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Spall and Fragmentation: Myth vs Reality

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The Debate

Hold on tight, we’re going to dispel some myths and shed light on flawed arguments against steel core body armor. If you’ve spent any time researching body armor, you’ve probably come across forums or videos where someone tries to scare people away from buying steel body armor. This is usually based on flawed testing methods, anecdotal situations or something they heard from a friend of a friend’s cousin who served in Delta. They’ll say that you should only buy ceramic body armor, everything else is junk. A lot of this bad info originated from the old school flak jackets used decades ago. Quite frequently, we’ve seen forum or social media posts where there’s links conveniently leading to a manufacturer of ceramic body armor at the end of the rant. At Spartan Armor Systems™ we sell many types of body armor including steel core, ceramic, and UHMWPE. We stand more to gain if everyone were to buy expensive ceramic plates, but we still frequently recommend steel core plates. Each type of armor material has pros & cons, none are perfect. Just like the argument of capacity vs stopping power in handguns, the argument of steel core vs ceramic body armor can lead to a lot of opinions with little much in the way of facts. We see it as our job to help you buy the body armor that’s right for you, without all the hyperbole of the internet armchair warriors.

What’s Spalling/Fragmentation?

First let’s define “spalling” a.k.a. “fragmentation”, which are essentially two names for the same thing; secondary injuries related to the bullet fragments that radiate away from the point of impact after making contact with an armor plate. If you’ve spent any time shooting steel targets you’ve probably noticed the abundance of lead that that sprays different directions from the point of bullet impact. When a bullet makes collides with AR500 or AR550 steel, it liquefies most of the bullet while some pieces (such as the core) tend to break into fragments. Since the bullet doesn’t have enough velocity to penetrate the steel plate, the fragments are then dispersed in different directions along the surface of the plate at high speeds. The pieces that move beyond the plate could hit the person wearing the body armor in the neck, head, or lower body. This is why it’s a bad idea to wear uncoated steel core body armor. With an uncoated plate, the only fragmentation protection provided is by the plate carrier which is typically made of a high strength nylon fabric. While the carrier will stop some fragmentation, it’s not something you would want to bet your life on. 

Social Media Smoke and Mirrors

You don’t have to know much about body armor to post a video on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, etc. Case and point, there are the numerous videos floating around where you’ll see a guy place a piece of body armor inside of a cardboard box up against a rock or tree and then proceed to hammer the armor plate with several rifle rounds (usually from a close distance). Just as with steel targets, you should expect to see fragmentation with uncoated steel plates as they are made from the same AR500 steel. However, in some cases the “tester” will shoot a coated plate and behold, there’s still fragmentation! This is where there’s some smoke and mirrors involved, or at least some lack of fragmentation education. Body armor companies typically offer 2 options for coating, one of which is a thin “base coat” layer for protecting the steel against corrosion. The second option is a thicker coat meant for fragmentation mitigation. The thicker coat, or “full coat” as we call it, significantly helps to prevent spall from escaping outside the plate itself. In many of these so-called “testing videos” the body armor being shot is a base coat plate not designed to mitigate fragmentation. Either through ignorance or deception, the video will make it appear that the body armor is to blame. The truth is, the selection of the armor was wrong before the first “test” shot was fired (not to mention the method of testing). Leaning a steel plate up against a rock and shooting it 10-15 times from 15 feet away does not at all simulate reality. In real life, body armor is worn in a plate carrier and supported against a moveable gelatinous mass (your body). Side note, we scientifically test all of our body armor models using an independent NIJ certified laboratory while most other companies do their testing at a shooting range or back yard.

The Truth About Steel Core Body Armor

Is fragmentation possible with full coat plates? Yes, but it’s highly unlikely. At Spartan Armor Systems™ we’ve developed a special coating for our plates called Encapsuloc™. This coating is specifically designed to “encapsulate” fragmentation and you’ll notice that it doesn’t feel like the truck bed liner that many other companies use. We found that truck bed liner doesn’t have enough elasticity to do an adequate job of holding the spalling within the plate. However, there does come a point where the spalling may cause any coating to detach or “delaminate” from the plate. This is usually in the case of the plate being shot 20+ times. Let’s be real, this is not a likely scenario in the least. However, you’ll see some videos on the internet using it as another scare tactic. Again, in real life the body armor is tightly contained inside a plate carrier which means that the coating will continue to do its job even if it lifts up slightly from the plate. Some trolls will point to this and say, “look, I told you so!”. This completely ignores the fact that a steel body armor plate can defeat 20+ shots from a rifle, whereas the ceramic body armor they are touting could handle significantly fewer shots before beginning to crack apart and fail. Not to mention the high incidence of blunt force trauma from ceramic body armor. So essentially, you don’t have to worry about fragmentation from ceramic plates if you get shot 20 times…because you’re most likely dead anyways.

Final Fragmentation Thoughts

Much of the spalling/fragmentation debate is jam-packed with bad information. However, that doesn’t mean that the issue of fragmentation should be ignored. We always suggest paying the extra $63 bucks for a full coat of Encapsuloc™ as it’s worth the peace of mind. If you want even more assurance, you can place your steel core body armor inside one of our spall containment sleeves for extra protection. To be blunt, we’re not talking much money to prevent the possibility of an injury. Steel core body armor is a fraction of the price of ceramic body armor and it can take significantly more punishment. The shelf life of steel core body armor is 20+ years whereas ceramic is typically 5 years. In a perfect world, everyone would have the money to buy some magical body armor plate that would protect against every scenario under the sun. Frankly if this was a perfect world you wouldn’t need to buy body armor in the first place, right?

If you need additional help selecting the body armor material that’s right for you, please reach out to us so we can answer your questions. We’ll give you the honest truth without all the gossip and half-truths that you’ll find on the internet.

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​Encapsaloc™ Fragmentation Mitigation Anti-Spall Body Armor Coating | Spartan Armor

Fragmentation protection is a critical feature when selecting your body armor platform. A common drawback of steel body armor is that projectiles can fragment and ricochet off the face at a zero to 20 degree angle. This means that bullet fragments have the potential to end up in your legs, arms, neck and head which may [...]

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