Could Steel Armor Save Your Life?

This is a guest post by Andrew Bettssteel armor

You know what they say about opinions and everyone in the firearm and defense world seems to have an extra one. 9mm is “better” than .45 Auto. M&P is “better” than Glock. Fireclean is “better” than Crisco. As strongly as people tend to hold those opinions, they are just that: opinions. For the most part, the two things in question are just different. One is not categorically “better” than the other. There is a common belief that ceramic armor is categorically “better” than steel armor. This belief is just as fundamentally flawed as the belief that the M&P is “better” than the Glock. Ceramic and steel have different properties and work differently. One or the other may fit your needs better. They have different strengths. This article will highlight some of the strengths of steel armor, but it should not be taken to mean that steel is superior in every way, either.

One of the advantages of steel is its ability to take multiple hits. To paraphrase a wise man “If plan A involves taking multiple rounds to your armor, maybe it’s time to develop a plan B.” Obviously, it would be better not to be struck by several projectiles in the torso. Of course, it would be even better not to be shot at all. We don’t carry firearms for the best case scenario, though and the same goes for body armor. Guns and armor exist for when things go really sideways and plans A-F have already failed.

One could argue, of course, that taking multiple rounds is a fairly low probability event and that is a fair argument. On the other hand, I’ve seen it happen often enough on the square range when someone fires a quick controlled pair that being able to stop that second round is better than not being able to stop it.

While steel plates can usually take round after round in the same location, so long as the ammunition does not exceed the rating of the plate, ceramic plates are often only rated for a single hit. In practice, they can often stop more than one round, but only if they do not hit precisely the same location.

So, admittedly, that is a low probability event and maybe the ability to stop multiple rounds is not a priority for you. One factor that is often overlooked in armor selection is back face deformation. When a projectile strikes soft armor or composite rifle plates, the armor deforms with the hit, pushing into the body of the wearer. While it is difficult to predict exactly what injuries would be incurred because of the number of variables involved, the NIJ has specified 1.7” as the limit of back face deformation allowed for armor to receive a rating. The degree of back face deformation is determined by measuring the dent left behind in a block of clay.

In the test above, the back face deformation was almost comical. Although the clay doesn’t exactly meet NIJ standards, the back face signature is so extreme that it is clear it would have failed in any circumstances. Of course, a 405 gr chunk of lead at almost 2,000 fps is ridiculously beyond the design limits of the plate. Still, when we fired the same round at a steel plate that carries the same NIJ rating, there was virtually zero back face signature.

The last point is not so much a point in favor of steel as it is a difference in the capabilities of different materials. While a level IV ceramic plate will certainly stop a wider range of threats than a level III steel plate, that is like comparing apples and dump trucks. When you compare a level III steel plate to a level III ceramic plate, there are some threats that one can stop that the other cannot.

This level III steel plate stopped a 7.62x51mm armor piercing round, which is quite impressive. The M61 is designed more for light cover and intermediate objects than it is intended for true armor. It is not nearly as formidable as the .30-06 M2AP, which a level IV ceramic plate must stop to receive a level IV rating, but M61 is classified as armor piercing. More to the point, M61 handily perforated this level III ceramic plate.

These are the same two plates from the previous set of plates showing the difference in back face deformation. The Spartan Armor Systems Armaply and the Highcom 3S9 are both level III plates, so how is it that they perform so differently? How can two plates with the same threat rating not stop the same ammunition? NIJ ratings are often erroneously stated to stop everything “below” the rating. That is not exactly accurate. All that the NIJ level III rating means is that the plate will prevent perforation from 7.62x51mm 147 gr M80 FMJ at 2,780 fps without more than 1.7” of back face signature. Rounds of a different weight, velocity, or construction are likely to perform completely differently. The examples used in this article are rather extreme, though. Both plates will stop most common rifle rounds and virtually any pistol rounds.

Again, it is important to stress the point that these tests do not prove steel to be superior to ceramic. They were selected to illustrate specific points about the difference between steel and ceramic plates. We could as easily select tests illustrating the many strengths of ceramic plates.

The takeaway from this article should be that one is not superior to the other for all purposes, but that you must carefully weigh the various strengths and determine for yourself what product best fits your needs. As always, training is more important than equipment. No gear can make up for poor training, no matter how cool the gear is.


Andrew Betts served with the Arizona National Guard for over 12 years, including a tour to Afghanistan. Visit his YouTube Channel for more great shooting information.

Photo credit – The Chopping Block on YouTube

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