I get a lot of questions regarding body armor. I used to have those questions myself and it took a lot of research on my own to get the answers. There are many types and levels of body armor; each designed to counter a specific threat. The best body armor for you will be determined by what you are going to use it for. There’s a lot of information out there and I will do my best to explain it all in the simplest way I can. I am going to describe the different levels of body armor by what the threats they were made to defend against. Hopefully this will help you make an informed decision in what body will work for you. Please don’t rely solely on what I have to say, do some research on your own because you can’t have too much information on something that your life depends upon. Also, I’m not the know-all expert in this area, I’m just the end user who uses multiple levels of armor everyday and have done so for over a decade. All of these levels come from NIJ (National Institute of Justice) they are the ones that come up with each rating that is required at each level. You yourself have to decide on the mobility vs. protection level each has to offer; it is an issue that you have to figure out for yourself.
Sharp Threats (Knives)
Level I. (Soft Armor)
This level of body armor is not well known because you would only see it in jails and in prisons. It is used by jail deputies and Department Of Corrections officers and usually the higher risk response teams in these facilities. In jail or in prison, there isn’t a firearm threat, but the likelihood of a knife or shank is very high. This body armor is light and usually thin (half as thick as ballistic body armor) but it will stop a sharp object from penetrating. That’s where the protection ends, it will not stop any ballistic threat. When I say ballistic I mean bullets and threats from firearms.
Handgun Threats (pistol caliber)
Level II (Soft Armor)
This is the first level of protection to defeat a ballistic threat coming from handguns. Most Peace Officers are issued this type of body armor. This includes .22lr 9mm to .45 ACP. Level is limited to certain velocities coming from different calibers that usually include magnum rounds. Magnum rounds are more powerful than standard rounds by being heavier bullets with a lot more gun powder behind them meaning they go a lot faster. These rounds may defeat this level of body armor.
Level IIIA (Soft Armor)
This level covers almost all handgun threats where Level II protection ends. This is the highest level of protection that comes from soft body armor. It is more resistant to ballistic threats coming from handguns by have more layers of Kevlar or Spectra etc. This level will stop everything level II and beyond to include .44 magnum to 12 gauge slugs (although it’ll stop a slug, it doesn’t mean that you’ll survive the trauma). This is the level of protection that I’m issued at work and I wear it every second I’m 10-8. Levels II and IIIA will not stop a sharp threat like Level I. This is why a knife threat to most Peace Officers is a deadly threat. So far all the levels above are soft armor and don’t offer much protection from blunt force trauma. They’re designed to keep a round or knife from penetrating it’s panels but expect some bruising or broken bones if you’re shot in your armor. To give yourself some better blunt force protection, you can get a hard trauma plate. I have a hard plate in my vest that will actually stop handgun rounds by itself and do a lot more to keep the blunt force trauma at a minimum.
Photo Credit: Muzzle Flash Media
Level IIIA (Hard Armor)
This comes in the form of ballistic helmets. It is the highest level of protection that is available today with the technology of body armor where it is. The military is working on a Level IV helmet but they are trying to get it light enough to be worn. Even though it wasn’t designed to stop rifle rounds, there have been a few cases where soldiers have been very lucky with a helmet stopping an 7.62×39 round. The technology has gone a long way by making the helmets lighter.
None of the levels above are rated for rifle threats. Rifle rounds are usually pointed and have higher velocities that double or even triple that of pistol rounds.
Level III (Hard Armor)
Yes this gets a little confusing for some. This is III, not IIIA and is the basic rifle protection that is the most prevalent type and level to face this threat. They come in the form of hard plates that are inserted into plate carriers. There are a lot of manufacturers that make these plates and each have their own capabilities. Level III is rated to stop most rifle caliber up to .308 or 7.62×51 excluding AP (Armor Piercing) rounds. There are three main types of Level III Hard Plate armor: Steel, Ceramic and Dyneema. Each has it’s own pro’s and con’s:
Pro’s: the most affordable option. Will stop most threat without a lot of deformation, giving more blunt force protection. It is capable of stopping multiple hits.
Con’s: it’s heavy with most plates weighing in at 7+ pounds per plate! Depending on the type of cover, Steel plates are known to spall or deflect rounds. Some companies have taken care of this problem by applying special coatings on their plates that take care of this issue.
Pro’s: it does a good job at keeping blunt force trauma by breaking in the process of getting hit. It’s also affordable, although not as inexpensive as steel plates. Sometimes lighter than steel.
Con’s: some are as heavy as steel plates. Most Ceramic plates won’t stop multiple hits because it breaks when hit. Since it is brittle in nature, its is very fragile and can crack if dropped.
Pro’s: it’s light weight, with some plates weighing less than 4 pounds! It will stop multiple rounds. It is durable and not prone to cracking.
Con’s: these plates are usually the most expensive per plate because of it being light weight. They might be degraded by high temperatures, I have seen some research that states this but it is more prevalent to level II soft dyneema armor failing at point blank distances. I haven’t seen or read anywhere where a level III dyneema hard plate failed due to heat.
Some of these plates will exceed the Level III rating but for AP threats, we move onto the highest level.
Armor Piercing Rifle Threats.
Level IV (Hard Armor)
This is the highest level of protection from any type of armor available today with technology where it is at. This comes in two types, but mainly it is in the form of Ceramic plates. Like I said earlier, some level III Steel plates will stop these AP threats even though they aren’t rated for them. The Ceramic plates are heavy at this level but it is to my knowledge the only option available for this threat.
My armor. I have a lot of body armor that I personally own. I have a retired level IIIA vest that stays in my trunk. In addition, I have two plate carriers: a Level III (dyneema) that is at work with me; a Level IV (ceramic) that lives in my trunk. I have three surplus ballistic helmets: an old PASGT Kevlar helmet (from desert storm), two ACH’s (Advanced Combat Helmets) the current ballistic helmets that are available today. I have one at work and one in my trunk. I will do a separate post later on helmets.
All of these armor systems have a service life, (most 5 years) but I can’t afford to keep replacing my plates and armor so I keep them in use. They should still function regardless of their expiration dates.
Beware of where you buy your armor. I personally do not buy any armor that isn’t made in the USA nowadays. There’s a lot of Chinese made knock offs that have poor quality control and I wouldn’t trust my life with those products. Again you get what you pay for, how much is your life worth?