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A primer on Ballistic Resistant Armor


There are two major forms of body armor with five levels or ratings. These forms are either hard plates of soft flexible armor. The five levels or ratings are level IIA, II, IIIA, III, and IV. Each level provides some measure of protection and, inversly, some measure of limited mobility.


Police officers wearing a vest under their uniform shirt often sacrifice higher levels of protection for greater mobility. This is due to the lower likelihood of a police officer facing off against an armed rifleman shooting an AK. Soldiers, on the other hand, often sacrifice mobility to protect against those very same AK rounds. This isn't to say that certain officers do not carry and wear higher levels of protection armors, rather, those officers typically only do so when the situation warrants the need for more precaution, i.e. high risk warrant.


All levels of armor can be found in a soft armor form, either as an integrated vest or as ballistic inserts. These ballistic inserts are often called soft plates, as opposed to hard plates that the military uses. Additionally, only level III and IV armor will be found in hard plates due to their requirement to protect against higher levels of threats.


The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has defined what the levels are and what they are rated to protect against. The standard is: NIJ Standard-0101.06, dated July 2008. It can be found at: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/223054.pdf. Level IIA will stop some 9mm and .40 S&W rounds, the level II is slightly better and will stop more 9mm rounds and some 3.57 magnum rounds. The level IIIA will stop some .44 magnum rounds, and the level III will stop 7.62mm rounds. The level IV will stop .30 caliber armor piercing rounds.


Soft armor can be made up of various strong, synthetic fibers. Some examples are Kevlar, Twaron, and ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethalene (UHMWP). These flexible materials offer protection by deforming the bullet and absorbing the bullets energy. As is often seen with even hard armor, the wearer may still be hurt by blunt force trauma from the impact, leaving cracked ribs, bruising and some cutting of the skin.


These soft armors tend to degrade over time, with most companies carrying a warranty on them for five to seven years. Many police officers note that the soft armors still offer protection long past that warranty period. A word of caution concerning Zylon, a material used briefly during the 90s. It was found that Zylon deteriorated faster than was expected and doesn't retain its ballistic protection as long as other materials. You will not find current armors with Zylon, but if buying secondhand or used, it is a matter to bear in mind.


Hard armors tend to be found only in plate form, being used either in conjunction with soft armors or instead of soft armors. When worn in conjunction, often the vest the plate goes into is already rated to either level III or IIIA and the added plate gives a level IV rating. When worn as stand alone protection in a vest or plate carrier, the plate offers only protection on the body parts that are covered.


These plates may be constructed with Steel, Ceramics, or a combination of materials. Steel plates are often the lowest cost for level IV protection, but suffer for being the heaviest of armor plates. Additionally, if the steel plates are not coated or protected in some manner, when a round hits them, a spalling effect happens. That is to say, flakes of steel opposite to where the round hits breaks off and penetrates the body being protected. Ceramics and newer materials are offering the rigid protection of level IV, with much lower weights. But they too, have potential problems. These plates may be damaged and lose their protective ability if dropped or hit with a solid object before attempting to stop a round.


5 Levels of Armor

  • IIA (9mm, .40 S&W)
    • 9mm -rated at 373 m/s, full metal jacket round nose
    • .40 S&W -rated at 352 m/s, full metal jacket

    [*]II (9mm, .357 Magnum)

    • 9mm – rated at 398 m/s, full metal jacket round nose
    • .357 Magnum – rated 436 m/s, jacketed soft point

    [*]IIIA (.357 SIG; .44 Magnum)

    • .357 SIG – rated at 448 m/s, full metal jacket flat nose
    • .44 Magnum – rated at 436 m/s, semi jacketed hollow point

    [*]III (Rifle) – tested against 7.62 mm full metal jacket, steel jacketed at 847 m/s

    • May be flexible armor, hard armor or plate insert

    [*]IV (Armor Piercing Rifle) - .30 caliber armor piercing at 878 m/s

    • May be flexible armor, hard armor or plate insert

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