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7 Things You Need to Know About Steel Core Body Armor

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High performance steel plate body armor offers a practical alternative to ceramic composite plates for stopping bullets and preventing injury to the wearer. Although both types of armor can stop hits from a rifle, ceramic plates can be expensive, which can sometimes make them an unrealistic choice for cash-strapped law enforcement agencies and preppers on tight budgets.

To help you choose, here are some things you’ll need to know about steel core body armor.

I. Backface Deformation

Backface deformation (BFD) is the protuberance on the backside of an armor plate that results from a projectile striking but not penetrating the armor plate. Although both types of armor will stop the projectile, the blunt force trauma from the BFD bulge on ceramic plates can result in serious injuries to the wearer, including bruises, broken bones, internal bleeding and even death.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), which is the U.S. Department of Justice’s research, development and evaluation agency, sets the allowable backforce deformation for armor plates at a maximum of 44 millimeters. When a steel plate is struck by a projectile, there’s very little or no backface deformation. Although there will be major discomfort from the impact of the round striking the plate, the chances of the wearer being seriously injured are reduced significantly.

II. Wearability

Steel plates are heavier and less flexible than their ceramic counterparts. Although body armor with steel plates is less comfortable to wear, steel plates are thinner and less bulky than ceramic plates, which gives the wearer more freedom of movement. Depending on the size and cut, steel plates weigh 8 to 10 pounds. Composite ceramic plates with comparable bullet stopping power weigh 4 to 8 pounds.

III. Durability

Steel plates are also more durable and less likely to be damaged than composite ceramic plates, which can shatter if dropped. Testing has shown that steel plates also have a longer practical shelf life than ceramic composite plates, although both types carry recommended expirations of five years after their date of manufacture. Quality steel armor plates, such as our Level III+ AR550 Spartan Armor, come with a five-year manufacturer’s warranty, and should last 20 years or more if they haven’t been damaged and have been stored properly.

IV. Spalling

Spalling is the fragmentation of a bullet that occurs upon impact, and can cause life-threatening shrapnel injuries to the upper arms and throat. Although not an issue with ceramic body armor, it’s a hazard normally associated with ordinary steel armor plates.

You’ll want to look for steel plates that come with a base coat that both protects them from moisture and deflects the shrapnel fragments away from the body. All of our steel core body armor styles come with our exclusive Encapsaloc™ coating, which eliminates spalling. When a bullet penetrates the Encapsaloc™ coating, the scattering fragments are trapped, which keeps them from injuring the wearer.

V. Ability to Withstand Multiple Hits

Rather than penetrate the plate, steel’s hardness causes projectiles to fracture, mushroom and spread upon impact with little or no backface deformation. Steel plates can withstand multiple hits in the same spot, as opposed to ceramic plates. Ceramic plate body armor stops the round by partially breaking apart when struck by a projectile, damaging up to a three-inch area. A subsequent hit or hits within the damaged area will likely penetrate the ceramic plate, causing serious injury or death to the wearer.

VI. NIJ Steel Core Body Armor Ratings

The National Institute of Justice has been setting body armor standards since 1972, and is the only nationally accepted standard for body armor worn by law enforcement. NIJ also administers a program that tests commercially available armor to see if it meets their minimum performance standards.

NIJ classifies body armor by threat levels, which are based on the types of ammunition the armor will protect the wearer against. Here are NIJ’s threat level ratings ranked from the lowest to highest degrees of protection they provide, along with the caliber bullets each protects against:

Threat Level Ratings - Handgun Ammunition

  • NIJ Level IIA – 90mm FMJ1, .40 S&W FMJ
  • NIJ Level II – 9mm FMJ, .357 Magnum JSP2
  • NIJ Level IIIA - .357 Sig FMJ, .44 Magnum SJHP3

Threat Level Ratings – Rifle Ammunition

  • NIJ Level III - 7.62x51mm FMJ
  • NIJ Level IV - .30 caliber armor piercing bullets
  • 1 Full Metal Jacket
  • 2 Jacketed Soft Point
  • 3 Steel Jacket Hollow Point

An example of body armor with an NIJ Level III rating is the Spartan™ Omega™ AR500 Body Armor Level III.

Other models, like our AR650 Armaply™ and Levell III+ AR550 Spartan Armor, carry threat levels of III+, which is not a rating recognized by NIJ. The III+ means that although the NIJ hasn’t assigned a product the IV rating, the equipment has been independently tested and meets or exceeds NIJ’s level IV threat rating criteria.

VII. Steel Core Backpack Armor

It’s not just frontal fire that poses a threat. That’s why we developed a 10” x 13” steel core backpack panel that can easily be inserted into a backpack or similar piece of equipment for protection from behind. The thin, 3” panel weighs eight pounds and has a III+ threat level rating, meaning it’s capable of protecting against heavy rifle fire, including 7.62 NATO, M80 Ball and 5.56 caliber ammunition.

As with all Spartan Armor Systems’ products, our body armor is manufactured in the U.S. at our Tucson, Arizona, state-of-the-art facility using only the very best American-made components. Shipping is free on all orders, and we accept returns within 10 business days of your receipt of the merchandise. We’re proud to offer law enforcement, military and first responders a 10% discount on all Spartan products.

Questions about Spartan Armor Systems’ steel core body armor or other quality Spartan products? We’ll be glad to help. Contact us online, call us at 520-396-3335 or get in touch via email at (law enforcement customers, please use We look forward to helping you with all your body armor and tactical gear needs.


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