muscles.
Pros & Cons
As with any piece of equipment chest rigs have some pros and cons. Understand this doesn’t make them good or bad but I would like to share a few that I have experienced personally.
- Breathable - Compared to the full LBVs of the 90’s or the Armor carriers of today, slim chests rig are cool and breathable in warm climates.
- Rucksack/Backpack compatible – honestly there are few other fighting load carrying systems that are as easily compatible or as comfortable while “humping” a ruck as a chest rig.
- Mounted (vehicle) operations- For mounted operations the chest rig really shines providing relatively easy access to items while in a seat and allowing the individual to sit comfortably and far enough back in the seat to safely utilize seatbelts or airbags, as well as drive without crowding the steering wheel.
- Rapid Donning & Doffing – Chest rigs are very fast to both put on and take off.
Most of the most common cons of chest rig use are directly related to the weight and or bulk of the load and can be mitigated by slimming it down.
- Back strain - A common complaint from chest rig users is lower back pain.
- Off balance - A very heavy, high riding chest rig is not optimal for balance.
- Interference with “prone” position - Although it is true that combat is not often a prone world; but when it is the guys with mega rigs have issues.
As with any type of equipment it is important to understand that not all are created equal nether in quality or design, so let’s take a moment to dissect various chest rig features.
Let’s start with the platform; in today’s market we have choices, lots and lots of choices when it comes to the chest rig platform.
Sewn - One option is a permanently sewn layout, this is indicative of our early rigger made R.A.C.K. (Ranger Assault Carry Kit) prototypes that we developed in the Ranger Regt. in the late 90’s and is still common today in many forms by various manufactures. One thing that I will say about this option is that provided the design is sensible, it keeps things simple and prevents guys going full retard and packing everything plus “the kitchen sink” onto their chest. Additionally due to the absence of all of the extra webbing and hardware needed in the modular systems these tend to be lighter and less bulky. The down side is that when one changes weapons systems or mission profiles, adaptation can be problematic.
Modular - The second option is a modular MOLLE/PALS system comprised of a platform and various pouches. Obviously the primary benefit of this option is the ease of adaptation and the ability to customize the layout to the individual. This allows someone to change their layout or tailor their load to fit the mission. This can however be a bit of a double edge sword. Everyone knows some guy that just can’t leave well enough alone “Tinkerers” if you will; they will constantly be changing the layout of their equipment, although this would seem harmless enough I have witnessed a marked lack of efficiently when accessing items when they do this.
Hybrid systems - Perhaps the best and worst of both worlds…There are many hybrid systems on the market today that consist of a basic fixed magazine capacity that is sewn into the platform and then covered with PALS webbing to facilitate modularity. Honestly I like these; however they really open the door to become a monster of a rig if you aren’t careful.
The straps that bear the bulk of the load come in many different styles. We will address many of the common ones.
X-straps - Two shoulder straps crossing over the back is how most early systems were made. They are easy to produce and quick to don, however sometimes they have a tendency to migrate northwards and ride up into the neck area this is especially the case when wearing over body armor.
H-harness - The H-harness solves the problem of the straps riding into the neck and also more evenly distributes the load. Additionally the cross piece is used by some manufactures to attach a hydration system carrier. This is the style of harness that I prefer on a chest rig.
Padded or Unpadded - The next choice of straps is padded or unpadded. Both have pros and cons whereas the padded straps are ostensibly more comfortable, they are also more bulky in low-vis applications and often less comfortable when worn beneath other straps such as those of an assault pack or rucksack. I find that width is more important than padding and thus (>1.5”) unpadded straps are my preference on a chest rig.
Chest rigs are relatively easy to use in conjunction with both soft and hard body armor. The practice of simply donning the chest rig over the armor is pretty much caveman simple. When doing this keep in mind that the shoulder straps will need to be readjusted or the rig will ride way too high.
I have often routed the straps of a chest rig into the shoulder pads of an armor carrier to make a one piece system. This makes the entire assembly easy to don and doff, as well as prevents the chest rig’s straps from riding on my neck.
Another option is integrating the chest rig into/onto your armor system. Many manufactures are producing armor carriers with QASM buckles on the front to facilitate the quick interface of a chest rig. For low-vis operations where body armor is worn under a cover garment but the rifle is kept in a bag or vehicle this has merit. Once the time comes to bring the long guns out and “go loud”, a minimalist chest rig that is kept along with the rifle is simply clipped to the front of the armor within seconds.
Some chest rigs have the option of inserting a hard armor plate into a purpose built pocket on the front and replacing the harness with a back plate carrier. I personally don’t care for this option but it is out there.
The topic of body armor is absolutely enormous and one could write volumes on the technical nuances of it. My intent here isn’t to write an all-inclusive piece on the topic but rather to provide some basic principles for the practical employment of body armor as my experiences have taught me.
Lets’ get this out of the way right from the get go…..ALL ARMOR IS HOT, ALL ARMOR IS HEAVY, ALL ARMOR REDUCES MODILITY!!! Just some less so than others.
Why - What is the real purpose of body armor? That is a very good question; I mean “sheesh” it still hurts when you get hit, it reduces mobility and we all know that in a fight movement equals life. So what’s the point? Well body armor really provides two things:
- Body armor often gives the opportunity to survive the tactical errors that are going to happen.
- Body armor keeps you in the fight long enough to win it. This doesn’t mean you won’t get jacked up, but it may keep you from being dead right there on the spot.
Dress for the occasion - When I say dress for the occasion I mean that we need to select the correct armor for the threat, environment, and mission. As a rule of thumb if I am carrying a rifle then I wear rifle rated armor. There are exceptions to this of course, such as humping thru the mountains on a recce mission in that case then maybe armor should get left in the rear. But for any proactive fight I want armor. In order to make an informed decision it is important to understand the various levels of protection that different armor provides.
For the civilian and Law Enforcement community body armor testing standards are regulated by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). The NIJ publishes a rating standard that is classified into five types (IIA, II, IIIA, III, IV) by level of ballistic performance.
The Department of Defense DOD has its own armor testing criteria. These standards are not open source but actually exceed NIJ for some threats. For example the SAPI and ESAPI protection requirement is for multiple hits with AP vs. the NIJ type IV standard is a single hit.
Type IIA (9 mm; .40 S&W) 9mm 124gr/FMJ @1225fps; .40S&W 180gr/FMJ @1065fps
Type II (9mm; .357 Magnum) 9mm 124gr/FMJ @1305fps; .357 Magnum 158gr/JSP @1430fps
Type IIIA (.357SIG; .44 Magnum) .357SIG 124gr/FMJ(FN) @1470fps; .44 Magnum 240gr/SJHP @1430fps
Type III (Rifle) 7.62mm NATO M80 Ball 147gr/FMJ @2780fps
Type IV (.30 cal Armor Piercing) .30cal M2 AP 166gr/FMJAP @2880fps
The term In Conjunction is often heard in reference to body armor. What this means is that an In Conjunction plate is an insert that is designed to provide increased ballistic protection only when it is used with a particular model of a flexible armor. For example the military issue SAPI and ESAPI plates are In conjunction plates in order to meet the DOD multi strike standard.
For more in depth reading on the topic here is a link to the NIJ test standards.
Since body armor is a multibillion dollar business spiral development of emerging technologies are being worked on continually to achieve the two primary goals that the end users all universally want and those are, “lighter and leaner”. As should be obvious as the level of protection increases so too does the weight and bulk of the armor. That is why we need to dress for the occasion. Because at the end of the day those two factors impact our mobility greatly.
Soft body armor is made of extremely strong woven fibers. This material stops a bullet pretty much the way a net stops a tennis ball. It turns the bullet, slows it down, and disperses its energy throughout the panel. The mushrooming of a handgun bullet helps with this process. Also, the slower and heavier the bullet the better. High-velocity and hardened tip bullets like those fired from rifles can just cut through the fibers and punch through the vest.
Soft armor comes in many types and designs depending on the prescribed use. For concealment or “low-vis” applications soft armor is typically the go to answer by having the least impact on concealment while still affording some protection. When we look for soft armor, the differences between type II and type IIIA in the weight and bulk departments are really not that substantial. However where difference exists is keeping you in the fight after the shot; for example a type IIA threat being stopped by a IIA vest is going to put a major smack down on you, whereas the same round stopped by higher type IIIA vest will still hurt but will have less impact on your ability to fight; this is of course relative but generally the case. So when selecting soft armor I think that IIIA is the best universal choice.
Proper fit of soft armor
The proper fit of soft armor is dependent on the cut of the vest. Where some are designed to provide greater coverage, others are designed to cover just “The Box”. So my recommendation is to use the manufacture’s recommended sizing guides for that specific piece.
Absolutely your armor needs to protect what we in the medical field call “The Cardiac Box” (outlined in yellow). This is the area in the upper center of the chest that contains the heart, the great vessels, and the bronchial tree. Studies show that persons presenting with penetrating trauma within this border have a mortality rate of >80%. But that is the barest of minimums; let’s look at what else is in there that needs protecting. The lungs honestly are not that high of a priority, they take damage pretty well, you have two of them and can survive with just one, and a tension pneumothorax is both easy to manage and very survivable. But the liver on the other hand is a very vascular solid organ that is quite susceptible to penetrating trauma, so we want our armor to cover the liver as much as possible without sacrificing mobility. The other structure that needs protecting is the diaphragm, this is the muscle that forms the border between the chest and the abdomen, but more importantly it is responsible for our ability to breath.
You really want your armor to have a “Goldilocks” fit. If it’s too long it will ride up when you’re seated and hit you in the neck, if it’s too short it won’t afford the required protection. If it’s too wide you won’t have full range of motion across your middle, but if it’s too narrow vital areas will be exposed. So you want it like Goldilocks likes her porridge “just right”.
Hard Armor (Rifle Plates)
When we start looking for protection from rifle level threats that typically means hard plate armor. I have to say that there are a lot of variables, options, and choices when it comes to hard armor, so let’s just jump right in and start looking at them
Steel vs Ceramic
This appears to be the current internet armor debate, and is founded more in an attempt to save some money then in capability or performance. In the end what I like to say whenever I get pulled into this debate is this…. “Have we seen steel armor being issued to the military in the past 25 years?” The answer is “no” and there is a reason, but never the less let’s compare the two.
- Cost- pretty cheap, about $80-100 per plate
- Durability- Steel plates are tough, so you can treat them very badly if that is your thing.
- Availability- There are tons of companies making these now. (This could also be a bad thing; you never know what you are getting)
- Thickness- The overall thickness is less if concealment is a factor.
- Weight- Steel armor is almost twice as heavy as armor of greater protection in ceramic.
- Profile- Steel armor is only available in a single curve profile; this impacts on fit.
- Fragmentation- Fragmentation or ricochet of a projectile is common with steel armor. Currently many companies are spraying their plates with a coating to reduce fragmentation; however the risk of a ricochet still exists.
- Protection- I’m just going to say it… Steel armor doesn’t provide the same levels of protection as ceramic. It is rated only as Type III NOT TYPE IV
- Protection- Modern ceramic armor such as the SAPI and ESAPI are available to provide multi hit protection from armor piecing projectiles.
- Weight- Ceramic or other composite armor is much lighter than steel armor.
- Profile- Ceramic armor is produced in more ergonomic profiles such as double and triple curved.
- Cost- Ceramic armor is several times more expensive then steel, depending on what is needed. The bottom line is YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR.
- Durability- Ceramic armor is susceptible to rough treatment. However it is not nearly as fragile as many ignorant people believe.
- Thickness- Ceramic armor is up to an inch thick and this can impact concealment.
The shape of the plate makes a huge difference in fit, comfort, and ergonomics; all of which have an impact on mobility and remember movement equals life. Virtually all types of plates come in a variety of shapes and rather than discuss each one let me just make it simple FLAT PLATES SUCK!!! Most guys don’t realize just how horrible flat plates are until they put them on…So either try some on or take my word for it, “they suck”
Rectangular plates also suck when it comes to weapons manipulation because the upper corners severely interfere with the ability to get the butt of the rifle into a good shooting position, as well as makes bringing both arms together while shooting the pistol more difficult. This causes many guys with rectangular plates to wear them too low so as to compensate for the shape. “Shooter cut” or “Operator cut” plates have both upper corners angled to allow for better ergonomics, incidentally the reduction in protection for these areas is not a significant factor when we objectively look at the underlying anatomy. Basically the worst plates imaginable are flat rectangular plates. Leave them for what they are…TARGETS
Plate backers - Plate backers are basically soft armor plates made to ride behind hard plates so as to achieve the prescribed protection rating. These do two things, they reduce injury from “back face deformation” and they increase the multi-hit capability of ceramic plates. These can also provide soft armor protection when worn without their hard plates.
Armor carriers have become quite popular within the tactical community over about the past 15 years. In simplest terms an armor carrier is exactly that; a garment made to carry body armor in the proper position while worn, however they are also more than that. They are available in countless styles from plain to ridiculous and most now function as a load carrying system as well.
The most important function of any armor carrier is for it to hold the armor in the proper position during dynamic movement; comfort however is a close second. We have already discussed wear of soft armor so let’s take a moment and address proper plate placement and wear of hard armor. The most common error that I see when it comes to the wear of armor plates is wearing them TOO LOW. Remember the “Cardiac Box” from earlier? These same structures need to be protected by our hard armor. That means two things 1st your plate needs to be the right size for your thorax and 2nd it needs to be positioned and held by the carrier in the correct place. As a general rule we want the plate to cover from nipple to nipple from side to side, and from the suprasternal notch to about four fingers above the navel top to bottom. Keep in mind that these anatomical measurements apply to normal athletic shaped men. Guys with huge crispy crème bellies and man tits are not going to be able to use the same structures for measurement. However the top of the plate being even with the suprasternal notch is the corner stone of proper placement.
Here is an anecdotal exception…..Depending on the size and shape of the plate there are times when I have used a slightly smaller plate because I had problems achieving optimum hold for pistol and rifle. This was a conscious and informed personal choice based on experience; excepting some reduction in peripheral protection for better speed and accuracy.
Plate carriers or PC’s are pretty much the minimalists of the armor carriers and most are designed to provide armor protection to the front and rear. Although there are side armor plate carriers the vast majority are front and back. Plate carriers can be used to augment soft armor by quickly donning over a soft vest, as is the case for many in the Law Enforcement community who have an “Active Shooter” vest. Other systems are used as a standalone such is common within the military special operations community where the tradeoff of protection for mobility is often accepted.
For plate carrier setup I like a less is more approach and the same basic principles apply to PCs as they do for, warbelts, and chest rigs. Currently I prefer a simple minimalist carrier from ATS with just a triple shingle on the front and a 50oz hydration carrier and radio pouch on the back. The lean minimalist set-up does not interfere with mobility or access of any of the items on my warbelt.
A scalable solution
One truth is that as our missions change so too does our requirements for equipment. A Glock 42 isn’t anyone’s first choice of armament for a direct action raid, but neither is it practical to carry an M4 while walking down a city street. Same is true with body armor, if I am kicking down a door or defending a position I want full tactical armor, however if I’m conducting some low-vis type operations and don’t wish to tip my hand I want a concealable option. And that really is the point I like options.
To this end I like a scalable system, that provides both load carriage and protection; but that is scalable from nothing all the way to full tactical ensemble and everything in between. For the base of this system I use a type IIIA concealment cut vest that has a low profile carrier made to accept hard armor plates. I made my carrier at our rigger shed, but there are similar systems available commercially. As you can see when worn as soft armor it is easily concealed under normal lightweight clothing.
To upgrade to a higher level of threat protection in an environment that I still might wish to remain covert the addition of front and back ESAPI plates makes this possible. The system is still very easily concealed beneath a button up shirt or hoodie sweatshirt.
To upgrade the system to a full tactical ensemble a low-profile chest rig is worn over the vest with the shoulder pads mating them together. Or for operations were armor isn’t wanted such as a recce, the chest rig can be worn as a standalone.
I would feel as if this article was incomplete without at least briefly discussing head protection. I think that we can all agree that our head or more specifically our brain is pretty critical to life, however it is also fairly easy to injure and thus protecting it is important.
Warriors have been wearing head protection going back to dawn of time, I mean what’s more iconic then a Spartan’s helmet, even back then they knew enough to protect the “brain housing group”. This is still very much true today. The potential threats are vast, as are the options for protection.
Let’s look briefly at some of the risks of head injury.
Falls- Falls from any height where the head impacts the ground or other objects present a high potential for TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). Fighting in and around structures result in massive amounts of falls both in training and combat.
High speed impact- This is more than just bumping your head; a collision with an object while running will often result in a TBI, however even just a simple bump on the head can reduce combat effectiveness for a short time.
Blows to the head- During a hand to hand engagement a blow to the head can be a fight and ultimately a life ender.
Gun shot- Due to the fact that the skull is a closed container; when bullets enter it at high velocity it causes massive damage, in many cases resulting in a near explosive evacuation of its contents.
Laceration- The scalp is extremely vascular and even rather minor lacerations from contact with sharp objects bleed a great deal, while this bleeding is not life threatening it is a distraction and in combat distractions are life threatening.
Vehicle crashes- The unpredicted and uncontrolled violent forces that are imposed on the body during the crash sequence result in significant numbers of brain injuries. NASCAR requires its drivers to wear helmets for a reason.
That was but a few of the countless risks that are common in combat and more specifically combat in an urban environment. The wearing of a helmet mitigates many of these risks; additionally it provides mounting and interface options for NVG (night vision goggles) and communication devices. So the wear of a helmet while conducting any sort of overt proactive fighting is in my opinion a no brainer.
Ballistic or Non-ballistic
The other option to consider is to choose a ballistic or a non-ballistic helmet. Just like other types of armor both have pros and cons.
- Weight- Most “bump” or skateboard type helmets weight about a pound and a half.
- Profile- The low profile makes these helmets fairly cool and minimally intrusive on vision, or hearing.
- Cost- Most cost less than $100 although some are twice that for the “new hotness”
- Impact protection- These offer good impact protection for falls and bumps.
- No ballistic protection- That is really the only con for this type of helmet but depending on the application this could be a big one..
- Ballistic protection- Again this is a big one if you are in a two-way shooting match.
- Impact protection- Modern ballistic helmets provide very good impact protection.
- Cost- Modern ballistic helmets cost close to double what a simple bump helmet costs, however used ACH helmets are available online (ebay, craigslist, etc.) for under $100 if one shops around.
- Weight-Ballistic helmets weigh more.
- Profile- This depends on the style and cut of the helmet.
As you can see it really comes down to a personal choice based on needs. I will say that for anytime that I’m wearing “hard” armor I wear a ballistic helmet. I know a lot of opponents of ballistic helmets love to point out “they are only designed to stop fragmentation”…..Well that is just plain not the case anymore. I personally know several guys including one family member who are walking around today having survived direct hits from rifles due to the wear of a ballistic helmet; so based on that I accept the additional weight and go ballistic.
To bridge the gap between a bump helmet and a ballistic combat helmet are the high cut style helmets. These offer a slightly reduced total protection area but still provide it to the front, top, and back, since as these are the areas most exposed while firing around cover it is a good tradeoff for a decrease in weight, and increase in comfort and situational awareness.
I want to close by highlighting the point that if you plan to fight in body armor you need to train in body armor….I’m not saying that you need to do “The burpee mile” in a type IV vest, although doing PT in your armor is not only a good workout but also lets you get used to being athletic and mobile while wearing it. But at a minimum when you go to the range or are doing dry-firing, wear your armor for at least part of your time. Remember movement is life and body armor reduces that movement so we need to work hard at compensating for it. Yet another reason why warriors need to be athletes not just skilled shootists.
Stay dangerous my friends....
Sua Sponte is the nom de guerre of an active US Military serviceman who has spent many years in various assignments within the Special Operations community. And is the author of two titles available from One Source Tactical.