Ceramic plate bulletproof vests may shatter or become damaged if they are dropped, particularly on their edges, whereas steel plate body armor or bullet-resistant fibers are more durable when exposed to rough handling.
How many times have you been watching a movie when a main character gets shot, shocking the audience, only to pull open their shirt to reveal a smashed bullet embedded in a body armor vest? It certainly makes for a dramatic and suspenseful twist in an action movie, but what many people think about “bulletproof” vests isn’t scientifically or practically correct. First of all, there are many different types of gear one can wear to protect against gunfire, which varies in terms of material, weight, durability, cost and method of action.
Interestingly, one of the most popular and effective types of body armor works great against bullets, but can break if you drop it on the ground! Why would anyone design a “bulletproof” vest that could shatter if it slips out of your grip?
Types of Body Armor
While most people casually interchange phrases like bulletproof vests and body armor, there are distinct differences between different varieties, particularly those designed to defend against blades versus bullets!
Soft Armor / Para-Aramid Weave
When people say “bulletproof vest”, they are talking about a type of soft, but incredibly strong, armor that consists of tightly woven fibers. You have likely heard of Kevlar, which is a brand of bulletproof vests that has become synonymous with this type of ballistic protection. However, many other companies are now producing similar woven fiber vests. These lightweight and popular forms of armor can easily be worn under the clothes, and can either be overt or covert in their design. While they are designed to protect against small arms fire, close-range gunshots can still result in serious injury, i.e., internal bleeding, broken ribs, blunt force trauma etc., although the bullet likely won’t penetrate the skin.
These vests function by dispersing the force of the bullet over a larger area, resulting in the deformation of the bullet itself. Another critical benefit of this para-aramid weave, which is strong enough to “catch” a bullet when woven tightly together, is that there is no ricochet of the bullet, protecting the person wearing the armor, as well as other officers, comrades, or innocent observers. When you see detectives or undercover officers on your favorite crime show rip open their shirt to reveal a life-saving bulletproof vest, those are examples of this relatively unobtrusive soft armor.
Hard Armor / Ballistic Plate
Ballistic plates are often an added component to soft armor vests, and many Kevlar vests are designed with areas where plates can be added. Though these plates make the armor much more rigid and obtrusive when worn, it offers an additional level of protection in high-risk situations, particularly if high-caliber rounds are being used. If you are facing fire from a rifle, for example, you will need a hard armor option to provide an extra level of safety. Also called “trauma plates”, these can be inserted into the front or back of a vest, significantly increasing the weight, but likely saving your life in the event of being shot.
Steel plate armor is the least expensive option for hard armor, but it is also the heaviest, weighing twice as much as ceramic plates and 3-4 times as much as polyethylene plates. Steel plate armor that can withstand bullets has been around for more than 500 years, and is reliable for its hardiness and ability to deform a bullet, mushrooming it and spreading out the impact. These plates have been the most popular option for high-durability armor for the past 70 years, but they can cause spalling—shrapnel or ricochets from the point of impact—that can strike other unprotected parts of the body or other individuals in the immediate vicinity.
Ceramic plates are a lighter option than steel plates, and are very effective at redistributing the force of an impacting bullet. The ceramic plate will break when shot, like a dinner plate being struck by a hammer, but that also means this form of body armor isn’t great for multiple impacts or bullets striking in similar areas on the armor. The biggest advantage of these plates over the traditional metal or steel plates is that they can be worn for longer due to the great decrease in weight, but they offer a very similar level of protection against individual gunshots.
The lightest and most effective option is a polyethylene plate, a laminate material with a very high molecular weight. It is approximately 40% lighter than Kevlar, and more than 12 times stronger than steel! These plates can be struck by multiple bullets without the integrity of the vest being compromised, as the friction of the spinning bullet actually melts the material, which then grips and adheres to the bullet, rather than the bullet deforming and spreading out in a kevlar plate. The best polyethylene plates weight between 2 and 5 pounds.
Knives and bullets are both deadly, but they can’t be defended against with the same tools. Bulletproof vests work because they can disperse the force of the bullet’s impact, or redirect the energy away from the body and the internal organs. The ultimate purpose is to prevent the bullet from passing through the vest and into the body.
The goal of a stab-proof vest is also to prevent the blade from passing into the body, but it achieves this by “catching” the blade in a mat of tightly woven fibers. This may sound familiar, as this is also what Kevlar vests do to “catch” bullets. While Kevlar is found in some bulletproof and stab-proof vests, the tightness of the weave and the ultimate vest design are different. A bulletproof vest might not protect against a knife, while a stab-proof vest likely won’t protect against an oncoming bullet, particularly from a high-caliber firearm.
Why Do Some Bulletproof Vests Shatter When Dropped?
It seems logical that durability should be synonymous with bulletproof vests, yet one of these types is surprisingly fragile! Ceramic plates may be very effective at stopping bullets and redistributing the energy away from the point of impact, but remember that it does this by cracking! Ceramic is strong, and also extremely rigid. Metal will bend or deform slightly when struck with a bullet, which keeps the kinetic energy localized. When a ceramic plate is struck by a bullet, it will fracture, sending the kinetic energy spider-webbing through the material, rather than passing into the soldier/officer.
For that same reason, you must be very careful with how you handle ceramic plate body armor. If you drop these ceramic ballistic plates, their integrity can be compromised before a bullet is ever fired in its direction. Granted, these are not fragile and fancy dinner plates, though that might be your association with the word “ceramic”. However, the tradeoff for their light weight and efficacy as armor is their susceptibility to breaking or fracturing if they’re handled roughly, before being placed in a plate carrier (vest).
A Final Word
Depending on what threat you are trying to prevent against, there are a number of different options for effective body armor. Educating yourself on their pros and cons will go a long way towards keeping you safe. However, if ceramic ballistic plates are the logical choice for your line of work or level of risk, be sure to handle them with care, as accidentally dropping them on a corner could cause unwanted fracturing and a compromise of its bulletproof quality.