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by Alex Stewart September 21, 2020 4 min read

Understanding Body Armor Ratings



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 with the end goal of reducing crime and fortifying the justice system.

Protection Levels

The NIJ protection levels refer to thetype of ammunition body armor can resist against. 

The NIJ does not testwhat the product is made of, onlywhat it resists against. To meet NIJ standards, the bullet cannot pierce or make a hole in the vest, and the vest must protect against blunt trauma.

There are five protection levels (IIA, II, IIIA, III, IV). Level I armor exists but no longer meets NIJ standards. It is sold on the used market; however, it is not recommended for use due to its low caliber resistance.

The “A” in levels IIA and IIIA mean the body armor is more effective than the level below but doesn’t meet the standards of the next level. Think of it as a half (for example: level IIIA = 2.5).

Soft body armor is level IIIA and below, and most hard body armor is level III and above with the plates included.   

Level IIA (9 mm; .40 S&W):

Protects against 9 mm Full Metal Jacketed Round Nose (FMJ RN) bullets and with .40 S&W Full Metal Jacketed (FMJ) bullets.

Level IIA is soft body armor, light, and undetectable. With the advancement of technology, level IIA is uncommon because higher levels of armor can be created with the same amount of concealment. 

Level II (9 mm; .357 Magnum):

Protects against 9 mm FMJ RN bullets and with .357 Magnum Jacketed Soft Point (JSP) bullets.

Level II is soft body armor stopping common handgun rounds. It is still light and concealable, but with greater protection than Level IIA.

Level IIIA (.357 SIG; .44 Magnum):

Protects against .357 SIG FMJ Flat Nose (FN) bullets and with .44 Magnum Semi Jacketed Hollow Point (SJHP) bullets. These are common handgun rounds.

Level IIIA is ideal for everyday lifestyles. Because it is soft armor, it offers maximum protection with comfort and ease of movement.

This is why Premier Body Armor offers a wide selection of level IIIA products such as our Bulletproof Backpack Inserts and Discrete Executive Vest. 

Some manufacturers produce level “IIIA+”. In these cases, the company performs its own testing and the level isnot verified by NIJ and can be misleading as to what threats it can actually defeat.

Level III (Rifle):

Protects against 7.62 mm FMJ, steel jacketed bullets (U.S. Military designation M80).

Level III marks the transition to hard body armor meaning the armor contains metal plates or other composite materials, and can withstand rifle rounds. Examples of level III are the STRATIS Rifle Rated Backpack Insert and the STRATIS Curved Plate. 

Level IV (Piercing Rifle):

Protects against .30 caliber armor piercing (AP) rounds (U.S. Military designation M2 AP).

This is the highest rating of body armor available on the market. Level IV is hard body armor and designed for military settings. It can be heavy and feel restraining. Level IV armor also sometimes does not fare well against multi-hit situations.

Testing Process

The NIJ’s testing is rigorous and detailed. The NIJ tests new and used vests, different sizes of the product, and shots from multiple angles to ensure the armor is hit in specific places.

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 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 rile 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 buying body armor. 

The NIJ and Buying Body Armor

The NIJ is the sole, national standard for body armor worn by law enforcement and corrections officers.

Some 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 to ensure their products are up to law-enforcement standards. 

Note here 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 a 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

At PBA, we want to ensure the highest standard of safety possible. We recommend level IIIA vests and panels/inserts. They provide mobility, comfort, are lightweight, and are easily concealed. Some of our vests also have the ability to be used in conjunction with level III plates. For instance, the eagle tactical vest is level IIIA on its own but has pockets on the front and rear that can accept level III plates. It is for the safety of our customers that we proudly produce all our armored products here in the USA.

More information about the distance and ammunition used in our testing can be found under the product description. 

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

If you would like to know more about the NIJ and the standards, visit their website

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