Personal protection has always been key for those in battle. Steel, chainmail, and leather armor did the trick back when blades and arrows were the threat, but with firearms and artillery to deal with, tactical vests and armor plates are the go-to body armor.
Not all body armor is created equal though. The threat levels for ballistic vests are set by the NIJ (National Institute of Justice). There are currently five levels in use – Level IIA, II, IIIA, III, and IV – and each covers a different caliber of bullet. We’ll help you understand all the NIJ levels so you can assess which level defeats the range of threats most likely to come your way.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF JUSTICE (NIJ) PROTECTION LEVELS
This chart gives a detailed rundown of different weapons Levels II to IIIA defend against and other variables (muzzle velocity, etc.). We’ll provide more explanation and context and also include links to featured armor of different levels from our body armor collection.
Keep in mind that each level can protect from its own threat range AND those of the previous levels. So a level IIIA armor protects from the same threats as level II and below.
NIJ LEVEL I BODY ARMORThe original NIJ Level – now out of commission
The Level I protection rating was created in the 1970s and is now obsolete. If you come across a Level I vest, consider it either memorabilia or junk.
NIJ LEVEL IIA BODY ARMORThe current lowest level of protection
Level IIA armor is the lightest and most flexible armor available today but largely out of date. Usually soft armor, it’s easily concealed beneath clothes.
LEVEL IIA PROTECTS AGAINST:
- .9mm FMJ (Full Metal Jacket) at 1165 feet per second (ft./s)
- .40 S&W (Smith & Wesson) FMJ at 1065 ft./s
NIJ LEVEL II BODY ARMOR
“HANDGUN ARMOR,” DEFEATING UP TO .357 MAGNUM ROUNDS
Level II vests are still relatively light, flexible, and easily discrete under clothes, but can defeat a higher range of ammunition than Level IIA. They also offer more blunt force protection than IIA.
LEVEL II PROTECTS AGAINST:
- all handgun rounds, up to and including .357 magnum jacketed soft point (JSP)
FEATURED LEVEL II ARMOR FROM OUR COLLECTION:
NIJ LEVEL IIIA BODY ARMORGood all-round for concealable, lightweight protection
Level IIIA is the most common protection level you’ll see when browsing for soft body armor.
Found in everything from ballistic vests to bulletproof backpacks, it’s a bit heavier than Level IIA or II but still largely concealable.
LEVEL IIIA PROTECTS AGAINST:
- 9 mm rounds traveling at speeds of up to 1400 ft./s.
- .44 magnum rounds.
FEATURED LEVEL IIIA ARMOR FROM OUR COLLECTION:
Some suppliers offer level IIIA+ vests that protect against shotgun rounds, 9 mm Civil Defense rounds, and FN 5.7. While such vests aren’t officially certified by the NIJ, it’s becoming a popular option for niche use.
NIJ LEVEL III BODY ARMORRifle-defeating armor
Level III body armor is the first level that protects against rifle rounds. This armor usually consists of hard plates as opposed to soft plates, so it’s not concealable.
Hard armor is also heavier than soft armor, but with that weight comes greater protection.
LEVEL III IS DESIGNED TO HANDLE:
- Six shots from a 7.62×51 NATO round traveling up to 2780 ft./s
FEATURED LEVEL III ARMOR FROM OUR COLLECTION:
LEVEL III+ BODY ARMOR
Like Level IIIA+, III+ isn’t an official NIJ rating. However, it’s used by some manufacturers to indicate that this armor has the same protective capacity as Level III but can handle extra threats like M855 “green tip” ammo or M193.
Level III+ is becoming a popular option for those who face additional threats.
NIJ LEVEL IV BODY ARMORTop level protection
Level IV body armor is the highest basic level. It consists of hard plates as opposed to Level IIIA plates and below. Level IV armor achieves this standard by stopping a single bullet as opposed to Level III’s six, so it isn’t always better than a Level III armor.
LEVEL IV IS DESIGNED TO HANDLE:
- One hit from 7.62MM armor piercing rifle (APR) bullet with a velocity of 2880 ft./s.
Featured Level IV armor from our collection:
IS THERE A LEVEL 5 BODY ARMOR?
As of this writing there isn’t, but in the future? Who knows!
SPECIAL LEVEL ARMOR
Special type body armor can go beyond the standard protection rating. Level IIIA+ falls under this classification, for example.
Special type armor usually has very specific protection ratings in terms of caliber and traveling speed of the round.
HOW ARE STAB PROOF/SPIKE PROOF VESTS RATED?
Stab and spike proof vests are designed to fend off slashes or powerful stabs instead of ballistic threats.
The NIJ rates stab / spike proof vests by their ability to resist a certain number of joules of energy behind a blade or spike attack.
- Level 1- 24 joules
- Level 2- 33 joules
- Level 3-43 joules
WHAT SHOULD I KNOW ABOUT NIJ STANDARDS?
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) currently does testing for five different levels of protection, each designed to resist certain ballistic levels.
The different levels are meant to fit a certain need or situation.
With this knowledge, we hope you can browse body armor collections with more confidence.
Remember, the highest rating possible isn’t necessarily the best choice for you. Consider factors like cost, weight, or comfort of the gear.
Have a question about protection levels? Contact us and our experts will help!