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Apex Armor Mythbusters: Do Ceramic Plates "Spall"?

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𝐂𝐞𝐫𝐚𝐦𝐢𝐜 𝐩𝐥𝐚𝐭𝐞𝐬 𝐝𝐨 𝐍𝐎𝐓 𝐬𝐩𝐚𝐥𝐥. “Ceramic plates spall”. This is a claim that many of us have heard in recent months, you may have even seen the video made by AR500 with the ring of balloons showcasing Ceramic plates “spalling”. However, the video in question, is showcasing a completely different phenomenon.

In this article, I will dispel this myth and provide insight into how these different armor systems work, and what spalling really is. AR500 Ceramic “spalling” test: 𝐖𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐢𝐬 𝐬𝐩𝐚𝐥𝐥𝐢𝐧𝐠? Firstly, we must define and understand what “spalling" is. Spalling is when fragments of material break off the other side of the strike face when a projectile hits armor. Standalone Ceramic plates will have some kind of ballistic backing material, generally Aramid, Polyethylene or E-Glass. This generally happens in vehicle armor, this is not a problem for personal body armor. The correct technical term for what we see on steel armor is “Bullet Splash” or “Bullet fragmentation”. (Spalling has never been the correct terminology). Bullet splash occurs when a softer projectile (take for example lead core FMJ or mild steel core), impacts a surface of superior hardness that does NOT deform or break. In the case of AR500/ steel armor, when a projectile strikes the surface, the bullet squashes or mushrooms, then explodes into dozens of small fragments. 𝑴𝒐𝒔𝒕 𝒐𝒇 𝒕𝒉𝒆𝒔𝒆 𝒇𝒓𝒂𝒈𝒎𝒆𝒏𝒕𝒔 𝒇𝒐𝒍𝒍𝒐𝒘 𝒂𝒍𝒐𝒏𝒈 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒑𝒍𝒂𝒕𝒆 𝒐𝒓 𝒑𝒂𝒓𝒂𝒍𝒍𝒆𝒍 𝒕𝒐 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒔𝒕𝒓𝒊𝒌𝒆 𝒇𝒂𝒄𝒆. These fragments travel at a high velocity and will penetrate plate carrier fabric. The “Spall coating” on AR500/ Steel plates does very little to stop this. Generally after 1-2 shots chunks will begin to be blown off of the coating, Or the fragmentation will begin to delaminate the coating from the plate. Many people focus on the thickness of the coating on the front, when in reality the fragmentation exits the sides of the plate where the coating is thinnest. (Remember, fragmentation follows the strike face). This is applicable to all steel or titanium plates. AR500, AR600, AR650, AR1000, will all react the same way. The number after "AR" simply stands for the abrasion resistance or hardness of the material. Buffman range has an excellent video here showcasing the dangers of bullet fragmentation.

The best analogy I can give, is if you hurled a tomato against a concrete wall. The concrete wall does not deform, however the tomato will disintegrate and splatter against the wall. The same phenomenon happens with steel plates. Only instead of pieces of tomato, you get hot metal fragments. Linked below is a ultra-slow motion video of projectiles impacting a steel plate, you will see the projectiles squash against the plate and shatter into pieces.

𝐖𝐡𝐲 𝐝𝐨 𝐂𝐞𝐫𝐚𝐦𝐢𝐜 𝐩𝐥𝐚𝐭𝐞𝐬 𝐧𝐨𝐭 "𝐬𝐩𝐚𝐥𝐥", 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐰𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐡𝐚𝐩𝐩𝐞𝐧𝐞𝐝 𝐢𝐧 𝐀𝐑𝟓𝟎𝟎𝐬 𝐯𝐢𝐝𝐞𝐨? I’m sure this is why most of you are here, however first we must understand how Ceramic plates work, and how the different components of a Ceramic plate function. For our purposes, we will be using a standalone level 4 ceramic plate as an example.

Simply, Ceramic plates are composed of two primary pieces. The Ceramic strike face or Core, and the Ballistic or Trauma backer. The Ceramic Strike face is generally composed of Aluminum Oxide (Al203), Silicon Carbide (SiC) or Boron Carbide (B4C). These industrial Ceramics are rate at about a 9-10 on the Mohs Hardness scale. These Ceramics are incredibly hard (Harder than AR500), however they are a more brittle (Not fragile). The ballistic backer is generally composed of a type of Polyethylene (PE), Aramid, Kevlar or Fiberglass. The Ceramic strike face/ core is used to weaken/ break up the projectile, while the backer catches the residual energy and fragments like a net.

The following is a breakdown of what happens when a ballistic projectile strikes ceramic armor, and the process in which ceramic armor defeats the projectile.

When a projectile first strikes the ceramic face, the projectile will begin to blunt and deform against the ceramic (thousandths of a second) before the high compression limit of the ceramic is reached. At which point the ceramic will begin to fracture/ crack and form a cone shaped crack called a "Hertzian" or "Conoid Crack". This crack propagates outwards at an angle of 15-65 degrees. This cone shaped piece of ceramic supports the weight of the projectile as it presses further into the plate. The wider end of the cone helps spread the kinetic energy across the backer instead of allowing it to be pinpointed on a smaller area. As the projectile further moves forward and continues to be blunted/ fractured, further fracturing of the cone shaped piece of ceramic material may occur, however the pulverized ceramic will become super compressed and continue to bear the weight of the projectile. While this is all happening, the ballistic backer is deforming and absorbing the kinetic energy of the projectile. The backer acts like a mitt or a glove, catching the bullet fragments and pulverized ceramic like in a net.

In the most basic terms, the superior hardness of the ceramic helps break up/ weaken the ballistic projectile. However due to the sacrificial nature of the ceramic material, the bullet does not break up or fragment on the surface, but rather "in" the plate. Then the residual fragments are caught by the polymer backing material like a net.

Steel on the other hand, is not brittle, so softer projectiles end up "splashing" on the surface of the plate. The important distinction we see here is that Ceramic plates have more give. That combined with a sacrificial strike face allows for bullet fragments to be caught within the plate. With Ceramic plates, is the bullet does not fragment ON the strike face like it does with steel. 𝑻𝒉𝒆 𝒇𝒓𝒂𝒈𝒎𝒆𝒏𝒕𝒔 𝒈𝒐 𝒊𝒏𝒕𝒐 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒑𝒍𝒂𝒕𝒆, 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒂𝒓𝒆 𝒄𝒂𝒖𝒈𝒉𝒕 𝒃𝒚 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒃𝒂𝒄𝒌𝒆𝒓. Here is a good visual on how a Ceramic plate defeats projectiles. This will give you the best visual representation of what is going on.

Now, 𝐰𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐡𝐚𝐩𝐩𝐞𝐧𝐞𝐝 𝐢𝐧 𝐀𝐑𝟓𝟎𝟎𝐬 𝐯𝐢𝐝𝐞𝐨? Simple. Ceramic shards. These are relatively low velocity pieces of Ceramic (not pieces of the bullet), that reasonably will be stopped by any plate carrier material. These ceramic shards are generally either like sand, or a small piece that's 1-2mm's at most. Enough to pop balloons, but not enough to slice veins or go into flesh like bullet fragmentation on AR500/ steel plates can. Linked to the bottom is an ultra-slow motion video of a Hoplite plate being tested. This was done at a ballistic laboratory where NIJ tests are performed. You will see the ceramic dust. The "test" video shows harmless ceramic shards, not the same type of dangerous bullet fragmentation that occurs with steel plates. This video can easily catch unsuspecting potential customers who do not know any better off guard.

In a separate AR500 video, they tested a Pure Polyethylene plate against an M855 projectile (that it is not rated for). The M855 projectile went STRAIGHT through, yet the balloons still somehow popped. Keep in mind what you have just now learned about bullet splash, Polyethylene is a type of ballistic polymer. How does a steel core projectile fragment on a polymer plate and pop balloons? The coating on steel plates may stop the fragmentation from 1 or 2 shots, but with Ceramic plates, you won’t have to worry about fragmentation even from 6 or 7 shots, because it simply does not happen. The only way we can fight misinformation is together, as a community. 𝐇𝐨𝐩𝐥𝐢𝐭𝐞 𝐂𝐞𝐫𝐚𝐦𝐢𝐜 𝐏𝐥𝐚𝐭𝐞 𝐓𝐞𝐬𝐭 (𝐍𝐨 𝐬𝐩𝐚𝐥𝐥𝐢𝐧𝐠) These are an example of the Hoplite plates we carry on our website, however this is the same for any other properly made ceramic armor plate.


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1 Comment

Armor Mann
Armor Mann
Jan 18, 2023

This article hinges on this statement: "Firstly, we must define and understand what “spalling" is. Spalling is when fragments of material break off the other side of the strike face when a projectile hits armor." This statement is FALSE. Spalling is not just defined as what breaks off the back side. Its what breaks off the front side (strike face) as well. Here is an image of a level IV DOD issued ESAPI that stopped a 7.62 round and redirected spalling and projectile fragmentation into the soldiers neck and jaw line.

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