Who do you take to the dance? A chest rig or a plate carrier? Good question. Should you even go to the dance? And by dance, I mean a violent encounter against one or more fully armed assailants.
All kidding aside, we need to recognize that we have to balance our money, resources, and efforts against the threats in our lives. For example, which is the wiser investment—6 months of savings in the bank or an EMP-proof Humvee as a bugout vehicle.
In reality, it depends on your threats? Which will happen first? Loss of a job or North Korea finally pulls on the man-pants and lets one fly. I can only speak for myself, but my bank account is happy and my driveway is empty.
A much more reasonable example is the chest-rig and plate carrier debate. Both are really cool to have next to your rack of ARs.
That being said, there are cost impacts and time impacts to owning either. Last but not least, there is the question of do you even need one. Or, is your time and money are better spent elsewhere.
Let’s take a little time to compare and contrast chest rigs and plate carries.
Let’s start with the basics. First, we’ll answer a few questions. What are chest rigs? What are they used for? And do I need one?
What are Chest Rigs?
Chest rig is a broad term for basic load-bearing gear. They traditionally consist of shoulder straps, a chest strap, and either molle webbing or pre-made mechanisms for securing gear (e.g., magazine holder).
Chest rigs make your gear comfortable to carry and convenient to access. By way of comfort, chest rigs allow you to balance weight.
Backpacks and sling bags are great for the grab and go scenario, however, your gear only goes in one place, which creates a natural imbalance.
Regarding access, retrieving a critical tool from a backpack is never easy. Unless you have a partner to do it for you, you will need to remove the bag.
A properly outfitted chest rig distributes weight equally front to back and places critical gear where you need it. Rifle and pistol mags upfront, water, and bulk storage in the back.
Specifically, a chest rig carries the gear you will need for an extended civilian patrol or an encounter where you have sufficient time to don a vest loaded with mags and trauma kits. It is not for the bump in the night scenario that rapidly escalates in seconds.
Your chest rig carries ammo, trauma supplies, more ammo, communications (COMMs) gear, and anything else you need handy to make your current activities a success. A chest rig will be personal to the user. We all have different needs and levels of expertise.
A COMMS-focused Mutual Assistance Group (MAG) member will most likely have an extra radio, expedient antenna, or spare batteries in their loaded rig. In comparison, a team member on point during patrol will usually be stripped down so they can travel smoothly and silently.
Chest rigs have the flexibility to meet individual needs, whether that be bare bones, or armed to the teeth.
Do I Need a Chest Rig?
As with the expenditure of every one of your dollars, the answer is “it depends.” I’m not going to focus on the patrol officer trained and tasked with answering an active shooter call. Nor am I addressing the active-duty soldier. I’m speaking to the average prepper and homeowner.
There are several civilian uses for load-bearing gear such as chest rigs. The first is home protection. As I mentioned above, chest rigs are not for rapidly developing events. They take time to put on and they aren’t for situations where you can’t waste precious seconds buckling in.
If your home protection plan involves moving to a safe room where you have the defensive advantage, then put on your rig there. Outfit it with the ammo, COMMS (e.g., spare cell phone or cordless phone), and medical kits needed to get you through until the professionals arrive.
The next use of a chest rig is for competition. Long gone are the days of static bullseye matches. Today’s matches are dynamic and challenging for all weapons.
IDPA has officially sanctioned Pistol Caliber Carbines for matches and some clubs support the use of chest rigs for carrying your gear.
My local club even runs a few tactical carbine matches each summer. Nothing says run and fun like sporting 150 rounds of ammo through a tactical obstacle course.
Private classes are another great use of your chest rig. Where sanctioned competitions may not allow for a full kit, a chest rig is almost a necessity for a day-long carbine class. I’ve taken several classes where three mags on a belt just don’t cut it.
Finally, some of our survival plans require self-sufficiency when the professionals are either too busy to respond or no longer exist. In these cases, you need to be fully prepared for any negative elements that come by to do you harm.
The display of capability that comes with a small team, fully kitted, can be imposing enough to send someone in another direction.
Remember, the force continuum doesn’t start with the use of a firearm. It ends with it. A simple display of well-armed confidence is often more than enough to deter a weaker-minded foe.
So, if you do a lot of carbine training (because a rifle is your primary home defense weapon), take classes for carbine or three-gun, or your long-term security plan includes patrols, then a chest rig is for you.
There is little use in supplying the other members of your household with chest rigs. A BOB or bag will serve them just as well to carry their gear–unless they are on patrol with you.
In that case, get identical rigs. That way you have built-in ready-spares. Likewise, if you do encounter a situation, you know the exact layout of their gear (e.g., location of their trauma kit).
Ok, if a chest rig does all that, what’s the use of a plate carrier. Let’s look at that now.
What are Plate Carriers?
The primary purpose of a plate carrier is to hold ballistic plates. The carrier holds the “bullet-proof” plates over your vital areas for their protection.
Plates come in a few flavors. They are first identified by protective rating. From IIA (9mm, 40 S&W) to IV (.30 caliber) the rating identifies the type of weapons the plates will withstand before they are breached.
The most popular plates are Level III. These withstand multiple shots of full metal jacket 7.62mm NATO.
Second, manufacturers offer plates from several different materials. Steel plates are the most common in the civilian market. Ceramic and High-Performance Polyethylene (HPPE) are also available. I will leave the differences between these for your research and wallet.
No matter what rating or material, plates are heavy. Plate carriers have two jobs. Keep plates in position and make carrying that much weight as comfortable as possible. If you have logged a full day with a plate carrier, you know that this isn’t an easy job.
Plate carriers often get confused with chest rigs in that users attempt to overload them with gear. They’re heavy enough without a few hundred rifle and pistol rounds. My set of Level III steel plates clocks in at just about 25 pounds. That’s not including the carrier or mags.
Assuming you’re like me, you’ll recognize that as a civilian, you probably won’t be logging hours day after day on patrol with your carrier and you’ll load it up. If this is the case, a plate carrier can carry the same compliment of goods as a chest rig.
If this is your reality, you better log many training hours. Hours under load will quickly reduce your load-out to only what is essential. Remember ounces add up to pounds and pounds equal pain.
Do I Need a Plate Carrier?
Time to toss a little more reality at your situation. Not only are plate carriers heavy, all but the most minimalist are a pain to get into. That means they require even more time to strap on. You won’t be tossing on a set of plates to charge off into the fray to combat badness.
Plates are for when you have time to prepare. In the home defense situation, you need to make very sure you’ve secured your situation before you dress up.
This means you, and your loved ones are behind a stout door, or you have coverage by a spouse or other trained up family member while you take the time to improve your position.
That being said, a half-inch of steel between you and impending violence is a bit of comfort while you wait for the professionals to arrive. For me, it’s worth the effort to have a set in our safe room.
Carriers, being uncomfortable, are a must to train with. I highly recommend that you take a class or two where they are welcomed. You never know the effect that two-dozen pounds of steel will have on your movement, shooting ability and endurance.
So, toss on a set and educate yourself. Bring yourself to the point of failure and learn from it.
Looking back on the patrol scenario, not that I ever hope to be in that situation, I’d rather have armor than not. The idea of being involved in a protracted firefight without armor is not one of my good thoughts.
Again, you and your team must be well experienced in the effect plates have on your every movement. You will need to understand their negative impacts now before your patrols are no longer practice.
If you have the means, I recommend a plate carrier for each member of the family. During a home-defense scenario, the more protection the better.
Unless you have a bulletproof room, a cheap carrier, and a set of steel plates, adds another layer of security for your family. The more secure they are, the better you can focus on your job.
What are the Differences Between Chest Rigs and Plate Carriers?
When looked at by the uneducated eye, chest rigs and plate carriers can be very similar. But there are differences. Let’s look at a few of the biggest differentiators.
Just like anything in the world, you often get what you pay for. That doesn’t mean that each price point doesn’t have its place. It means that you need to look at your needs and balance them against cost. There is a kit that fits your price and your needs.
Budget Chest Rig
You can purchase a budget chest rig for as little as $60. If you just want a rig to store gear for a grab-and-go scenario, that’s fine. You won’t get much flexibility at this price point (e.g., you can’t add anything to it) and it probably won’t last a year of daily patrols.
That’s not everyone’s use case though. These are budget rigs for occasional use, and very little abuse.
Standard Chest Rig
For a bit more money you can get a rig that will outlast any abuses a civilian will throw at it. I’m not saying that you can abuse it like active military may. I’m just saying that they can take a bit more abuse than the lower tier.
Premium Chest Rig
Finally, there are premium rigs that get you both comfort and flexibility. These will outlast even the most active-duty members. A hose off after each patrol to wash off the dirt and salt, and they are good for the next one.
In the case of the civilian, you are paying for quality and comfort. Those can be valuable investments to make.
Budget Plate Carrier
Budget plate carriers are for the occasional users. They will lack padding and their build quality won’t withstand much abuse.
Again, if your goal is to have a set of plates to toss on the family as you wait for the professionals to arrive, they are perfect. If you intend to hit the range several times a year with yours, look to the next categories.
Standard Plate Carrier
Premium Plate Carrier
Once you pay north of $100, you gain in comfort and quality. Not that a set of plates can be truly comfortable. At least invest the money to make them tolerable.
If you are a part of a MAG or you plan on logging lots and lots of training time, then buy once, cry once. Get a carrier that will last!
Don’t forget that with plate carriers you need plates. These add to the cost of your carrier. After you’ve invested $200 in the carrier, be prepared to invest $250 for a set of steel plates, or $700+ for a set of ceramics.
Weight is the real differentiator between chest rigs and plate carriers.
The weight of an empty chest rig is almost negligible. It’s about the same as a small day pack. It’s the load-out that adds in the weight. A loaded AR magazine weighs about 1 pound.
A pistol mag can be anywhere between 8 and 10 ounces. Next, add in miscellaneous gear such as gloves, COMMS, and a trauma kit, and you can top out anywhere between 10 and 20 pounds.
For comparison, my chest rig (pictured above) carries 6 rifle mags, 3 pistol mags, one accessory pouch, a trauma kit, and a 100-ounce water bladder.
This adds up to a hair under 20 pounds. I load my plate carrier similarly and it weighs in at 37 pounds. That includes front, back, and two side plates. That’s not a lot of fun during an 8-hour class.
In the capacity category, chest rigs win. There is just no way to comfortably fit the same amount of gear in a vest when you are already dedicating 20 pounds to plates. That being said, it will depend on your chest rig.
Minimalist chest rigs are little more than a few mag carriers on suspenders. These have a specific use (e.g., carry a bunch of ammo), and do little else. A chest rig with side panels (cumberbund) and a bib can be loaded to the nines with gear.
The nature of plate carriers requires them to have large pockets for the plates. This allows them to have lots of space for molle webbing. Most are molle from top to bottom and front to back.
This makes it very tempting to load up on pouches and mag carriers. As you do that, run a few drills to make sure that you haven’t overloaded yourself. Like I said earlier, pounds equal pain.
The last difference is the impact of build quality. When carrying 10 pounds of gear distributed around a vest, you can get away with minimal attention paid to seaming, padding, and breathable materials.
Ratchet that up to 30 pounds and it’s a different matter. Research any plate carrier you purchase before you swipe that credit card. Especially if you plan on using it with regularity.
A manufacturer that uses inferior materials or design principles will eventually cause you suffering. The carrier will rub in all the wrong places and cause blisters or hot spots.
A popped seam will lead to a tear and may cause a failure at the wrong moment. When it comes to plate carriers, build quality matters.
Integrating Chest Rigs and Plate Carriers
Can you get away with one investment for both uses? Definitely, you just need to choose your plate carrier wisely.
As I noted above, plate carriers are rich with molle. This allows you to add, update, and modify as necessary.
You can outfit the right plate carrier as a quality chest rig with the addition of magazine carriers, accessory pouches, and the removal of the plates. By pulling the plates you reduce the weight, increase your maneuverability. Make sure that the carrier still fits snugly.
Wrapping Up Chest Rigs and Plate Carriers
Preppers love gear. Often to a fault. I will admit that I’ve made a few choices that fit this description. Chest rigs, plate carriers, and other battle-rattle definitely fall into the cool-gear category.
There is nothing more imposing at a post-apocalyptic checkpoint than someone with a 1,000-mile stare, sporting a full set of plates and gear, a suppressed SBR, and body language that screams you’re about to experience a total failure of the victim selection process.
That scenario makes for great books, but is it a reality for the average civilian? While I can’t answer that for you, I have answered it for myself.
I fit into the category of a civilian that likes to be prepared both with tools and skills. I compete with the goal of increasing my skills rather than for a trophy. I do this with my carry gear and my home defensive gear.
I take the safety and security of my family extremely seriously at home. This extends to our off-grid cabin, where I am the first responder. Unfortunately, we have no phone and no cell service.
If by some miracle we can get a message out to the authorities, they are a minimum of 45 minutes away. That’s a long time to be on your own with the negative elements of society.
I have done my research, logged the training hours, and I’ve made a home for both a chest rig and a plate carrier in my preps. I’ll be honest. The decision took some serious thought and more than a little penny-pinching.
I saved money for the gear but also for the requisite training that I required of myself. I refuse to deploy untested gear. The added hours at the range added up in both range fees and ammo. But in the end, it’s worth it.
Look at your threat matrix, your willingness to train, and your available prepping dollars. Spend some time on the internet researching the options.
Most importantly, make that decision for yourself.