Rifle Plates for Your Vest: Ceramic or Steel?

If you don’t have a plate carrier, you may be thinking about getting one. For most guys, once they get the gun, combat/tactical belt, and all the other cool gear, the vest is just inevitable. You can pick up a tactical vest to carry your gear pretty cheaply. But most vest carriers are also plate carriers. Meaning they have an internal pocket that holds a plate on both the front and back.

People assume vests with plates are for military and police only. But a vest is made to protect your vital organs if shot at, so why not have one for self-defense? I will admit, most of the time things happen too fast for us to throw on a vest. Police wear vests while on duty, but for most self-defense situations, you don’t know you will need one until it’s too late.

Vest carrier plates for body armor.
Ceramic and steel plates for vest carriers. Which one is better? [Photo: Jason Mosher]
But there are those occasions when a person would have time to throw on a vest for preventive safety measures if they had one lying around. And when you start looking at vests you will find a few different categories of armor that go in them. In another article, we discussed the different levels of body armor. Today we are talking about the two big choices with hard body armor, also known as plates: ceramic or steel. Is there a difference between them? Yes, there is a big difference.

Pros and Cons of Ceramic Plates

The first thing you will notice with ceramic plates is they are much lighter than steel plates. In general, ceramic plates have more stopping power because the surface of ceramic is harder. The best comparison to find with ceramic plates is that of a diamond. Most armor-piercing rounds will not make it through a ceramic plate.

The downside to ceramic, however, is that it’s brittle. When a powerful round strikes a ceramic plate, it starts to break apart. Additional bullet strikes continue to break up the ceramic further. Most plates can handle more than one hit, but there is really no guarantee how many bullets a ceramic plate will stop.

Setting up tactical gear
Ceramic plates are thicker but much lighter than steel. [Photo Lauralynn Mosher]
They are lighter, but also thicker than steel. Over the years I have used both styles and the weight is one of the biggest pros of ceramic. My 10X12 inch ceramic plate weighs just over four pounds. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you have one on the front and back of your vest, it adds up.

The downside compared to the heavier steel however is the thickness. A ceramic plate is ¾ to one inch thick. When you have mag pouches and other items attached to your vest, an extra inch makes it feel bulkier. Ceramic also costs more, often as much as double the price of a steel plate.

Pros and Cons of Steel Plates.

Just like ceramic, steel plates have pros and cons to consider. A ceramic plate is brittle and breaks apart as it’s being struck by a bullet. A steel plate, on the other hand, can withstand multiple hits and continue to protect the person wearing it. It’s much cheaper than ceramic and thinner. Doesn’t that sound like a better deal? Maybe not.

The downside to steel plates is their weight. My 10X12-inch steel plate weighs just under eight pounds. That’s double the weight of the ceramic plate mentioned above. With two of those things on your vest, you start to feel like you’re wearing a workout vest. Add AR mags, pistol mags, flashlights, and any other gear, your vest is approaching a 20-pound vest.

Steel plate for a vest with anti-frag coating.
Many companies place an anti-fragmentation coating (pictured above) over the steel plate. [Photo: Jason Mosher]
Another serious problem with steel that should be considered is fragmentation, or fragging. While ceramic has a hard surface, it also absorbs the shock of the bullet, which causes it to crack. Steel will flex and bend slightly, but the bullet explodes when it hits the steel surface, causing fragments of the bullet to fly in all directions.

Some companies make an anti-frag coating over the steel that is supposed to reduce this problem, but I have always been skeptical. A piece of a 5.56 NATO round flying up into your neck would defeat the purpose of wearing the plate to begin with. Some companies out there have proven their coating will stop fragmentation issues, but I would do plenty of research before buying one.

Which one is better?

The hard question to answer is which one is best for you. I have worn both at work and over the years, I drifted towards ceramic plates. They make it a little harder to move around in my vest, but the weight difference is unbelievable. Steel plates are thinner and withstand more hits. I can’t count the number of criminals we have arrested with high-power rifles and automatic weapons.

Ceramic and steel plates side by side.
With the ceramic plate on the left and steel on the right, you can see the difference in thickness. [Photo: Jason Mosher]
Because of this, I used to think steel plates were the way to go. If you get hit with an automatic burst of fire as you enter a room, several rounds could hit you at once. Ceramic can withstand more than one round, but you are rolling the dice after the first hit. Over time, I decided it was better to have a lighter vest and more mobility.

For some, the cost may be a factor as well. Some steel plates run as little as $124 – $178 while ceramic plates sell in the $300+ range. Other people will have reasons to like steel better and that’s fine, but for me, ceramic is the winner.

Summary

While I prefer ceramic plates over steel, that doesn’t mean there are not some good steel plates on the market. It’s so easy to get caught up in the debate over which one is better, we forget another factor. Either one is better than none! So, if money is an issue and you are putting together a home defense vest, steel plates are better than no plates.

Start with a good vest that accommodates 10×12 plates or larger. Then find a set of plates that works for you. Another option is to place a steel or ceramic plate in the front of your vest and add the back one later. Some guys at my department have soft body armor on the front and back and only carry a ceramic plate on the front. It’s not right or wrong, it’s what works for you.

Check with your state laws before purchasing, as some states have laws against armor that protects your body. I know, that doesn’t make sense. But when setting up a new vest with your favorite AR mag pouches, pistol mags, flashlights, and everything in between, consider adding a plate for extra protection.

Sheriff Jason Mosher is a law enforcement generalist instructor as well as a firearms and tactical weapons trainer. Jason graduated from the FBI-LEEDA (Law Enforcement Executive Development Association) and serves as a Sheriff for his day job. When he’s not working, he’s on the range, eating steak, or watching Yellowstone.

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