Jacob (rear) and Kane Tierney running 2-man team drills with the S.T.R.I.K.E. (front) and Ronin (rear).
By Jacob Herman
With the huge amount of armor on the market, and the associated drop in prices, we are coming into an era where armor is affordable for more and more consumers. I have always thought it was better to not get shot than to show up to the party in a cool guy shirt. Anytime something goes bump in the night, I throw on my carrier. I am always truly amazed at guys who show up at classes with $3,000 AR-15s and tricked-out 1911s, but don't own an armor carrier with armor. If they do have something, its either the cheapest possible thing they could buy, or doesn't even contain any armor. The same guys also don't own any type of medical gear, but that is for another discussion.
Today there is still very little written about armor systems. Online reviews, and some stuff mixed in with rifle articles, but very rarely is a piece done reviewing a couple of carriers.
I requested armor from six different companies. Some just ignored my request, and one responded with a statement that they held "certain percentage market share" so they didn't need a review. I also learned when some carriers are sent out they don't include the hard armor plates. I was told writers in the past have complained about the added weight. How is someone going to review a piece of gear when it is missing the main part? That would be like testing a baby stroller without the baby. Luckily I had some plates here. I also decided not to test the armor for penetration.
I am not a ballistic protection scientist. I also do not own a lab. This is more about fit and function. You could theoretically wear a piece of armor that could stop any round, but this doesn't mean you can kick down any doors with it.
I have been using my Eagle MARCIRAS with soft and hard armor for about five years now. It works great, and fits me well. After seeing some of
the new kit floating around, I wanted to see what the new big players in the market had to offer. Two companies stepped up to the plate with carriers with soft armor for me to test out. US Palm sent the Ronin carrier, and BLACKHAWK! sent their new S.T.R.I.K.E. Cutaway Carrier with 3D mesh.
The US Palm Ronin arrived first. US Palm has been making a big splash over the last couple of years with their affordable armor carriers marketed to civilians and agencies on a budget. I had a chance to play with one of their carriers fitted with a handgun holster about a year ago and I was impressed. Amazingly, you can actually purchase new body armor and a carrier of reputable quality for under $400. When I saw that US Palm released a full-size armor carrier, capable of carrying both hard and soft armor, I knew I was going to have to get a sample.
Right out of the package I was impressed with the Ronin. If you spend a lot of time around gear you can tell the difference between a good piece of kit and a piss-poor design. I have seen guys have rigs fall apart in the middle of a drill. Come to think of it, I have seen guys take a new piece of the latest, greatest gear, and it fall apart in the living room. That is the last thing you want from something that issupposed to stop a bullet! When I get a piece of gear, the first thing I do is look at the stitching. John Willis of SOE gear took the time years ago to show me the difference between good and bad sewing.
The Ronin has good straight lines, and the stitches were evenly spaced across the entire unit. There was double stitching were needed. I would, however, like to see greater reinforcement of the drag handle area, the handle area extended and at least one more area of double stitching applied. I didn't encounter any ripping when dragging someone in the unit, but this is a critical area of any armor carrier. A couple more inches of stitching could prevent the handle from ever being an issue.
US Palm is located in Arizona. Due to the heat in the area, it only makes sense that they developed a lighter, cooler rig for the end user. Being in an armor rig for hours on end is draining, and every ounce starts to matter. The US Palm Ronin comes in at 11-1/2 pounds with the 3A soft armor and no hard plates. This is fairly light for a rig of this type with soft armor. The Ronin is made from PV500 material that is, according to US Palm, seven to 10 times more abrasive-resistant than normal 500-denier cordura.
After developing little rips and tears in my MARCIRAS over the years, any improvement is greatly welcomed. The inside of the Ronin is also wrapped in air mesh; this increases the amount of air traveling between the rig and the users body. One of the key features of the raised areas in the mesh is that it pushes the mesh a little farther from your body. The mesh is also flame retardant in order to comply with regulations about clothing issued by federal and state agencies.
If you're a civilian buying an armor unit, sizing can be daunting. US Palms website provides a sizing guide based on waist size and weight. I like using the waist and weight size more than the chest; I think it gives a better fit.
Notice Jacob kept the Ronin slick and only used the built-in mag pouches. The rest of his gear was carried on the SOE warbelt.
The Ronin ranks number one in comfort! The unit is adjustable: there are top-strap shoulder adjustments (which are easily adjusted) and inner and outer cummerbunds. I lost so much water weight in a training day that I had to tighten the cummerbunds. A very wide, long strip of Velcro is used to secure the adjustment. I have yet to have it come loose or slip. The shoulder pad units are heavily padded, which comes in handy when your total rig weight starts pushing the 40-pound mark. The unit has attachments for bicep, neck and groin ballistic panels, which can be ordered as part of the shipment.
The front cummerbund has a 3-cell mag pouch permanently attached. I usually run a rig slick with a chest rig over top. I was able to run my SOE NSW chest rig over the Ronin, but I felt the integral mag pouch was in the way. The inner magazine dividers did come out of the cell, but I did not see any other size pouches offered. If you run a .308 rifle then you may need to look at a different carrier. If you need a lightweight rig for a patrol car or emergency preparedness then the magazine pouch comes in handy. You have three mags and there is plenty of room for medical supplies and your radio. Very few domestic load-outs call for more than three magazines on your armor.
The rig is available in multicam, ranger green, coyote, and black. The unit with soft armor included retails for $999
The S.T.R.I.K.E. Cutaway Vest came to me in multicam (multicam is the new "cool guy" color if you happened to miss the memo). BLACKHAWK! sent the rig with a complete set of 3A soft armor, although they now offer a complete line of soft and hard armor. Their multicurved ceramics are reasonably priced, and are optional for qualified buyers. I prefer rigs capable of holding both the hard and soft armor in one unit.
This rig was a little bit heavier than the Ronin, but it is also releasable.
Like the Ronin, the S.T.R.I.K.E. Cutaway unit is adjustable in the shoulders and the cummerbund.
BLACKHAWK! sizes their armor using chest sizes. I found an extra large size was just a tad too big for me. If you wear an athletic cut shirt, I suggest ordering a size down from your normal shirt size. (If you wear an extra large Magpul T-shirt then order a large armor unit.) Since the unit was oversized for me, I enlisted the help of Kane Tierney from Spike's Tactical.
When I fitted the unit to Kane the fit was perfect. The length was right to accommodate his height, and the shoulders were spaced far enough apart to provide a good load distribution. The shoulders on the carrier have an area designed to provide some traction for your rifle. Many shooters have an issue adjusting to the fact they can't feel the rifle on their shoulder.
The extra traction, combined with the gripping surface of new stocks goes a long way with solving the problem of rifle stability.
One of the things I liked about the S.T.R.I.K.E. Cutaway unit was it didn't have any integral magazine pouches. If I wanted to run a chest rig, I didn't have anything in the way. Also, you can set it up to be mission specific. If you need .308 pouches for a M14 or 9mm pouches, then those can be fitted in the standard MOLLE webbing that covers the entire piece.
One of the reasons I started running chest rigs over my armor was my hatred of weaving straps into the MOLLE webbing. The BLACKHAWK! strips made adding the pouches quick and easy. These little plastic units really cut down on changing the pouches on the carrier.
BLACKHAWK sent along their new Berry Amendment-compliant pouches that are completely made in the United States. For those unfamiliar with The Berry Amendment, it basically says any piece of textile-based product used by the armed forces has to be made from American fabric and thread. While the new line of pouches is higher priced, it's always nice to know you are supporting American workers.
I have started using the open top, single-stack pouches. I like the bungee cords used to retain the magazines, and I think they are a little quicker into action. I double-stacked them together on the front of the unit. This gives a total of six rifle magazines on the carrier.
You still have room for your radio and medical gear, even when they are stacked on top of each other. The tourniquet pouch BLACKHAWK! has come out with is also a great piece of kit. It has a strap running underneath the tourniquet. When you pull open the flap, the tourniquet is pulled up, giving you more to grab onto.
Since the US Palm Ronin is not a releasable armor system, I couldn't compare it to the BLACKHAWK!
S.T.R.I.K.E. Cutaway carrier for this feature. I went back to the Eagle MARCIRAS, which I have been using for several years. The Eagle MARCIRAS system uses plastic-covered metal cable as the release.
The cable is attached to a heavy piece of cordura located on the upper part of the carrier in the neckline. There is a cordura "safety" which is secured by Velcro.
I have never had it come loose, and it is positioned in an area you naturally seem to protect. The cable feeds through the shoulder, down the back to the lower area of the carrier.
The system has always worked for me, and I have never had a snag. The S.T.R.I.K.E. Cutaway system operates under the same basic idea. The S.T.R.I.K.E. Cutaway's release is a long piece of plastic with a rounded finger hold at the pull end.
The release area is protected from accidental release by covering much of the ring with the same piece of material that provides the traction for the buttstock.
At first I was a bit skeptical of the plastic release, but after releasing the system in several different configurations, I found I liked the slickness of the unit.
I don't like having the release on the left shoulder. If the arm you need to pull the release is injured for some reason, then you may not be able to reach the needed portion of the unit.
You do not have to leave the house to compare two pieces of gear, but where is the fun in that? A quick ride down to Spike's Tactical in Florida provided a 100- degree day, a Gurkha armored personnel carrier, and some machine guns. Before someone writes a letter to the editor about the ear-pro I can assure you that the rifles were suppressed. Kane Tierney and I hit the range for some drills under the instruction of Ben Thomas using the Gurkha.
The BLACKHAWK! S.T.R.I.K.E drag handle area. The area has more reinforcement than the Ronin. This is one of the first places that fail in a poorly-built rig. I like the amount of stitching in the area, and that it goes from shoulder to shoulder.
Mr. Thomas has spent years doing convoy security on some of the most dangerous roads in the world. This was my first time training with a vehicle like this, and it was a hard learning curve. Especially hard on the top of my head since I'm 6'4", and bailing out of a very low ceiling APC means something is going to hit. Kane and I ran a few bail-out drills to get used to the armor. My favorite drills were holding onto the side of the unit.
The Gurkha would slow and we would dismount and engage the target. Dangling from the side of a giant armored car is a lot different with 35 pounds of kit holding you down. If you ever get a chance to train with an armored vehicle, make sure to do it.
It gets you off the line, and you have to maneuver in far different ways than on a 1-way range. Even special units within most police departments may not have access to a vehicle like the Gurkha. Having trained in the CIRAS for years, usually in a pit in Tennessee, I can tell you that I was thankful for the lighter weight and air mesh that was built into the US Palm Ronin.
Since I preferred the fit of the Ronin, I chose it for my day at the range, but I could not get my SOE NSW chest rig to sit well. I paired the Ronin with my SOE-padded war belt. The padded war belt really distributes the extra weight of magazines and drop leg holsters. The SOE war belt uses the same air mesh-type material as the Ronin.
It helps keep the Ronin slick and lighter, the sweat build-up to a manageable level, and puts my pistol mags, pistol and mcd kit on my first line kit. The core of the padded war belt is the SOE Cobra belt. The buckle of the Cobra belt will hold up to almost any abuse you can give it. The US Palm Ronin and the SOE Cobra belt have become my go-to for a light-weight travel kit. I can throw both pieces in a bag, and handle pretty much any training that comes up in a light, manageable and realistic kit.
Armor shouldn't be kept in a locker — it needs to be with you.
The attacks in Mumbai should have hit home with domestic law enforcement. You may not have the time to wait for the SWAT van to show up, and your low-profile soft armor may not be enough. Get an armor system that is good quality like the US Palm Ronin or BLACKHAWK! S.T.R.I.K.E. Cutaway, and use it.
Practice getting armored up quickly, driving, and shooting all with the full kit on. Being able to take a hit and stay in the fight could make the difference between going home at the end of the day or not.