Search the internet and you will find thousands of blogs and web pages regarding body armor, plate carriers, level III this and armored piercing that, but many people don’t know what it all means. So, we have put together a small guideline to use when researching the various types of body armor out there.
NOTICE: In no way do we recommend using this as a buying guide when purchasing body armor or when deciding what body armor to wear for protection. This is only intended as a basic introductory guide to terms and familiarization of body armor. For more information about body armor levels consult the manufacturer or www.ncjrs.gov/.
Body armor comes in two main forms, hard and soft. These can be made from different materials such as kevlar, ceramic, steel, titanium, and polyethylene and can be used to protect against anything from a .22 caliber round (level II) to a .30 caliber round (level IV). It is important to note that body armor is specifically tested to stop different calibers of rounds to offer users the choice to wear lighter, more maneuverable vests with less protection or heavier vests with more protection depending on the perceived threat. For example, many police officers wear a level IIIA vest since they tend to deal with smaller caliber handgun bullets while troops tend to wear level III and Level IV body armor to defeat higher caliber rifle ammo.
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is responsible for the guidelines associated with vests and are the ones that determine the meaning of the different levels. There are 5 main categories set forth by the NIJ to include Level IIA, Level II, Level IIIA, Level III and level IV. There is also a special type categories which allow manufactures to fit special threat specific vests in their own category. While these categories are fairly technical and depend on the condition of the vest, bullet type, round weight and round velocity they can be simplified to a certain degree using the guide below. For specific guidelines go to https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/223054.pdf Level IIA- Soft Armor- This is the lowest category and stops 124 grain 9mm full metal jacket and 180 grain .40 S&W full metal jacket.
Again it is important to note that this does not just stop all 9mm rounds or all .40 S&W rounds. Many solid core penetrating 9mm rounds will penetrate through level IIA body armor. However this tends to be the lightest and most maneuverable body armor available on the market. Level II- Soft Armor- This is a slight step up from the level IIA and offers a little more protection. Level II will stop most 9mm full metal jacket rounds and 158 grain .357 JSP rounds. Again this is a light weight vest that offers little protection but increased maneuverability. Level IIIA- Soft Armor- This is designed to stop most hand gun ammunition and is the highest rated (apart from level IIIb, http://www.pinnaclearmor.com/body-armor/ballistic-chart/) soft armor available.
It is rated up to a 240 grain .44 magnum jacketed hollow point. Level III- Hard Armor/flexible armor- Level III armor is generally for FMJ low caliber rifle ammo such as the AK-47’s 7.62×39 round. While this can stop some rifle ammo and is a lighter option for carrying and maneuverability it fails to stop most sniper, and armored piercing rounds. Level IV- Hard Armor/flexible armor- This is the highest category set forth by the NIJ and is classified for most armored piercing rifle rounds up to 166 grain .30 cal. This will stop most sniper rifle rounds such as the Dragunov’s 7.62x54R round.
These are also the heaviest and least maneuverable of all the vests. Special Type- These are generally special threat plates that are designed to stop the most common rounds found in a given area of operation. Many Special Operations units use special threat plates in order to stop common rifle rounds but also allow increased maneuverability and a lighter vest weight. In Conjunction With (ICW)- Many plates are often worn with soft armor as an in conjunction configuration. Traditionally a plate will be worn on top of a level IIIA soft armor insert that makes it level IV or threat specific. This allows the plates and overall system to be lighter. However it is important to note that if a plate specifies ICW or in conjunction with then it means that it will only work properly when coupled with a level IIIA or otherwise designated insert. Notes:
- The above ratings are for ballistic projectiles only and do not necessarily defeat a puncture from a knife or other object.
- While body armor may stop a round it does not stop all of the energy produced from the round. In many occasions blunt force trauma can occur from the impact of the round to vital organs and the chest cavity.
- Each rating covers multiple hits from a given round that varies depending on the level of the armor
- IMPORTANT: This is a very basic breakdown of the levels of body armor. Several factors go into the testing of body armor and what classifies its respective level of rating. It is hard to simply say one style of body armor is guaranteed to stop a given projectile 100% of the time. Things like angle of the impact of the round, velocity of the round on impact, humidity, backing placed behind the body armor and an assortment of other calculations all go into the test process. Again when looking into which level suites you best be sure to do your homework and get the information for yourself before making a final decision.