NIJ Levels - US National Institute of Justice
NIJ Ballistic Levels Protection ( Level IIA, Level II, Level IIIA, Level III and Level IV)
Body armor is a critical safety piece of safety equipment that has saved the lives of thousands of people. However people who are in the market for body armor often find it difficult to assess which choice is right for them. There are a few primary factors to consider which solution will best suit their needs; threat level, heat buildup, comfort, mobility concealability and cost. Threat level or protection level is typically the biggest factor when choosing body armor, and also the most difficult aspect to understand.
The U.S. National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has established and updated minimum performance stands for body armor to ensure that users will know what their body armor will protect them from. The NIJ classifies body armor into 5 different threat levels:
Level IIA, Level II, Level IIIA, Level III and Level IV; based on their ability to stop specified rounds at specified velocities. The current standard is NIJ 101.06. Also please note that while a higher level generally means protection against more powerful rounds, it does not account for other factors such as weight, or multi-hit capability. Because of this it is suggested that you choose body armor that is right for the situation and not the one that is the highest level.
NIJ Level IIA
NIJ Level IIA armor is typically soft body armor, meaning that it is composed of layers of high-strength woven fibers. Common types of these fibers are aramid fibers such as Kevlar, Twaron, and Goldflex or Polyethylene fibers such as Spectra and Dyneema. Level IIA is designed to stop a .9mm FMJ (Full Metal Jacket) round at a speed of ~1165 feet per second (ft/s) and a .40 S&W FMJ at 1065 ft/s. Most often found in soft body armor vests, Level IIA is usually the lightest, most flexible, most comfortable and easiest to conceal.
NIJ Level II
A step above Level IIA is Level II which is also most commonly soft body armor. Level II is designed to protect from .9mm FMJ traveling at a speed of ~1245 ft/s and a .357 Magnum JSP (Jacketed Soft Point) at ~1,430 ft/s. Like IIA, Level II body armor is typically very light, comfortable and easy to conceal, however it provides significantly more protection against blunt force trauma (trauma caused by kinetic energy of the round hitting the plate or vest.) Because of this factor most concealable body armor vests are either Level II or Level IIIA, with Level IIA falling largely out of date.
NIJ Level IIIA
Level IIIA is designed to stop .357 Sig FMJ FN (Flat Nose) bullets traveling at a velocity of ~1470 ft/s and .44 Magnum SJHP (Semi Jacketed Hollow Point) rounds at a velocity of 1430 ft/s. Like its level IIA and Level II, Level IIIA is most commonly soft armor, however hard armor plates and ballistic shields can sometimes be found with a rating of level IIIA.
NIJ Level III
At level III, we transition to soft body armor vests to the world of ballistic plate levels. Ballistic body armor plates are also referred to as rifle plates or hard armor plates. Level III rifle plates are designed to stop 6 spaced hits of 7.62x51mm NATO FMJ (U.S. Military designation M80) at a velocity of ~2780 ft/s, which is very similar to the .308 Winchester round often used in hunting. Some manufacturers (ourselves included) also offer hard armor rifle plates that are referred to as level III+. While the NIJ does not recognize the rating of level III+, these plates typically have the + to indicate that they stop the same rounds at higher velocities or to indicate protect from NIJ threat level III plus additional threats such as M855 and M193. Level III and III+ body armor plates can be found at a variety of different price points depending on the rifle plate’s weight and material. The cheapest and heaviest of these options are typically steel body armor plates which can weigh anywhere from 8-10 lbs depending on the size of the plate. While more expensive options such as those made from Polyethylene or ceramic, can weigh as little as 3 pounds.
NIJ Level IV
Level IV ballistic plates are the highest rated hard armor plates under NIJ 101.06 standards. These hard armor plates were designed to take 1 hit from an armor-piercing rifle. These rifle plates are tested to defeat 7.62MM armor piercing (AP) bullets (also known was .30-06 or 30 ot 6) traveling at a velocity of 2880 ft/s. Please note that since level IV ballistic plates are only tested to stop 1 shot compared to 6 shots from a level III hard armor plate, a level IV hard armor plate is not always better than a level III hard armor plate. Besides NIJ certification there are other standards of bullet resistance such as the U.S. Military’s SAPI (Small Arms Protective Insert) standards, which features plates designed to military specifications. This standard first came into play with their Interceptor body armor (IBA), and later with their Improved Outer Tactical Vest (IOTV) and the Modular Tactical Vest (MTV). Since 2005, they have moved to the ESAPI (Enhanced SAPI) Program. There are also what are referred to as Special Threats plates which are designed to stop common threats while minimizing weight and cost. Typically examples of these plates are AK-47 and AR-15 plates.
One other thing to consider is when purchasing is whether or not the body armor plate is Stand-Alone, meaning it does not require any additional armor to meet its stated threat level; or In-Conjunction, which are designed to meet their stated threat level when in-conjunction with a soft body armor vest. There are also hard armor plates that are listed as Level III/IV ICW, which means that the plate is Level III Stand-Alone and level IV when paired with an appropriate soft body armor vest.
Regardless of what type of soft body armor vest or hard armor plate you choose, it is always recommended to pair a vest with a blunt trauma plate (for soft armor) or a soft armor vest (if you’re using soft armor.) This is because even though a bulletproof vest or rifle plate may stop the the bullet from penetrating the vest or plate, there is still a lot of kinetic energy that is transferred to the plate/vest and then into the users body. Trauma plates and soft armor backers help absorb and mitigate much of this energy, thus reducing the potential for injury. When you have determined the threat level that is appropriate for your situation, you must consider the trade-off between protection, cost, comfort and weight. If you are wearing a vest for an extended period of time, the importance of weight, comfort and mobility becomes an incredibly important aspect. In conclusion, prospective buyers should define the criteria that will suit their needs.
By narrowing what type of rounds you are expected to encounter you reduce the chance of under preparing or even worse, over preparing. Often people purchase armor that is too heavy which they will not wear or if they do will severely limit their movement, making them a sitting duck in hostile situations. Lastly no body armor plate or bullet proof vest is 100% fail-safe they are only bullet-resistant; the best defense is to not get shot at all.