If you are in the market for some body armor, you may already know that you are looking for a hard armor plate, rather than a soft armor plate. That narrows your options, but it still leaves you with a choice. You will still have to decide if you want steel, ceramic, or a SAPI plate. Now you may be wondering, what is the difference? This information should help you to decide which of these three options is best for you.
Steel Armor Plates
Steel is one popular option, and it’s been around for quite a long time. In fact, steel armor was being used as early as the 16th century, though that design would have had little chance of stopping a bullet. The first recorded version of steel bulletproof armor was credited to Fillipo Negroli, one of the most famous and highly-esteemed armorers of all time. He was commissioned to create armor that could stop a bullet, and it was successfully tested in 1561. Since then, the design has obviously evolved. That armor was made to protect the wearer from musket-fire, which is considerably slower than modern firearms. Steel plates are still available today, though they are not always considered to be the best option. Steel is strong and the plates offer a great deal of protection, but it is also heavy.
Ceramic Armor Plates
Ceramic plates are another, more recent option. This type of armor plate was successfully put to the test in Desert Storm, though not just as personal body armor. Ceramic armor plating was actually used to protect the British Army’s Challenger tanks – not one of which was reported to have been destroyed by enemy fire. When used as personal protection, it has great benefits over steel plates.
For starters, it is much lighter. It can, in some cases, offer equal protection against a bullet while weighing only a fraction of what a steel plate of equal size would. This is an important factor, especially in a combat situation where speed and lack of fatigue could easily save a soldier’s life. One major drawback of ceramic plates is that they cannot stop a bullet if they are hit more than once on the same spot. A 7.62 mm round can damage up to three inches of space on a ceramic plate. The plate is designed to break up on impact, which is important to help it stop the bullet. The problem is, the part that breaks is no longer able to stop any further rounds. The same is true if the plate is damaged in any other way. They can be cracked or broken if they are handled roughly, and this will lower their ability to stop a bullet greatly. If you do purchase and use a ceramic plate, treat it gently.
SAPI stands for Small Arms Protective Inserts. These are ceramic plates with an outer coating of a tough composite material. SAPI is the chosen protection for the United States military, and for good reason. These plates offer the same protection as a standard ceramic plate and then some. The SAPI plates come in various sizes. The extra small plate is about three pounds, and the large is about five and a half pounds.
Typically, in a military operation, a soldier will be required to wear a SAPI in the front and back of his or her vest, and two smaller plates in the sides. With that in mind, an extra-large vest with all the inserts can weigh as much as twenty-five pounds. The standard cut ceramic plates of the same size can weigh about a pound more per plate, and a steel plate of about the same size can weigh as much as three extra pounds per plate. That may not seem like much, but in a ten-mile march or after three hours in a heavily armored vehicle with no air conditioning, every pound starts to feel like a burden.
These are plates that are made with a very tough polyethylene (poly) plastic. Poly plates are very effective at repelling rifle rounds. They are able to defeat rifle rounds because of how they interact with them – when an incoming round impacts the plate it will use the friction that is created to melt a part of the plate, and capture the round by cooling and sealing the round in the plate. This unique ability of poly plates makes them very effective for repelling multiple hits. Poly plates are also much lighter than steel or ceramic plates, and their light weight also gives them some advantages when used in plate carriers.
Any of these can be practical and useful options for someone in need of protection. It just comes down to two questions. Why do you need it? And what is your personal preference?