Are side plates necessary?
The question of running a rifle plate rig with side ballistic plates comes up quite often as people frequently get concerned about the lack of side protection offered by traditional plate carriers. There are several disadvantages to having hard side plates, namely weight, cost, and loss of mobility.
If someone has already committed to burdening themselves with hiking around with approximately 18lbs of ballistic plates strapped them to protect themselves from rifle fire, it may seem like a logical progression to go ahead and throw side plates on as well. The problem is that side plates are still extremely heavy. Each side plate can weigh up to 5lbs, so what was an 18lb rig is now 28lbs, a 55% increase. Not only is the now the upper limit of what even the fittest men can comfortably wear, but that 10lbs could have been better spent on other gear like water, shelter, or firepower.
The second major negative is the increased cost of side plates. The price of purchasing a specific plate carrier that has side pockets coupled with having to buy two additional plates is often the price of another whole two-plate vest. The reasons for this are fairly straightforward. While the cost of the material used in side plates will obviously be less than the much larger forward and rear plates, the processing in manufacturing and labor hours are roughly equivalent. Add in the fact that there are fewer suppliers of side plates in the market, and the price for a side plate is approximately the same as a front plate. The same goes for the manufacture of plate carriers that can accommodate side plates. The additional material, complexity and labor hours, coupled with fewer suppliers competing in the marketplace means the price is significantly higher than a two-plate carrier is.
The third and probably most important downside is the significant loss of mobility that comes with running side plates. Depending on their size and cut, they can restrict the arms from lowering completely. They cause the vest to become rigid in three dimensions making bending and twisting nearly impossible. This is particularly noticeable when running for cover in drills. Not only does the increased weight and un-natural top heaviness slow you down, but also once you hit the deck all of the plates hit each other and often times do not lay properly causing them to jab into the user. Once finally under cover, moving the shoulders and peeking from behind cover is practically impossible with the shoulder and torso contortions necessary to shoulder a rifle in confined spaces.
These negative characteristics of side plates are not helped by their limited actual protective value. What most people typically do not address is the actual likelihood of being shot in the side where a side plate would come into play. If worried about being hit by a “sniper” or similar long-distance shot, such marksmen typically do not shoot when presented with a target at a profile. This is because the target area presented is smaller than if you were facing them dead on or with your back to them, reducing the chance of a hit that would unnecessarily expose their position.
While it is true that in an ambush scenario, the attacking force is more likely to attack from a flank, but how long does it really take you to rotate and face the force? A second? Maybe less? Moreover, from then on out you are stuck carrying 50% more weight for no added functional protection in the middle of a firefight. Bulletproof vests are great, and can save your life. However, in a firefight, structural cover that can absorb the energy of the bullets is going to be better in the long run, especially when it comes to protecting your extremities and head. So which is better, having 10lbs of steel to protect you from possibly 1 second of danger while slowing you down, possibly preventing you from reaching cover in time, or having a practical balance of protection and mobility that can keep you from being shot in the first place?