Steel Body Armor vs. Ceramic Body Armor
Steel Body Armor vs. Ceramic Body Armor

You heard about body armor, but you don’t know which one is better, ceramic vs. steel plates. You even wonder what does this term mean. Body armor is a general term for everything you wore when you’re on the field. Body Armor includes the vest and the plates, each of them has different material and design. You will find all the answers you wondered about body armor in the following information below!

Allow me to introduce NIJ first.

National Institution of Justice
National Institute of Justice

You’ve probably heard or asked this question before. Is it NIJ certified? What does this mean or do for you anyway? The certification done by the National Institute of Justice operates off a tiered system, with each tier offering a different level of protection. Level IIA, Level II, Level IIIA, Level III, and Level IV.

The goal of each level is to provide the buyer with threat-level options for their specific situation. The protocol for each level requires that the vest or plate is not perforated or deformed to the point of causing severe blunt force trauma. The NIJ provides a list for each level and what ammunition the armor can handle without causing a severe or fatal injury to the user. See the chart below.

NIJ Levels of Ammunition Protection
NIJ Levels

Ceramic vs. Steel Body Armor Plate: The 2 Most Common Materials

The comparison between Steel Body Armor and Ceramic Body Armor
The comparison between steel body armor and ceramic body armor

When browsing body armor plates, you will notice that most companies choose either ceramic or steel as their plates’ material.

If they are both NIJ-certified body armor, then they both are capable of protecting you when needed. So, what’s the difference?

Steel body armor is generally more durable.

Steel is… steel. Everyone knows that steel, especially high-quality one, is renowned for its durability. In general, steel outperforms ceramic in both physical durability and weather resistance.

Ceramic and moisture do not work well together. The more the ceramic plates are exposed to the elements, the quicker they degrade over time. Typically, it is recommended that you replace your ceramic plates every 5 to 7 years.

Steel plates are usually lined with a type of rhino liner and will not face the same degradation issues. In fact, they can maintain serviceability for 20 or more years. On the other hand, ceramic plates have a history of brittleness, with plates sometimes needing to be replaced after a simple drop or fall.

Something to be cognizant of should your plate withstand any non-projectile-related impact. You may want to inspect or replace the plate if you have any reason to believe the structural integrity has been compromised.

Ceramic plates are lighter and tend to be thicker

The material of ceramic plates and the amount of material needed for adequate protection is 2 crucial factors for it being lighter and thicker. Ceramic is typically forecasted as more comfortable than steel as it is softer.

Personally, I have not found this to be the case, especially when steel is coupled with a trauma pad. Steel body armor does have noticeably harder edges when running and comparing them side by side, but we have not found this to be a notable issue in practice.

You will notice the weight difference. Steel typically runs close to twice the weight of its ceramic counterparts. You will be looking at a difference of 3 to 4 lbs. per plate. Today’s plate carriers distribute weight exceptionally well, and the increased cost for a lighter plate may not benefit you as much as you think it might. Is this for home defense? Are you hiking long distances with this carrier? Is it only on standby as a Quick Reaction carrier? These are all questions the end-users need to ask themselves before spending hundreds more for weight savings that may have diminished returns for your intended use.

Steel plates are cheaper.

Steel body armor is cheaper in both material and manufacturing costs. Because of this, you will see ceramic plates that are double, triple, or even quadruple steel prices. The average for steel was between 100 to 200 dollars, and the average for ceramic was between 300 to 400 dollars.

Steel plates usually offer 3 cut styles: Shooters, SAPI, and Hybrid cut

Each cut serves different purposes. When you choose the plates’ style, there are 2 questions you should ask yourself: How do you want it to protect you, and how much freedom of movement do you need? The paragraph below will help you sort them out:

SAPI Cut (Small Arms Protective Insert)

Steel Body Armor - SAPI cut plates
Steel Body armor – SAPI cut plates

10×12 Sapi Cuts (front and back) have been a military standard for quite a while now. Hence, it transferred over to the civilian market as well. They will have less dramatic and shallower cuts than the shooter cut. This SAPI cut is almost always used as a backplate because the end-user obviously does not need the increased range of motion in that direction. Only more recently, the different cut styles for front plates have come to fruition.

Shooters Cut

Steel Body armor - Shooter's cut plates
Steel Body armor – Shooter’s cut plates

The shooters cut shaves down the top edges of the front plate at a steeper level to allow increased arm mobility and are less obtrusive when attempting to shoulder your rifle. The 10×12 SAPI has been the standard for front and back plates for quite a while. However, more and more users utilize shooters cut in front, opting for increased mobility over the slightly more surface area afforded by the standard 10×12 SAPI. 

Hybrid Cut

Steel Body armor - Hybrid cut plates
Steel Body armor – Hybrid cut plates

Although less common, some companies even offer hybrid-cut options. This will allow the user to choose between right-handed and left-handed shooter options. With these options, the plate on the non-dominant side of your body will retain the shape of a SAPI cut, while your dominant side will retain the same dimensions as the shooter’s cut. This will allow increased surface area on your left side while also keeping some of the mobility benefits found with a dedicated shooter’s cut plate.

Move on to the vest

The features of a good body armor vest
The features of a good body armor vest

Even if you didn’t have a plate, is it still ideal to have a battle vest? Yes! Why? Because it allows you to have places to carry your extra magazines or other gears! Isn’t it nice to always have places to put your favorite toys? So then, what should you keep an eye on before getting a battle vest?

Breathing Material

Being in a hot environment and having a lackluster plate carrier in breathability is no fun. If you are utilizing your plate carrier in 90+ degree heat, having a plate carrier with both breathable and less material will have the potential of increasing both comfort level and performance.

Secure Material

Sometimes companies include subpar Velcro for their cummerbunds to secure onto your body. You must recognize this if your carrier has this issue.

An easy test is to sinch down your cummerbunds tight to your body. Then, proceed to push out with your stomach as hard as possible. If you can break your Velcro seal, it is likely too weak to use and should be replaced.

Tugging should also not break the Velcro seal. What good is body armor if it doesn’t stay on your body anyways?

Plate Carrier Real Estate

Mission will dictate this entirely. You might be in a situation where you need no additional gear other than a slick set of steel plate body armor. Most people, however, utilize their plate carriers to carry much of their crucial gear. With minimalistic carriers being the fad right now, please self-evaluate everything you wish to have on your carrier.

Be sure to accommodate all the more crucial gear you plan on attaching. Some minimalistic designs might be too minimal for your intended use and vice versa. There is no need to have a bulky carrier if you run it with minimal gear.

Do you need body armor for home defense?

The features of a good body armor vest
Having body armor for home defense is important

Will you always have time to don your plate carrier? Nope. In the event of a home invasion, you will not always have time for this. However, if a known threat allows you a brief moment of preparation, these can definitely save your life.

We all saw how fast cities could erupt into unrest during the summer of 2020. Police wear body armor for a reason. In their absence, which is almost always until after the crime, you may have to act as your response force, and you should afford yourself the same level of protection.

So, Yes! Body armor is a great investment to have. Being able to make holes, stop holes, and plug holes are crucial!

2 thoughts on “Which One Protects You Better: Ceramic vs. Steel Body Armor

  1. Stephen Ryan says:

    In the past, soldiers had only one body armor option: heavy steel plate. But today, they have the luxury of choosing ceramic, steel, kevlar, and polyethylene. Of these materials, ceramic and steel are the most common. Weight: Ceramic is lighter; steel is heavier. Longevity: Steel lasts longer; ceramic has to be replaced in fewer years. Cost: Steel is less expensive; ceramic is rather pricey.

    • emma says:

      Hi Stephen,
      Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us! We appreciate your comment!

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