Steel Body Armor Torture Test: Are Budget Steel Plates Worth the Risk?

Throwback to mid-2018, I had made the decision that I wanted to get a plate carrier and level 3+ plates. At this time civilians rocking plate carriers and body armor wasn’t as popular as it is today, and even on social media a lot of the gun channels didn’t put out much information. Fast forward three years and civilian ownership of body armor has become the accepted standard among the 2a social media crowd. Even going to local gun ranges, people will be wearing their plate carriers and practicing drills in all their kit. This has been a great culture change to see, which in turn has led to more companies selling body armor to civilians, at more competitive rates. Win. Win. Win.

When looking for body armor your main concern is finding something that stops the range of bullets you are worried about, however, there are other factors that shouldn’t be dismissed. While steel body armor is great at stopping bullets it is both heavy which impacts mobility, and most importantly it is known for spalling. Where ceramic plates break up and absorb bullets that impact them, bullets that hit steel plates disintegrate into hundreds of tiny pieces of metal that fly in all directions which are known as spalling. These fragments still have enough mass and are moving at a high enough velocity to cause serious secondhand damage to any body parts that stick past the front face of the plate such as your arms, legs, and head. Catching fragmentation with your major arteries located in these regions doesn’t sound like much fun so AR500 armor came up with their “FragLock™ Build-Up coating” which they say helps mitigate bullet fragmentation while maintaining 20-year shelf life. Reading a few reviews, I figured that this build-up coat would be adequate for mitigating spalling. While being half the price of ceramic plates at the time, steel plates with a build-up coating were all I was willing to pay for. I ended up getting the Level 3+ Multi-Curve plate with the FragLock Build-Up coating and used it for the last three years up until a few months ago when I made the change to ceramic plates.

The dangers of fragmentation and spalling are no joke, so I decided to test the FragLock Build-Up coating of my steel plate as you can see here in this YouTube video.

In the torture test I shot the Level 3+ Multi-Curve plate with the FragLock Build-Up coating from AR500 with the following rounds:

22lr
124gr 9mm FMJ
55gr 223 FMJ
M885
M885A1
M80
7.62x54R
1 oz 12 gauge slug
300 Winchester Magnum

The build-up coating completely captured the spalling from one round of the 22lr, 9mm, and 223. Every round after those would further erode the bonding surface between the steel and the FragLock Build-Up coat letting some spalling out instead of fully capturing it. The trick to this build-up coat is the ability to capture spalling while maintaining a good surface bond to the steel. Every round passes through this build-up coat and fragments on the steel in a circular splatter pattern tearing the build-up coat from the surface of the plate until eventually, the whole coating will come off. Once the coating is no longer bonded to the surface of the steel plate, all fragmentation is deflected along the same plane as the outward-facing surface of your plate, impacting all surrounding areas. I give a recap of this and start showing it at minute 12:08 in the video.

To be honest I was surprised how well the FragLock Build-Up coat from AR500 Armor worked. I was expecting 223 to fragment and breakthrough but it was mostly captured for the first couple rounds. This coating even mostly captured all the fragments from 149 grains of 308 when it was hit. All in all, the AR500 Level 3+ Multi-Curve with the FragLok build-up coating did much better than the internet was telling me it would. However, while steel is “multi-hit” capable, it is only as good as the coating applied to stop fragmentation. Otherwise, you are just carrying around a heavy steel plate the deflects incoming bullets from your organs to your legs, arms, and head. Without a heavy and durable build-up coat, all other steel plates will deflect fragmentation straight into your body and should be avoided at all costs. I would rather not have any plates at all and remain more mobile than to be carrying steel plates that deflect any incoming rounds into other parts of my body rather than fully capturing the fragmentation caused by the impact like ceramic plates, or this build-up coating was designed to do.

The major factor driving my decision to purchase steel plates with a build-up coating was the price. Three years ago in 2018 ceramic plates just weren’t widely available to civilians and I don’t remember finding any companies offering level 3+ protection for less than around $600 for a set. For this reason, I grabbed two of these AR500 plates with the FragLock Build-Up coat on sale for a total of around $200. Fast forward to today, and as of 9-10-2021 AR500 is offering these exact plates at $177 each or $354 for a set, while you can buy ceramics such as the Hesco L210 Special Threat Plate Set for $309. While steel body armor with a build-up coating may have filled a void in the market for a few years, I believe it is now outdated. It is more expensive, dangerous, and about 75% heavier (9.5lbs per plate vs 5.4lbs for the L210’s) than ceramic plates. The only slight benefit I now see steel providing is that it is multi-hit capable, but that comes at the expense of fragmentation which will also get you killed. With the increase in production to meet consumer demands, it is important to realize there are better options at much better prices than there were just a couple of years ago. Whatever you do, just don’t purchase steel plates without some serious build-up coat and expect them to save your life. Fragmentation kills. Fragmentation is literally why pineapple grenades were made. Don’t use flat and smooth steel plates. Don’t turn incoming rounds into miniature fragmenting pineapple grenades to take out your arms, legs, and face. Find something that captures fragmentation.

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About the author: Mitchell Graf is passionate about hunting and competition shooting. During college he was the shooting instructor for Oklahoma State’s Practical Shooting Team, and these days he spends as much time as he can chasing after pigs and coyotes with night vision and thermals. You can follow Mitchell’s adventures over at his Instagram @That_Gun_Guy_

{ 12 comments… add one }
  • J November 1, 2021, 7:03 pm

    I do not agree with everything you have said about steel plates. The coatings are there for additional fragmentation protection from multiple hits of the same caliber, but AR500 and others now offer Soft Body Armor inserts for extra protection from the bullet and its fragmentation on steel armor. Most recommend using these soft body armor inserts these days with steel and other types of plates. Training teaches us to double tap a target and this is when ceramic plates do fail within 2 to 3 inches of the first and subsequent impacts.

  • Karl November 1, 2021, 3:05 pm

    When I was in the Active Duty Air Force, Aircrew were often issued flak vests. These were kevlar vests with high collars that were designed to stop fragments from penetrating and injuring you. I keep thinking that if you designed the plate carriers with the same Kevlar collars and sides but kept the plate pockets only as thick as needed for the plates, you would have heavier protection but one that could potentially take multiple hits and have very effective spall protection between the coating and the kevlar.

  • jerry November 1, 2021, 12:20 pm

    I have been trying to get info on states like Illinois that supposedly banned civilian possession of body armor about two years ago. I haven’t heard anything about that since. I would love to see an article on laws in various state regarding civilian body armor laws, including any arrests, convictions, lawsuits, or other legal challenges to those laws. Thanks for the article.

    • Kane November 5, 2021, 10:27 am

      My understanding of Illinois is that there are extensive regulations in place on what specific grade or type of body armor non LE people can purchase and wear. If a private citizen in IL commits a crime while wearing body armor then all charges are elevated as felonies. Not sure of all the legal implications but one should avoid a simple argument to avoid assaults charges. I will buy the best body armor that a seller will ship and do a simple balancing act between the various threats from LE and criminals but I am looking for a good legal body armor.

  • Dr Motown November 1, 2021, 11:01 am

    I would like to see a review of the new flexible body armor, rifle rated, called FRAS (Safe Lite Defense). Seems to eliminate spelling and significant weight saving too

  • karl bechler November 1, 2021, 10:50 am

    So since I wear 48 tall shirts/jackets,what body armor will protect my -entire- torso-and sides?taking slug in my kidneys/liver/armpit/groin/neck will really ruin my day! Additionally is body armor prohibited if one is traveling [passing thru TSA,etc]?I’m a civilian in marxist upstate NY
    NRA Life/Instructor
    RSVPi

  • DM November 1, 2021, 10:05 am

    Can anyone explain the 20yr shelf life? Clearly steel doesn’t “go bad”. Is this due to the spall build up or something else?

    • Jake November 7, 2021, 10:50 am

      Obviously steel is steel unless it somehow rusts. Kevlar deteriorates and has a “Use By” date. I am guessing ceramics do as well?

  • Jay Smith November 1, 2021, 9:21 am

    Would be nice to see how other steel plates compare ? ( I have Spartans). Perhaps a list of spall bags ? ( which didn’t know about until reading a comment here , although they make sense ) . Would a homemade spall prevention solution help ? ( IE a layer of linoleum flooring material, or carbon fiber cloth ? ) Yeah is a little redneck , but in a pinch ? ( people have made/tested flooring materials made into bp vests ? . Or HDPE )

    • paul D. November 1, 2021, 10:34 am

      Spall mitigation options include Tactical Scorpion Gear – Body Armor AR500 10×12 Steel Plate Spall Guard Blocker-TSG-1012SE is The best option. AND Spall Blocker® Insert SET 10×12″ and 6×8 on ebay for $60. Good add-on blockers if not coating the plates on order. Great stuff here!

  • Bryan Gansner November 1, 2021, 8:39 am

    The problem I have with ceramic plates, it that once they are hit, they are done. Meaning, if you ought a set, now you only have one. Significantly lighter yes, but the more durable steel plates will last longer(in the prepared for SHTF scenario). Unless you have an extra or two to replace the broken plate when you get back to base, (which ups the cost) I want something that will last me a while. Just like clothing and gear. Don’t pack silk shirts in your emergency kit, it won’t hold up or last. Jeans at a minimum or some rugged canvas pants that will last. If this is just for an emergency and it rides in the trunk, ceramic is fine. But if you are buying one set of plates to last forever, steel. Or a big wallet, a big storage space and an extra plate in your pack(but now the weight benefit is gone) the risk of a serious spalling injury seems far better than the risk of a second bullet to me. Thanks for the article, and your thoughts and opinions though.

  • Christopher T Wilson October 31, 2021, 3:52 pm

    Spall bags are a solid investment if you are worried about your ability to tank more hits than your built up coating. Most people are not going to just absorb the energy transfer from a hit to the plate. Multi hit is sweet if you expect to be hit in full auto or are planning on going against trained shooters. But most folks are going to fold or seek cover in the event of contact to the plates. Go ceramic if you can afford it. They are breakable but only in odd circumstances. True story I broke my issued esapi plate. But I yeeted my full set off the turret of a Abrams. 14 ft to the concrete. Get modern armor.

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