Body Armor Ballistic Plate Material Comparison

No matter what level of preparedness you'd like to maintain, ballistic plates have been instrumental in increasing combatants' chances of survival. But how do the different materials compare? We'll examine this question taking into consideration it's not just the first bullet you want to stop – it may be the third or fourth as well.

All manufacturers of body armor will usually tout a National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Ballistic rating. This is to give the consumer a rough idea of what sorts of impacts the armor can withstand before being breached. However, for the potential buyer, it's important to trace down the NIJ testing results prior to trusting your life to an unrated plate.

ammunition type

So, no matter what type of material your body armor is comprised of, it has to be able to withstand certain conditions in order for it to get an NIJ ballistic rating. The NIJ clearly publishes the laboratory conditions they put each type of armor through in order to receive a proper rating. The Italians, however, use a different approach (not at all recommended).

With that out of the way, the two basic trauma plates manufactured are composed of either ceramic or metal. This video discusses the survival aspects to the two major styles but we're going to spend more time discussing dynamics.


Steel Plates


For steel trauma plates, rated up to III-A, factors such as the grade of steel, thickness, and angle of interception all factor into its effectiveness. There is no easy answer on what thickness of steel stops a bullet. Most ballistic plates begin at 1/2” thickness and move up depending on the anticipated threat. This makes them quite heavy but able to take sustained and repeated hits. However, force is not well distributed like ceramics – sometimes resulting in traumatic injury even if the bullet doesn't penetrate. It also has the ability to ricochet incoming rounds – which can have serious repercussions.

Ballistic Ceramic Plates


Ballistic ceramics have come a long way. From the SAPI plates initially issued to ground troops for III-A protection in Operation Iraqi Freedom to present day IV and IV+ capabilities – this material has been favored for its lightweight qualities and energy absorption properties. When a bullet strikes the plate, the force is distributed throughout. This reduces the impact on the target.

“Doped” Steel and Alternate Configurations


Many manufacturers experiment with using steel alloys coated in titanium or tungsten to increase the anti-armor piercing capabilities of rounds on the battlefield. Using a titanium coating allows for less dense plates which means a lighter load on the carrier. This is most exemplified in recent Dragon Skin testing – which ultimately failed NIJ standards due to some design flaws. What makes this particular style interesting is the use of steel alloys to reduce the overall weight while creating overlapping plates to distribute force. Even though the Department of Defense ultimately turned down Dragon Skin, it marks an adventurous avenue for future ballistic body armor designers.

Final Note: Nanotechnology – We're Not There, Yet


Graphene and other unique materials have recently taken the spotlight for their potential anti-ballistic capabilities. While the NIJ hasn't officially announced any ratings for this new generation of armor, it does hold a lot of promise in terms of designing a more lightweight armor capable of deflecting bullets.

James England  

About The Author


James England is a former United States Marine Signals Intelligence Operator and defense contractor with over two tours spread over the Al Anbar province and two more operating across Helmand and Baghdis. He is presently a writer focused on Western foreign policy and maintains an avid interest in firearms. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, he presently resides in New Hampshire – the “Live Free or Die” state. He is finishing up his first novel, “American Hubris”, which is set to hit shelves in Fall of 2015.