Today we know body armor as light and flexible pressed materials that make up a bulletproof vest, or hard rifle plates designed to protect soldiers on the battlefield. Body armor has undergone dramatic improvements over the last 60 years to bring us the advanced armor now easily accessible to civilians. Many civilians and law enforcement wear advanced level 3, or level 3+ ceramic plates, which weigh between 3-6lb per plate.
Consider for a moment that infantry soldiers and marines were not issued body armor until the 90s, and the ‘flak jackets’ seen in photos were not bulletproof. Instead, they were designed to shield the wearer from fragments caused by a nearby explosion. Although the issuances of body armor were not common during this time we can trace the origins of modern ceramic body armor to the Vietnam war, and the use of ceramic armor much further.
The Origins of Ceramic Body Armor
The use of ceramics for protection dates back to ancient times. The concept of using hard, durable materials for armor has been adopted by various civilizations for thousands of years. While there is evidence of early civilizations using ceramics for armor, steel/bronze became the best known examples because metal was more durable and therefore more widely used.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that ceramic materials began to be utilized in modern body armor. Near the end of WWI, Allied countries began looking into ceramics as a possible form of armor.
It wasn’t until the 1960s when ceramic armor began early adoption in combat. Early plates were primarily boron carbide, which offered superior ballistic protection to the steel armor of the time. More importantly, ceramic weighed less.
In Vietnam, ceramic armor was used to protect helicopter crews because they received constant small arms fire.
Ceramic plates were added to the seats, and armor plates were given to the whole crew. Armor plates issued to crew members were the first generation of modern ceramic body armor. They featured a ceramic plate, and soft fiberglass backer. This is the same design as modern plates, just utilizing more rudimentary materials. It was found that using ceramic armor for helicopter crews reduced fatalities from small arms by just over 50%.
As research continued, new ceramics such as silicon carbide and aluminum oxide began to be incorporated into body armor plates, providing greater protection and durability.
Evolution of Ceramic Body Armor
Over the years, ceramic body armor has undergone significant improvements. The initial ceramic plates were bulky and cumbersome, limiting the wearer’s mobility (possibly part of the reason they were only issued to chopper crews). Advances in materials science led to the development of thinner and lighter ceramic plates that offered increasingly superior ballistic protection. As user feedback came in, designers began making other improvements such as curving the plates to better fit the user. Similarly, designs were changed to offer plate cuts which gave users greater mobility, such as SAPI and swimmers cuts.
The late 1990s and early 2000s saw the introduction of the level 3 ceramic plates, which were capable of stopping full powered rifle rounds. This marked improvement compared to earlier models.
Further refinements in manufacturing techniques and the use of advanced materials have made modern ceramic plates even more effective and affordable.
Level 3 Ceramic Plates
Body armor is tested and rated by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), who rate rifle armor as either level 3 or level 4. Level 3 body armor must stop six (6) rounds of 7.62×51 in order to be certified by NIJ.
Modern ceramic armor features a hard ceramic plate, and a soft backer, generally made of ultra high molecular weight polyethylene. Polyethylene is far superior to fiberglass, and is used to make modern soft body armor. These materials are heated together to bond, and sealed in an outer layer of material. At Tacticon Armament we coat our ceramic plates in Thermal Polyurethane, which repeals liquids including water and even diesel.
Level 3 is the entry level ceramic plate, giving the user rifle rated protection without stepping up to a level IV ceramic plate. Level 4 is rated to stop 30.06 armor piercing M2 and is typically heavier. If you are curious about level 4 ceramic plates, check out our post for more information.
Level 3+ is not an NIJ rating, however it is an industry rating to denote that a particular plate exceeds the NIJ standard of level 3. Often this is because the plate will defeat M855 ‘Green tip’ 5.56, and M193, which some level 3 plates fail to. Level 3 and level 3+ are the most common plates among civilians and law enforcement as they stop common threats, and most individuals outside of a military environment will not face armor piercing rounds.
Benefits of Ceramic Body Armor
There are several key advantages to using ceramic body armor, particularly Level 3+ ceramic plates.
One of the biggest benefits of ceramic plates is they’re relatively light compared to steel. This allows for greater mobility and reduced fatigue for the wearer. Ceramic plates are designed to disperse the energy of an incoming projectile, reducing the likelihood of penetration.
The design of ceramic plates ensures that the impact of a bullet is distributed across a larger area because of the backer. This minimizes the amount of back face deformation, reducing the risk of injury.
Level 3 ceramic plates offer outstanding protection against high powered rifle rounds, a significant improvement over earlier models of body armor.
The development of ceramic body armor has evolved the world of personal protection, especially for civilians and law enforcement. With a century of research behind their development, ceramic rifle plates of today are highly advanced.
My personal favorite are level 3+ ceramic plates, they are a great compromise between protection and weight. Tacticon Armament level 3+ ceramic plates weight only 4.4lb per plate and will stop pretty much all non-armor piercing rounds. They are pricey, but that’s due to their lightweight nature and the advanced materials that allow them to be so light. For a more affordable level 3+ option, check out our steel core armor.
Technology continues marching forward, and we can expect even more innovations in the world of ceramic body armor.
The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Tacticon Armament.