Comparing Body Armor Materials: Ceramic, PE, Steel and Kevlar
Kevlar, steel, Polyethylene (PE) and ceramic are four common materials in body armor manufacturing. In this handy guide, we'll explore each of these materials and when they're most suitable. So, sit back and relax as we take you through the exciting journey of body armor comparisons — you'll probably be an expert by the time we're done.
First, we'll explore the pros and cons of ceramic body armor plates.
Ceramic plates are typically about 37% lighter than steel plates and cheaper than PE, typically costing under $200. They're generally good for five to seven years — provided that they don't take a bullet, obviously — which is a pretty impressive life span for their price and fragility.
Consider ceramic body armor if the following pros are most important to you:
- Light, mobile and concealable
- Relatively long-lasting
- Less expensive than other materials
Also classified as hard body armor, they can offer equal protection as steel plates in some cases. All things considered, they might seem like the top choice right off the bat.
Ceramic cannot take precision fire, or multiple shots to the same spot. Though the plate won't completely shatter into pieces, the spot hit cracks badly, or completely shatters the roughly one-inch diameter tiles in that area. That plate then becomes ineffective, as it's almost certain the bullet will go through when hit at the same spot again.
They're ideal if you're certain you won't be facing heavy gunfire threats — but you'd better know that for sure. When considering ceramic vs. steel body armor, for instance, you'd likely pick steel if there's a chance you'll face precision fire on the job.
Let's recap the cons of ceramic armor:
- Cannot withstand heavy or precise fire
- Prone to cracking
Next up is Ultra-High-Molecular-Weight Polyethylene. Thankfully, the name is usually shortened to polyethylene, or PE, which is much less of a mouthful. Considered a type of hard body armor, PE body armor is often placed in a carrier vest.
While it's almost as hard as steel, it weighs less and provides greater comfort for the wearer. A plate constructed from PE generally weighs between 2 and 5 pounds, making it the lightest rifle-protective plate available.
PE armor plates can take multiple hits without shattering, provided the bullet threat is not above level III. The material quality and manufacturing process both contribute to this effectiveness. When the UHMWPE sheets are subjected to high pressure and form a perfect bond, the plate can withstand multiple rounds.
This characteristic makes it a favorite among military personnel, law enforcement and civilians alike. Another glowing benefit of PE is that while it's the lightest type available, it's also 15 times stronger than steel.
To recap, here are the overall pros of PE body armor:
- Lightweight and comfortable
- Withstands multiple rounds
- Stronger than steel
- Will not cause bullets to shatter and create shrapnel like steel plates
PE armor plates weaken when exposed to extremely high temperatures (158 F). For military personnel working in hot regions like deserts, for instance, the environmental conditions could theoretically limit PE's effectiveness. Otherwise, PE armor plates are incredibly durable.
Additionally, PE body armor is more costly than other materials due to its expensive composition and manufacturing process. When weighing steel vs. PE body armor, for instance, you'd probably opt for steel if you want the lower-cost option. On average, PE plates are 200%-300% more expensive (but also 200%-300% lighter than steel) than ceramic or steel — pretty steep, we know. But if you're willing to spend the extra dough and won't be spending time in the desert, PE is an excellent investment.
The main cons of PE armor are:
- Lower tolerance when above 158 F
- More expensive than other plate options
Steel ballistic plates are arguably the most popular steel body armor products. They're used in conjunction with carrier vests, which are made of regular fabric. The plates are inserted into specially designed pockets within the carriers.
A steel ballistic plate can perform well in circumstances involving rifle fire, as it may help subdue blunt trauma. Perhaps its most impressive quality is that it can take multiple bullets to the same spot.
Another major advantage is that steel body armor has a longer shelf life than other materials. We find that it can last between 15 and 20 years on average, while other types generally span five to seven years.
Consider investing in steel armor if the pros below are most important to you:
- Withstands precision fire
- Subdues blunt force trauma
- Exceptionally long shelf life
Because steel is a heavy material, the body armor will feel bulky. Therefore, civilians and uniformed patrol officers may find it difficult to conceal and move with steel armor. For that reason, it's more popular with third-world tactical forces facing rifle gunfire threats.
Another drawback to steel plates is that they can cause bullets to shatter, creating shrapnel that may ricochet and result in serious injury. Other materials like ceramic and PE are more effective in absorbing force and deforming a bullet, making them safer alternatives to steel plates.
The overall cons of steel body armor are:
- Heavy, bulky and less comfortable
- Difficult to conceal
- Can shatter bullets and result in injury
Kevlar is made from a material called polyparaphenylene terephthalamide — don't worry, we can't pronounce it either. Producers make Kevlar in sheets or mats by heating the polymer and forcing it through a sieve to create stiff, high-tensile fibers they can weave together.
Kevlar has more than just a cool-sounding name — there are other impressive qualities to consider as well. Kevlar’s molecules are unidirectional and parallel to each other. They're also tightly bound, resulting in high tensile strength.
Despite being a lightweight material, Kevlar is five to six times stronger than steel. If you need comfortable, flexible armor that can provide everyday protection against ballistic, physical, stab and slash hazards, Kevlar can deliver. Since Kevlar is a synthetic fiber, it's also cut-resistant.
In a nutshell, the main pros of Kevlar body armor are:
- Durable, yet lightweight
- Higher tensile strength than steel
- Highly resistant to cuts and abrasion
Kevlar only protects against low to medium velocity weapon rounds. Though it may be able to stop projectiles from lower-caliber rifles, these impacts will still result in significant blunt trauma. When considering steel vs. Kevlar body armor, for example, you'd probably prefer steel, UHMWPE, or ceramic if you need something more heavy-duty or expect to face high-caliber fire.
To minimize blunt trauma, ceramic, UHMWPE, or steel plates are often added to Kevlar bulletproof vests. However, these plates compromise the sleekness and comfort of Kevlar, which are two of its biggest draws. Therefore, it can be impractical for civilians and police officers. As such, Kevlar combined with plate armor is more suitable for tactical forces in dangerous environments.
Additionally, bullet-resistant though it is, Kevlar is easily damaged by ultraviolet rays, dry cleaning, excessive washing and bleaching agents, so it takes some special care.
So, the cons associated with Kevlar are:
- Doesn't come in NIJ level III and IV options
- Added plates make the vest heavier
- Easily damaged by UV rays and cleaning agents
Find the Right Body Armor at Atomic Defense
The most ideal material depends on the threat level you're facing and the amount of comfort you require while wearing the body armor. If you need any assistance finding the right protective gear for the job, Atomic Defense is here to help. Browse our selection of body armor plates or contact us with questions about finding your ideal material.
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