From standard issue military garb to civilian airsoft getup, tactical vests are essential elements of most skilled shooters’ uniforms. Tactical vests provide combatants with essential storage and easy access to ammunition, tactical kits, and extra gear. In addition to their load bearing qualities, it is not uncommon for modern day tactical vests to incorporate body armor like plate carrier systems.
To help ease the burden of purchasing your very own tactical vest, we’ll give you an in-depth look at several different styles of tactical vests and their practical applications. What’s more, we’ll break down the basic layouts of tactical vests and explore a number of unique features.
Our hope is that by the time you’re done reading this article, you’ll be able to make an informed and worthwhile purchase. Enjoy!
What are Tactical Vests and Plate Carriers?
A tactical vest is a heavy-duty vest that can be worn over clothing and outerwear. It serves as means for carrying essential gear, ammo, and firearms. In many cases, it doubles as ballistic body armor often referred to as Plate Carriers. There are many advantages to wearing a tactical vest, including convenient arms-reach access to critical gear and replacement ammunition. However, not all configurations are fit for the same job.
While designs vary greatly, the most consistent feature would have to be the pockets or pouches. Still, these receptacles range in size, shape, and closure as they are intended to hold a spectrum of contents, including flashlights, ammo, cell phones, documents, and guns. In some cases, these accessory-holding pouches are sold separately from the rig. In other variations, the accessory pouches are sewn onto the vest’s foundation.
Typical Law Enforcement Tactical Vest
As an essential element of military, police, and S.W.A.T. team uniforms, most tactical vests are lightweight, comfortable, and yet extremely durable. In addition to uniformed officers, hunters, fishermen, paintball enthusiasts, hobbyists, and even doomsday peppers have demanded premium vests and are responsible for the ever-growing popularity of civilian tactical vests.
Whatever their intended purposes are, tactical vests can be specifically tailored to suit a person’s unique needs. From weapon-specific magazine pouches to designated handgun mounts, both established and customized layouts are available.
What are Tactical Vests & Plate Carriers good for?
Tactical vests are available for a number of purposes. While the military and law enforcement agencies have embraced these vests for years, civilians have revamped conventional options with their own missions in mind. Vests can be used for defensive purposes, hunting, airsoft, paintball, and so much more.
They provide an added layer of protection to the chest and back. Moreover, they provide a functional means of storing and accessing gear, guns, and ammo. A vests ergonomic configuration helps evenly distribute weighty materials, easing the burden and physical stress of carrying supplies. That being said, a tactical vest's ultimate duty is to provide a combatant with ease of movement and operation throughout a complete mission.
Typical Military & Airsoft Vest
What to generally consider and why
There is a lot to consider when purchasing a new tactical vest. Before making a selection, consider what factors will be desirable for the mission at hand. Factors such as fit, pocket capacity, size, weapon compatibility, and materials can have a profound impact on your performance.
Most tactical vests are one-size-fits-all, although adjustable straps and secure-fit closures can help you tailor a standard garment so that it hugs your body. Most vests have adjustable shoulder, torso, and waist straps with hook and loop or click-close safeguard connections. For safety reasons, it important that the vest is snug and that there are no loose-hanging straps or cords.
It is especially important that armored vests are the appropriate length and girth. A poorly fitted vest will be uncomfortable and dangerous when operating in high-risk environments.
Most vests are one fit and can easily be adjusted to your size
When thinking in terms of vest components, nothing trumps capacity. We are, of course, talking in terms of what items and how much of them the vest can fit. This, paired with the particular length and intensity of your mission, should determine what capacity you require.
Keep in mind that vests can pack an abundance of rifle and pistol magazines, house a canteen or hydration system, provide safe storage for flashlights, GPS systems, night vision goggles, maps, and so much more. Many also incorporate a plate carrier and/or Kevlar armor.
The bottom line: Make up your mind before purchasing - what do you really need to carrier around?
While most tactical vests fall into the one-size-fits-all category, dimensions vary greatly. This can be a problem because protruding pouches are likely hazards in tight spaces, as they are prone to snagging and may limit a combatant’s range of motion.
Some vests utilize specialized webbing that allows you customize your kit attachments and reduce the girth of your load when necessary. The MOLLE System (Modular Lightweight Load Carrying Equipment) is a mainstay of both the U.S. and British Armies (MOLLE Manual). Systems such as this are a practical, minimalist option.
Most tactical vests have pouches that are designed to precisely fit a standard rifle magazine. However, specialized vests also accommodate extended magazines, shotgun shell holders, handgun holsters, and handgun magazine pouches.
If you’re purchasing a fixed layout, it is important to consider any and all weapons you intend to pair with your vest. Whereas, a vest that features MOLLE webbing gives you the option to purchase and rearrange custom accessories.
If you want flexibility, then choose a MOLLE system
MOLLE Rifleman Configuration Example
Like most things, the majority of tactical vests are designed with right-handed shooters in mind. If you are a lefty, keep your eye out for a vest with adjustable handgun holsters and accessories. As you know, tactical missions demand the utmost accuracy and speed.
When it comes to the material makeup of most tactical vests, combatants look for strength, comfort, and breathability. Popular materials include nylon mesh, PVC, Rubber, and Kevlar. Vests with ballistic carrier plates may also incorporate some sort of bulletproof metal or ceramic.
Typically, a vest consists of a foundation of breathable nylon mesh. This creates a temperature neutral, breathable piece of gear. Layered on top of the nylon base, PVC provides an extremely durable, rip-resistant, all-weather, load-bearing surface. Add in a rubber recoil bumper and a durable carrier plate and consider yourself prepared for anything the mission launches at you.
Armored vests are designed to protect your vital organs from the penetration of bullets and punctures. With that being said, even the strongest plates are susceptible to damage. For example, no plate can protect its wearer from blunt trauma. In fact, according to a study in a recent publication of Miltary Medicine, there has been an increase in combat-related head, face, and neck injuries among personnel wearing armored tactical vests (Tong).The reason being, fragments from explosives are being redirected to more susceptible parts of the body.
Plate Carrier Protection Zone
What is the standard layout of a tactical vest?
Tactical vests can be divided into three different groups: fixed, fully customizable, and partial customizable.
There are several reasons operatives prefer permanent sewn-on pockets. For one, they don’t run the risk of coming loose or falling off. Apart from that, not all occupations require frequent rejigging. In which case, there is simply no need to remove or replace certain accessories.
Pre-configured pouch layouts are often called "crossdraws." These layouts are economical and fuss-free. They come prebuilt with a variety of magazine pouches, shotgun shell retainers, quick-draw pistol holsters, and various other compartments.
If you are considering a fixed layout tactical vest, ensure that pistol holsters and ammo pouches align with your shooting hand to ensure rapid weapon deployment. This style of vest is great for beginner shooters or those looking for a convenient, simplistic, and cost-effective design.
Fixed layout vest with cross draw
Partially Customizable Layouts
The vast majority of tactical vests fall into the partially customizable category. This group consists of vests with both sewn-on and removable accessory holders. These vests either incorporate MOLLE webbing panels or modular connection points. This allows ambidextrous, left-handed, and right-handed people to optimize their accessory layouts. In addition, it allows users to switch out or replace obsolete accessories and optimize the weight and girth of their vests.
The option to partially scale back a vest is vital to an operatives mobility. Whether you are hitting the ground running or navigating via a tight vehicle, there are times when the mission calls for a low profile.
Fixed front & MOLLE back
Fully Customizable Layouts
Fully customizable layouts start with a featureless foundation consisting of MOLLE webbing. Customers can purchase a variety of individual accessories to attach to the webbing to build a custom vest.
When purchasing a fully customizable skin, keep an eye out for low-profile shells that housing ballistic protection. What’s more, ensure the vest you choose is easy to slip on and off in the heat of the moment.
Fully Customisable MOLLE System
Load Bearing vs. Plate Carrier
Standard load-bearing vests feature an assortment of accessory holders distributed over a simple shell. These vests give individuals the option to go without armor or layer their vest on top of a protective system.
Alternatively, loadbearing vests that incorporate ballistic plates or bulletproof materials are both a means for protection as well as carrying supplies. There are both hard and soft styles of ballistic armor. The National Institute of Justice’s provides detailed information on their ranking system for ballistic armor (NIJ Standard).
From International Armored Group
What are the different applications for tactical vests?
There are plenty of professional and recreational environments that warrant the use of a tactical vest. Read along to learn more industry-specific vest features and basic requirements.
Military Tactical Vests - Plate Carrier
Tactical vests were originally invented with the military in mind. In fact, the standard issue Interceptor Body Armor (IBA) used by the U.S. Army, Marin Corps, and Department of Defense civilians includes a tactical vest with ballistic inserts and fully encasing ballistic armor plates (GAO). Read along to learn more about what to expect from a military tactical vest. Plates are designed to resist the puncture of a number of rifle-specific bullets as well as other weapons.
What to look for and why
Military tactical vests are designed for extended wear. Many operatives partake overnight and even days long missions that require them to carry a diverse bundle of ammo and gear. A military-specific vest should provide you with ballistic protection and house a good amount of gear. What’s more, it should fit snuggly but be easy to remove.
Soldiers on the ground utilize a combination of ceramic small arms protective inserts (SAPI) and steel carrier plates. Whether you’re rocking an Improved Outer Tactical Vest, a Modular Tactical Vest, or simplified an Enhanced Load Bearing Vest, it is imperative that you have sufficient protection from enemy fire and other projectiles. While it can be cumbersome to don heavy armor day after day, these ironclad vests protect your vital organs and literally take a bullet for you.
Fortunately, modern-day military tactical equipment is designed to help you comfortably endure the harshest environments. By utilizing lightweight synthetic fabrics, manufacturers have made these vests more comfortable as well as resistant to water and sweat.
When dressing for battle, another important feature to consider is camouflage. The United States Army currently utilizes a variety of digital, woodland, and disruptive patterns in occupation-specific colorways. Not only are these patterns an integral part of military defensive strategies, they help agents to identify friend from foe.
We like these Military Tactical Vests - Plate Carriers
First Spear Strandhögg
Police Tactical Vests
Police officers assigned to high risk or tactical missions are typically required to wear a tactical vest with body armor. In most cases, local police agencies will specify body armor requirements that meet the United States Department of Justice’s standards (Worcester).
Law enforcement people should select a vest out from their mission meaning everything from light soft body armor to heavy hard body armor and even pure load bearing vests above a protecting armor could be relevant.
What to look for and why
When it comes to selecting a law enforcement tactical vest, safety should be essential. At a bare minimum, a vest should protect the wearer from bullet punctures and blunt trauma injuries to the torso. It should also prevent a deep perforation from both commercially available knives as well as improvised weapons (National Institute of Justice). Meaning level 1 and 2 body armor.
A tactical vest chosen for an officer of the law should also be comfortable and accommodate enough to wear for extended and elevated periods of activity. Discreet, modular varieties are ideal for navigating dense urban and civilian areas. Essential accessories to watch for include a variety of magazine holders, a duty-sized pistol belt, zipper closures, a zip-up document pouch, and additional pockets for items such as a stun gun, flashlight, and/or an I.D.
Police vests should have a detachable hook and loop administration pouch for issuing tickets, warrants, and other important documents. You may also need Velcro uppers to display nameplates.
If you are a member of a law enforcement entry, S.W.A.T., or warrant serving team, you may require a vest that can take a little more abuse. Most frontline response teams require extensive hard body armor like plate carriers and the option to carry multiple magazines. These vests are the same as military tactical vests.
Good Police Tactical Vests - for different purposes.
Condor Crossdraw Vest
Point Blank Elite Vest
Hybrid Enhanced Vest - Tactical Tailor
Airsoft Tactical Vests
Whether you are new to or experienced in the sport of airsoft, your essential game day gear is not complete without a tactical vest. Riflemen, snipers, and support gunners all need some sort of rig to house their extra ammo, magazine loaders, and, ideally, a hydration system.
Airsoft people have the freedom to select between any type of tactical vest as they don't have to care about protection.
What to look for and why
Airsoft players don’t need to worry too much about protection. Of course, durable, all-weather materials help ease the sting of feisty BBS and spikey shrubs. What’s more, if your battles are staged in an indoor arena, you might want to invest in a protective plate carrier. Nevertheless, there is really no need for expensive ballistic armor plates or Kevlar a foam "plate" will do just fine.
Narrow your search by looking for a vest that is lightweight and features a camo or colorway that will flawlessly blend into the background scenery. Opt for a garment that features design elements such as MOLLE webbing or a Camelback hydration system. Simple, effective layouts are literal game changers.
Any Military Tactical Vest such as Plate Carriers will work - just insert foam instead of real ballistic plates.
If you're looking for a way to carry your paintball loadout, large capacity carrying pods are your ticket to success. In addition, a general purpose pouch for your keys, cell, and wallet is crucial for any tactical game that takes you deep into the overgrowth.
Good Vests for Airsoft
Condor Outdoor MPS Combat Chest Armor
Condor Outdoor Recon Chest Rig
Hunting Tactical Vests
Hunters don’t need to worry about protection, but a quiet vest that can carry ample amount of ammunition has become the standard equipment for those in pursuit of an animal.
Choose your hunting vest out from the type of hunting you are doing and the local laws - sometimes blaze orange is required and other time camouflage would be the right choice.
What to look for and why
The market for hunting tactical vests is saturated with spliced neon orange and woodland colorways with an abundance of pockets. When making a selection, preference should go to those that incorporate quiet materials such as polyester or padded nylon. Nevertheless, any vest that can cradle an abundance of ammunition in addition to itinerate gear, such as binoculars, flashlights, range finders, and water, will do.
Many hunters aren’t convinced of the benefit of a tactical hunting vest until they consider the ergonomic benefit of this load bearing garment. Not only does it allow you to easily house and access your gear and ammo, but it can also be customized to ease the transition between hunting seasons and any correlating weapon changes.
A variety of manufacturers even cater to specific game hunts. For example, a turkey hunting tactical vest may incorporate a locator-call pocket, a rapid-deploy seat for long stakeouts, and various small accessory pockets for items such as pruners, keys, or flashlights.
Some good hunting vest
Primos gun hunters vest
CKSN Polaris 2
Cabela's Men's Tactical Tat'r™ 2 Turkey Vest
Guards Tactical Vests
If you work in security, discretion, comfort, and defense are essential design elements of your ideal tactical vest. Keep in mind you’ll also want to be able to move around easily and have the option to layer your vest with a variety of weather-appropriate clothing. Guard jobs can be unpredictable. Making sure everything you need is just an arms-reach away is imperative to your safety and mission.
Most Police Tactical Vests will work for Guards as well but heavy Hard Body Armor like Plate carriers are seldom needed.
What to look for and why
If you are a security guard, check with your employer before purchasing a tactical vest. Most security firms have specific uniform guidelines that apply to particular protection assignments. Armed guards, for example, will need a vest that houses a handgun, ammo, and armor plate. Meanwhile, factors such as climate and the target of your surveillance have an immense impact on the type of tactical vest fit for the job.
Features to look out for include MOLLE webbing, adjustable pockets, puncture-resistant materials, ballistic carrier plates, and added neck protection. Vests should adjust easily and stay put during intense motion.
We like these Guards Vests
Safeguard Armor - Hybrid
Condor Crossdraw Vest
Point Blank Elite Vest
The Bottom Line
Tactical vests are a versatile way to carry essential gear and ammo during a number of different missions. Whether you are prepping for war, an airsoft tournament, or doomsday, there is sure to be a vest with a configuration fit for the role.
Just remember that, when deciding between load bearing vests, customizable MOLLE rigs, and armored plate carriers, the details concerning your mission, weapons, and gear matter.