The Disadvantages of Ceramics for Ballistic Armor
Advanced ceramics took the materials industry by storm in the early 90’s as the wave into the future. They are often lightweight, strong, and impervious to rust or other common forms of degradation. Ceramic plates are currently used by the United States military because of their marginally higher level of protection compared to more traditional materials. Yet despite their often high-tech reputation, when it comes to applications in ballistic armors, they have a few pronounced drawbacks.
While Ceramic ballistic plates can have tensile strengths and hardness levels surpassing hardened steel, they do so at a price. In order to achieve their extreme hardness ratings, ceramic plates become very brittle as a result. In this way, their hardness actually becomes their greatest weakness. In their initial condition, Ceramic ballistic plates offer one cohesive strike surface to catch incoming rounds, as the round impacts the hardness of the ceramic deforms the soft lead, typically aerodynamic bullet into a much flatter mush of semi-molten lead. This now un-fluid dynamic projectile will have a much harder time penetrating through the inner layers of the vest now, so the vest can function and stop the round. As a result of the impact however, the Ceramic often cracks under the great force delivered by the projectile. For each subsequent hit, the ceramic plate has less and less strength to counter the force of the bullet and stop it from penetrating. Ceramic plates have a finite number of rounds they can stop effectively, and typically they must be replaced after each hit.
Ceramic plates are extremely hard to manufacture and often times fail quality control during the production process. Due to the exotic materials required and the failure intensive manufacturing processes, the cost of ballistic Ceramic plates is the highest in the current bulletproof vest market. Per plate, Ceramic plates cost at least 200% more than their steel alternatives. To put our Militaries current ballistic plates in perspective in regards to Cost, a NIJ Level III+ steel plate typically costs around $150, a single Enhanced Small Arms Protective Insert plate used in the US Army’s IOTV(Improved Outer Tactical Vest) can cost up to $600. To put that into perspective, a steel vest with two full AR-500 plates and carrier can be found for only $300.
The combination of their fragility and high cost makes ceramic impractical for civilian purposes. While advanced ceramic plates are rated half a step higher on the NIJ rating scale, the negatives associated with using Ceramic as a bulletproofing material become more pronounced on the consumer level. While the US military has a vast supply network to replace damaged vest on the field. The Civilian does not have this option. Should there be a WROL situation, there is no supply line to get you a new vest should you take a hit, and you would have to work with what you have. The second issue also becomes more pronounced when individually financed. Unlike the Military that has the law of large numbers working on their side, an individual that takes a round to a ceramic vest must pay to replace that vest. If working in dangerous environments, the odds of being hit with a second round increases drastically. Just like car insurance, the rate of incidents rises as the number of incidents rises.
In terms of consumer-level practicality, the durability and cost of traditional steel plates wins compared to the still new ceramics. While this may change in the future, for right now, the simple AR-500 steel plate makes the most sense for bulletproof protection for the everyday civilian.