Steel Plates vs. Ceramic Body Armor and What You Need To Know

Steel Plates vs. Ceramic Body Armor and What You Need To Know

Body armor is not created equally. In this blog, we’ll be covering why you should consider forgoing a steel or fully ceramic body armor purchase. We’ll then discuss the alternative; what to replace those heavy steel, fragile and expensive ceramic plates with.

Steel Body Armor

Steel plates are cheap, and because they’re cheap is why they’re so popular. And while cheap isn’t always an indicator of low quality or less-than-desirable, in this case, it’s not your best option. 

We’ve covered it in one of our previous blogs, What Are the Different Types of Body Armor? | Steel, Ceramic, and Polyethylene vs. Duritium® Body Armor. So, to expand on that blog a little, here are some reasons you might not want to use steel plates for ballistic protection.

HEAVY BODY ARMOR

Steel is not light; it’s incredibly rigid and heavy. And this translates to being uncomfortable. In fact, it’s one of the heaviest materials used to make body armor. And while it can save your life, you’re also more likely to be leaving with something broken. For instance, if you get shot in the rib while wearing steel plates, you’re most likely getting a broken rib or even a collapsed lung in the process. 

Of course, a broken rib is much better than a life lost. But considering there’s a more comfortable, flexible, lightweight option on the market, wouldn’t you rather have that? 

If you’re interested in learning how pounds translate to pain, check out our blog about the Marine captain who figured out exactly how many pounds equal pain in combat.

ARMOR-PIERCING BULLETS

Now, if it’s life or death, any of us would take the heavy stuff if that’s all there was. So, if that’s not enough to convince you to switch your steel plates out for something else, consider this. Armor-piercing rounds can penetrate steel body armor. This means, if you’re shot at with those rounds, you were making yourself uncomfortable, hurting your back, and fatiguing the fight in you for no reason because that bullet is getting through.

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But, maybe you’re not too concerned about getting shot at with armor-piercing rounds. Alright, well, let’s consider those that can’t penetrate a steel plate. Unfortunately, there’s still a chance you’ll get shot. Not because someone shot you in a place where you don’t have armor coverage, but because steel armor can cause a ricochet.

BULLET TRAJECTORY

Here’s why steel causes ricochet; body armor absorbs energy. This means; unfortunately, it also redirects that energy and will cause the trajectory of a bullet to go elsewhere. So, if you get shot on the side, the bullet could bounce off your body armor and into your arm.

NIJ BODY ARMOR CERTIFICATION

Now, let’s talk about certifications because that matters. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) governs ballistic armor. If you’re planning to purchase steel for ballistic protection, keep in mind that not all steel is created equally. And not all steel is certified by the NIJ.

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AR500 STEEL

AR500 steel, a type of steel often used to make steel targets, is NOT certified through the NIJ. And if you’re worried about getting shot with a supersonic rifle caliber, then it’s not guaranteed to stop the round and definitely not guaranteed to save your life.

MIL-SPEC STEEL

However, there is something known as Mil-Spec A46100 steel. It’s rated to stop small arms and explosive shrapnel. It’s the same stuff the military uses for vehicles. It’s also the only type of steel to stop a bullet traveling faster than 3,000 fps.

Full-Ceramic Body Armor

Coming from someone who’s worn ceramic plates, they are more lightweight than steel, which is incredible, until ShotStop® came along, of course. However, there’s still a significant amount of cons that come with full ceramic plates. We’ve covered this slightly in our previous blogs, but today we wanted to expand upon why full ceramic body armor isn’t your best choice (although it is better than steel).

FULL-CERAMIC BODY ARMOR RESTRICTS MOBILITY

Ceramic plates are thick. If you’ve never worn them, they restrict your movement quite a bit. It makes it difficult to get in and out of vehicles, bend over, and depending on your position; even shooting can be difficult or uncomfortable. And chances are, if you’re wearing body armor to protect yourself, you’re also going to need to be able to move, and sometimes move quickly. So, even though that full ceramic body armor is lighter than steel armor, the restricted mobility definitely defeats this pro, in our opinion.

BODY ARMOR HAS AN EXPIRATION DATE

I personally can only speak to my military experience, but I know it seems like every few years, they’re issuing me new armor. It looks the same, but it’s new. If you didn’t know, body armor has a shelf-life, and in the case of standard ceramic body armor, its life is underwhelming, especially giving the cost. 

While steel body armor lasts about 15-20 years before you need to replace it, standard ceramic body armor only last 5-7 years. And those 5-7 years is why you keep getting new armor.

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FULL CERAMIC PLATES SHATTER ON IMPACT

Of course, maybe you don’t really care about the money, and you’re sitting there thinking, “I can move just fine in ceramic plates.” Awesome! But here’s a more critical reason to forgo those full ceramic plates: they shatter on impact.

Yes, your full ceramic plate might stop 1-3 rounds before it shatters, but that ceramic’s stopping power is short-lived. If there’s a chance you’re getting in a fire-fight, there’s also a chance the enemy is toting around more than 1-3 rounds. If you get hit more than three times, there’s a good chance your plate will shatter, and a bullet will penetrate your body.

So, for all that money, you get a plate that can stop only one, maybe even three bullets, but expires in 5-7 years and significantly reduces mobility because of its thickness. And that’s not all. 

Kind of in line with shattering on impact, ceramic plates have to be treated with care. You shouldn’t be throwing them in the back of your locker, truck, closet, wherever you might throw it; in fact, you shouldn’t be throwing ceramic armor at all. This, too, could cause your plate to crack, rendering it ineffective. Which means you spent all that money, and it’s not even capable of doing its job.

Another thing to consider about full ceramic plates is how hard it can be to detect fractures. In some cases, the only way to see one is through an x-ray. Which of course costs more money. If you suspect a fracture in this body armor, then it’s best to get it looked at if you want to ensure you have optimal protection. Or, and it’s going to really cost you, get a new plate, which can decrease the shelf-life exponentially.

Why You Shouldn't Use Steel Plates

First, Steel body armor does not absorb the energy once the bullet impacts the armor. The steel armor will more than likely stop the bullet from penetrating, but without absorbing any of the kinetic energy, you’re going to be out of the fight with broken ribs or worse, a collapsed lung or stopped heart.

Another major concern with steel body armor is spalling. When a round impacts a steel plate, it fragments and runs along the surface of the plate; the path of least resistance. This results in the person wearing the armor getting fragmentation to the face, arms, and legs. Modern body armor does an excellent job at controlling and mitigating spalling.

Going along with spalling is the risk of ricochets. Not only are you in danger of catching the fragmentation of the bullets, but so are those around you. Steel body armor is much more prone to ricochets than ceramic body armor.

Are Steel Plates Heavier Than Ceramic?

Steel body armor is also much heavier than ceramic body armor. Running a steel plate in the front of your plate carrier and one in the back alone will decrease your ability to move quickly and hinder your range of motion. For example, a single 10” x 12” steel body armor plate weighs roughly 8 to 10 pounds. 

Additionally, steel body armor is uncomfortable to wear. This is a big deal for military and law enforcement who are wearing body armor all day long. Mobility equals survivability. Add on your tactical gear and weapons and you’ve greatly reduced your survivability due to the increased weight and decreased comfort.

Does The U.S. Military Use Ceramic or Steel Plates?

While ceramic body armor plates may seem like an odd choice for stopping rifle rounds, this isn’t the same ceramic material used for bathroom tile and flower vases. A lot of materials are actually ceramic, including high-grade boron carbide, which happens to be one of the world’s top ten strongest materials; the material used in the U.S. military’s  ESAPI (Enhanced Small Arms Protective Inserts).

These ESAPI body armor plates, The newest version is ESAPI plates were designed in accordance with the NIJ Level IV specifications which are rated to defeat 30-06 armor piercing rounds.

The ceramic ESAPI plates not only protect our U.S. Service Members that are downrange but gives them the mobility required to operate in a hostile environment.

Lightweight Body Armor

We’ve covered two prevalent forms of body armor and why you shouldn’t use them, which has probably left you wondering where to turn next. If lightweight full ceramic leaves you with no mobility and cheap steel means heavy, uncomfortable, and not rated to withstand armor-piercing ammo, is there something that gives you all the pros?

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Here at ShotStop®, we’ve created a patented Duritum® technology. We’ve created the lightest weighing hard body armor that doesn’t decrease mobility and won’t break the bank. It also holds up to armor-piercing rounds, such as 5.56 and 7.62. 

If you’re interested in learning more about our lightweight body armor, send us an email with any questions to sales@shotstop.com.


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10 comments


  • this armor sucks dawg dont buy this shit, get ceramics.

    Bill on

  • What effects the ability of ceramic or steel plate to stop bullets is their use and/or abuse. They are not living organic matter. Slam a ceramic plate with a sledge hammer and you will probably need a new plate. I can’t believe i need to state this but STEEL does not have a “shelf life”. I suspect the “shelf life” has to due with liability if the plate fails.

    Ray on

  • Tim’s mentally handicapped, and most likely poor. Evidently he’s never held a ceramic plate because they absolutely do expire.

    Thomas Jackson on

  • Wow the amount of misinformation is strong here! Ceramic plates do NOT expire, it’s not food. The date is from the manufacturer suggesting 1. To be re-inspected 2. Daily use for X years voids the guarantees the product claims. It’s not because they break down it’s because the company has a smart attorney. Next they can take way more damage than 3 bullets, my buddy took 9! 7.62×39 rounds to the front SAPI plate in 2004… oh and his plates were “expired”…..

    Tim on

  • Using misleading information to push a product is outright garbage. The U.S. military AND law enforcement agencies use CERAMIC plates. I can tell you right now, that we were not carefully placing our carriers with plates in them lightly on the ground. NOBODY. And guess what? We wore them A LOT….in the field, on deployment, allllllllll the time. In and out of trucks. In and out of barracks. Thrown down on concrete. In sand. On wood. And guess what? They still save a lot of peoples lives. Whether at the beginning of their issue date, or toward the end. (Yes, they do resupply when they’re close to expiration). Now, if you want to be honest and tell people what you actually mean by being able to damage them, then tell them if you drop the plates, out if their vests, on a really hard surface, THEN you very well could damage them easily. ALSO, why don’t you mention how many rounds from an AK-47 a SAPI plate is rated to withstand? How many rounds are yours rated to withstand? So, when your “breakthrough” technology is adopted by the military or law enforcement agencies? Don’t act like you have something great that hasn’t even been proven time and time again over the course of YEARS AND YEARS AND YEARS

    Mike on


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