The threats humans face in combat have evolved drastically over the course of human history. With the evolution of threats has come the evolution of how to counter them but at a slower rate of course. So why are we still using steel body armor for ballistic threats all these years later? Let’s get into it. 

Benefits of Steel Body Armor

From ceramic level 4 that will stop armor piercing rounds to polyethylene which is literally plastic that’s been layered and heated to stop rifle rounds while weighing 2.5 pounds in the case of the Tacticon SRT plate, we have some pretty neat high-speed bulletproof armor options in today’s world. So why is old technology like steel body armor still so popular today? 

Steel body armor is durable and will withstand multiple impacts without losing its protective abilities.

Unlike other materials, steel does not degrade over time nearly as quickly from exposure to the elements or ultraviolet light. This makes steel body armor ideal for anyone who wants body armor “just in case,” or those who don’t want to replace their armor every five years.

  • Steel body armor is more affordable than ceramic or polyethylene plates. 
  • Steel body armor can be combined with other protective materials, like soft armor or trauma pads to provide additional protection and mitigate blunt force trauma. 
  • Steel body armor does not need to be treated ‘gently’ like ceramic armor which can crack on impact, such as being dropped.
  • Steel provides the benefit of ‘edge to edge’ protection, meaning that the entire surface area of the steel plate provides the same level of ballistic protection. 
  • Probably the biggest appeal, however, steel is by far the most affordable, and most available option.

Further, being steel the plate can be cut into different shapes easily. This led to the ever-popular “Hybrid” cut that allows the shooter to have a swimmer’s cut on their rifle side, making it easier to shoulder their rifle.

Hybrid armor
Steel plate cuts

Ceramic vs Steel Plates NIJ Testing

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) only tests the middle of the armor plate, and not the outermost 2 inches, meaning a 10×12 ceramic plate only needs to provide 6×8 inches of protection to pass NIJ testing.

Some manufacturers lower the weight of ceramic plates by adding padding in these areas to prevent damage if dropped, but the ballistic ceramic may not cover the entire 10×12 face of the plate. Of course, nobody is stripping the ceramic down to only 6×8, but some manufacturers will use a 9×11 piece of ceramic.

With steel, you know you’re getting the same protection on the entire plate.

The ceramic and steel body armor debate has been discussed at length. A nice way to look at it is that they both have pros and cons. A ceramic plate from a reputable company that states ‘edge to edge’ on their site is probably telling you the truth.

Drawbacks of Steel Body Armor

One of the main drawbacks of steel armor is its weight.

Steel is heavier than ceramic or polyethylene armor, which can lead to fatigue and be uncomfortable for the user if worn for a long period without padding between the plate and the user (Such as trauma pads). 

Plates typically come in AR500, AR550, and AR600 steel. 

AR stands for Abrasion Resistant on the Brinell hardness scale, meaning an AR600 steel plate is significantly stronger than an AR500 plate, and therefore can offer the same protection in a lighter, thinner package. 

steel body armor
AR500 and AR600 plate details

When a bullet strikes steel the bullet will shatter, creating what is known as bullet fragmentation that can cause secondary injury to the wearer.

This issue can be mitigated with the use of spall liners, at Tacticon we enclose all our steel plates with a 3/8 inch coating that will both protect the plate from weather and capture the fragmentation from a round, eliminating this concern. 

Bullet fragmentation
Frag mitigation coating

Comparison to Other Types of Rifle Armor

Ceramic body armor is lighter than steel, however, it is more expensive and less durable. Ceramic body armor plates can crack or shatter after multiple impacts, including being dropped.

Conversely, polyethylene (PE) plates are extremely lightweight.

However, PE plates tend to be significantly more expensive than steel armor and are susceptible to degradation from environmental factors. 

PE plates will also fail when shot by rifle rounds with any type of penetrating tip, such as M855.

Steel body armor is rated by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) at level III. Level III will stop six (6) rounds of 7.62×51, as well as 5.56 and 7.62×39 rounds among others. Many steel plates (All of Tacticon Armament steel plates) are level III+, meaning they will also stop M855 ‘Green tip’ 5.56 rounds which can penetrate level III pure polyethylene plates because of the steel tip.

M855 bullet

However, steel is defeated by armor-piercing rounds such as 30.06 M2 AP. For more information about information on armor piercing protection check into level 4 body armor.

Our Comprehensive Guide to Body Armor Levels provides additional insights into the various types of armor and their level of protection.

Bullet Fragmentation and Spalling

As mentioned earlier, one of the dangers when a bullet impacts raw steel is bullet fragmentation

Bullet fragments can cause injuries to the user, but this risk is mitigated by using a spall liner or coating.

Spall liners are additional layers of material placed on the outside of the armor plate to catch bullet fragments preventing them from causing harm.

Think of these like a sock for your plate, only instead of cotton they are usually Kevlar and can be purchased from your plates.

Many steel plates have a spray coating made from materials like rubber or polyurea. 

These coatings capture and contain the bullet fragments, negating the secondary injury risk. 

Fragmentation build-up coating comes standard on all Tacticon Armament steel plates, with no upcharge for something that should be standard, and is absolutely necessary for steel plates. 

This video is very interesting and shows that steel armor with a proper coating can withstand 30+ rounds of 5.56 before the frag will escape through the plate carrier.

Final Thoughts on Steel Body Armor

Overall, steel body armor is the perfect option for those looking for reliable protection against multiple rifle rounds and various calibers. With its durability, affordability, and effectiveness, steel body armor provides a great solution for those who desire long-lasting protection. Whatever your walk of life is and reason for purchasing armor, steel body armor can provide you with the peace of mind and security you need in any emergency situation.

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