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:
124gr 9mm FMJ
55gr 223 FMJ
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.