Some things really are better. Cold beer is better than warm beer. Empire Strikes Back is better than Return of the Jedi. But in most cases, one thing is not really better than another thing, just different. As much as it pains me to admit, PCs are not better than Macs, just different. Depending on your priorities, one or the other may be a better fit. This concept applies to body armor as well. There is a perception that level IIIA soft armor is “better” than level IIA because it is rated for higher energy threats. Level IIIA armor also tends to be heavier, stiffer, hotter, and generally less comfortable than level IIA. Anyone who has worn armor for a living knows that comfort isn’t nearly as superficial as it might sound to someone who has not worn armor for long periods of time. There are a number of other factors that should be considered when selecting armor such as weight, thickness, threat rating, and of course, price. There are some other factors that may be overlooked, though.
One factor is the fact that different types of body armor might perform differently with specific threats, even if they have the same threat rating. By way of example, this level III steel plate was able to stop a round of M61 7.62x51mm AP.
When shot with the same ammunition from the same barrel length, a ceramic level III plate was perforated, though.
How can this be? Every internet operator worth his keyboard will tell you straight up that ceramic armor is “better” than steel, so how is it that the steel can stop a round that gets through the ceramic? The fact is that the real world is not a video game. Ceramic armor is not a +10 damage resistance over steel armor. Different armor types perform differently across a spectrum of velocities, bullet weights, and types of projectile construction. The materials used in each plate work differently to stop bullets. That does not mean that the steel plate is superior, either, though. The same plates had opposite performance when tested against the Army’s new M855A1 62 gr EPR.
In this case, the ceramic plate stopped the round but the steel plate was perforated.
Both plates carry the NIJ level III rating. Shouldn’t that mean that they will stop the same ammunition? In a way, that is precisely what that means, but we have to put a very fine point on that statement. It means that they will both protect the wearer from 7.62x51mm M80 at 2,780 fps by preventing the round from reaching the wearer but without deforming more that 1.7″. This last bit is often overlooked as well. Soft body armor and composite rifle plates deform when struck by a projectile. Often, that deformation is substantial, as seen in the video below:
The NIJ specifies that the degree of back face deformation should be measured by measuring the depression left in a clay block placed behind the test article. In this informal test, the clay used is not exactly the same type and consistency of the clay specified by the NIJ, but it gives a general picture of the difference between the back face signature produced by these two plates when struck with the same projectile.
Although they are the same threat level and were struck with exactly the same ammunition, the degree of back face deformation on the ceramic composite plate was profound, while the steel plate showed virtually zero deformation.
Please understand that this series of tests should not be taken to indicate that steel is “better,” either, just that steel and ceramic work differently. The two plates shown here vary substantially in price, thickness, and weight as well as the factors discussed in this article. They perform differently, but one is not necessarily “better” than the other. Both plates will still protect the wearer against the vast majority of small arms munitions, though.
As always, it is your responsibility to do extensive research before purchasing any personal protective equipment. Also remember that training is far more important than equipment. There is no amount of gear that can make up for a training deficiency.