What do the Different NIJ Levels Mean For Body Armor, and Which One Should I Get ?
I completely understand that unless you are willing to spend an entire afternoon reading boring technical documents from the National Institute of Justice the different levels of armor can be confusing. Therefore I will do our best to breakdown the different levels and make them as easy to understand as possible. To begin with I will lay out the different levels of protection. To begin with there are three levels of pistol protection, Level IIa, Level II and Level IIIa, and two levels of rifle armor, Level III and Level IV. I will break them all down with the official information form the NIJ now. Also keep in mind one of the factors that is not listed in the official standards is backface deformation. This is the amount of bowing out the back of the plate will do when it is struck by a projectile. The safe threshold for this is 44mm of backface deformation with any more than that having the potential to do serious blunt force damage and potentially even cause fatal blunt injuries to your torso.
Level IIa is the lowest level of protection officially listed and the official standards for this level of protection are quoted here directly from NIJ Standard-0101.06,
“Type IIA armor that is new and unworn shall be tested with 9 mm Full Metal Jacketed Round Nose (FMJ RN) bullets with a specified mass of 8.0 g (124 gr) and a velocity of 373 m/s ± 9.1 m/s (1225 ft/s ± 30 ft/s) and with .40 S&W Full Metal Jacketed (FMJ) bullets with a specified mass of 11.7 g (180 gr) and a velocity of 352 m/s ± 9.1 m/s (1155 ft/s ± 30 ft/s).” (NIJ Standard-0101.06, Pg.3)
To simplify it a little bit Level IIa is designed to stop standard pistol threats with its scope being limited to 9mm and .40 S&W. This armor is standard for police forces across the world. I personally however view this armor as being fundamentally lacking in its intended role for pistol protection as there are a wide range of common handgun rounds and loadings that can either penetrate or cause significant enough backface deformation to cause serious injury.
The next level of ballistic protection listed is Level II. Once again I will quote directly from NIJ Standard-0101.06,
“Type II armor that is new and unworn shall be tested with 9 mm FMJ RN bullets with a specified mass of 8.0 g (124 gr) and a velocity of 398 m/s ± 9.1 m/s (1305 ft/s ± 30 ft/s) and with .357 Magnum Jacketed Soft Point (JSP) bullets with a specified mass of 10.2 g (158 gr) and a velocity of 436 m/s ± 9.1 m/s (1430 ft/s ± 30 ft/s).” (NIJ Standard-0101.06, Pg.3)
This is a small step up from level IIa and is very uncommon to find. Generally in our experience levels IIa and IIIa are the only two levels of pistol protection commonly produced. Since this armor is incredibly uncommon to find and its protection is almost equivalent to IIa I will move on to the next level of ballistic protection.
Level IIIa is the standard for pistol protection among most body armor manufacturers. The official standards are directly quoted here,
“Type IIIA armor that is new and unworn shall be tested with .357 SIG FMJ Flat Nose (FN) bullets with a specified mass of 8.1 g (125 gr) and a velocity of 448 m/s ± 9.1 m/s (1470 ft/s ± 30 ft/s) and with .44 Magnum Semi Jacketed Hollow Point (SJHP) bullets with a specified mass of 15.6 g (240 gr) and a velocity of 436 m/s ± 9.1 m/s (1430 ft/s ± 30 ft/s).” (NIJ Standard-0101.06, Pg.3)
This is in our opinion the gold standard for pistol protection. This armor will protect against almost all pistol cartridges up to .44 magnum. This armor is what we consider the lowest level that we are willing to sell. We feel that for a pistol plate to live up to its name it should stop the vast majority of pistol calibres that you might expect to face. Generally Level IIIa plates are soft armor, which means that the plates themselves are flexible and can bend and flex with your body. I have to include a caveat here as there are always caveats in regards to ballistic protection. When we say that level IIIa will withstand almost all pistol cartridges up to .44 Magnum the exceptions should be listed. There are two that immediately come to mind whose whole existence was based upon defeating pistol armor. Those two being FN 5.7x28mm and H&K 4.6x30mm. While these are not very common cartridges to see in the wild I feel like the should be mentioned as if you are worried about encountering these rounds you should consider going a level up to a rifle rated plate.
Now we move on to rifle level Ballistic plates. There are two levels of rifle protection Level III and Level IV. The official standards for a level III Ballistic plate from the NIJ are quoted here,
“Type III hard armor or plate inserts shall be tested in a conditioned state with 7.62 mm FMJ, steel jacketed bullets (U.S. Military designation M80) with a specified mass of 9.6 g (147 gr) and a velocity of 847 m/s ± 9.1 m/s (2780 ft/s ± 30 ft/s).” (NIJ Standard-0101.06, Pg.4)
These plates are rated to withstand up to .308 Winchester. To simplify the definition for this level of protection, Level III ballistic plates will stop most if not all full power rifle cartridges and all intermediary rifle cartridges such as 7.62X39, and 5.56x44. However what level 3 plates are not rated for are for armor piercing projectiles such as M855 or the equivalent for 7.62 NATO. If you are looking for protection from armor piercing rifle rounds then you would be looking at the next level of protection, Level IV.
Level IV ballistic protection is the highest protection standard listed by the NIJ. They are designed to withstand armor piercing projectiles and the official standards are quoted here,
“Type IV hard armor or plate inserts shall be tested in a conditioned state with .30 caliber armor piercing (AP) bullets (U.S. Military designation M2 AP) with a specified mass of 10.8 g (166 gr) and a velocity of 878 m/s ± 9.1 m/s (2880 ft/s ± 30 ft/s).” (NIJ Standard-0101.06, Pg.4)
What this means is that level IV plates are tested to stop armor piercing full powered rifle cartridges. This is the highest level of ballistic protection we carry and the most protection that can be comfortably worn for extended periods of time.
There is only one additional point to bring up in regards to protection levels. That is the difference between Level III and Level III+. There is no official NIJ standard for Level III+ but what the + means is that the plate is rated to Level III but can withstand additional threats. Generally what this means for most plates is that the Level III+ plate can withstand some armor piercing intermediate calibre rounds specifically M855 while a standard Level III plate is not rated to stop that round.
So what does this mean for you. We will break this down in regards to the plates that we carry. We keep in stock, Level IIIa, Level III, Level III+, and Level IV. If you are looking for something concealable that allows for flexibility and comfort and are only worried about pistol threats then the best option would be a level IIIa Plate. Now comes the difficult decision. When it comes to deciding upon a rifle plate there are several different thing to consider. Generally we recommend Level III as your standard level of rifle protection. However if you are concerned about armor piercing rifle fire then we would recommend level IV. It all comes down to personal preference and the situation you expect to encounter. If you are going into a warzone we would definitely advise that you get the highest level of protection possible, but if you are more concerned about home defense, range safety or safety while hunting a level III or Level III+ plate would be more than adequate. In addition the price and weight of level 3 plates are lower meaning that they are more accessible and are easier to wear over extended periods of time than level IV. The difference between level III and III+ primarily comes from the ability to withstand armor piercing intermediary cartridges like the 5.56 round M855, so once again you have to evaluate your situation and decide whether you see that round as a common threat as that will have to influence your decision on what plate to purchase. However with the plates we carry the difference between Level III and Level III+ is also a question of the materials used in the construction of the plate. We will have an article coming soon that will go over the different materials that we use for our plates as well as their individual pros and cons where we will dive into much greater detail. I hope this article was informative, and if you have any questions or would like more information, do not hesitate to email me at Arthur@AITacticalSolutions.com.
Stay Safe Out There,