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Understanding Body Armor Ratings

Understand all the body armor levels from a 3a soft armor vest to a level 4 body armor tactical vest. Whether you're looking for ballistic armor or a plate carrier setup, this blog explains everything with body armor.

*Disclaimer: This article is intended to be a brief overview of Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor NIJ Standard-0101.06.  This is in no way intended to replace reading and researching the standard on your own.  Please consider reading the standards and reviewing the Body Armor Resources on the NIJ's website; they are actually very informative. 


The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research and standardization department for the U.S. Department of Justice. They scientifically research crime, assess community needs, and evaluate safety products (body armor in this case), with the end goal of reducing crime and fortifying the justice system.

NIJ Protection Levels

The industry is currently governed by the 6th revision of the body armor standard 0101.06. You will often hear it referred to as the .06 Standard.  The NIJ protection levels refer to the type of ammunition body armor can resist against. 

In the .06 Standard, there are five protection levels (IIA, II, IIIA, III, IV). The “A” in levels IIA and IIIA means that the body armor is more effective than the level below it, but doesn’t meet the standards of the next level. Think of it as a half (for example: level IIIA = 2.5). Each of the levels are tested with a specific round, at a particular distance (5 meters for level IIA, II, & IIIA and 15 meters for level III and IV), at a specific velocity.  The bullet obviously may not pass though the armor to pass the test, but it also can not exceed a specified amount of back force deformation (how far the back of the armor is pushed out).  The armor is tested in both new and "conditioned" conditions (tumbled and/or weathered). Please see the actual standard for full details on these tests; they are surprisingly quite interesting. 

Level IIA (9 mm; .40SW):

"New and unworn armor of this standard 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)."

In a nutshell, this protects against standard 9mm & .40SW pistols with off-the-shelf ammunition and handgun calibers below that (32ACP, 38 Special, 25ACP, etc.)

*Premier does not sell any armor at this level 


Level II (9 mm; .357 Magnum):

"New and unworn armor of this standard shall be tested with 9 mm Full Metal Jacketed Round Nose 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)."

In a nutshell, this level protects against NATO (military-issued) 9mm pistols and law enforcement (LE) .357 Magnum revolvers. Think late-80s U.S. military sidearm and LE sidearms before the Glock 17 came out.

Our Elite Executive Vest is Level II.


Level IIIA (.357 SIG; .44 Magnum):

"New and unworn armor of this standard shall be tested with .357 SIG Full Metal Jacketed 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)."

In a nutshell, this level protects against .357 Sig and .44 Magnum pistols.  Think highway patrol in Dirty Harry.

All Premiere vests (aside from the Elite Executive Vest) and all of our backpack armor are level IIIA.


Level III (Rifle):

"New and unworn armor of this standard shall be tested in a conditioned state with 7.62 mm Full Metal Jacketed, 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)."

In a nutshell, a Level 3 body armor rating is designed to protect against NATO .308 battle rifles. Think mid-80s battle rifles like the FN FAL or HKG3.

* Sometimes you will is a + after IIIA or III.  The + is not an official designation given by the NIJ and can mean different things from different manufactures.  At Premier Body Armor, it means that the Armor has been "Special Threat Tested" to exceed the standard by an independent lab.   Please see product page for details.

The offerings we have in this standard are our Stratis Level III+ plates


Level IV (Armor Piercing Rifle):

"New and unworn armor of this standard 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)."

In a nutshell, this standard protects against 30-06 (AP) Armored Piercing, where the lead bullet has a steel core. Think M1 Garand, the standard issue rifle of US troops in WWII. This level plate will also stop M855 (62gr 5.56x45) green tip, but that round is not part of the NIJ test. 

Premier's Stratis Level IV Enhanced Plate is rated Level IV.


Body Armor Testing Process

The NIJ’s testing is rigorous and detailed. The NIJ tests both new and used vests, different sizes of the product, and shots from specific angles.

Vests and plates go through numerous environmental and conditioning tests. Before any armor actually faces ballistic threats, it is put through extreme elemental changes such as extreme heating and cooling. This acts as a more realistic testing scenario as body armor is typically worn or used in the natural environment for some amount of time before being shot. For any armor to make it all the way through the NIJ Testing protocol, the armor must be very well constructed and designed to not only withstand ballistic threats, but to do so even after years of simulated use. 

What Body Armor Level is Best?

Protection level is an important factor to consider when purchasing body armor. Just because level IV exists does not mean that’s the armor that will suit you the best. If you are unlikely to meet armor-piercing threats in your area, the weight and cost of level IV armor may not be practical.

Give thought to your occupation, location of the places you frequent, and what threats might arise near you, before selecting you a level of body armor. 

The NIJ and Buying Body Armor

The NIJ is the sole, national standard for body armor. Body armor manufacturers voluntarily submit their products to be tested as a part of the NIJ Voluntary Compliance Testing program. Consequently, if a company selling body armor neglects to submit their products for testing or meet the NIJ’s standards, it has not taken the time (or spent the money) to ensure their products are up to law-enforcement standards. 

You can actually search the  NIJ’s Compliant Products List (CPL) and see which of a company's products are certified. 

Note that not all body armor products are eligible for NIJ Certification. For example, Premier Body Armor’s level IIIA backpack Inserts and laptop cases are not eligible for certification because the NIJ office only certifies soft armor in the form of a vest. With this in mind, Premier Body Armor still sends samplings of each of these products to an accredited third party laboratory to be scientifically tested for the applicable ballistic threats. This ensures the quality and ballistic integrity of the products. 


Premier Body Armor’s Standards

It is for the safety of our customers that we proudly produce all of our armored products here in the USA. "MADE in the USA" is more than just a tagline for us; it is a way of life.  Every fiber that goes into the manufacturing of our ballistic vests and panels is sourced and made in the USA. 

Please contact us if you would like a product recommendation or have any questions.  

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