Ceramic Versus Steel Body Armor, Advantages and Disadvantages

John S. is a guest writer who is concentrating on the subject of body armor. This is his second article on TFB, his first one being

For simplicity sake, I’m not going to go too in depth as it can be rather confusing. This also isn’t a blanket guide, different manufacturers use different blends of materials and can in turn produce plates with very different threat ratings. I’m not going to talk too much about the different composites and blends as there’s too many.

  • Ceramics.
    Often in the form of a composite blend, one of the most common Ceramics used in plates currently is Alumina Ceramic (Aluminum Oxide). Now often lots of Ceramic plates have a Dyneema/ Polyethylene or Kevlar blended back. This is mainly just for reducing blunt force or acting as a backer for the bullets.

Currently the US Military’s ESAPI plates are made of Boron Carbide (Type of Ceramic), which allows it to have a higher threat rating, at a lower weight. ESAPI is a military rating and generally you will not find civilian plates made of Boron Carbide to ESAPI specifications. The only civilian ESAPI I know of is made by bulletproofme.com and costs $460-640 per plate (depending on the size).
Generally, the pro’s of Ceramics are its weight they are generally lighter at around ~6.5-8 pounds, their ability to withstand AP threats and they do not produce dangerous spall when hit.
However the cons are Ceramic must not be regularly rough handled, I mentioned Ceramic is not like glass, but don’t toss your plates around or toss them on the ground. They are especially susceptible to damage when dropped on the edges.

Exception: As I mentioned before, not all armor is created equal.
RMA Armament produces Ceramic plates model #1189 that are not fragile and are rated up to 6 rounds of .30-06 M2-AP.

  • UHMWPE (Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene) (Or Polyethylene or Dyneema)

For our purposes here, we are talking about PURE Poly plates, I will talk about these composites shortly.
This is a type of ballistic polymer, a type of molded resin. Therefore, it has the properties you would find in a polymer.
These plates are generally going to be the lightest and or thinnest level 3 plates available. However, that does not come without a cost.
A pure Polyethylene plate can be defeated by a single round of M193 or M855. It would pass through the plate quite literally like a hot knife through butter. (Think hot fast metal against plastic).
Heat and Cold can also be an enemy of Polyethylene plates. When exposed to extreme heat (think Texas summer in the trunk of a car) the plate can become soft and warp, which in turn decreases the ballistic effectiveness. When exposed to extreme cold (think winter in Maine) the plate can become brittle, which also decreases the ballistic effectiveness. (-15F to 150F)

Again, keep in mind this is not a blanket assessment, not all plates are created equal and not all manufacturers make the same plates.
Polyethylene composite plates are less susceptible to the weaknesses of pure Polyethylene. This again depends on the manufacturer and what kind of composite.
Its very important to look at the rounds that the manufacturer has tested outside of NIJ requirements when choosing a Lightweight Polyethylene plate.
Poly composite plates are also heavier, due to different materials such as ceramics or metals being added in.
When in doubt, email or call the manufacturer to make sure.

  • Steel armor (AR500, AR650, MIL-A 46100, etc)
    Steel armor, the cheapest and heaviest of them all. I personally have a strong dislike for steel armor, but I am here to provide facts. How you choose to spend your money is none of my concern. However, I will not be recommending any steel plates today.

    First off there are several types of steel armor, but the properties are going to be roughly the same. Its steel, even if you change the hardness or composition, the fruit isn’t going to fall far from the tree, the physics are similar.

The numbers after “AR”, whether it be 400, 500 or 650 is just denoting the hardness of that type of steel. As you know… harder steel may be brittle, and the other way around it may be soft.
MIL-A 46100 is a Mil Spec or “military grade” steel that was designed to be used on armored vehicles or to fortify structures.

Let’s start off with the pros of steel since it’ll be short.
1) Can be multi-hit capable. AR500 plates can take a beating, as traditionally they were used as shooting targets. They can be struck in the same place twice generally without issue.

2) Low-visibility/ concealment. Steel can be thin, yet stop rifle threat rounds, hence its usefulness in concealment scenarios. However, Ceramic/ Polyethylene technology has reached a point where steel is obsolete for this role.

Now with the cons,
1) Can be vulnerable to high velocity threats such as M193 or M855 fired at a high velocity. Mainly FMJ and steel core/ penetrator type ammunition.
(Example, AR500 Lvl 3)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMYkEMhPsO8&t=1s

2) Spalling is a major concern for all steel armor. Since steel is hard, when a bullet impacts the strike face, it will explode into shrapnel and fragmentation.
The spalling that is generated from bullets striking steel armor generally runs along the face of the plate. Which means fragmentation is likely to go into your chin, arms and legs/ groin if you are crouching.
Pretty much all steel armor is now sold with at least one build up coat of spall liner (Rhino, Line-X, etc). However, a single coating generally does very little for spalling and is best for one or two rounds.

3) Ricochets.
Ricochets are another concern when it comes to steel armor, if a round hits at an odd angle, it may travel along the plate and go into one of your arms or legs.
Due to the hardness of steel, they are more prone to ricochets than Ceramics.

4) Blunt force trauma/ energy transfer
Rifle rounds have a tremendous amount of energy and force behind it. Steel is a rigid and hard material, when a bullet strikes it, the energy will “pass through” the steel and into the chest of the wearer.
If the plate is struck at the right place, depending on how strong your bones are, it may break your sternum and puncture your heart.
A few rounds to the chest could even equal heart stoppage/ internal bleeding.
Ceramics work like a “net” where the ceramic breaks and catches the bullet, also dissipating some of the kinetic energy, though not all of it, it is less severe than steel.

5) Weight
This is an obvious one, a 10×12 Steel plate is 8.4 pounds with two buildup coats of spall liner. Then more with trauma padding (seriously shouldn’t wear them without).
Steel plates weigh as much as the heavier end of Ceramic plates, but has a level 3 rating and many disadvantages along with it.

How you choose what armor you require is up to you. Armed with this knowledge hopefully you can make an informed choice. I always urge you to do more research on your own.
Before choosing what armor is best suited for you, you should ask yourself these questions and be honest when doing so.

1) What is the REALISTIC threat you are facing? Do you really need the bulk and weight of AP protection if you’ll never face it?

2) What realistically do you need more? $400 in training? Or $400 for a set of plates “when it hits the fan”?

3) Is saving $200 more important than getting quality armor if you truly NEED it?

Choose a quality brand:

When it’s time to buy the armor, make sure to choose a reputable brand.
The following are some good brands to buy from and some of their choices.

1) Velocity Systems:
You cannot purchase directly from Velocity Systems unless you are MIL/LE/GOV.
-PSA Level 4 Standalone (10×12 Swimmer) $304 Each (US Elite) or $320 (AT Armor)
2) AT Armor:
-FFS4 Level IV Standalone Special Threat Tested (SAPI Cut Sm-XL, Shooters cut 10×12) $185 Each
-STOP Plate (See website for rating) (SAPI Cut Sm-XL, Shooters cut 10×12) $430 Each
3) Hoplite Armor:
-Level IV 10×12 Single Curve Swimmer Plate $150 Each
(Hoplite makes great rifle threat rated shoulder plates too, one of a kind)
4) RMA Armament:
-Model #1155 (10×12 Single Curve SAPI Cut Level IV Standalone) $135 Each
-Model #1189 (10×12 Single Curve SAPI Cut Level IV Standalone) $300 Each
(Non-Fragile and multi-hit .30-06 M2-AP
5) Highcom Security:
-Guardian 4SAS7 (Level IV Standalone, Sizes vary from XS-XL, side plates, SAPI cut, Swimmers cut, Square, etc) $160-230 Each (Chest) $130 (Side).

6) Ceradyne:
The manufacturer of the current US Army issued ESAPI plates. Most of their armor is not available for purchase to the general public but much of it is legal to own if you find it.

Sources:

  1. National Institute of Justice 0101.06 Standard:
    https://www.nij.gov/publications/Pages/publication-detail.aspx?ncjnumber=223054
    (PDF) https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/223054.pdf
    -pg. 4 (Level III/ IV testing parameters)
    -pg. 36 (Drop testing)
    -pg. 49 (Back-face deformation)
  1. MIL-A 46100 D Standard:
    (PDF) http://everyspec.com/MIL-SPECS/MIL-SPECS-MIL-A/download.php?spec=MIL-A-46100D_INTERIM-AMENDMENT-2.020498.PDF
    -pg. 22 (MIL-A 46100 D .30 cal testing @30 degrees)
  1. SAPI/ ESAPI approximate ratings:
    http://bulletproofme.com/Body_Armor_Accessories_Rifle_Protection.shtml

Polyethylene Plates weakness against AP/ Heat & Cold

http://www.bulletproofme.com/RP-Polyethylene.html

Further Reading/ information:

If you’re interested in more of this, here is some more reading to do and some videos.

  1. NIJ 0101.06 Standard (One of the sources for this article)
    https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/223054.pdf

Shooting test for a Level IV plate:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vL-08x7T4I (Skip to 2:10)



Miles

Infantry Marine, based in the Midwest. Specifically interested in small arms history, development, and usage within the MENA region and Central Asia. To that end, I run Silah Report, a website dedicated to analyzing small arms history and news out of MENA and Central Asia.

Please feel free to get in touch with me about something I can add to a post, an error I’ve made, or if you just want to talk guns. I can be reached at miles@tfb.tv


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  • Nandor

    My takeaway from this article is that steel armor will pretty much be the death of you either through blunt force trauma or spall. What kind of armor did the North Hollywood Shoutout guys have?

  • G B

    Great article! I wish this was around when I was researching plates, it could have saved me a lot of time. Also it is reassuring to know that what I found in my research lines up with what you’re saying here. Looks like I made the right decision (for me).

    My reason for purchasing plates is primarily because I attend quite a few group/silencer/machine gun shoots and competitions every year. In 2015, I was muzzled twice at two separate events by irresponsible participants wielding loaded machine guns. That was two times too many. Now in the summer months I still roll the dice, but in the winter months I wear plates under my outer layer of clothing.

    • Nandor

      Which concealment carrier did you go with?

      • G B

        I went with the Tactical Tailor Low Vis MBAV. I haven’t used any other concealment carriers but it seems to be very well made with high quality materials and so far has worked well for me. It was on sale for about 25% off when I bought it but I think it’s worth its full price. Also of note is that it is sized for SAPI plates if that matters to anyone.

    • Robert

      You would be perfectly justified in wearing body armor overtly at a MG shoot. My experience with live-fire of MG among different services (been a part or witnessed USN, USMC, USA shoots), all wear body armor when shooting MG. This may be do being overly cautious in the name of discipline or super risk adverse, or it may be grounded in bad experiences.
      I know I would never make fun of anyone taking safety measures. Its your life, protect it how you think best.

  • Nathan Sorell

    Nate

    • Nathan Sorell

      Why would steel armor cause more internal damage than ceramic or UHMEPE armor. When shot at, steel armor doesn’t deform much, if any. So shouldn’t it spread the energy through out the whole plate, causing little to no damage?

      • Stuki Moi

        Yes. You are correct.

        If, for some reason, you are wearing the plate bare chested, with it resting right on your sternum, a stomach hit could conceivably reverbate through the stiff plate and do more damage than it would against a softer, deader, polymer one. But I can’t imagine that being a very realistic concern. I’d be much more concerned about the greater blackface deformation a softer plate would experience as a result of being softer.

        I’m curious if the whole conundrum is due to ceramic plates coming with backing, while steel may be tested completely bare. In which case, the solution is to not wear your steel plate bare chested……

  • Vhyrus

    #4 is flat out wrong. Conservation of momentum means that the force felt from the bullet impact will be roughly the same force felt by the shooter during recoil. Since I don’t see many people dislocating shoulders and having heart attacks sighting in their AR I am going to call shenanigans on this.

    • Dave

      While that is true, the force is delivered over a much longer time while shooting than when it hits the plate. In other words, the bullet spends more time traversing the barrel than it does smacking into the plate, giving it much higher impulse.

      • Vhyrus

        It takes about .002 seconds for a bullet to leave the barrel of a rifle. For all intents and purposes it might as well be instantaneous.

    • Stuki Moi

      +1

      In addition, the hardness and weight of steel works in it’s favor, as far as blunt force transfer is concerned. At least as long as you’re not wearing the plate without any backing, and fitting it to rest directly on fragile bone.

      Nice article, though. One of the advantages of steel, has been that it’s properties are much more easily grokked and verified by non experts. It’s much more redneck friendly (Hey, Bubba, just spray some bedliner on this steel slab…), so to speak. “No replacement for displacement…”, compared to the alchemy that is ceramics and polymers, where you are often left blindly trusting ratings most end users don’t have all that much background for verifying.

    • Renato H M de Oliveira

      Um, no.
      Energy is different from momentum, and energy density cannot be ignored too.
      Apply the same momentum / energy using a sponge vs a nail on a wall and you’ll understand what I mean.
      Blunt force trauma is a very serious problem for body armour, and non-penetrating rounds can be lethal due to this effect.

      • kjack

        >Apply the same momentum / energy using a sponge vs a nail on a wall and you’ll understand what I mean.

        Except in that case you’re changing the surface area the force would be applied over as well (which is why back face deformation is important and is measured when testing body armor). The tendency of steel plates to not deform much should give it an advantage in this area though.

        • Renato H M de Oliveira

          Yes, my ridiculous example shows that there are quite a lot of details to consider – materials, construction, shape, etc – than just momentum.
          Or, still using the rifle example, replace the buttpad by an AP projectile and put it on your shoulder pocket – not good for your well-being.

  • kjack

    I’d like to know more about a few parts of this.

    >These plates (UHMWPE) are generally going to be the lightest and or thinnest level 3 plates available.

    Last I checked, UHMWPE plates tend to be the thickest.

    >A pure Polyethylene plate can be defeated by a single round of M193 or M855

    I know M855 is a problem for UHMWPE plates, but I have never heard of M193 being a problem for them.

    >Low-visibility/ concealment.
    Steel can be thin, yet stop rifle threat rounds, hence its usefulness in
    concealment scenarios. However, Ceramic/ Polyethylene technology has
    reached a point where steel is obsolete for this role.

    Concealment under what? I can conceal a hell of a lot under a coat. I can’t conceal a .5″ thick ceramic plate strapped to my chest under a loose shirt. Steel in this case would still have an advantage being that it’s generally .2″-.25″ thick.

    >Spalling is a major concern for all steel armor

    There is a group called Sierra 12 (I’m not going to be able to link it because my posts don’t go through when I post links) that did some tests where they had ballistics gel blocks around a bare steel plate when shooting it. All but one round penetrated under 1″ into the ballistics gelatin (which is comparable to what an airsoft gun will do and will not break skin in practice) and one round managed 3″ of penetration (which is less than what is expected of the calibration BB and still might not break skin).

    >Steel is a rigid and hard material, when a
    bullet strikes it, the energy will “pass through” the steel and into
    the chest of the wearer.

    If the plate is struck at the
    right place, depending on how strong your bones are, it may break your
    sternum and puncture your heart.

    What the hell are you talking about here and do you have any scientific basis for this claim? How is steel going to magically focus the energy on your bones in a way that could kill you while simultaneously not exceeding maximum backface deformation standards?

  • Shlom Shekelsteen

    On this note, does anyone know what happened to the Dragonskin armor concept?

    • Nathan

      I heard that in high temperatures, the glue holding the ceramic disks will melt. Resulting in the disks falling to the bottom of the vest. It’s also really heavy, something around 45 pounds.

  • SpartacusKhan

    needs more research into preventing purple-nurples. I really hate those things.

  • SpartacusKhan

    Why not mix it all up a bit in layers – steel, ceramic, kevlar, UHMWPE, and tune it to the body, like thicker on cernter-mass then tapering off until the groin, where I want a Tsar-Bomba-proof cup. Also nothing wrong with some upsweep under the chin and collared neck protectors.
    Also forgot to mention steel (close to your skin, anyway) has issues with thermal retention – it’ll get too hot very easily or sap your body heat in colder environments – it’s a narrow temp band where it would actually be comfortable.