The body armor market has been an explosion of innovation in the last 30 years. There is such a wide variety of new materials, from Kevlar and Aramid fiber soft vest designs to new Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE) plates, that there is always something new to experiment with. With the recent AR500 craze in reusable steel targets, many shooters immediately made the obvious logical leap to using ultra-hard steel as body armor (although the idea of using metal plates as body armor isn’t exactly new). The main problem with that is that steel, unlike Polyethylene or ceramic compounds, is extremely heavy, which makes the already uncomfortable task of wearing body armor even more taxing. But AR500 Armor has developed some new lightweight plates which deliver excellent protection in a slim profile, and I shot the crap out of them to see how they stack up . . .
AR500 Armor, an Arizona-based manufacturer of hard and soft body armor, recently debuted their new lightweight line of Level III+ hard armor plates, which sport a Special Threat rating that defeats a wide array of common (and uncommon) threats. It’s important to note that despite the company’s name, these plates are not made of AR500 steel. There’s simply no way that 3/16″ AR500 could stand up to six shots of .308 Winchester at 25 yards without significant cratering and deformation (and possibly failure). During a phone call with the manufacturer after field testing, a product specialist confirmed that these plates are a proprietary super-hard steel alloy with no metallurgical similarities to AR500.
Even though the steel core making up the heart of these plates is only 3/16″, the plates themselves are closer to 1/2″ thick, which is still slim for a hard armor plate of this threat rating.
The Paxcon anti-spalling buildup covering the plates is a rubbery, hard material. It’s applied over the entire plate, but these particular units had an extra “buildup” coating applied to the front, which I’ll discuss in depth later on. For those interested, Paxcon shares its heritage with Line-X spray-on truck bed liners.
Before moving on, I’d like to address the lack of stickers in the review photos. Although the plates came with front and back stickers indicating the strike face and other information like date of manufacture, NIJ threat rating, and shelf life, the early production run plates I received had stickers which were not up to par with AR500 Armor’s quality standards. As a result, they failed to adhere to the plates in 103F gusty Nevada weather. To prevent the stickers from littering the desert, they were removed for the duration of testing. AR500 Armor has assured me that none of the stickers on consumer plates have these issues.
Unlike other gun-related products like ammo and even guns themselves, there are very strict performance standards body armor manufacturers have to meet in order to legally brand their product with a National Institute of Justice (NIJ) threat rating. An ammo manufacturer can claim their product is “match” quality, but nothing happens to them besides attracting bad publicity when customers find that it’s actually a minute-of-barn performer. Conversely, if the NIJ discovers that a certain type of body armor isn’t meeting performance criteria, they will decertify the armor and issue a recall. Just ask the makers of Zylon armor how it went when their products failed in the field.
Our testing fell into two categories: subjective and objective performance. While the plates stopped certain rounds and succeeded at containing spalling in some cases, body armor selection involves more than just ballistic performance testing. Whether you can wear a plate all day, how many hits it will withstand, shelf life, and weight are all important considerations which can make a body armor that looks good on paper fail in the field.
Aside from verifying the manufacturer’s weight claims, weight can provide insight into the consistency of the Paxcon buildup layer, since a heavier plate will have more than a lighter one. The manufacturer claims a +/-5% weight tolerance due to variances in the Paxcon coating.
Plate 1: 6.81 lbs
Plate 2: 6.78 lbs
The plates I received weighed almost exactly the same. That’s good because it means the Paxcon buildup layers are consistently applied. This also means that a potential wearer wouldn’t experience any additional fatigue from having one plate noticeably heavier than another in a front/back plate carrier setup.
For subjective testing on whether the combined weight of two plates was tolerable, I loaded the plates up in my PIG Plate Carrier and walked 5k in desert heat (~103F on the day in question). I found that the weight wasn’t unreasonable and didn’t add any undue fatigue, although having a well-padded plate carrier undoubtedly helped in this regard. I know the former infantry guys reading this are laughing at the idea of only carrying ~13.6 lbs, but I had to start somewhere.
Despite being tolerable on a 5k walk on flat terrain (which is pretty light work compared to any professional usage scenario), the weight has to be taken in context with other plates on the market to mean anything.
I compared the weight of these plates to several others and then graphed the data for an easy visual comparison. The comparative weights below were taken from manufacturer advertised data. The AR500 Armor Lightweight weights were my actual data.
When the weights are graphed, it’s striking how much weight the Paxcon buildup layer adds, increasing the weight of the plate almost 20%. That’s a significant addition just for the purpose of containing spalling. The buildup layer is actually so thick that it more than doubles the width of the plate, going from ~0.22″ (including the thin back Paxcon layer) to 0.53″ with the buildup. The Paxcon buildup layer is actually thicker than the plate itself, coming in at about 0.31″; for comparison, the Paxcon coating on the back of the plate only measures a paltry 0.005″.
These plates are lightweight in part due to their reduced footprint. Compared to a normal SAPI cut, which is a fairly universal shape for hard armor, these plates have more material removed from the corners. This forms what AR500 Armor calls their “Advanced Lightweight Shooters Cut,” or ALSC, which incorporates a single curve along the plates’ vertical centerline to better-fit the wearer’s body. This shape is advertised as allowing for greater freedom of movement compared to SAPI cut plates.
After doing the math to figure out both plates’ surface areas, I came up with the following:
SAPI Cut: ~95 in2
ALSC Cut: ~86 in2
Compared to regular SAPI plates, the ALSC cut covers about 9% less surface area. For those wearing some of the more modern plate carriers which rely solely on the front and back plates for protection, this reduction in coverage may or may not be acceptable considering the weight trade-off. I’ve never experienced any mobility issues wearing a modern plate carrier with SAPI plates, but I also don’t work on a two way range for a living. Those who do likely have their own opinions regarding weight/mobility/coverage.
This is the part everybody came here for, right? Besides penetration, a significant concern when dealing with hard armor plates is spalling, which occurs when a bullet impacts the much harder steel or ceramic plate and then breaks into many high velocity pieces going in all directions, including toward the shooter’s face.
Steel armor manufacturers have turned to several different techniques to combat spalling, but the most popular is applying a thick, rubber-like coating to soak up as much as possible and prevent it from injuring the wearer.
Unlike soft armor, which requires a backing to evenly distribute energy and prevent bullets from punching through the fibers, hard armor remains viable without any backing or support whatsoever. The only exception to this is plates labeled “in conjunction with,” which require a Level II or III supporting vest to deliver their stated level of protection. Notably, H.P. White performed their certification of these plates without any backing.
These plates are rated as standalone Level III+, so there isn’t any additional vest to worry about. In true KISS fashion I used an old pallet as a test stand. This provided points of contact on the bottom and two sides, allowing for a fair amount of support.
One of the main selling points of this armor is its “Special Threat” rating, which specifically defeats 5.56x45mm M855 mild steel core ammo. AR500-based armor usually has difficulty defeating this round at close range, so I was eager to see how the plates would stand up.
Note: These tests were performed at close range and used several methods to prevent ricochet-related injuries. NEVER shoot steel targets or body armor at these ranges. Serious injury or death may result.
The test shots were fired from a bone stock S&W M&P-15 sporting a 16″ barrel from a distance of 25 yards. I’d never tested the Paxcon lining before and didn’t know how effectively it would contain the steel core fragments, so with other precautions in place (such as barriers and a little Kevlar), this seemed like a good starting distance.
The individual who was gracious enough to lend me their rifle hadn’t zeroed it, and this became evident in my struggle to get on target. Despite a bit of embarrassing shooting, I eventually made contact with the bottom edge of the plate. The entry hole is a tiny, almost imperceptible blemish in the Paxcon lining about half an inch below the large exit hole where the steel core ricocheted off the plate and through the anti-spall lining.
The exit hole is another story. While the majority of the fragmentation and spalling was contained, some portion of it exited the Paxcon coating. Depending on the velocity when it exited, this may have been contained by a plate carrier, especially if it was a supporting vest with its own threat rating. During a phone call to AR500 Armor after testing, they indicated that although the coating doesn’t contain all spalling, it does significantly reduce the amount and speed of fragments that make it through, which makes them much less dangerous to the wearer.
The impact caused the edge of the Paxcon coating to split slightly. The top portion is the solid buildup coat, with the bottom being the much thinner base coat surrounding the steel core. This became a trend for whenever the plate was subjected to high energy or difficult rounds like the M855 mild steel core, but is much better performance than what you might expect from thinner coatings.
I was eager to see how the plate itself fared under such abuse, so I turned it over to inspect the damage.
I was promptly impressed.
Not only did the plate defeat the round at close range, but it didn’t deform in the slightest. The pictures make seeing plate deformation difficult, but after running my fingers over the back of the plate where the round impacted, I couldn’t feel even the slightest backface deformation. This is very good performance for a plate that is only 3/16″ thick!
Not wanting to stop there, I fired two more rounds at the top portion of the plate on the right and left sides.
These shots impacted a full inch directly below their prominent exit holes, leaving similarly-sized pinhole entry points to the first round.
A closeup of the right side impact clearly shows the tiny entry hole and the gaping exit hole where spalling wasn’t quite contained by the Paxcon coating. After seeing this performance three times in a row I was somewhat disappointed that the Paxcon coating wouldn’t completely contain the fragmentation, but that is a tall order when dealing with M855 at 25 yards.
Turning the plate over was just as uneventful as the first time: no penetration, and zero backface deformation.
I used my self defense load of choice: Federal Flite Control 00 Buckshot. Although I prefer their #1 Buck load of the same variety, finding it in recent years has been all but impossible. I was particularly curious to see how the hardened, copper-coated lead pellets would do against the anti-spall coating, since they would be more resistant to deforming and splattering on the plate than normal buckshot. Federal’s Flite Control wad also does a great job of keeping pellet spread to a minimum even in cylinder bores, which presents even more of a challenge for both the armor and the Paxcon coating.
Test shots were fired from my Mossberg JM Pro 930 with an improved cylinder choke installed. These shots were taken at a distance of 7′.
The first shot impacted between the two M855 impacts, with all pellets grouping fairly closely together. Although the pellets bored straight into the Paxcon layer, they completely deformed and splattered on the hardened steel core with no ricochets or spalling.
The shot, despite not impacting close to the edge, imparted enough energy into the plate to cause a split in the Paxcon lining between the buildup layer and the steel core. You can see here for the first time how thin the Paxcon layer on the rear of the plate is as opposed to the massive coating on the front. The coating appears to split consistently in this thin area (only ~0.005″) when too much stress is applied to the plate. Even though the anti-spall coating was beginning to fall apart, the hardened steel was performing admirably. Once again, there was no detectable backface deformation.
A second shot was taken at 7′ at the bottom center of the plate.
This shot performed more in line with what I was expecting from the Federal Flite Control wad. At 7′, all of the pellets grouped very tightly together (with the exception of one flier to the left). Even in this case, the buckshot was too soft to ricochet, and simply splattered against the steel plate without much incident.
At this point I wasn’t sure I was ever going to even dent this plate, let alone destroy it, so I fired 5 rounds of Perfecta 9mm from a CZ 75B and 2 rounds of .308 Winchester handloads (155 gr AMAX bullets at 2619 fps) out of my VEPR .308 at 7′.
Finally, even though the ballistic core had held up, the Paxcon lining threw in the towel. Although it’s not apparent from head on, the lining was almost completely separated from the steel, and it was deemed unsafe to continue close range testing. Rather than destroy the plate, the steel and lining portions were separated the rest of the way to inspect the damage.
The steel plate had taken significant abuse during testing. Here’s a quick summary of what it endured before the anti-spall lining separated:
- 3 rounds 5.56x45mm M855 mild steel core (25 yards)
- 2 rounds 00 Buckshot (7′)
- 5 rounds 9mm (7′)
- 2 rounds .308 Winchester (7′)
The plate, although covered in lead and bits of copper jacket, survived. The two dents are from the .308 Winchester handloads, which were absolutely screaming out of the VEPR’s 14.5″ barrel, generating 2360 ft/lbs of force on impact. These were the first rounds which even managed to phase the plate, and despite ever-so-slightly denting it, didn’t manage to penetrate. None of the other rounds fired managed to detectably damage the plate. I suspect I could have fired M855 at this plate all day long and it would have been fine.
The Paxcon layer previously adorning the front of the plate told a dramatically different story.
Although the steel core looked fine after all the abuse I put it through, the Paxcon buildup layer looked like a scarred moonscape. Each of the impacts can be clearly seen, with the .308 shots carving deep, long tracks as the pieces of bullet core and jacket radiated outwards from the impact point, with no exit holes at any point. If the coating thickness was increased around the edges of the plate, I the coating would have stayed attached to the front of the plate longer, increasing its usable life. Even thought it separated from the plate, it still had plenty of life left, especially for less powerful threats like 9mm or 00 Buck.
However, AR500 Armor were kind enough to send two plates so I could explore other threat combinations.
For this plate, I decided to go full power from the start.
PMC Bronze .308 Winchester (147 gr)
I wanted to see what would happen if I shot the plate repeatedly with .308 Winchester from 10′, which is the same distance used in NIJ certifications. PMC Bronze was selected, and was chronographed at an average muzzle velocity of 2415 fps from a 14.5″ barrel. This was significantly slower than the handloads I used on the other plate, but was more in line with what one might expect from off-the-shelf ammunition.
When dealing with all lead bullets, even at close range, the anti-spall coating shined. That is a full power, nearly point blank impact on the plate with no exit and no backface deformation. I actually had trouble finding the impact points and was suspecting I had only hit the pallet because the entry holes were so small. The next few rounds were also uneventful, with the third bullet creating a slight crack in the anti-spall coating but not failing to create a full-blown exit hole.
Finally, with a center shot, I was able to get the same effect as the M855 on the previous plate.
The bullet entered the plate about an inch low and to the left of its large exit hole, where it lifted up a flap of the Paxcon coating and left lead powder on the surface. Despite this damage, the back of the plate exhibited no deformation of any kind, which wasn’t entirely surprising given the lower power of these loads compared to the handloads used on the previous plate.
After five shots, the anti-spall coating began to separate on the left side of the plate. Although it wasn’t as bad as the separation on the first plate, I decided it was a good stopping point to change gears.
I’d shot at these plates a fair amount without succeeding in really damaging them, which made sense. All the rounds used were covered by the Level III+ Special Threat rating. At this point, I wanted to know what would happen if the plate encountered a threat it couldn’t handle. The big guns were brought out.
When somebody uses the term “elephant gun,” they’re probably referring to a rifle chambered in .458 Win Mag. This is .458 Lott: a round developed because Jack Lott thought that at 5300 ft/lbs, .458 Win Mag wasn’t powerful enough. We clocked these .458 Lott loads out of a Ruger No. 1 at 2315 fps with a 500 gr solid brass bullet, generating a whopping 5949 ft/lbs at the muzzle.
The plate was set up at 25 yards on the pallet. We said our goodbyes.
I never found all of the pieces, but I did manage to collect most of them. In character with super-hard steel, the plate fractured and broke apart like a ceramic rather than deforming and allowing the bullet to punch straight through. Elephants looking for body armor should consider investing in something thicker than 3/16″.
Although I wasn’t even remotely expecting the plate to stop a bullet hitting at nearly 6000 ft/lbs (for scale, .338 Lapua is only about 5000 ft/lbs), the final test was more about satisfying my curiosity about what failure mode the plate would take. It also broke the plate apart from the front Paxcon layer so I could see the damage caused by the 5 rounds of PMC Bronze that had already hit the plate.
The underside of the coating revealed scars similar to those left on the first plate, although these were slightly different in size, shape, and depth than the first plate’s .308 impacts (probably due to a different bullet construction and lower muzzle energy). Regardless, the coating impressively contained the vast majority of the spalling, which is exactly what it was designed to do. I don’t think it would have done well keeping anything above .308 muzzle energy contained, but I think you’re going to have bigger problems than spalling if you’re getting shot with 30-06 or higher at point blank.
Steel armor has gained traction in the marketplace largely because of its price. Compared to UHMWPE or ceramic plates, steel is sometimes less than half the price, allowing the budget-minded user to purchase a full set of armor (front, back, sides) and a nice plate carrier to bear it all for the price of one plate of a competing material.
*Note: Items marked with an asterisk are sold as a set. Individual plate prices were calculated by dividing the set price by two.
I plotted the prices of the plates from the weight comparison chart in the same order. As configured in this review, the AR500 Armor plates come in at only $160/each, which is an excellent price point considering the protection level, curve, and Paxcon buildup layer you get for the extra coin (the “normal” ALSC plates come in at $110/ea). Although plates from other manufacturers may be cheaper, I didn’t see any which included coatings as thick as the Paxcon buildup layer on the front of the AR500 Armor ALSC plates, which performed admirably during testing.
Shelf Life and Material Benefits
One of the most attractive features of steel armor compared to other materials is its long shelf life and durability. AR500 Armor certifies their Level III+ plates for 20 years of sitting in storage, which is much longer than what you’ll get out of other plates. Steel is also resistant to environmental conditions which would compromise other plates before they’re even worn: leaving UHMWPE plates in a hot car repeatedly can turn an $800 setup into a lost investment at best and a false sense of security at worst. The Paxcon coating on the AR500 Armor plates is the most sensitive part to environmental conditions, and it’s rated by the manufacturer to withstand heat up to 200°F. The steel itself can withstand much hotter, but at that point you’re dealing with other issues like your burnt-to-a-crisp plate carrier.
Ceramic plates are less environmentally sensitive and lighter, but if dropped they run the risk of shattering (and not always detectably). While this may be an acceptable compromise for government agencies who can write off a plate and issue a new one, the average citizen can’t rationalize spending $5-900 every time gear gets thrown around too roughly – and that’s for just one plate.
I suspect the steel plates can last longer than 20 years if stored in ideal conditions, but the manufacturer would have to warranty them for just as long. I can’t imagine an armor manufacturer wanting to deal with the nightmare of supporting products sold 50 years ago and stored in unknown conditions, so the 20 year shelf life makes sense.
- Threat Rating: Level III+ Special Threat
- Weight (as configured for this review): 6.81 lbs/ea
- Size: 10×12 Advanced Lightweight Shooter’s Cut (medium)
- Thickness (as configured for this review): 0.21″ ballistic steel core, 0.53″ overall
- Shelf Life: 20 years
- Multi-Hit Capable: Up to 6 rounds .308 Winchester @ 10′
- Price (as configured for this review): $160/ea
Ratings (out of five stars):
Ergonomics * * * *
Although the ALSC cut is where a significant portion of these plates’ weight savings originates, the lightweight steel core making its debut here is phenomenal. We’re not quite into ceramic and UHMWPE territory, but we’re pretty close. The single curve isn’t as comfortable as the progressively-curved ceramic SAPI plates they were compared to, but once they’re in a plate carrier the difference is much less noticeable. The thin profile is a plus, but is less of a benefit once inside a plate carrier.
Protection * * * * *
Ultra hard steel plates can take a beating and keep going. These plates are only rated for 6 shots of .308 Winchester, but the steel core can take much, much more abuse (even after the Paxcon lining has called it quits). These plates cover just about every threat you’re likely to encounter, and can even survive edge hits where ceramic plates would fail.
Price * * * * *
For $160 you get a lightweight plate that can defeat most threats under the sun and do so for a very long time. There are slightly better deals out there, but they don’t have the thick Paxcon buildup coating on the front to contain spalling. For legitimate NIJ certified body armor, I don’t think you can do much better.
Overall * * * *
I’m knocking down a star only because I think the anti-spall coating should have been thicker on the sides to prevent the thick front coating from separating from the rest of the plate. In all other categories, the plates shined. I would not hesitate to purchase a pair of these myself if I needed low cost, competent body armor that may not get used day-to-day, but will be ready when I need it. I’m looking forward to what else AR500 Armor, and the steel body armor industry in general, can come up with.