Body armor has come a long way since its inception. Among the various types of body armor steel plates stand out for their durability and cost effectiveness. However, there are some common misconceptions surrounding the dangers of bullet fragmentation and spall when using steel body armor. We are going to get into the origin of steel ballistic armor, how these myths came to be, and why these misconceptions are no longer accurate.

Origins of Modern Steel Body Armor

Obviously steel body armor has been around for centuries but wasn’t adopted as ballistic armor until around WWII.

In 1943, U.S. bomber aircrews were issued the Flyer’s Vest M1, initially manufactured in Great Britain. The M1 vest incorporated several 2-inch square manganese steel plates sewn into a canvas vest. These provided protection against shrapnel from anti-aircraft shells.

Many additional coverage attachments were made for specific threats aircrew members faced, making the vest modular and customizable. Over 100,000 were produced by the end of the war, and studies showed that due to their use fatalities from chest and abdomen wounds were reduced from about 40% to around 6%.

Despite its success among aircrews, the U.S. Army initially rejected armor for ground troops due to its weight and restrictive designs. However, development continued for lighter options like the M-12 flyer’s vest which paved the way for modern infantry armor.

The Concern of Bullet Fragmentation and Spall Danger

The primary concern with steel body armor is the potential for bullet fragments or spalling to cause secondary injuries to the wearer or those nearby. 

What is spalling?

Spalling occurs when the force of a bullet’s impact causes flakes or splinters to break off from the armor’s surface. These spall fragments can then potentially harm the wearer. 

What is fragmentation?

Fragmentation occurs when a bullet strikes the plate and shatters, redirecting the bullet fragments away from the place of impact. This happens because steel plates are harder than the projectile itself. The concern is bullet fragments lodging themselves in the user’s face, neck, arms, or lower body after being redirected.  

Bullet fragment and spall danger with modern armor

Fragmentation and spalling concerns are largely overblown with today’s modern steel armor manufacturing. Back in the day of the M1 fragmentation and spall was an issue. Even recently, many manufacturers of early steel armor did very little to mitigate frag and spall, leading to this conception.

Even today, some larger manufacturers of steel armor will produce plates with very thin frag lining, and charge more for “additional” build-up coating to meet the necessary level of protection.

If you go on forums or YouTube you will find plenty of videos and accounts of frag and spall causing damage. Most of these plates have a very thin layer of coating, not nearly enough to be considered a proper coat, or from cheaply done coatings.   

Modern armor such as Tacticons steel body armor has undergone rigorous testing and enhancements to reduce frag and spall. Additionally, advancements in material science have led to the development of stronger, more resilient steel alloys to further reduce spall. These newer alloys are specifically designed to absorb and disperse the energy of an incoming round, reduce weight, and make a thinner plate.

Tacticon Armament standard coating

Spray Fragmentation Coating Changes Everything

steel armor build up coat
Tacticon Armament steel comes standard with a full build-up coat

One of the key innovations that helps mitigate the threat of bullet fragmentation and spall danger is the use of spray fragmentation coatings. These coatings consist of specialized materials, such as polyurea or rubber, which are applied to the surface of the steel armor. After our steel is sandblasted and formed, it is sprayed with a 3/8th inch coating of liner.

As the coating dries the outside hardens but the inside remains soft, leaving the coating overall elastic, and helping it stick to the metal beneath.

Additionally, the coating’s elastic nature allows it to expand on contact, trapping bullet fragments, and returning back to shape.

Spray fragmentation coatings serve two primary purposes. They provide a layer of protection against frag and spall by capturing and containing bullet fragments. Frag coating also protects the steel itself from the elements, extending the life of the steel and preventing rust.

Spall Sleeves

Spall sleeves are a sleeve that can be purchased separately to go over steel plates. They are typically made of Kevlar or other strong fibrous materials. These sleeves serve the same purpose as the spall coating, however, are necessary if you purchase armor that does not come with a full coat. In the end you will pay more because most sleeves cost $50-100, in addition to the price of the plate. It is best to purchase a high-quality plate from the start than continue to spend money to make your armor safe.

In Conclusion

Bare steel should under no circumstances be worn for protection because frag and spall will absolutely wreak havoc on the wearer. However, the myth of bullet fragmentation and spall danger with modern steel body armor has been largely blown out of proportion.

Modern steel plates offer robust protection against ballistic threats, with minimal risk of secondary injuries from fragmentation or spalling due to full frag coatings.

By understanding the origins of these misconceptions and recognizing the role of innovative solutions like spray fragmentation coatings, we can continue to rely on steel body armor as a valuable asset in ensuring the safety of the wearer from primary and secondary injury.

Personally, I used to be adamantly against steel plate armor, until I saw for myself the manufacturing process used at Tacticon. Tacticon has put significant time into research and development for our steel and our coatings. We test our product more than any other manufacturer in our NIJ replicated lab, including testing each batch of plates we manufacture. Through our vertically integrated manufacture, we are able to control every aspect of plate development, if you want to see how we can back up these claims check out our video on how to make the best body armor.

It wasn’t long before I ditched my overbuilt level 4 ceramic plates for AR600 level 3+ body armor from Tacticon Armament. The spall/frag coating is durable. It creates a hard outside and soft inside allowing it to expand when shot, creating a bubble to catch bullet fragmentation (and stick to the plate).

Remember to stay away from raw steel plates, you will get fragged. Buy plates from a reputable company that only sells plates with a proper coating, as Tacticon offers. We provide one of, if the not the most reliable and robust coating and performance body armor products on the market today.

Through our vertically integrated armor manufacturing process we control every aspect of development and manufacturing and test every batch – our competitors cannot say the same.

Stay safe.

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