Body armor is a piece of protection that has long been on the “Get List” for preppers of all stripes, especially those who are more of a “defensive” persuasion.
Beyond its obvious application for keeping screaming hot pieces of lead out of your tender insides when embroiled in a gunfight, it affords a measure of impact, cutting and piercing protection as well. Body armor is also an obvious piece of safety gear for intense firearms training to boot.
The civilian body armor market has exploded since about 2008, and has been growing rapidly since shortly after the events of September 11th, 2001.
There are all kinds of body armor solutions to choose from, from traditional Kevlar to advanced ceramics and even ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene, a jawbreaker material that is abbreviated commonly as UHMWPE. One of the oldest of body armor technologies to remerge on the market for ballistic protection is plate steel.
All of the above materials have their strengths and weaknesses, and of course vary wildly in cost. Steel, often used for high durability targets and range backstops, is a comparatively new venture for personal armor but one that is sold predominately on the premise of being extremely durable and inexpensive compared to ceramic and UHMWPE. It is these body armor plates that will be the subject of today’s article.
Body Armor Basics
Body armor is rated to defend against or “defeat” a ballistic threat of a certain weight and certain velocity at a given range for so many hits. In shorthand, armor is rated against various calibers, and specifically a certain load.
You can typically get greater protection at the cost of more weight, bulk and, as a rule, cost. These ratings, called levels, were established by the National Institute of Justice. The levels are below, but I want to note now they are pretty antiquated in the ongoing march of the arms race.
- Level IIA –Defeats 9mm FMJ (124gr. @ 1225fps) and .40 S&W FMJ (180gr. @ 1155fps) fired from handguns.
- Level II – Defeats 9mm FMJ (124gr. @ 1305fps) and .357 Magnum JSP (158gr. @ 1430fps) fired from handguns.
- Level IIIA – Defeats .357 SIG FMJ (125gr. @ 1470fps) and .44 Magnum SJHP (240gr. @ 1430fps) fired from handguns.
- Level III – Hard armor or plate inserts that will defeat M80 7.62x51mm NATO (147gr. @ 2780fps).
- Note that this rating is explicitly not 5.56mm rated! More on that in a second.
- Level IV – Hard armor or plate inserts that will defeat M2 AP.30-06 (166gr. @ 2880fps).
You might have picked up on the fact that there is not a trace of the 5.56mm or 7.62x39mm cartridge on this list. Naturally, you might have assumed that since the Lvl. III rating up there can tackle a beefy 7.62 NATO round that it will, of course, handle the punier 5.56mm. Right? Right..?
Wrong! First, velocity, not mass, is the key absolute for defeating armor. Raw speed. That’s why the 5.56mm and similar rounds are so dang tough to halt.
Second, you must never, ever make the mistake of assuming equivalency in threat protection, i.e. because my armor works against this, it will also work against this. That is one of the worst mistakes you can make.
To get 5.56mm protection, a manufacturer must make their plate to “special threat” standards. This is explicitly not an NIJ standard, which seems damned odd since the 5.56mm is one of the most common rifle rounds encountered around the world.
At any rate, a special threat rating can meet and exceed any given NIJ standard. In short, the only way to truly know what a given model of armor will handle is to have it laboratory tested and hope the manufacturer’s quality control practices are stringent.
Consider NIJ ratings as a baseline watermark for protection, but it is up to you to determine exactly what your armor can withstand!
That brings us to the subject of this article. AR500 Armor, the Arizona based manufacturer of both hard and soft armor solutions has gained a significant market share, and no small amount of notoriety, for producing hardened steel alloy armor plates in a variety of ratings and cuts.
Their armor, they claim, offers equivalent or better protection to ceramic armor without any of the fragility concerns and at less than half the cost of most competitors’ plates.
One quick aside to put to bed any hillbilly geniuses from setting themselves up for failure and death: AR500 Armor’s products are not, as you could be forgiven for thinking, made from the same steel as common AR500-grade steel shooting targets, which are prolific and common.
Their armor plates are made from some other superhard steel alloy that is naturally a trade secret.
So please, please don’t go stuffing a common rifle or pistol target into your plate carrier or welding some together into a jackleg Iron Man suit. It is not the same, and sure won’t work the same. You have been warned! Moving right along.
One of their most popular offerings is their lightweight level Level 3+ multicurve plate that has a special threat rating that specifically defeats M855 5.56mm ammo, which is notoriously hard on most steels and has a good record of defeating thin steel armor at close range. This plate is a standalone model that requires no backing to meet its advertised level of protection. For the money, it looks like a good unit at a frankly great price, well within reach of even average preppers.
What’s not to love?
AR500’s armor does indeed work as advertised, and though they proclaim it is usually rated to stop 5 shots or so my experience with steel armor, even in a personnel role, has shown me it is often more than capable of soaking up a dozen hits from rounds it is rated to stop.
AR500 Armor plates are cheap, and in conjunction with a quality minimalist plate carrier you can have an armor package that will stop handgun, shotgun and rifle threats clear up to 7.62mm NATO/.308 Win. ball, and offer excellent multi-hit capability with no loss of protection.
Compared to ceramic armor, steel is a little heavier but the tradeoff is that it suffers none of the fragility that plagues ceramics, which can lose some or all of their protection if they are fractured.
To make matters worse, ceramic can fracture in a way undetectable to the eye, meaning you’ll be strapping on a vest with compromised capability. You won’t have that problem with steel, unless you are dropping it from a ghastly height. Hardened steel alloy can crack or shatter, but its durability is far in excess of ceramics.
Considering that your armor is likely to be used, abused, bumped, jarred, jostled, slammed and dragged (hopefully with you not wearing it) this can help protect your monetary investment as your armor can keep right on doing its job. Ceramic armor that is suspect must be checked by scanner, and then potentially replaced at significant cost.
UHMWPE is not as vulnerable to dropping, but is vulnerable to high temperatures, especially when repeated over time, and is also vulnerable to immersion in water. Neither of which is anything approaching out of the question for a worn piece of gear.
In short, steel armor from AR500 Armor is an economical choice that does not sacrifice raw ballistic protection in the least.
It isn’t all sunshine and roses in the world of steel plates. The most obvious shortcoming with steel plates is their immense weight for equivalent protection in most classes compared to ceramic and UHMWPE.
While a few extra pounds, per plate, does not sound like much, and may not be much for a brisk walk over flatland, you start wearing those extra pounds for long marches, strenuous activity and the frantic pace of combat and you’ll regret it. Lighter is always better when it comes to armor.
And now for the really nasty part: spall and shrapnel. Anytime a bullet contacts something harder than itself, there is a good chance that the bullet will shatter, scattering nasty shrapnel radially around the impact point.
This shrapnel is heavy enough, sharp enough and certainly moving fast enough to cause serious, or even fatal injuries all on its own. This author was hit by a piece of shrapnel coming back off a steel rifle target that sliced cleanly through my cheek.
To be perfectly clear, this is not just an “eye-pro” threat. This is a “I’m hit!” threat. Of course, proponents say they would rather take some shrapnel than an intact bullet aimed at their heart, but both will kill you the same kind of dead.
Consider the location of your head, face and neck compared to the impact facing of the armor. Think too of you arms which are likely extended past that impact point, holding up your own rifle or handgun. All of the above parts of your anatomy are soft and easy targets and contain major blood vessels close to the surfaces threatened by shrapnel.
Yes, AR500 Armor coats their plates with Rhino-lining and other hard, rubbery materials that they claim captures the vast majority of fragments coming off the bullet, but my own testing has shown that too many fragments of significant size come off to make me comfortable using it.
Also, yes, other hard armors, specifically ceramic, demonstrates some spalling, but nothing even close to the quantity produced by a hit to steel armor.
Steel armor, made well to a high standard, is a viable if not optimal choice for ballistic protection. AR500 Armor makes what is certainly the flagship offering on the market and the armor definitely stops bullets it is rated to readily, and does so for an excellent price. This makes it a great value for the cost, and it is certainly within arm’s reach for most preppers.
That being said, one must be aware of the significant secondary hazard posed by spall coming off the defeated round, and without even more weight added to the system in the form of upper arm protection and a throat protector there is no way to completely mitigate it that has made it to the market.
My choice is ceramic or ceramic composite, but, if your choice is to forgo armor entirely or choose a high quality steel offering for protection, I would take steel all day and twice on Sunday. But it must be said that, under no circumstances should one choose non-coated steel.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.