People in the market for body armor may find themselves overwhelmed by the variety of choices on the market today. There is a lot of information to process for the prospective armor buyer and you could spend months researching before knowing exactly what you are looking for. Sometimes a little guidance can shorten the amount of research time needed to make a good decision by giving you some simple criteria to begin your search.
There are three primary factors to consider when determining what armor is the best suited to your requirements; weight, threat level, and cost.
The threat level is the most complex attribute of body armor to understand. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) manages a certification program that can give buyers some idea of what to expect from their armor. The NIJ’s system breaks armor into various threat levels, ranging from II to IV. Although the threat levels are numerical and give some indication of an armor’s ability to stop a higher ballistic threat, it is actually more complicated than simply saying “level IV is better than level III”, because that statement overlooks other details.
Level II armor is typically soft armor, meaning it is composed of woven or fibrous materials such as Kevlar, Twaron, Dyneema, and others. Level II is designed to protect from 9x19MM FMJ travelling at 1175 feet per second and .357 Magnum Jacketed Soft Point travelling at 1400 feet per second. Level II is usually very flexible and comfortable to wear, at least relative to what one might consider “comfortable” when wearing body armor. Level II armor can typically withstand multiple spaced hits but you should always verify multi-hit capability and threat specific stopping power with any model, level, or brand of armor!
Level III-A is next in line. This rating is meant to stop .44 Magnum Jacketed Hollow Points travelling at 1400 feet per second. Like level II armor, level III-A is usually of the soft variety but rigid armor plates can also be found with a III-A rating. These are sometimes referred to as ‘speed plates’, since they offer one of the lightest possible solutions while sacrificing some of the coverage area that you would normally find in soft armor rigs. As of this writing, there is an NIJ certification program for III-A soft armor but not for III-A rigid plates.
Level III on the NIJ’s level system is where we enter the world of rifle plates, sometimes referred to as hard inserts. Level III plates are designed to stop six spaced hits of 7.62X51MM NATO (Full Metal Jacket) travelling at 2,750 feet per second. This is roughly equivalent to the common .308 Winchester hunting round. With all NIJ armor ratings, it is important to know and understand that a plate rated to stop a particular threat may not stop a bullet that is smaller caliber. In fact, there are situations where a bullet travelling slower might penetrate some armor types while the same bullet at a higher speed may not. Issues like this are what can make selecting armor more difficult but buying a product without fully understanding its true capabilities is even worse.
While the 7.62x51MM NATO used in testing level III armor might generally be thought of as “bigger” than the 5.56MM round fired by AR-15’s and other rifles, there are varieties in the 5.56MM caliber which pose problems for some armor materials. For instance, the M855 “Green Tip” can penetrate pure polyethylene plates while the M193 variety can penetrate steel such as AR500. Bullet velocity plays a role in penetration but these are well known vulnerabilities. As a result, some manufacturers use a III+ designation to rate their plates. The NIJ does not recognize the III+ but most manufacturers use it to indicate protection from NIJ threat level III plus M855 and M193 threats. Although a III+ plate covers the majority of threats at a moderate weight and cost, making it a very attractive selection, you should beware the rating because some less scrupulous companies will use the “+” designation in an attempt to increase the perceived protection level of a plate. Verify what threats a III+ plate is actually rated to stop with the manufacturer before purchasing.
Level IV is the highest rifle plate rating under the NIJ personal body armor specs at this time. A level IV must stop a single hit of 7.62MM AP “Black Tip”, which is effectively a .30-06 Armor Piercing bullet. Note the difference in shot count between a level III (6 shots) and level IV (1 shot) certification. Depending on the situation, level IV is therefore not automatically better than level III, despite the higher numerical ranking.
Outside of the NIJ, there are other testing protocols that have been established. The military has the SAPI (Small Arms Protective Insert) program. This program features plates designed to military specs. They saw first use with the Interceptor carrier system, followed by the IOTV (Improved Outer Tactical Vest) and MTV (Modular Tactical Vest). In 2005, the military moved to the ESAPI or “Enhanced SAPI” program. Sizes for any E/SAPI designated plate range from Extra Small (7.25 x 11.50 inches) to Extra Large (11.00 x 14.00 inches).
The DEA and FBI maintain their own separate testing protocols. There are also “Special Threat” plates, such as the Venture FM-STX, which are designed to stop all of the most common threats you might encounter domestically (AR-15, AK-47, and pistol rounds) while being thin and economical. Such plates are not certified by the NIJ because there is no testing protocol for them, yet they still fill a very vital area of need.
Once you have decided the threat level that meets your requirements, you may also want to consider whether you need Stand-Alone or In-Conjunction plates. The vast majority of body armor is considered Stand-Alone, meaning it does not need a soft armor backer to meet its threat rating. In-Conjunction plates are designed to meet their rating only when worn over soft armor. Some plates may be listed as “level III/IV ICW”, which means the plate is rated as a level III without a backer and level IV with a backer.
No matter what type of hard insert you might choose, it is alwaysa good idea to wear a soft armor backer to help reduce blunt force trauma. While a plate might stop a bullet, it would be a mistake to assume that the wearer will be injury free afterwards. There is still a lot of energy being transferred into the plate and then into the wearer’s body. Plate backers can help mitigate some of this force, reducing the chance of severe injury.
All armor types have pros and cons, each of which falls under the three selection categories mentioned earlier; weight, threat level, and cost. It always comes back to those. Because of the variances in performance, no armor should ever be referred to as “bulletproof” and you should beware a company that uses the phrase. Only “bullet resistant” is truly applicable.
There are a number of different materials used in the manufacture of rifle plates. Among them are compressed laminates including high-density polyethylene, ceramics, Kevlar, and so on. The laminate materials usually differ from those found in soft armor. For instance, Kevlar used in soft armor will likely be a different variety than what you would find in a hard plate. Laminate materials used in hard armor manufacturing are almost always thermally molded and/or compressed.
With different materials comes different performance metrics. Perhaps the most significant difference is weight; in armor, lighter weight means higher cost, often to a significant degree. When you want the lightest materials and construction technologies currently available, the costs will reflect this.
During the decision making process for selecting armor, you will always be balancing weight and cost. If you need to wear armor for more than a very short period of time, the value of lightweight armor cannot be overstated.
So in summary, establish your requirements before you begin shopping for armor. What factor is the most important to you? Do you need the lightest weight possible? Do you expect to encounter pistol or rifle rounds? Is there a particular or unusual round that is common in your theater of operation? Do you need a multi-hit plate? Do you need a plate that floats in water? And of course, there is the issue of how much you can spend. While there are solutions to fit most budgets, I believe that a buyer – whether an individual or agency – should be very careful not to sacrifice so much for the sake of saving money that they wind up with a product that does not meet there needs or worse, isn’t viable. People will not wear armor that is too heavy and even if they do, it may impede their mobility, actually increasing the danger to them in hostile situations. It’s good to stop a bullet but it’s much, much better to avoid getting shot altogether.