Body armor is an essential part of protective equipment for anyone wanting the security and peace of mind it provides. Over the years, advancements in technology have led to the development of various types of body armor, each with its unique strengths.

One such innovation is ceramic body armor, sought after for its ability to provide protection against high velocity and armor piercing rounds. Though ceramic armor is available in different protection levels, it’s often found in Level IV plates – the highest level of protection under the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) body armor classification.

What Are Ceramic Body Armor Plates Made From?

To understand the unique benefits of ceramic body armor we must first look at the materials used to make them. Primarily, ceramic body armor plates are made from three types of ceramics, boron carbide, silicon carbide, aluminum oxide, and a fourth less common type called ALON. Each of these ceramics offers a unique balance of hardness, density, and thermal stability, making them ideal for various applications in body armor.

  1. Boron Carbide: Boron carbide is one of the hardest materials known to man, only behind diamond and cubic boron nitride. Despite its hardness, it’s relatively light making it an ideal material for body armor. It’s incredibly resistant to wear and can absorb a great deal of energy, making it highly effective against ballistic threats.
  2. Silicon Carbide: Silicon carbide is also a very hard ceramic and offers excellent resistance to wear. It’s slightly heavier than boron carbide, but it’s also less expensive, making it a popular choice for body armor applications. 
  3. Aluminum Oxide: Also known as alumina, is a highly stable ceramic that provides a good balance of cost, weight, and protection. It’s heavier than both boron carbide and silicon carbide, but it’s also less expensive, making it a common choice for body armor.
  4. Aluminum Oxynitride. Also known as ALONA, this fourth type is a transparent ceramic. ALON offers ballistic protection comparable to traditional opaque ceramics, but it is transparent, making it perfect for applications such as goggles and windshields.

Ceramic plates are typically with a backing material and specially heated to form a strong bond creating the composite.

Front To Back: Ceramic Strike Face, UHMWPE Backer, Complete Body Armor Plate- Tacticon Armament
Front To Back: Ceramic Strike Face, UHMWPE Backer, Complete Body Armor Plate

The ceramic layer shatters the incoming bullet, while the backing material absorbs the impact energy and prevents penetration. This composite design allows ceramic body armor plates to provide protection while remaining relatively light and comfortable to wear.

Ceramic Body Armor Strikeplate After Being Shot With Cover Removed - Tacticon Armament
Ceramic Body Armor Strikeplate After Being Shot With Cover Removed

Types of Ceramic Body Armor

In the body armor realm, different ceramic materials can be more ideal for certain levels of protection and design. The choice of ceramic depends on various factors such as comfort, cost, and weight considerations.

Boron Carbide Ceramic Body Armor

Boron Carbide is a black crystalline compound. It is one of the hardest known materials, only surpassed by diamonds and a few other compounds. This extreme hardness, combined with its low density, makes it a high performing choice for body armor. Manufacturing boron carbide body armor involves the use of extremely high temperature furnaces, where boron carbide powder is heated under pressure to create a dense, hard ceramic plate.

Pros of Boron Carbide

  • Lightweight: Boron carbide is significantly lighter than other ceramics, making it ideal for keeping body armor as light as possible. This is a consideration for individuals who need to maintain agility and endurance in the field.
  • Highly Protective: Boron carbide body armor is capable of a wide array of powerful ammunition, like all ceramics, but requires less material and weight, making it ideal for handgun and rifle protection. 

Cons of Boron Carbide

  • Susceptible to High Velocity Impacts: Although boron carbide is extremely hard, it can be damaged or even shattered by extremely high velocity impacts – this is where the UHMWPE comes in to support.
  • Expense: Due to the nature of Boron Carbide it tends to be more expensive than Alumina Oxide for example, because it is a more expensive material. 

While boron carbide body armor offers many advantages, it’s important to weigh these against potential drawbacks based on individual needs and circumstances, mainly price. As with any protective gear, understanding the material properties and how they align with your goals.  

Silicon Carbide Ceramic Body Armor  

Silicon carbide also known as carborundum, is a compound of silicon and carbon. This ceramic material was first produced by Edward Goodrich Acheson in the 1890s, and its popularity has grown since. Silicon carbide is formed by combining pure white sand (silica) and petroleum in an electric resistance furnace at a high temperature. The resulting ceramic is renowned for its hardness, lightness, and resistance to high temperatures.

Pros of Silicon Carbide

  • High Temperature Stability: Silicon carbide forms an oxide layer of silicon dioxide (silica) at high temperatures, which halts further high-temperature oxidation. This feature makes silicon carbide body armor more resistant to damage or degradation in harsh conditions.
  • Low Density and High Hardness: Silicon carbide is lighter than other ceramics but doesn’t compromise hardness. These attributes make silicon carbide body armor less burdensome and more effective at stopping threats.
  • Easily Customizable: Silicon carbide can be formed into a variety of shapes and sizes without losing its protective qualities. This adaptability means that body armor can be custom-fitted to the wearer, increasing comfort and mobility without sacrificing protection.

Cons of Silicon Carbide

  • High Cost: While silicon carbide offers many benefits, these come at a price. The complex manufacturing process and high-performance properties of silicon carbide can result in higher costs compared to other ceramic materials.

Choosing the right body armor involves a careful analysis of the situations you’re likely to encounter, your physical capabilities, and your budget. Silicon carbide body armor offers significant advantages, particularly for harsh environments, and long durations of wear. This is the reason for the high cost.  

Aluminum Oxide Ceramic Body Armor

Aluminum oxide, often known as alumina, is a ceramic material made primarily from aluminum and oxygen. This compound is one of the most cost-efficient ceramics and is commonly used in a variety of applications from abrasives and cutting tools to body armor. Alumina ceramics are produced through a process known as sintering, in which powdered aluminum oxide is heated to high temperatures until the particles bond together. This sintering process results in a hard, dense ceramic ideal for body armor.

Pros of Aluminum Oxide

  • Thickness: Aluminum oxide ceramics can be made thicker than other ceramics, providing a potential edge in durability and ballistic protection. This increased thickness can be advantageous in situations where the wearer faces threats of higher than normal velocities.
  • Lower Cost: Alumina costs less to produce, making for more affordable body armor. 

Cons of Aluminum Oxide

  • Weight: As the thickest and densest of the ceramics used in body armor, aluminum oxide is also the heaviest. This additional weight can limit mobility and become burdensome during prolonged wear. It’s crucial to consider the balance between protection and comfort when choosing body armor.

The right body armor depends on the threats you anticipate, your physical capabilities, and other factors. While aluminum oxide offers great protective capabilities, it’s also important to consider the potential downside of weight. 

Aluminum Oxynitride Ceramic Body Armor

Aluminum Oxynitride, often abbreviated as ALON, is a notable ceramic material for its combination of optical clarity and strong protective properties. It is composed of aluminum, oxygen, and nitrogen, and its production process involves high-temperature heating similar to other ceramic materials, but with an added step of polishing to achieve its transparency.

ALON is not directly used in body armor plates due to its cost and complexity of production, but ALON’s unique properties make it an excellent choice for manufacturing transparent armor such as bulletproof goggles, visors, and windshields. This is where ALON really shines—providing clear, unobstructed vision while offering robust protection against ballistic threats.

The production process of ALON is quite intricate. It starts with a powder that’s compressed under high pressure to form a green body, which is then heated by sintering. The high temperatures transform the green body into a transparent polycrystalline ceramic. This ceramic is then ground and polished to make it as clear as glass.

The benefits of ALON are considerable:

  1. Optical Clarity: ALON’s transparency allows for clear visibility, making it an ideal material for protective eyewear and vehicle windshields in hostile environments.
  2. Superior Protection: Despite its transparency, ALON offers an exceptional level of ballistic protection. It can withstand direct impacts from bullets and shrapnel, making it a key component in the production of advanced protective gear.
  3. Scratch Resistance: ALON is highly resistant to scratches, giving it a longer lifespan and ensuring clear visibility over time.
  4. UV Resistance: Unlike some plastics, ALON does not yellow or become brittle when exposed to sunlight, ensuring longevity and consistent performance.

Remember, while ALON may not be used in traditional body armor plates, its incorporation in protective eyewear and vehicle armor contributes significantly to overall personal protection. By supplementing body armor with ALON-based equipment, one can achieve comprehensive defense against a range of threats.

Ceramic Vs Steel Body Armor

Ceramic Composite Body Armor Shown Next To Steel Body Armor Plate - Tacticon Armament
Ceramic Composite Body Armor Shown Next To Steel Body Armor Plate

Choosing the right body armor is a highly personal decision that depends on various factors, including the nature of threats you’re likely to encounter, the kind of environment you’ll be operating in, and your personal comfort and mobility needs. When comparing ceramic and steel body armor, each type brings its own strengths and weaknesses to the table. Let’s take a closer look at these two categories of armor.

Weight: Ceramic armor plates are generally lighter than steel plates. This can be a factor when considering long-term wear, as lower weight can enhance mobility and reduce fatigue. Steel plates, however, are usually heavier, but thinner.

Durability: Steel plates shine in terms of durability. They can take multiple hits without failing, and unlike ceramic plates, they do not risk shatter upon impact. While ceramic plates provide excellent protection, they crack after taking a hit, which will compromise their protective properties if subjected to multiple impacts in the same area, however unlikely that may be. 

Temperature Resistance: Ceramic materials generally perform better under high temperatures, owing to their ability to form an insulating oxide layer. Steel can retain heat and become uncomfortable when used in hot environments.

Spall and Fragmentation: One concern with steel body armor is the issue of spalling and fragmentation. When a bullet hits a steel plate, it can fragment and send shrapnel flying in all directions. This can cause injury even if the bullet itself does not penetrate the armor. That said, frag can easily be mitigated by adding a build-up coat of polyurea is able to catch those nasty, sharp bullet fragments, and most companies offer this as an option. All of Tacticon Armament’s steel plates come with this build-up coat standard. 

Ceramic plates do not have this issue, as the UHMWPE layer is designed to absorb the bullet’s energy and mitigate fragmentation.

Multi-Hit Capability: Steel plates offer better multi-hit capability than ceramic plates. A steel plate can take multiple hits without its overall integrity being compromised. However, a ceramic plate will crack or break after a hit, reducing its effectiveness against subsequent impacts in that same spot.

Price: Ceramic plates will generally be more expensive, to significantly more expensive when compared to steel plates. Steel plates generally run $100-150 per plate, whereas ceramic can be anywhere between $150-1,200 per plate. 

Both ceramic and steel body armor have their merits. Your choice should depend on your specific requirements and the challenges you anticipate facing. Both types of armor can provide reliable protection, but their different properties mean that they may be better suited to different scenarios. 

Polyethylene Body Armor Vs Ceramic

Polyethylene and ceramic are two prominent materials used in body armor, each offering its unique benefits and trade-offs. Both are significantly lighter than steel plates – polyethylene can be up to 70% lighter – enhancing the user’s comfort and mobility. However, their protective capabilities differ slightly, and these differences are important depending on the threat you’re likely to face.

Polyethylene armor, also known as UHMWPE (Ultra-High-Molecular-Weight Polyethylene) is made from a type of plastic with high tensile strength. It is known for being extremely light, yet offering impressive ballistic protection up to NIJ level III. Polyethylene armor works by using the bullet’s impact energy to melt a small portion of the material, effectively “catching” the bullet. This type of armor can effectively stop rounds from handguns and some rifles, making it versatile for various situations.

Ceramic armor, on the other hand, tends to be heavier than polyethylene but can offer higher levels of protection. Ceramic plates are designed to break upon impact, spreading the bullet’s energy over a larger area and reducing the force transmitted to the wearer. They are effective at stopping both handgun and higher caliber rifle rounds, including armor piercing ammunition for level IV plates.

Both polyethylene and ceramic armor are lighter than steel and provide strong protection. Your choice between the two would depend on your specific needs, including the types of threats you are likely to encounter and the balance you want to strike between weight and protection level.

Kevlar Vs Ceramic Body Armor

Kevlar and ceramic body armor serve different purposes and are used in different ways to protect the wearer. The key difference lies in their composition and structure.

Kevlar is a type of aramid fiber that is woven into a fabric. It’s incredibly strong – about five times stronger than steel on an equal weight basis – yet lightweight and flexible. This makes it an ideal material for soft body armor, like vests, that are designed to stop handgun rounds and fragmentation. The flexibility of Kevlar allows for a greater range of motion, making it a common choice for body armor that is worn for extended periods.

Ceramic body armor, in contrast, is hard and rigid. It is made from ceramic plates that are inserted into a carrier or vest. These plates are not flexible, helping to make them capable of stopping both handgun and rifle rounds, including some armor-piercing rounds. Due to its weight and rigidity, ceramic armor is often reserved for situations where the wearer is likely to face rifle threats.

Kevlar and ceramic body armor have their place in personal protection but for different purposes. Kevlar offers flexibility and is well suited for threats from handguns and fragmentation, while ceramic provides more robust protection against threats. Your choice between the two would depend on the threat level you expect to face and the balance between mobility and protection that you want to achieve. 

Ceramic Body Armor Plates FAQ

What is better Kevlar or ceramic?

Whether Kevlar or ceramic is better depends on your specific needs and the threats you’re likely to encounter. Kevlar is flexible and lightweight, ideal for protection against handguns and fragmentation. Ceramic armor, on the other hand, offers more protection and can stop both handgun and rifle rounds.

Do ceramic plates expire?

Ceramic plates do not necessarily expire, but their protective capability can decrease over time, especially with rough handling or exposure to extreme conditions. Most manufacturers will recommend a shelf life of typically 5-7 years, but this can be extended with proper care and storage.

How heavy is ceramic armor?

The weight of ceramic armor can vary depending on its size and the specific type of ceramic used. On average, a ceramic plate for body armor weighs between 4 and 8 pounds.

How long do ceramic body armor plates last?

With proper care and handling ceramic body armor plates can last for many years. However, it’s important to replace any plate that has been struck by a bullet or severely impacted, as its structural integrity may be compromised.

Are Steel Plates Heavier Than Ceramic?

Yes, steel plates are typically heavier than ceramic plates. While the exact weight can vary depending on the plate’s size and thickness, steel plates often weigh 1.25 – 2 times as much as their ceramic counterparts.

Why is ceramic used in body armor?

Ceramic is used in body armor because it is a hard material that is effective at absorbing and distributing the energy of a bullet’s impact. When a bullet strikes a ceramic plate, the plate breaks, breaking the bullet in the process, spreading the bullet’s energy over a larger area and reducing the force transmitted to the wearer.

How strong is ceramic body armor?

Ceramic is overall the strongest material used in body armor. Earlier we discussed there are very few materials stronger than some of the ceramics used in body armor. Ceramic armor is the only method of manufacture able to achieve NIJ’s highest rating of level 4, which is rated to stop armor piercing 30-06 rounds. 

Final Thoughts

In the diverse world of protective equipment, ceramic body armor stands out for its unique combination of durability, protection, and relative lightweights. Each type of ceramic, be it boron carbide, silicon carbide, aluminum oxide, or aluminum oxynitride, offers specific advantages, whether in terms of hardness, wear resistance, heat tolerance, price, or the ability to create transparent armor.

As we’ve highlighted, these advantages are further nuanced when comparing ceramic armor with steel, polyethylene, or Kevlar alternatives. It’s a multifaceted decision that comes down to considering weight, durability, temperature resistance, multi-hit capability, cost, and the specific ballistic threats one is likely to face.

It’s important to remember, though, that ceramic is just one of the many body armor options available from Tacticon. We encourage readers to assess their personal needs, consider the comprehensive information provided, and make the most informed decision when it comes to personal safety and rifle protection body armor. Protection is an investment, and as such, it’s crucial to make a choice that ensures maximum effectiveness.

From all of us at Tacticon, we stand ready to assist you in navigating the body armor landscape, feel free to comment or reach out with any questions. 

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