Gear Review: AR500 Armor Carbon Nanotube Soft Armor IIIA

AR500 Armor IIIA plate, c Nick Leghorn

I’ve tested a couple body armor options for TTAG in the last year. They’ve ranging from Kevlar level IIIA vests to level III steel plates and plate carriers. And while they work, and might save your life, they’re nowhere near comfortable and are often downright cumbersome. That’s where AR500 Armor’s latest product comes in handy . . .

The usual way to make a bullet resistant panel is to sandwich layer upon layer of heavy Kevlar until you have enough material to stop the requisite projectile. Then pop that into a vest of some sort for the end user to wear. Kevlar, though, is neither lightweight nor flexible, meaning that the vests are extremely heavy and very stiff. They work, but it’s not something that you’d want to wear every day.

Thanks to recent innovations in science, though, we’re finally at the point where we can use carbon nanotubes to make incredibly strong materials that are also insanely lightweight. You can read up on them on the ol’ Wikipedia, but the long and the short of it is that they allow you to have an incredibly strong barrier without the usual associated weight. And it’s awesome.

But that doesn’t solve the whole problem, since while the projectile is stopped it still exerts a tremendous amount of force over an extremely small area. That can lead to some nasty broken bones and associated trauma depending on where the round hits. The solution is to spread the force of the impact over a greater area. The way that AR500 Armor does that while still allowing the plate to be flexible is by using a non-Newtonian backing.

Again, Wikipedia has your back on the science but essentially it’s a material that is flexible when you slowly move it or impact it, but turns to a solid when struck with a great force. Like a bullet would. So when the force of a round hits the otherwise flexible backing, it hardens and disperses the impact over a much wider area than would otherwise be possible.

That’s all great in theory, but what really matters is how it performs in the real world. And boy does it perform.

Testing body armor gets boring after a while, and when the manufacturer provides this kind of video evidence of the fact that it works, there’s very little our own testing can add. So, it indeed works and stops most of the projectiles that you might be concerned about encountering.

AR500 Armor provides two versions of the nifty soft IIIA plate. The first is the standard vest-style cut, which will slip into any existing plate carrier or vest and provide more or less the same protection as a standard Kevlar vest but much, much lighter. The SafeGuard Kevlar IIIA armor that we’ve tested before clocks in at about 5.5 pounds. These sheets will only run 1 pound each. But while the standard option is nice, it’s the second option that really intrigues me.

AR500 Armor IIIA plate, c Nick Leghorn

AR500 Armor sells a 11″ by 14″ plate that fits almost perfectly into my 5.11 Messenger Bag and turns it into a real bullet stopping piece of equipment. Even better, it only adds about 1 pound to the bag and doesn’t make it any less flexible. But the best part is that I can bring this bag anywhere and have my IIIA protection with me at all times without raising any red flags or having to answer any unwanted questions about why I’m wearing a bullet proof vest. I recently flew from San Antonio to New York City’s JFK airport and back with this IIIA plate in my carry-on bag, and then proceeded to carry it everywhere in the city, and didn’t get a single question about it from the local constabulary. Or my family, for that matter. It was completely covert.

That’s really what these plates give you, and where you get your bang for your buck. They’re lighter and more covert than the standard Kevlar plates, even if you use them in a traditional vest-style setup. Oh, and did I mention that they’re cheaper than their Kevlar buddies? The best deal on a Kevlar vest I could find was around $400, but I can kit out a vest with a set of these plates for $350.

Yeah, I don’t see a downside here… except to DuPont.

Specifications: AR500 Armor Carbon Nanotube Soft Armor IIIA

Weight: 1 pound
Sizes: 11″ x 14″ square or vest cut
Price: $130 (square) / $140 (vest)

Ratings (out of five stars):

Ease of Use * * * * *
These plates slip right into your existing gear or pack, and while only adding one pound of weight adds a ton of “peace of mind.”

Utility * * * * *
It stops bullets and doesn’t give you away. For concealed carry, it’s perfect. But if you expect some higher velocity threats, you might want something with some steel plate inserts.

Overall * * * * *
While AR500 Armor sent the square plate to review, I think I’m gunna have to con them into sending the vest cut plates as well. For… um… “testing.” Yeah, testing. Long term, that is.

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About Nick Leghorn

Nick Leghorn is a gun nerd living and working in San Antonio, Texas. In his free time, he's a competition shooter (USPSA, 3-gun and NRA High Power), aspiring pilot, and enjoys mixing statistics and science with firearms. Now on sale: Getting Started with Firearms by yours truly!

43 Responses to Gear Review: AR500 Armor Carbon Nanotube Soft Armor IIIA

  1. avatarST says:

    What a timely review.It looks like I’ll need to visit family in Chicago inside of a month and, well, they don’t call it “Chiraq” for nothing.

  2. avatarTom in Oregon says:

    I see a long over due replacement for the kevlar in my Al Mar soft briefcase.

  3. avatarAccur81 says:

    I wonder what the dimensions of the vest panels are. I may slip them into my existing carriers if they fit. Our vests our sized, as are most vests for police officers. You want something that’ll fit we’ll underneath your uniform shirt and the duty belt so that you don’t look like a soup sandwich.

    • avatarTom in Oregon says:

      Or get pushed up by your duty belt into your throat when you sit in the mobile office.
      I really don’t miss wearing all the gear.

      • avatarAccur81 says:

        It’s really not great for the lower back. Ah, well, at least I still have my health insurance. Plus, I get to practice with about 100 rounds per month absolutely free. Wow. At least I know my guns work.

        • avatarHasdrubal says:

          I haven’t been issued my monthly ammo for close to a year now, I think. Not that they don’t want to, but we’re not a huge department and the stuff they ordered is backed up for a while.

  4. avatarTwinkie says:

    Useless review is useless.

    You didn’t shoot the armor. You just showed a manufacturer’s Youtube video. Of what use is this except as a paid advertisement?

    • We don’t have the facilities to test the plate properly. We could shoot it, but it wouldn’t tell you anything useful. Their video is pretty much the NIJ standard test, and I’ve talked to the guy that did the test enough to trust the results.

      I’m all for wanton destruction, but I have other plans for this plate.

    • avatarWyatt says:

      I agree.

      If you handled a firearm, racked the slide some, and dry fired it and gave it a rating it’d just be a big ad too.

      This seems like standing by someone else’s words than your own if you don’t do your own testing.

      I think it’d be fine as a product announcement, but a review? Really? It meets that standard (based on what we’re accustomed to from you guys)?

    • avatarCliff H says:

      The thing that concerns me about soft armor tests is not that the manufacturer produced the video, since it looks like they did a pretty thorough job of it, but that there is no definitive measure of the trauma to the chest behind the vest. Yes, not even the .44 Magnums penetrated, but it sure as hell looked like they all would have hurt, lot. We need to get the Mythbusters on this to do some REAL analysis of what happens behind the vest.

      • avatarPaelorian says:

        Absolutely. If I have to wear a trauma plate behind this, it then it’s basically hard armor and I might as well wear DKX IIIA Dyneema plates at 20oz. The manufacterer also needs to provide more information, such as whether it sinks or floats and any usage limitations: temperature ranges if applicable, whether it’s safe to drop, if the armor lasts indefinitely or needs to be replaced after some years, anything else we need to know to keep it in working order. Until I get the answers, and I’m looking for them, I’ll stick with DKX which before hearing of this I considered the best IIIA armor available (still the best Level III, except maybe against M855). I see great promise in this IF it does the same job and is flexible and lighter. Big if!

        I’m also looking forward to reviews of the Ceradyne (3M) Defender Seamless Ballistic Helmet, the commercial version of the new Enchanced Combat Helmet the US Marine Corps, Army, and Navy have adopted. It’s claimed to be the first practical helmet that can stop a round of 7.62x39mm. Last time I checked, it was running around $2,000 a helmet. But a helmet that can stop an intermediate round, not just pistol rounds, is definitely worth it if you’re preparing for combat.

    • avatarfrank lewis says:

      This isn’t carbon or nanotube. I just received one of the inserts. They are 5 layers of Chinese make generic goldflex, 18 layers of Chinese made HDPE, and 1 layer of carbon matrix. Not near enough material for level IIIa. Usually 32 to 34 layers of this Chinese material is required to pass IIIa test. The 1 layer of carbon material won’t stop a hard spit.

  5. avatarg says:

    Put one of these in a backpack for yourself… or the kids.

  6. avatarKevinMA says:

    Their website isn’t working.

  7. avatarlolinski says:

    I liked it until I saw that it is iiiA.

    Why not use this to make anti-rifle plates?

    • avatarnatermer says:

      I am guessing that it would require it to be too thick and you then you lose the benefit of concealment and flexibility.

      How many people out there offer level III soft armor? It does not seem to be common at all. It seems that rifles level threats need plates.

      • avatarHinshelworld says:

        The thickness of kevlar required to make soft armor perform up to a level III would likely be nore cumbersome than plates. I would guess the same for this stuff.

    • avatarXanthro says:

      The first step is creating a level III plate.

      1. There’s more demand for it, so the development costs can be recouped more easily.
      2. It serves as a testing platform for level IV.

      That might actually stop a rifle round, but the blunt force impact isn’t spread enough. Remember, this is a one pound flexible plate. And for every person shot with a rifle round, 100 people are shot with a pistol round.

      The market for this is EDC. It’s something you can wear daily.

      Plus, imagine layering this with a steel plate. Now you have even better stopping capability. A big problem with steel plates is the spalling. You can coat it, but that coat can be 3/4 of a pound more. Now for a pound more, you have no spalling, and the ability to wear a very flexible vest when warranted.

      It’s a pretty nice product. I’d like to see some shooters cuts, but it might be flexible enough that isn’t needed.

      That’s what I’d like TTAG to review, not the plate’s stopping power, but it’s usability. Does it get in the way of shouldering, does it restrict movement, how easy is it to bend over. Those kinds of test that often get ignored.

      • avatarMatt in TX says:

        I bought the AR500 steel plates. Love em and trust em, but they are heavy. 22 pounds, with carrier. Still rather have steel than ceramic.

  8. avatarJohnny says:

    I think your article killed their webby!

  9. avatarHinshelworld says:

    I don’t see the point in carrying an armored bag? What do you do, just hope you get shot right in your briefcase?

    Doesn’t seem practical.

    • avatarXanthro says:

      You use the briefcase as a shield over vital parts.

      • avatarHinshelworld says:

        Seems difficult when you should be running or fighting.

        • avatarTom in Oregon says:

          With mine, you unzip the bag and hang it from your neck. It provides protection from neck to crotch. And with the handy holster built in to it, ready access to GG.

        • avatarXanthro says:

          It’s a tool, not a force field.

          As Tom wrote, in many of them, you open and hang it from your neck around your chest, providing a quick vest.

          In many places, wearing a vest is either not possible, or presents many problems, and having the ability to add the near equivalent of a vest is another tool.

          Many of the bag plates on the market cost more than $130 and are heavier, and can’t also be used as a in a vest.

          They even make bullet resistant clip boards, which provide far less functionality that a 11×13 plate. It’s because there are places where you can’t be armored, but you can have a clip board. So the clip board is better than the current alternatives.

  10. avatarPete says:

    Nerdiest gear ever? I’m down! :)

  11. avatarPaul B says:

    They just keep getting better and better. Can’t wait for the shirt that can stop all rounds. Now that is something I would buy.

    • avatarCliff H says:

      I saw something on the InterWeb a few months ago about a new flexible fabric only one layer thick that would stop a 9mm or .38 Spcl. round. Wish I had kept that link. Still seems like you would need some sort of backing to distribute the blunt force trauma, however.

  12. avatardook says:

    I’ve been trying to get into AR500 for about a half hour before I read this link. Now I no why it is down. TTAG effect! (Like slickdeals effect, but more focused, resolute, and patriotic) ;)

  13. Considering that carbon nanotubes still cost hundreds of dollars a gram, I am calling bullshit.

  14. avatarDJ9 says:

    I haven’t yet watched the video, so perhaps this was addressed there, but I didn’t see anything about it in the article, so I’m going to ask about it.

    Kevlar degrades over time, to the point that its suitability/usability “expires” within 3-5 years of manufacture. I believe some of this is related to moisture, but not all. Does this new type of panel have an expiration date under normal use? Any concerns about moisture, UV exposure, heat, cold (-20 F or colder is not unusual where I live), or any other real-world limitations on use?

    • avatarWilliam Burke says:

      Well, it seems UV would degrade Kevlar. On the other hand, no one wears it outside their clothes…..

  15. avatarArod529 says:

    I wanna know why it “blew up like a balloon” when shot with the 44mag. The deformity caused coverage issues, and makes me wonder about the blunt force trauma that the wearer would suffer. Even though there was no penetration, there seemed to be what looked like nasty shrapnel damage on the surface of ballistics gel.

    • avatarXanthro says:

      I would guess because of the non-newtonian liquid, it’s going to create so odd shapes when hit, and the plate wasn’t in a vest or compress to help distribute that shape.

      I’d think it would hold together better in a plate carrier, simply because of the physics.

      This is new territory, so a good bit of testing needs to be done. There are many things that can be done to distribute the force, as long as the carbon non-tubes are not penetrated.

  16. avatarbenny says:

    Yep. I’m sold.
    My vest is made out of the same material as the space elevator!
    Well I’ll be saying that one day…

  17. avatarWilliam Burke says:

    “Again, Wikipedia has your back on the science but essentially it’s a material that is flexible when you slowly move it or impact it, but turns to a solid when struck with a great force.”

    Hmmm. I’ve been expecting the carbon nanotubes to come into the fray this way. Now… what if we could fill them with NON-NEWTONIAN LIQUIDS?

  18. avatarWI Patriot says:

    The day is coming that we may all need and want to wear some type of body armor, not only as protection from those who would do us harm, but from those sworn to protect…

  19. Pretty uninformed article. Modern Kevlar, or especially Kevlar hybrids are extremely flexible and light. A Rhino Armor 11×14″, comparing to what is quoted in the article, is 17 ounces, very flexible, and has a 30+ year proven track record, and are $129 from our distributor. Carbon nano tubes are new, there is no long term testing on how they hold up. So proven performer or fancy new item with no record?

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