Today we will be covering what is possibly the most common body armor in civilian circulation. Steel body armor, particularly AR500 is one of the most affordable body armor options available generally costing between $75-150 per plate. Reputable manufacturers like Tacticon use ballistic grade steel to make body armor, this ensures that the steel is always at least AR500 on the Brinell hardness scale, which we will cover more in depth later. This is important as ballistic steel has much more stringent quality control processes than your average steel sheets. AR500 armor is rated NIJ level III, it is designed to address 7.62×51, as with every armor there are benefits and tradeoffs, let’s get started.  

Main differences between AR500, AR550, and AR600

The differences between AR500, AR550, and AR600 armor have everything to do with the hardness of the steel. The harder the steel the lighter and thinner the plate can be made, and the greater ballistic protection. As hardness increases so does brittleness, but that won’t really come into play for these purposes until you get above AR1000. Steel armor plates are all part of the Level III body armor category and are designed to protect the wearer from rifle fire.

However, there are differences between these three types of plates, namely in their hardness level, weight, thickness, and the specific ballistics they can stop. 

AR500 Steel Body Armor Plates 

The AR500 steel plates have the lowest hardness when it comes to steel plates, but still offer solid protection. Specifically, AR500 plates are designed to protect against rifle calibers ranging from 9mm through .308 at speeds of up to 2,780 feet per second.

AR500 plates are typically 1/4-inch thick, without a fragmentation coating, providing a good balance between protection and mobility. However, they are the heaviest among the AR series, something to consider for wearers who need to maintain a high level of mobility.

AR550 Steel Body Armor Plates

 A step up from AR500, AR550 steel plates offer increased hardness and protection levels. They are lighter, and being harder than AR500, offer slightly more protection against different threats. 

AR550 plates are generally slightly thinner than AR500 plates, leading to a greater level of durability and resistance to bullet impacts. As with the AR500, the decreased thickness and increased hardness do contribute to a lighter-weight plate.

AR600 Steel Body Armor Plates 

AR600 has the highest hardness of the three options, making it lighter, thinner, and able to stop more rounds. 

Despite their higher hardness level, AR600 plates maintain a thickness similar to the AR550 plates. However, thanks to their advanced composition, they manage to deliver superior protection without increasing weight.

While all three plate levels – AR500, AR550, and AR600 – offer protection against rifle fire, the choice between them will depend on the specific threats the wearer expects to encounter, tolerance for weight, as well as budget.  

Brinell Hardness Scale

Uncoated Level III AR500 Steel Armor Plate - Tacticon Armament
Uncoated Level III AR500 Steel Armor Plate

The Brinell Hardness Scale is an empirical test that measures the hardness of materials through the scale of penetration of an indenter. This scale is essential in evaluating body armor plates, especially those like the AR500 and AR600 steel body armor plates. It quantifies the armor plate’s resistance to indentation from ballistics, which essentially equates to its ability to resist penetration. A higher Brinell hardness number denotes a higher level of hardness, which translates to improved resistance against impact and penetration. However, it’s important to remember that a plate’s performance against larger caliber rounds also depends on factors such as velocity, bullet design, and bullet composition.

Bullet Velocity

The velocity of a bullet plays a significant role in its ability to penetrate body armor. Several factors can impact the velocity of a bullet, such as the barrel length of the firearm used to fire the bullet, the amount and type of gunpowder in the cartridge, the bullet’s shape, and the environmental conditions at the time of firing, and distance.  

A bullet’s speed directly correlates with the amount of kinetic energy it possesses. Therefore, a bullet with a higher velocity typically has a greater chance of penetrating armor. Factors like air resistance and the angle at which the bullet strikes can also impact the bullet’s velocity and, therefore, its potential for penetration.

Bullet Design

The design of a bullet can also significantly impact its penetration capabilities. For instance, full metal jacket (FMJ) bullets are designed for penetration, featuring a soft lead core surrounded by a shell of harder metal, and steel penetrating tip in the case of M855. In contrast, hollow point bullets are designed to expand upon impact, creating a larger wound channel but offering less penetration. The shape of the bullet can also affect its aerodynamics and the amount of energy it can deliver to the target, influencing its ability to penetrate body armor.

Bullet Composition

Finally, the materials used to make a bullet can impact its penetration capabilities. For instance, bullets made of lead, a relatively soft metal, tend to deform upon impact and are generally less effective at penetrating armor. In contrast, bullets made of harder materials, like steel or tungsten, or those featuring a steel or tungsten core, are typically more capable of penetrating body armor. 

The Brinell Hardness Scale is a valuable tool for evaluating the hardness and penetration resistance of body armor, it’s essential to consider other factors, including bullet velocity, design, and composition, when assessing overall protection levels.

Is Spall & Fragmentation a Concern with Steel Body Armor Plates?

Absolutely, I’ll give it to you straight, uncoated steel, or only base-coated steel will frag you if you get hit. This is why Taction includes a full build-up coat on all of the steel armor we sell at no extra cost. Companies that do otherwise are part of the reason steel armor has gotten a bad rap. 

AR500 Steel Body Armor Plates Shot With An Unholy Amount Of 5.56 Green Tip Bullets Front view and side view - Tacticon Armament
AR500 Steel Body Armor Plates Shot With An Unholy Amount Of 5.56 Green Tip Bullets

Fragmentation and spall are two separate things that happen to steel body armor when struck by a round.

Spalling refers to the flakes or fragments of the steel plate that are dislodged upon bullet impact. These fragments can then be propelled away from the plate at high speeds, posing a risk to the wearer. Fragmentation, on the other hand, refers to pieces of the bullet that break apart upon impact, which can also be sent flying at high velocities. Both these phenomena can cause injury, even if the bullet itself doesn’t penetrate the armor.

However, various techniques can mitigate the risks of spall and fragmentation. One of the most common is the application of a protective coating on the steel plate. This coating is designed to absorb the impact and capture any fragments or spall that may be produced, helping to prevent them from causing injury. These coatings are typically made from durable materials that can withstand the impact of a bullet and are designed to flex or give slightly upon impact to capture the fragments.

Another way to mitigate the risk of spall is to use trauma pads behind the armor plates. Trauma pads are made from non-ballistic materials and are designed to reduce blunt force trauma by absorbing and dispersing the energy from the bullet’s impact.

Remember, while steel body armor plates provide protection against various threats, it’s important to understand the risks and mitigating factors associated with their use, and buy quality plates from a reputable company that uses methods to mitigate the risks. By taking steps to minimize the potential for spall and fragmentation, you can significantly enhance your safety and that of those around you.

Steel vs Ceramic Body Armor

Steel vs Ceramic Body Armor Plates - Tactcon Armament
Steel vs Ceramic Body Armor

The choice between steel and ceramic body armor depends on a variety of factors, including the level of threat you expect to face, the weight and comfort of the armor, and the cost. Both types of armor have their advantages and disadvantages, and understanding these can help you make an informed choice.

Ballistic Protection and NIJ Ratings

In terms of NIJ ratings, steel armor is limited to level III based on the design, and cannot stop armor piercing rounds to achieve NIJ level IV. Ceramic body armor can be found in Level III and Level IV, as well as special threat plates depending on the specific armor. Steel armor, be it AR500, AR550, and AR600, will not stop armor piercing rounds, and is often vulnerable to M193, a very fast 5.56 round.

Longevity

Steel armor has a longer shelf life than ceramic armor. Steel plates can last decades if properly stored and not exposed to severe impacts or corrosive environments. Ceramic plates are quite durable, but can degrade over time, especially if dropped or subjected to harsh conditions. Generally, ceramic plates have a warranty period of 5 to 7 years.

Weight and Comfort

Level III steel body armor plates tend to be heavier than ceramic plates. This increased weight can make them less comfortable to wear for extended periods. On the other hand, ceramic plates are lighter but also thicker, making them a preferred choice for situations that require mobility and comfort over long durations. Steel armor of a higher Brinell Hardness will make for lighter weight steel plates compared to something like AR500.

Durability

Steel is incredibly durable, more so than ceramic. It is less likely to crack or break compared to ceramic. Ceramic plates can crack if dropped or hit hard, although most companies do pad the ceramic. This doesn’t necessarily mean they will fail when struck by a bullet, but it can decrease their effectiveness.

Thickness and Moldability

Steel plates are thinner than ceramic plates, making them a more concealable option. The thinness of steel plates makes them more comfortable to wear. A quality plate with a full built-up coat should be .60 of an inch, give or take. Most ceramic plates are about an inch in thickness, making them a bit less comfortable. 

The choice between steel and ceramic body armor depends on your specific needs and circumstances. While steel offers more durability and a longer lifespan, ceramic provides a lighter, more comfortable solution with protection against higher threat levels.

Steel/AR500/AR600 Plates FAQ 

What are the differences between the levels of protection?

The primary difference between AR500, AR550, and AR600 steel armor plates is the hardness of the steel used in the plate and its ability to resist impact from various kinds of projectiles. AR500 is the softest and lightest, offering protection against most handgun and rifle rounds, while AR600 is the hardest and lightest, offering maximum protection against larger, higher velocity rifle rounds. AR550 falls in between the two in terms of hardness and protection. All of these plates are capable of achieving an NIJ rating of level III. 

How Much Does Steel Armor Weigh?

The weight of steel armor varies depending on the thickness and size of the plate. On average, a 10×12-inch AR500 steel plate weighs about 8-10 pounds. AR550 and AR600 plates of the same size would be lighter due to their increased thickness and hardness. Tacticon Armament’s AR600 10×12 can weigh as little as 6.6 pounds. 

Are Steel Plates Heavier Than Ceramic?

Yes, steel plates are typically heavier than ceramic plates of the same size and protection level. The exact difference in weight can vary depending on the specific plates being compared, but steel plates can be 2-5 pounds heavier than their ceramic counterparts.

How long do AR500 plates last?

AR500 steel plates have an incredibly long lifespan. If properly stored and not subjected to severe impacts or corrosive environments, these plates can easily last several decades. This is one of the key advantages of steel armor over other types.

Is steel armor bulletproof?

No armor is truly “bulletproof” – a more correct term would be “bullet-resistant.” Steel armor plates, including AR500, AR550, and AR600, are designed to stop certain projectiles, but the effectiveness can depend on the type, speed, and caliber of the bullet, as well as the distance from which it is fired.

How much does the AR600 armor weigh?

The weight of AR600 armor varies depending on the size and thickness of the plate. However, a 10×12-inch AR600 plate typically weighs around 6 to 8 pounds, making it lighter than its AR500 counterpart.

What is the difference between AR500 and AR600?

The main difference between AR500 and AR600 is the hardness of the steel used in the plates, which impacts their weight and their resistance to bullet impacts. AR600 is harder, and can therefore be made lighter. AR600 offers superior protection against higher velocity rifle rounds compared to AR500. However, AR600 plates are also more expensive.

What does level III body armor stop?

Level III body armor is tested to stop 6 rounds of 7.62×51 with less than 44mm of back face deformation from the first two rounds. Depending on the materials used the plates may also stop common 5.56 rounds.

Final Thoughts on AR500/AR600 Armor

Steel body armor, including AR500, AR550, and AR600, offers a unique blend of durability, longevity, and cost-effectiveness that sets it apart in the world of personal protection. While they might be heavier than their ceramic counterparts, their potential for multi-hit capacity and their robustness make them a favored choice for many people. However, choosing the right body armor ultimately depends on individual needs and the nature of the threats one is likely to encounter.

It’s important to remember that no armor is completely bulletproof. Rather, these plates are designed to reduce the lethality of incoming rounds and protect vital organs. Steel plates like AR500, AR550, and AR600 offer significant protection, but they should be used in conjunction with other safety measures, like good tactical training and situational awareness.

Overall, whether you opt for AR500, AR550, or AR600 armor, investing in protective gear is a great first step towards ensuring personal safety in high risk situations. Always assess your needs carefully, research thoroughly, and don’t hesitate to seek professional advice to ensure you’re making an informed decision.

The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Tacticon Armament.