Body Armour 101 - How Armour Levels Work
As one of western Canada’s largest body armour providers, we regularly get questions surrounding the topic of protection levels. Here is a basic course on how armour levels work.
First, it’s important to know how armour is certified. The US National Institute of Justice (NIJ) publishes standards that armour manufacturers are expected to follow.
While not law, these standards are definitely important as they provide minimum standards for armour performance. Armour manufacturers then design and manufacture their armour to meet or exceed these standards, and then send their armour to a third-party, independent laboratory (a lab that is certified by NIJ) to perform the testing.
We would suggest that, if looking for armour, don’t even consider an armour system that isn’t NIJ certified. NIJ can also revoke the certification for a company or a piece of armour should it fail any tests, and this is not an uncommon occurrence.
The NIJ revises its standards every few years. The current standard (in 2016) for soft armour is NIJ 0101.06. Rifle plates have a different standard. If you want to download the entire NIJ standard document, it’s available on the web; just search for NIJ 0101.06 standard.
Note that there are some companies in Canada that sell armour that is NOT NIJ certified. They use phrases like “NIJ qualified” or “designed to surpass NIJ standards”. If the armour could pass NIJ tests, the manufacturer would test it with NIJ and have it certified.
You should only be buying NIJ certified armour. If in doubt, ask the manufacturer for the NIJ certification documents. These are not proprietary documents so the vendor should be able to provide them to you.
Don’t accept statements like “We are working on NIJ certification” because one Canadian vendor has been saying that for 5 years. Most reputable armour vendors will not release their armour for sale until the NIJ Certification letter arrives. Note that each model of armour from the manufacturer will have its own certification sheet. There is also a database of certified armour here.
Ballistic Rated Armour
- Ballistic Level II – The NIJ standard for Level II is a 9mm FMJ 124gr round, and a .357 Magnum JPS 158gr round
- Ballistic Level IIIA – The NIJ standard is a .357 Sig FMJ 125gr and a .44 mag SJHP 240 gr.
Note that soft armour is available in Level II and Level IIIA. Many people mistakenly think that soft armour is Level II and Level III but this is not accurate. Agreed, it’s not a great naming system but we didn’t make it up. Blame the US Government.
Also note that there is no soft armour that will stop rifle rounds. To stop rifle rounds, you need some kind of hard armour, whether it’s a trauma plate or a full Level III or IV plate.
Stab Rated Armour
We should also note that there are NIJ certifications available for armour that has no ballistic protection but rather is designed to protect against stab/edged-weapon threats. This is known as “corrections” armour or “stab” armour.
NIJ has 3 levels:
- Spike 1
- Spike 2
- Spike 3
These are all the same test (essentially a hand-made ‘ice pick’ weapon trying to puncture the armour), just with different degrees of force. Stab armour is extremely thin, light, and flexible — only a fraction of the thickness and weight of ballistic armour.
An important note when choosing stab armour: Spike 1 offers minimal protection and is the lowest price. Spike 2 offers significantly more protection with a very modest price increase. Spike 3 offers more protection but is a significant jump in price, thickness, and weight.
We find that most customers select Spike 2, unless they are in a very high-risk situation in which case Spike 3 is more appropriate.
Hybrid Ballistic/Stab Armour
We have been seeing a very significant increase in the interest of Hybrid armour. This is soft armour that is rated to stop both ballistic AND stab/spike threats.
Due to the nature of most officer’s work, it makes sense to consider a vest that is rated to stop both ballistic and stab-type threats. While this armour is very soft and flexible, it is a bit thicker than a ballistic-only armour and is a significant upgrade in price as you are essentially getting two vests in one. However, we are seeing a dramatic increase in the popularity of hybrid armour; mostly Ballistic II / Spike 2 armour.
- Level III – 7.62mm FMJ steel jacketed (known an an “M80”) 147gr. Note that a Level III rifle plate is required to stop SIX rounds of this threat in order to pass.
- Level IV – .30 cal Armour Piercing (AP) 166gr rounds. Level IV armour is required to stop only ONE shot of this threat.
A common discussion we have with police departments: Is Level IV “better” than Level III? Unlike soft armour, where IIIA is better than II (in terms of protection), that’s not the case with rifle plates. They are not necessarily better — just different.
Level III plates are tested to 6 rounds of standard .308 ‘ball’ rifle ammunition.
Level IV plates are tested to one round of .308 cal AP (armour piercing). Typically, most police in Canada don’t see AP rounds on the street, so this may not be the best option for most police agencies in Canada.
Level IV plates are typically thicker, heavier, and more expensive than Level III. In addition, they are only available in a ceramic core, whereas Level III is available in ceramic or the lighter and less-fragile Polyethylene/UHMWPE (ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene). If your plates spend their lives in the trunk of a car, maybe a non-fragile PE plate would be better suited to the application.
Before selecting your rifle plates, stop to consider what type of threats you expect to be facing. IV is not always better than III.
Armor Express Surge III ICW$385.00 – $629.00
Armor Express H-Shock Rifle Plate$195.00 – $309.00
Angel Armor Truth 308C Level III ICW Rifle Plate$550.00 – $815.00
Angel Armor Truth SNAP 308S Level III ICW Rifle Plate$469.00 – $640.00
Trauma plates, also called Special Threat plates, are normally a thin plate that’s designed to be worn with your existing soft armour. These are typically very thin and light and you can barely notice them in your armour. They simply slip into the existing pocket on the front of your carrier. These plates are NOT generally certified because they are too small for NIJ’s testing criteria, so it’s up to the plate manufacturer to specify (usually on a label on the plate) the Special Threats that the plate protects against.
Trauma Plates come in a wide variety of technologies, from steel to polyethylene. Steel plates are an older style and aren’t worn much these days. They are heavy and, if you check the label on them, are generally not rated for any threat protection. Newer trauma plates normally are expressed as “Level IIIA+”. This isn’t an NIJ designation, but rather just implies that the plate exceeds Level IIIA. Trauma plates are normally fairly small; 5″x8″, 7″x9″, and 8″x10″.
There are SOME small plates that are designed to stop rifle rounds. The “C-Shock” and “H-Shock” plates from Armor Express are available starting at 5″x8″ plate that will stop Level III rifle rounds. Also, Angel Armor’s “Truth Snap” plates are a combination system that allows you to wear a thin/light Level IIIA+ plate, a rifle plate that will stop a 7.62 round (AK-47) or if you wear them together, they’re rated at full Level III and will also stop a .223/5.56 round.
They will stop common rifle threats and are very light so you can wear them all day.
Stand Alone (SA) vs In Conjunction With (ICW)
Also note that hard armour (including trauma plates) are rated either “SA” (Stand Alone), or “ICW” (In Conjunction With). SA means that the plate is strong enough to stop the rated threats by itself. ICW means that to meet the standards to stop the rated threats, the armour needs soft armour to be worn behind it.
If you are ALWAYS wearing the plates over your soft armour, then ICW plates are sufficient. They are lighter, thinner, and typically less expensive than a comparable SA plate because they depend on the soft armour worn behind it to help stop the threat (some plates require IIIA soft armour behind them, some only require Level II).
If you are going to wear the plates with no soft armour behind them, or if you aren’t sure whether or not soft armour is going to be worn under the plate, get a SA plate.
If the manufacturer’s amour will stop threats over and above the NIJ minimums, then the armour manufacturer can declare this in what’s known as a Special Threat. The armour manufacturer will test these in-house (normally in an NIJ-certified in-house lab) or through an external third-party lab.
Special Threats are very important as they show the actual stopping power of the armour. Whereas some manufacturers will make armour that only passes the minimum NIJ tests, better armour manufacturers will ‘over-build’ their armour to stop many more threats.
In some cases, these Special Threat declarations can be quite significant. For example, our armour manufacturer, Armor Express, has Level II armour that passes NIJ but will also stop Level IIIA rounds (see image on right). This means that you can buy Level II armour but have the same protection that a IIIA vest would offer. Of course, a IIIA will offer more protection because Armor Express also has Special Threats listed for IIIA armour, which includes a rifled shotgun slug.
It’s important to note that some manufacturers have no special threat ratings at all, which means the armour was designed solely to pass certification but nothing further than that.
Other Testing Protocols
Soft Armour Testing Protocols
For soft armour, in addition to the NIJ standards, the FBI and DEA have their own standards that armour manufacturers must meet if they want to sell armour to these agencies. When selecting soft armour, ask your armour supplier if their armour meets these standards.
The FBI protocol includes the following tests:
- 9mm 124gr FMJ, 8 shots
- .40 S&W 180gr GDHP, 1 contact shot
- .45 ACP 230gr GS, 1 contact shot
- 9mm 127 gr +P+ Winchester SXT, 1 contact shot
The DEA tests include both firearms as well as fragmentation tests:
- 9mm 124gr FMJ, 9 shots
- .40 S&W 165gr GDHP, 1 contact shot
- 9mm 127 gr +P+ Winchester SXT, 1 contact shot
- 2 gr fragmentation @ 2737 ft/sec
- 4 gr fragmentation @ 2420 ft/sec
- 16gr fragmentation @ 2080 ft/sec
- 64gr fragmentation @ 1620 ft/sec
Hard Armour Testing Protocols
The DEA Hard Armour 2017 protocol includes the following tests:
- .223 Remington Tactical Bonded Soft Point 62gr
- 5.56 x 45mm M855 “Green Tip” 62gr
- 7.62 x 39mm Mild Steel Core 123gr
- 7.62 mm FMJ (M80) 147gr
- .308 Winchester PSPB Core-Lokt Ultra Bonded 150gr
To summarize, there are 4 types of tests you should look for:
- NIJ Certified ← this should be the absolute minimum for your armour
- FBI Testing
- DEA Testing
- Special Threats declarations
Lastly, if you want to really ensure you are dealing with a quality manufacturer, there is an ISO (quality control) certification that is specifically for armour manufacturers. The manufacturer will be certified under the standard ISO 9001:2008 standard but will also carry the BA9000:2012 standard (specifically for Body Armour). This certification assures that there is a formal quality-control process in place for the entire manufacturing system, and also governs procedures like random in-production sample testing, etc.