Everything you need to know about Levels IIA to IV, the NIJ, and what plates protect against which caliber.
What’s the right balance between lightweight and protection? We’re prepared to tackle your questions and give you the information you need to make the right purchase. Whether you’re a seasoned tactical professional or someone who just wants to be prepared, here’s everything you need to know about ballistic protection.
But first, we must start with a little government talk. Let’s talk about the NIJ.
NIJ refers to the National Institute of Justice, which is a sector of the Department of Justice. In addition to researching crime and determining community needs, the NIJ is responsible for evaluating products commonly used in law enforcement like drug reagent tests, metal detectors, hearing protection, and of course, body armor like ballistic plates and helmets.
The A refers to a midway point between one level and the next. Why use the A instead of just going in order from II to VI? We have no idea. The United States of America has a history of measuring things weirdly for centuries, so at this point, we’ve just learned to live with it.
Speaking of which, why does it start at Level II and not Level I? We do have an answer for this. You can buy Level I armor, but it’s important to know that it is not NIJ certified. The lowest amount of NIJ certified protection is Level IIA.
We’re getting this information exclusively from the NIJ. Many manufacturers and brands offer their own specialized armors, designed to defeat certain rounds like the fast-moving 5.56 rifle round. These armors, often designated with labels like Level IIA+ or Level III+, are not certified by the NIJ. Instead, the brand performs their own testing before designating their armor. This doesn’t mean these products can’t be trusted, or that you shouldn’t buy them. On the contrary, body armor manufacturing has become so advanced and so prolific that there is armor out there that can offer more protection than anything the NIJ has certified. But it’s important to do your own research when considering a body armor purchase. Check out the brand. Watch their testing videos, read the literature, and make an informed decision.
By shooting it, of course. Ballistic plates are shot with all calibers of bullets to determine what rounds it can stand up to, and what rounds pierce it.
A piece of armor is placed flush against a clay tablet. The tester then fires six rounds at six different spots, then they remove the armor and measure whatever dents may have appeared in the clay behind it. According to the NIJ, the “depth of the indentation is used as a reasonable analog of the potential for the wearer to sustain significant, potentially lethal, blunt force injury.”
Additional tests involve subjecting the armor to various environmental conditions, like spraying it with water, exposing it to hot and cold temperatures, or testing it at high altitudes and variable air pressures. After all, high-threat scenarios don’t exactly wait for the weather to be 72 and sunny.
Here’s a quick look at which armor protects against which rounds. We’ll have more to say about the huge variety of bullets on the market today, but here’s a good place to start:
A good rule of thumb is to wear whatever body armor will protect you against your own gun, should you find yourself in a struggle and have your weapon taken from you. Are you running 9mm? Ensure you’re wearing at least Level IIA armor.
Level IIA is the NIJ-certified body armor with the least amount of protection. It’s soft, lightweight, and designed to be worn underneath clothing. But honestly, Level IIA armor is basically obsolete at this point, because technology has progressed to the point where you can get higher levels of protection and the same amount of lightweight portability and concealment. Still, though: Level IIA can stop many common handgun rounds.
If you want lightweight, concealed body armor, go with Level II instead of Level IIA. Modern Level II armor weighs roughly the same as Level IIA and can also be worn under the clothes. It’s the same size and weight but offers better protection against harder-hitting rounds like the .357 Magnum. Choosing Level II over IIA is a no brainer.
Level IIIA is the heaviest duty choice for defending against common handgun rounds like the .44 Magnum Semi Jacketed Hollow Point. It is also the most protective soft armor, and the last level before hard body armor. Some brands do make hard body armor rated for Level IIIA, but it’s a rating more commonly found in soft armor.
This hard body armor contains metal plates or other composite materials that can withstand rifle rounds. It offers extra mobility from its heavier cousin, but offers no protection from armor-piercing rounds.
The highest NIJ-certified armor on the market, this hard body armor is somewhat paradoxically designed to withstand armor-piercing rounds up to .30 caliber. It is bulky, heavy, and worn by front line military personnel.
You’ll notice that there’s no specific mention above of rounds commonly used in AR-15s and hunting rifles. These rounds are smaller than 7.62 rounds and travel at a higher velocity. So, what armor can stop the 5.56mm or a .223 round?
This is where it gets tricky. According to the NIJ, if a round has a lead core—commonly used for target shooting and hunting—Level III hard armor plates is enough to stop that round.
But if you’re dealing with a 5.56mm round with a steel or a partial steel core—commonly used by the military—your armor must have a ceramic or a metallic component to stop it. Some Level III plates have a ceramic or metallic face, but not all. For steel or partial steel core rifle rounds, Level IV plates are the best choice.
This is where many body armor brands like to take matters into their own hands and design body armor specifically designed to counter 5.56 rounds. Remember: Take into consideration what threats you are most likely to encounter in the field, and always, always do your own research before purchasing and wearing body armor.
There is a dizzying array of bullets in use today. Armor piercing, full metal jacket, flat nose, hollow point, NATO, round nose … it can be hard to wrap your mind around all the various threats and which armor protects against every round.
With that in mind, here’s a helpful table you can use when considering your next body armor purchase.
.22 caliber LR LRN
.380 ACP FMJ RN
9 mm FMJ RN
40 S&W FMJ
9mm FMJ RN
.357 Mag JSP
9 mm FMJ RN
.44 Mag JHP
7.62 mm NATO FMJ (M80)
.30 Caliber M2 AP
Remember, you are in command of your own protection, so always do your own research. The information in this article is intended as a useful reference point you can use when considering a body armor purchase. Consider what threats you may face, consider the tradeoffs between mobility and protection, and always, always choose armor that can defeat the bullets loaded into the gun you’re carrying.
Thanks for reading our guide and stay safe out there.