Your Guide to Airsoft vs Real Plate Carriers

Crye or die (so they say)

Take it from us, we’ve played thousands of airsoft games and spend hundreds of hours on the field in MILSIM ops, we’re intimately familiar with tactical gear.

After you’ve picked up the most basic safety gear for airsoft – then what?

Plate carriers help complete the look of any MILSIM impression. In addition to carrying spare magazines, flashlights, knives, IFAK (individual first aid kit), and other equipment, plate carriers also help show off our personality in the way of patches and identification markers.

So, what’s the difference between those $80 carriers you see on amazon and the ones from more famous tactical gear companies like CRYE, Eagle Industries, LBT, and others? Well, let us get you started down this rabbit hole of a tactical gearhead.

hero image for airsoft vs real steel plate carriers

What are the characteristics of a plate carrier made for airsoft?

Plate carriers designed for airsoft are normally cheaper than real ones, but it is also true that in most cases, players do not need the same quality that a real operator needs.

airsoft vest for cosplay

Lower Quality Materials

The plate carriers for airsoft, for example, are often not made of 1000 denier Cordura (typical material of the real plate carriers) but less resistant Cordura or other cheaper materials like nylon. So, often the difference is in the materials of which these products are made of.

Rothco plate carrier

Rotcho Lightweight Plate Carrier – replica of the JPC

Lower quality materials can have an impact on the resistance of the plate carrier to scratches, tears, water, and general airsoft gameplay.

I definitely wouldn’t trust the drag handle on a cheap plate carrier, for example.

Inconsistent Stitching on MOLLE / PALS Webbing

In addition, some parts can be more stressed by the weight, such as the PALS (pouch attachment ladder system) and the seams. The PALS we find on plate carriers designed for airso

ft are often not stitched with precision and they differ in length, distance, and thickness. In addition, they may be affected by the weight of the pockets attached to them, loosening, and decreasing their retention capacity.

Condor MOPC

Condor Tactical Modular Operators Plate Carrier (MOPC)

Also, as mentioned above, the seams often cannot hold a candle to those of professional products. They are often more crudely produced and can loosen or break more easily, sometimes only lasting a handful of rough airsoft operations.

You often will be able to FEEL the difference in quality.

However, it should be kept in mind that in many cases the needs of the player are not the same as those of a military or law enforcement member, so the quality of most plate carriers produced for airsoft by reputable brands such as Condor, Pantac, Voodoo Tactical, and other are perfectly suitable for airsoft practice and gameplay.

Fewer Features

Another substantial difference can be identified in the presence or absence of certain features that the plate carrier offers. Plate carriers for airsoft players tend to be rather basic (many still use the old non-modular designs) and lack many of the features that can be useful for those who need a real plate carrier.

Often the features of real plate carriers will make them more convenient, quicker to use, and more effective than airsoft replicas. This is because replicas try to mimic the locking systems of professional plate carriers, but with lower quality materials, or simply try to emulate products of outdated generations, with obsolete locking, ventilation, weight distribution, and equipment management systems.

nc star expert plate carrier a very cheap airsoft option

NCStar Expert Plate Carrier

By now, many of the real plate carriers use very precise and easily accessible Velcro closure systems, clip, or ROC systems, while many replica plate carriers still use the older Velcro closure systems that are less precise, accessible, or simply more difficult to configure.

What are the characteristics of a real plate carrier?

Plate carriers designed and manufactured for operational purposes normally possess similar characteristics to their airsoft counterparts, but overall are just built BETTER.

real vs airsoft plate carrier

Higher Quality of Build

As already mentioned, often the quality of the materials is far superior. They are generally made of 1000 or 500 denier Cordura, which makes them resistant to the weight of heavy equipment, tears, and weathering. You may have to change your real plate carrier for reasons related to improvements in manufacturing, but hardly for reasons related to wear and tear.

They are also designed to withstand the constant pressure applied by the insertion of the ballistic plates, normally weightier than the rubber / plastic ones we can generally find in an airsoft plate carrier. Also, under the aspect of comfort it is normally possible to identify more or less important differences.

crye precision low profile body armor

Crye Precision JPC (Jumpable Plate Carrier)

Another benefit of this higher quality of build is that they can make the carrier far more high speed / low profile because they need less overall material to achieve the same level of durability. You can easily see this in the Crye Precision JPC (jumpable plate carrier).

Built with Comfort in Mind

The real plate carriers meet the needs of operators who must wear them for long periods, even in inhospitable environments, so maximizing the comfort of the operator has become a prerogative in the production of professional plate carriers.

Most real plate carriers will feel more comfortable than their airsoft replica counterparts.

The introduction of cushioned covers, internal ventilation systems, and elastic parts that allow a better fit are some examples of how manufacturers have tried to improve the comfortable use of these devices.

More Features

Another typical feature of real plate carrier is the presence of additional components for equipment management. Again, unlike their counterparts, the design for professional personnel can be guessed from the presence of some additional components positioned to help professionals manage certain operational issues more effectively.

You’ll see that modern plate carriers built for real steel are SCALABLE for the operator.

For example, the presence of removable modular panels to increase the versatility of the equipment, the presence of closable Velcro strips to simplify the organization of the wiring of communication or night vision devices or the management of the hydration tube, or even the presence of internal pockets for the insertion of additional equipment, such as magazines or radios.

Some plate carriers also have emergency quick release systems or additional adjustable parts to facilitate the removal of the plate carrier in emergency situations. It is evident how these additional features try to meet the typical needs of real operators, rather than satisfy a player who is unlikely to have to unload quickly from his equipment.

lbx tactical modular plate carrier

LBX 0300 Tactical Modular Plate Carrier

One last thing that is worth paying attention to is that the real plate carriers are designed with a particular attention to the number of pals present, to the weight and overall dimensions, as well as to the eventual possibility to insert lateral anti-splinter plates.

Surely, they are better performing products, designed to meet the needs of professional operators and to handle the typical problems of operational theaters.

When should you buy one or the another?

In truth, there are not too many differences between an airsoft plate carrier and a real one. However, a real plate carrier will generally be more durable, comfortable, and reliable. Though, it is worth spending some time to figure out which item you may want to get, and the best way to do this is to identify your needs.

Consider an airsoft plate carrier if your goal is to stay within a small budget

If, for example, the priority should be to keep the budget down due to the lack of funds then perhaps because you are just approaching airsoft, surely the choice should fall on an airsoft plate carrier, where the price can reasonably fluctuate between $30 and $100 USD.

You can expect an airsoft plate carrier to last you at least a couple dozen or more airsoft games, sometimes more if you’re not too rough on it.

Consider a real plate carrier if your budget allows, however

If instead our main need is the fidelity to real equipment (many are starting to use airsoft as a parallel training to the range between military and law enforcement), the choice should definitely be oriented on a real plate carrier, which forces those who use it to deal with dimensions, thicknesses and structures that will be the same with which it will have to deal in the operational field.

eagle industries pc

Eagle Industries MMAC (Multi Mission Armor Carrier)

The real plate carriers, as already mentioned, will always be more resistant, and often will be more comfortable, so they can be preferred even when the operational theaters of use become particularly stressful for the player or the equipment. The fact is, modern military units are looking for better gear all the time.

Think about your needs and balance that with your budget

Ultimately, one should opt for an airsoft plate carrier if the priority is to save money, since airsoft plate carriers do not offer any other benefits than real ones, otherwise one should consider buying a real one.

Chances are, for those just starting out, you’ll end up going through a journey as your airsoft career progresses. This is normal – most airsoft players end up upgrading their load bearing equipment as they move forward.

One of our writers first started with a Condor chest rig before moving to a Pantac FAPC, then an AWS OCPC, and finally an LBT MPC.

It is worth pointing out that, although airsoft plate carriers are normally inferior to real ones, most of them are more than suitable for the practice of the discipline, and the use of a real plate carrier can be a small upgrade on this level, but almost never a compulsory choice.

what's the difference between airsoft and real body armors

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you need a plate carrier to play casual airsoft?

Not necessarily, but it is advisable. To practice airsoft at an amateur or casual level, an airsoft rifle, a magazines, and the essential protective gear (don’t skimp on your eye protection!) are just enough, nothing else is really needed.

That said, a plate carrier (or any load bearing gear for that matter), as well as everything that is added to the essential tools listed above, offers a lot of advantages to the player:

  • Increases your ability to carry more equipment
  • Facilitates distribution and access
  • Provides protection from bbs
  • Increases the realism of the game

Probably investing on an inexpensive plate carrier to start playing casual games is the best choice, but it is not mandatory if you can’t or don’t want to have one.

Learn how to build a beginner airsoft loadout here.

Do you need a real plate carrier to play MILSIM?

Again, is not that simple to answer. Probably yes, but it isn’t always needed.

The requirements of a plate carrier can change, as an example, according to the role you plan to play in the MILSIM operation. If you had to simulate in the shoes of operators of regular forces or special forces, for example, a plate carrier is effectively mandatory to achieve the look.

But, if instead you have to play the role of militiamen, insurgents, civilians, or some sort of irregular forces, it probably wouldn’t be indispensable. Building a modern pmc loadout for airsoft would probably need a plate carrier, for example. In fact it could result out of place, in terms of realism. This goes for the airsoft SWAT loadouts as well.

Even the operational role can have its influence: many scouts, for example, prefer to use only battle belts, or at most a minimal chest rig, rather than a plate carrier. Even those who perform undercover roles will not use a bulky plate carrier but will rather use a cut-proof jacket under a shirt or t-shirt. If then it is the case to use a real one rather than one designed for airsoft, it’s up to you: plate carriers’ airsoft replicas are often faithful enough to the real ones to allow you to maintain the appearance for the purposes of realism.

It is worth keeping in mind that the real plate carriers offer other advantages, besides the mere aesthetic aspect, and in a MILSIM situation, where the level of realism is definitely higher, it may be worth investing on a superior quality product.

Learn more about how to pack for a Milsim event here.

Riccardo "Black" Mariconda
Riccardo "Black" Mariconda

I’m an Italian MILSM and airsoft player, and also trekking and survival enthusiast. I like spending my spare time out in the woods, shooting firearms at the range, training FOF with airsoft guns and learning and training new skills about survival, both in urban and wild scenarios. I’m a Psychology graduate, and I’m studying to get a Criminological and Forensic Psychology degree. I had the opportunity to train with Italian Special Forces during survival courses. I’m also into SERE programs, stealth camping, mantracking and other disciplines of the kind. My aim is to get better and better in those disciplines that I love, helping others to develop their own skills.

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