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Ceramic & Steel Armor: A Comparison

Ceramic & Steel Armor: A Comparison


Those new to the world of body armor or revisiting it to explore recent advancements, you may have encountered various armor options on the market. In this discussion, we'll specifically focus on the two primary categories of hard armor rifle plates: Steel and Ceramic


Ceramic Armor:

Ceramic composite armor typically consists of one or more specialized materials, often backed by a layer of ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE).



Ceramic Armor:

Ceramic armor encompasses a diverse range of materials like alumina, boron carbide, and silicon carbide. These materials can be configured in either a tile pattern or as a single monolithic piece, forming the front plate. This ceramic front is then affixed to a rear plate, typically a composite of fibers and UHMWPE. The purpose of this rear panel is to provide extra protection against ballistic threats that may penetrate the ceramic while adding structural rigidity. It's important to note that any deformation observed in a ceramic plate is usually the result of the rear panel deforming rather than the ceramic itself.


Advantages of Ceramic Armor:

Ceramic armor is favored for its significant advantages, including its lighter weight compared to


steel, enhanced capability against larger and faster calibers, as well as armor-piercing ammunition. Ceramic plates can often weigh less than 7 pounds while offering Level IV protection, which can withstand powerful rounds like the 30.06 M2 AP. Additionally, many ceramic plates come with ergonomic curvature for rib comfort, and some even accommodate sternum curvature.


Consideration of Expiration Dates:

All composite armors come with an expiration date. This date should not be taken as a hard and fast obsolescence point after five years. Rather, manufacturers specify this date as a warranty limit and a general guideline for when your plates may begin to suffer from degradation, taking into account factors such as daily use and environmental conditions (temperature and moisture) that may lead to the degradation of certain plate components, particularly the UHMWPE plate backer & fabrics. Well-maintained armor can serve you for a lifetime, but it's prudent to consider replenishing your armor if it's subjected to rugged daily use.


Overall, ceramic armor is often the preferred choice for professionals and those who anticipate extended periods of use behind their plates. However, it's worth noting that ceramics might not be the optimal solution for everyone, and there are scenarios where alternative armor types are


recommended.


When Not to Choose Ceramic Armor:

There are primarily two compelling reasons to opt for other armor types instead of ceramic:

  1. Budget Constraints. Ceramic armor can be relatively expensive. Entry-level, trustworthy ceramic plates start at around $160 per plate, such as the RMA 1155's. While this isn't much more expensive than some steel plates, lower-cost ceramic options may weigh as much as steel plates and be thicker. For those looking for armor that serves a broad range of scenarios on a budget, steel plates may be a suitable starting point. However, if


you find yourself wearing armor frequently, upgrading might be necessary.

  1. Concealability: Ceramic plates are thicker than steel or soft armor, often exceeding an inch in thickness. This isn't a major concern if they are placed in a battle-ready carrier, but for those seeking rifle-rated plates in low-visibility carriers, the additional thickness can lead to noticeable printing under clothing. In such situations, steel plates with the extra spall protection or Level III-rated UHMWPE plates are recommended alternatives.


 

Steel Armor:

Steel armor is composed of materials like AR500 steel or similar alloys. It's relatively straightforward to manufacture, involving the cutting and shaping of plates, followed by a coating of polyurea or a similar protective substance. This coating serves to shield the plate from environmental elements and corrosion. Many manufacturers also offer a "build-up coat" designed to mitigate or reduce splattering or spalling, which refers to the fragmentation of the armor upon impact, (this topic is a spicy one which we will discuss more in depth.)



General Details on Steel Armor:

Steel plates generally range from 0.35 to 0.7 inches in thickness and can weigh between 8 to 10 pounds, depending on factors such as the manufacturer, cut, and coating. Steel armor is typically rated at Level III or Level III+ protection, and U.S.-made steel plates start at around $70 for base-coat, flat 10x12 plates.



Concerns about Splattering, Spalling & Fragmentation:

One significant issue with steel armor is splattering often referred to spalling, which results from the fragmentation of the armor upon impact. While measures like build-up coats and spall sleeves can help reduce spalling, they are not foolproof. The effectiveness of these measures decreases as more rounds hit the plate. Spall sleeves, in which the plate slides inside a protective sleeve, have been shown to be relatively effective at stopping fragmentation, particularly during the initial shots.


When to Choose Steel Armor:

While ceramic or poly plates are typically recommended for everyday use, there are specific scenarios where steel armor is a viable choice, especially when paired with spall protection:

  1. SHTF Kits: If you plan to create multiple kits as backups for friends, family, or other individuals, starting with steel is an option. Steel armor requires minimal maintenance and can withstand various environmental conditions over extended periods, making it a cost-effective choice for stockpiling.

  2. Low-Profile Options: For those seeking to wear hard plates under jackets, suits, or other overgarments, steel's low-profile design can minimize printing and offer a practical solution for concealed rifle armor.

  3. Budget Constraints: When protection is a top priority, but the cost of ceramics is prohibitive, steel can serve as a viable starting point. It's essential to enhance steel plates with increased spall protection using a build-up coat, spall sleeve, or both.

In conclusion, the decision between ceramic and steel armor hinges on your specific requirements, budget, and the intended application.


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