Body armor has become an essential piece of equipment for military, law enforcement, and civilians who want protection. This article is about hard body armor.

This article discusses hard body armor. It will cover its properties and compare it to soft body armor. Additionally, it will examine various types of hard body armor plates. Lastly, it will explore the available carriers and vests. We will also delve into the threat levels as defined by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and discuss back-face deformation, fragmentation, and spall.

What Is Body Armor

Body armor is a blanket term to describe any protective garment designed to absorb or disperse the impact of projectiles, blades, or blunt force trauma. The purpose, thereby, is to reduce injury or death caused by the attack. Body armor can be made from various materials, and has been throughout time. Current forms of hard body armor utilize materials such as ceramic, fiber, or steel. The most popular area of protection is the torso, but armor exists to cover more areas as well. At least, this is a generalized explanation of body armor, more specifics will be covered later. Modern body armor is primarily concerned with stopping different types of bullets, based on speed, composition, and more. There are some soft armor companies that make sure their soft armor is stab-resistant as well. This is important for law enforcement, especially correctional officers. 

What is Hard Body Armor

Hard body armor refers to rigid protective plates designed to protect against rifle rounds, pistol rounds, and other dangerous projectiles. Hard body armor plates are usually made from materials like ceramic, steel, or fibers and put into a vest or plate carrier.

Manufacturers generally produce hard body armor in a standard civilian size of 10×12 inches. However, plates are also made in 8×10 and 11×14 inch variations.

There are also standardized SAPI sizes used by the military. These come in sizes small, medium, large, and extra large. These are typically ½ inch thinner, and ½ inch longer.

For example, size small is 8.75×11.75, medium is 9.5×12.5, large is 10.25×13.25 and extra large is 11×14.

Hard Body Armor vs Soft Body Armor

Hard and soft body armor differ primarily in the types of threats they are designed to protect against. Soft body armor is created using materials such as Kevlar and layered polyethene. It is designed to shield against bullets from handguns and shotguns, and some can also defend against sharp objects.

This is typically what is referred to as a “Bulletproof vest” however this is a misnomer because soft armor will not stop rifle rounds. Because pistol armor is soft it is used in vests that wrap around the body, creating a larger coverage area without hindering movement. 

In contrast, most hard body armor is specifically designed to protect against rifle rounds and other more powerful threats, as well as pistol threats. Hard body armor is typically worn in plate carriers, and used when a rifle threat is likely to be encountered. As such, rifle plates are smaller and only cover critical areas because they are rigid and heavier. 

Different Types of Hard Body Armor Plates 

Types of Hard Armor - Steel, UHMWPE (Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethlene), UHMWPE + Ceramic - Tacticon Armament

Hard armor plates are made from various materials. The material a plate is made out of will affect the level of threat the plate will stop, as well as the price of the plate. It will also impact the overall durability of and lifespan and overall construction. 

Ceramic Armor

Ceramic plates are lightweight/midweight and effective at stopping a variety of the most dangerous rifle rounds depending on their construction. Ceramic plates are made from materials like aluminum oxide or silicon carbide. The plates come with a soft backer made of materials such as UHMWPE.

The “Strike face” is the ceramic portion of the plate that provides the bulk of the ballistic stopping power. The backer provides support, and additional ballistic protection.

Due to their more complicated and expensive construction they are generally more expensive than steel, however they are lighter weight. Ceramic plates last a long time if well-maintained and protected from the weather. However, the UHMWPE degrades overtime, reducing the overall protection of the plate.

As such, ceramic plates generally come with a warranty period of 5 or 10 years depending on the plate and manufacturer. Ceramic can vary in thickness, and ceramic plates can range in threat ratings from SRT, to Level 3, and even achieve the highest NIJ rating of Level 4. Ceramic plates are the only plate to date to reach NIJ’s level IV rating. 

Steel Armor

Steel plates are a very common option for hard armor. They are the heaviest option when it comes to rifle plates. However, being constructed of steel, they are incredibly durable and don’t require any specific handling.

Because steel is such a rigid material when a bullet strikes steel it completely shatters, sending the fragmentation flying. In this process steel from the back of the plate often breaks off, a phenomenon known as spall. Both of these processes create a risk of secondary injury to the wearer. 

To mitigate fragmentation and spall, most companies begin the process of manufacturing steel armor by thoroughly cleaning the bare metal plate to prevent rust, and then coating the plate in a fragmentation-catching polyurethane liner. This liner catches the bullet fragments preventing them from exiting the liner, preventing secondary injury. This liner has the added benefit of protecting the plate from the elements and rust.

Steel that is protected from the elements has a virtually illuminated lifespan, however, companies generally only rate the polyurethane coating at 20 years. Will the coating still be viable after 20 years? Possibly, but for liability reasons, companies limit the warranty to 20 years. 

Steel plates are very simple to produce, and the materials are relatively inexpensive, making steel the most affordable option for hard armor plates. Being composed of steel, however, limits the plate’s ability to stop certain threats like armor-piercing rounds and certain fast rounds such as M193 5.56. Therefore, without additional materials steel plates can only reach the NIJ level 3 standards (We will discuss NIJ standards below).

Polyethylene/UHMWPE Armor

Polyethylene/UHMWPE plates are made from a light, dense polymer material that offers lightweight protection against bullets. UHMWPE is commonly combined with ceramic for extra protection, but it can also be used alone as armor.

UHMWPE is used in “Bulletproof vests” as pistol-rating armor due to its incredible strength-to-weight ratio, and if pressed and treated can be used to make hard armor plates. When used as hard armor plates UHMWPE is incredibly lightweight but can be thicker than comparable level plates of other materials. For hard armor plates, UHMWPE generally is used to construct Level IIIA pistol armor, SRT rifle plates, and Level III rifle plates. 

Due to its construction, a pure UHMWPE plate (without a ceramic strike face) will never achieve an NIJ rating higher than Level 3 because it will not stop armor-piercing threats. Because of the manufacturing process, this is generally the highest-cost hard armor plates, but also the lightest. As mentioned above, UHMWPE degrades over time, and these plates are generally only warranted for five years. 

Different Types of Vests and Carriers

Armor does not magically stay in place, but would be super cool if it did. As such there are a few different methods and carriers commonly used. 

Camouflage Design Hard Armor Vest and Plate Carrier - Tacticon Armament

Concealable vs Tactical

Bulletproof vests, specifically the soft armor ones, are designed for concealing under clothing. Tactical vests are meant to be overt, worn on outer layers, and used to carry gear.

Whether using soft or hard armor, vests can be either overt or concealed depending on their purpose. Concealable vests are generally smooth, designed to contour, or just basically plate bags that hold plates in a certain spot. Conversely, tactical vests and plate carriers generally feature PALS or MOLLE webbing where additional equipment and pouches can be attached.

Plate Carriers

Plate carriers are a type of tactical vest, but are specific to rifle plates. They feature PALS/MOLLE, in many places, and are designed to be a modular system.

Remember how I said armor does not magically stay in place? Well, that’s because sometimes we wish that were true some of the most popular carriers are minimalist, such as the Tacticon Battle Vest Lite. The minimalist design allows our carriers to be either concealed or worn overtly.

Chest Rigs 

Chest rigs are lightweight, modular tool pouches that feature straps to hold the rig securely on the chest of the user by attaching around the neck and arms. They primarily focus on carrying ammunition and admin pouch-type gear. They provide no ballistic protection by themselves and simply focus on carrying gear. Chest rigs are popularly worn without a plate carrier, or as an addition to a plate carry so the user can carry more magazines and equipment. 

Tactical Backpack 

Certain tactical backpacks have a design that allows them to hold sewn-in hard or soft armor plates, providing users with discreet protection. Some companies make backpacks with plates sewn in, and while these are great, users are limited to only a few styles. Most backpacks can accept an armor plate placed on the inside of the main compartment, in the laptop area, or similar. This is great because it allows the user to adapt their existing backpack rather than having to purchase a new one.  

Alternatively, Tacticon’s backpack armor plate insert is a revolutionary protective solution designed to enhance personal safety and security. This innovative armor plate insert allows you to transform your regular backpack into a reliable defense system without compromising comfort or style.

High-quality ballistic materials make the backpack armor plate insert resistant to various ballistic threats. It is lightweight and discreet, ensuring ease of use and concealment. Whether you’re a student, commuter, or outdoor enthusiast, backpack armor plate inserts offer peace of mind and an extra layer of protection, making it an ideal choice for those who prioritize safety on the go.

Hard Body Armor Threat Levels & NIJ

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has established a set of standards to classify and regulate the protective capabilities of body armor. The NIJ Standard-0101.06 is the most current standard and serves as a benchmark for body armor performance.

Curved Hard Body Armor Plate - Tacticon Armament

Level IIIA Armor

Level IIIA body armor is designed to protect against most handgun threats including .357 SIG FMJ and .44 Magnum SJHP rounds. Level IIIA armor is often used in concealable vests for law enforcement officers and security. Depending on the manufacturer, level IIIA hard plates can be very thin and light.

Level III

Level III body armor is the entry-level for hard armor plates. These are designed to provide protection against rifle rounds, specifically the 7.62mm NATO M80 FMJ. This level of protection is commonly used by tactical law enforcement units and is popular in the civilian market. These plates can be made of steel, ceramic, or polyethylene. 

Level IV

Level IV body armor offers the highest level of protection and is designed to stop armor-piercing rifle rounds, specifically the .30-06 M2 AP, and all lower threats. Level IV plates are made from ceramic composites and are used by the military, law enforcement, and civilians.

Special Threat Plates/SRT

Special Threat Plates/SRT plates are designed to protect against specific threats that may not be covered by the standard NIJ levels. They can provide added protection against certain rounds, specialized armor-piercing ammunition, or other unique threats. A common example is Level III+ designed to stop M855 “Green tip.” Other plates drop the level III requirement of stopping 7.62×51 with less than 44mm of backface deformation to focus on stopping 5.56 and other cartridges in a lighter package.

Backface Deformation, Fragmentation, and Spall

Backface deformation refers to the amount of material that bulges or deforms on the backside of body armor when a projectile strikes it. Excessive backface deformation can cause injury to the wearer, even if the armor stops the projectile. The NIJ standards include limits on backface deformation of 44mm to ensure adequate protection for the wearer.

Fragmentation is a concern with hard body armor, particularly with steel plates. When a projectile strikes the armor, it can cause the bullet to break apart, sending fragments flying at high speeds. These fragments can cause injury to the wearer or others nearby. To mitigate fragmentation, some hard armor plates use coatings or additional layers of material to catch and contain fragments.

Spall is another potential issue with hard body armor. Spalling occurs when a projectile strikes the armor and causes pieces of the opposite surface to break apart and send fragments flying. This can be particularly hazardous for the wearer, as spalling can cause severe injuries to the area behind the armor. Spall liners or anti-spall coatings can be used on hard armor plates to reduce the risk of spalling.

You can learn more about spall and fragmentation by delving into our comprehensive article, where you can expand your knowledge and gain valuable insights on the critical aspects of spall and fragmentation to better protect yourself.

Hard Body Armor Maintenance & Durability

Proper maintenance and care are essential to ensure that body armor remains effective and lasts as long as the manufacturer states. It is important to provide general care and cleaning to armor that is designed to save your life. 

Soft Body Armor & Hard Body Armor General Maintenance - Tacticon Armament

General Care and Maintenance Tips

  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for care and maintenance as they may be specific. 
  • Inspect the armor regularly for signs of damage or wear to make sure it is in good condition. 
  • Do not alter or modify the armor in any way, this can lead to serious problems. 
  • Remove the plates from the carrier before washing the carrier, and keep the plates dry and moisture-free. 
  • Store armor in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight when not in use as UV rays can damage the outer layer, and high temperature for a long duration will damage the armor. 
  • Don’t leave the armor in the sun, or in a room with a window where the sun shines on the plate for hours on end. 

Proper Cleaning Tips

  • Wipe down hard armor plates with a cloth to remove dirt and debris. 
  • Do not use harsh chemicals or abrasive materials that may damage the armor’s surface. 
  • Allow the plates to air dry completely before reassembling the carrier. 
  • Keep in mind, not all armor is water resistant, make sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions for your specific armor.

Lifespan and Expiration of Hard Armor

Hard armor, such as ceramic or composite plates, may have an expiration date due to the degradation of materials over time. Factors such as exposure to environmental elements, handling, and normal wear and tear can affect the performance and integrity of the armor. The expiration date serves as a guideline to ensure that the armor remains effective and reliable. It is recommended to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines and replace the armor before the expiration date to maintain optimal protection.

Replace the armor if it shows signs of damage or if it has been struck by a projectile, I cannot stress this enough!

Advantages and Disadvantages of Hard Armor

Hard armor is important to those who face rifle threats for work, like the military and military contractors. But let’s face it, as civilians the last few years were a bit freaky.

We have seen riots, a pandemic, and war in Ukraine where armed citizens have taken up arms and helped resist Russian tyranny. Armor sales to civilians have seen record highs in the past few years. Let’s look at the benefits and drawbacks of hard body armor.

Pros

  • Hard armor provides protection against rifle rounds.
  • Most hard armor plates can withstand multiple hits without greatly compromising their effectiveness.
  • There are a variety of shapes and sizes available for the individual user. 
  • Some hard armor plates are designed to be buoyant, providing additional protection for maritime operations.

Cons

  • Hard armor is generally heavier and bulkier than soft body armor, which can affect mobility and comfort.
  • Ultra-lightweight hard armor plates can be expensive. 
  • Hard armor plates provide limited body coverage compared to soft body armor, which can contour to the wearer’s body.
  • In hot or humid environments wearing hard armor plates for long periods of time can be uncomfortable.

Bulletproof vs Bullet Resistant

The terms “bulletproof” and “bullet-resistant” are often used interchangeably, but it’s essential to understand the difference between them. No body armor is entirely “bulletproof” because there is always the potential for a projectile at close range or greater than the armor is rated for to penetrate or cause injury through back-face deformation. 

Instead, body armor is more accurately described as “bullet-resistant.” This means that it provides a certain level of protection against specific threats, armor is not effective against all projectiles or situations. The level of protection offered by body armor is determined by its materials, construction, and threat levels it is designed to protect against, as outlined by the NIJ standards. Discover our comprehensive article on bulletproof vs bullet resistant, delving into the details of this subject for a deeper understanding.

Legalities of Buying and Wearing Hard Body Armor

The legality of purchasing and wearing hard body armor varies depending on the jurisdiction. In the United States, it is generally legal for civilians to purchase and possess body armor. However, there are some restrictions:

Convicted felons are prohibited from owning or wearing body armor.

Some states, such as Connecticut require face-to-face transactions for body armor purchases, meaning that online sales are not allowed.

Wearing body armor while committing a crime can result in additional criminal charges.

It is essential to check your local and state laws to ensure compliance with any regulations regarding the purchase and use of body armor.

To ensure compliance with local and state laws, it is advised to thoroughly research and understand the regulations governing the purchase and use of body armor in your area. Stay informed and remain within the boundaries of the law for a responsible and lawful approach to body armor ownership.

Tattooed man wearing hard body armor build out with clip holsters and molle - Tacticon Armament

Hard Body Armor Common Questions

When it comes to personal protection, hard body armor plays a crucial role in safeguarding individuals from various ballistic threats. In this section, we aim to shed light on some of the most frequently asked questions surrounding hard body armor. 

What is hard body armor?

Hard body armor refers to rigid protective plates designed to protect against high-velocity projectiles and other significant threats.

What is hard body armor made of?

Hard body armor can be made from materials such as ceramic, steel, advanced composites, aluminum oxide, or titanium.

Does hard body armor expire? 

Yes, hard body armor typically has a lifespan of 5 to 10 years, depending on the material and manufacturer.

How to clean soft body armor? 

Remove the ballistic panels from the carrier and follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for cleaning the carrier. The panels and/or plates themselves should not be submerged in water or cleaned with harsh chemicals.

What is the strongest bulletproof armor? 

Level IV armor offers the highest level of protection against armor-piercing rifle rounds.

What material is 100% bulletproof? 

No material is completely bulletproof, but materials like ceramic composites and ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) offer high levels of bullet resistance.

Can an AR-15 penetrate body armor? 

An AR-15 can penetrate certain types of body armor depending on the ammunition used and the armor’s protection level. For example, Level III or Level IV armor can stop many AR-15 rounds.

What level armor does the US military use? 

The US military typically uses Level III or Level IV body armor, depending on the mission and threat level.

Is soft or hard body armor better? 

The choice between soft and hard body armor depends on the intended use and the threats being faced. Soft body armor is lighter and more comfortable, offering protection against handgun rounds, while hard body armor provides protection against high-velocity rifle rounds.

What is the heaviest body armor? 

Steel body armor tends to be the heaviest, but the weight of body armor varies depending on the materials used and the level of protection provided.

Is ceramic armor better than steel? 

Ceramic armor is generally lighter and offers comparable protection to steel armor. However, steel armor can be more durable and may provide protection against multiple hits.

In most jurisdictions, it is legal for civilians to wear plate armor. However, certain restrictions may apply, such as those for convicted felons or those committing a crime while wearing body armor. Always check your local and state laws to ensure compliance.

Final Thoughts on Hard Body Armor

Remember, when it comes to purchasing armor it is important to be armed with the facts and accurate knowledge. This prevents purchasing inferior armor, or the wrong armor for you. Hard armor plates are made to address rifle threats, whereas soft armor is concerned with pistols. Maintaining your gear and keeping it in good condition is essential for proper function, especially for life-saving products. 

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