Special Forces Plate Carrier Setup: A Complete Guide

Two soldiers wearing plate carriers, helmets, Crye Precision uniforms in MultiCam Tropic with the text: ‘Special Forces Plate Carriers Setup’.

A common question we get is, “how do Special Forces guys setup their plate carriers?”  A Special Forces plate carrier setup does vary from the standard Citizen or law enforcement setup. This article will take a look at what these guys do and how that influences their plate carrier setups.


Man wearing ICEPLATE® EXO plate carrier and gun belt carries a sandbag on shoulder while competing in tactical athletic games.

What is a Special Forces plate carrier setup? First, let’s define what Special Forces is, shall we? “Special Forces” (big “S”, big “F”) refers to the U.S. Army Special Forces, a group of soldiers also known for their distinctive headgear, the green beret. Special Forces soldiers have affiliation for Foreign Internal Defense or FID. FID is the training of rag-tag militias and new armies – like Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance and the Afghan National Army, respectively – and turning them into a lethal fighting force.

Even though SF soldiers are the face of FID, they also have a bunch of other taskings that they must be able to execute, including Direct Action. During much of this, a Special Forces soldier sets up their plate carrier with everything they might need to accomplish the mission. There is also the colloquial use of “special forces” (little “s”, little “f”) that more appropriately refers to special operations forces (SOF). This larger group includes the U.S. Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, Air Force Pararescue and Combat Controllers, and Marine Raiders.

Like SF guys, all of these other SOF assets wear plate carriers on the regular. Though each has specific mission sets (SEALs have affiliation for maritime operations), all can be found performing similar operations at one time or another. And all can be seen wearing similar plate carrier setups. So, let’s take a look at a Special Forces plate carrier setup.

What is a Special Forces Plate Carrier

The quality plate carrier is the platform for all your tactical gear, as well as your body armor. A given unit or operator may have different plate carriers for different missions, so we will make some generalizations here. The basic, underlying design is to provide a carrier for your armor plates, so we’ll take a look at that first. The plate carrier itself usually consists of a front plate bag, a rear plate bag, shoulder straps, and some sort of elastic cummerbund. Some Special Forces guys may run a lightweight plate carrier like this with nothing more than two armor plates.

A minimalist plate carrier like this provides ballistic protection where you need it most but keeps you light and flexible. This is ideal for fast-moving scenarios like close-quarters battle where speed, surprise, and violence of action win the day. Bulkier tactical vests worn by conventional troops tend to carry too much bulk, especially in cramped confines.

Most Citizens and LEOs can skip worrying about artillery, mortars, grenades, and other shrapnel-producing munitions. Military folks have to worry about this a lot and may choose to wear soft armor underneath their plate carriers. This provides additional ballistic protection, and side protection from shrapnel threats. Special Forces guys may also elect to add side plates. These are hard armor plates that provide rifle protection to the vulnerable sides of the body.

Special Forces Plate Carrier Setup

A man wearing a coyote tan ICEPLATE® EXO plate carrier moves around a vehicle on a range to engage targets.

With ballistic protection out of the way, let’s look at the gear carried on these plate carriers. First, different missions require different plate carrier setups. Not only that, but different positions within the team require plate carries be configured in different ways. For instance, the radio operator, the lead medic, and the primary breacher all have gear that is common to all, but each also has really specific gear for his billet. Let’s look at a general loadout, then we can talk a little bit of specifics.

Magazine Pouches: Ammunition is first, and it will be carried by every single member of the team, no matter the mission. Ammunition is usually distributed in a single layer around the plate carrier to avoid making the front profile too thick. This makes it hard to do things like get in the low prone or climb over obstacles like walls. Ammunition on the side – at least intuitively – seems to offer just a tad more ballistic protection against frag. A couple pistol magazines will also probably be carried on the plate rack…just in case.

The number of rifle magazine pouches will vary depending on the mission. Again, during fast-paced CQB missions a shooter might only carry three or four magazines other than the one in his gun. On a long-range patrol the same soldier may carry 10 or more magazines due to resupply considerations and the potential to end up in a protracted gun battle.

Communication Equipment: This is another common-to-all pouch – the radio pouch. Every single troop will have a tactical radio on his or her vest. In my day, it was the PRC-148 MBITR, and these are still widely deployed. The radio operator may have two or three radio pouches for a variety of communications equipment: a PRC-152 for adjacent units, another PRC-152 for aviation assets, and an MBITR for intrateam comms. 

Medical Equipment: Each soldier on the team will carry some medical equipment. An individual first aid kit will be somewhere – often in a uniform location – on each tactical plate carrier. It should be accessible to the individual with either hand. It should be readily visible, as well. Medics will also carry a whole array of advanced medical gear to provide advanced life support like starting IVs, giving blood, performing field surgeries, and the like. Most of this gear is carried in a backpack and not on his tactical vest, however.

Grenades & Pyro: Depending on the mission set, most shooters will carry a grenade or two and some sort of pyrotechnic device, usually a smoke grenade. Fragmentation grenades are carried for obvious reasons. Smoke grenades are very versatile and allow the team to provide some concealment for themselves, mark a landing zone, mark their own position when calling aviation fires, execute a “no-commo” plan, and plenty of other cool stuff.

Administrative Pouches: Soldiers in leadership roles will also carry an administrative pouch. This allows them to keep up with map pens, maps, protractors, grid-reference graphics (GRG), and all the other stuff necessary to coordinate multiple units in the battle space.

Breaching Tools: Depending the mission, you are also very likely to see breaching tools on an assaulter’s vest. Breaching is categorized as mechanical, ballistic, and explosive (there is also thermal breaching, but that’s a topic for another time). Mechanical breaching uses tools like sledgehammers and Halligan tools, and these are frequently worn in pouches over the back.

Ballistic breaching utilizes specialized shotguns with special “lock buster” or “Hatton” rounds to bust through hinges and locks. There are special plate carrier clips to secure these tools while still providing easy access. Explosive breaching involves, well, explosives. Breaching charges are usually premade and the lead breacher will carry a variety of charges on target so he can make a hole in whatever the team encounters.

Other Stuff: There may be a whole variety of other gear on a Special Forces plate carrier. Items like IR strobes and fireflies, handheld flashlights, chem lights, dump pouches, and flex cuffs may all be attached to a shooter’s plate rack. The exact layout will depend – again – on the mission, the individual’s role on the team, and his particular preferences. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and each soldier’s kit will be set up a slightly different way.

Check out Qore Performance’s line of Blue Force Gear Pouches to help you organize your kit, equipment, or gear.

Plate Carrier Fit

Each Special Forces plate carrier is fit to the individual wearing it. For a plate carrier to provide the appropriate ballistic protection it must fit right. A proper fit will keep the plates in place over the vital organs, when standing, when prone, when running, or when assaulting an objective.

Hard armor plates should sit high on the torso. There is a tendency among the untrained to wear plates that hang way too low. The object of hard armor plates is to protect the vital organs like the heart, lungs, liver, and the great vessels – not the belly. I wear my plates with the top edge at or just below the sternal notch, the bony notch at the front base of the neck. The rear plate should also ride nice and high, and not be more than a couple inches below the base of the neck. Check out the article “What Size Plate Carrier Do I Wear?” for more information.

Armor Plates and Inserts

Ranger Green ICEPLATE® EXO plate carrier and DFNDR Armor ceramic Level IV plates pair on white background.

The armor plates worn in a Special Forces plate carrier are typically Level IV hard armor plates. These provide the best ballistic protection available. Some plates are “ICW” plates, meaning they must be worn “In Conjunction With” Level IIIA soft body armor to provide a given level of protection. Not Qore Performance’s DFNDR plates, which are standalone, meaning they provide the stated level of protection by themselves.

The Level IV DFNDR plates are the highest level of protection offered. They offer multi-hit protection against 7.62 armor-piercing ammunition. Of course, military guys need this level of protection. Considering the lack of armor-piercing threats in CONUS, the average Citizen would most likely be fine saving a few hundred bucks and getting Level III plates. These are still rifle rated, up to 7.62/.308 mild core ammunition, but they are also both cheaper and lighter.

Plate Carriers and Accessories from Qore Performance

Coyote tan ICEPLATE® EXO plate carrier components, ICEPLATE® Curve, Source 90 drink tube, ICEVENTS® and DFNDR Level IV armor plates flat lay on white background.

Qore Performance offers the best plate carrier on the market, the ICEPLATE® EXO. It is in use by a variety of SOF assets worldwide, not because it is the cheapest (it isn’t) but because it’s the best. The ICEPLATE® EXO is incredibly lightweight. It is adaptable to any mission or operator parameters, and it is incredibly comfortable. This lightweight plate carrier is made from the best materials available, including our propriety ICEPLATE® EXO laminate, and will last a literal lifetime.

As if that’s not enough, it’s also made to work with the ICEPLATE®. The ICEPLATE is a revolutionary form of hydration carriage. Instead of carrying water in a vulnerable bladder on the back, which needlessly increases bulk, the ICEPLATE carries water in a armor plate-shaped and -sized container. The ICEPLATE carries and harnesses the immense thermal potential of water. Refrigerate or freeze it to cool you when it’s hot, and fill it with warm water when it’s cold.

Qore Performance also offers a lot of other stuff I wish I’d had when I was wearing a plate carrier to work. Their ICEPLATE® is amazing, their ICEVENTS® vented padding make everything from vests to drop-leg holsters to war belts more comfortable.

1 comment

  • Randy P.

    Very informative article!

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