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A Closer Look at Body Armor Ballistic Levels

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Based on what most people see in movies and tv it’s easy to think that all body armor plates will stop all bullet calibers. In reality, when you buy body armor, you have to make some considerations on which bullet calibers you want to stop. To simplify this issue a bit, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) created a standard for classifying body armor under “levels” based on the threats/calibers they defeat. You may often see this standard referred to as “NIJ 0101.06” a.k.a “Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor NIJ Standard-0101.06”. For the purposes of this conversation, we’re only going to focus on threat levels that range from handguns (level IIIA) to high velocity armor piercing rounds (level IV).

Most Common Threats

Before we take a deep dive into body armor, let’s take a look into actual crime stats (murder weapons in particular). The following chart is taken directly from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting database. With the amount of publicity given to murders involving so called “assault rifles” by the news media, you might be surprised to learn that you are 22 times more likely to be murdered by someone with a handgun than a rifle based on 2018’s stats.

Level IIIA Threat Protection (Most Handgun Rounds)

The good news is that when it comes to protection against handgun threats, there’s multiple options that are realistic for everyday carry (EDC). Whether you’re a police officer in the line of duty or just an average American concerned about personal safety, level IIIA body armor can be the most comfortable and easy to conceal option. Level IIIA body armor is often much thinner and lighter than other body armor materials on the market. Some level IIIA body armor is even flexible, such as our IIIA Flex Fused Core™ soft body armor. This is also why IIIA armor is often used for backpack body armor carried in children’s backpacks. Our level IIIA body armor products are rated to stop .44 Magnum SJHP and special threat rated to stop .357 SIG FMJ. If you’re looking for discreet body armor to wear on a regular basis, then level IIIA body armor is the way to go. You’ll be protected from the most common handgun threats without sacrificing mobility.

Level IIIA Body Armor Products

Level III Body Armor

To qualify for level III NIJ 0101.06 standards, a body armor plate must be able to stop 7.62 NATO FMJ rounds at a velocity of 2780 ft/s (± 30 ft/s). To most people, the idea of stopping a .308 rifle round sounds impressive because it’s a large bullet compared to a .223 round. However, it’s actually the exact opposite. Rounds fired from .308 rifles are typically easier to stop because they travel at a lower velocity compared to many fast moving “penetrator” rounds such as M855 (aka “green tips” or SS109). The typical speed of M855 is 3,025 ft/s which allows it to penetrate body armor easier. Spartan Armor Systems™ offers a few options when it comes to level III body armor. In particular, our level III Spartan™ Omega™ AR500 steel core body armor has actually been special threat tested against M855 by an independent laboratory (see the video below. Note that we will always recommend our Spartan AR550 steel core body armor for defeating high velocity threats such as M855, but we wanted to see how much punishment our Spartan ™ Omega™ AR500 plates could withstand.

Level III body armor is a great all-around body armor for people in need of protection against handgun rounds and many rifle rounds. Typically, level III body armor is a cheaper option for rifle rated plates. If you’re looking for lightweight level III body armor, we’ve developed our Elaphros lightweight body armor which is NIJ Certified level III and weighs only 3.5lbs per plate (about half the weight of steel core body armor).

Level III Body Armor Products

Level III+ Special Threat Tested Body Armor

The sales of AR-15 rifles has skyrocketed ever since politicians begun their campaign to ban what they consider to be assault weapons. While handgun rounds still account for the greatest majority of murders in the USA, the topic of high velocity threats deserves some attention due to the millions of AR-15s out there. The NIJ does not actually have a level “III+” rating, so why do body armor companies sell level III+ body armor? Level III+ is a rating created by body armor manufacturers to say that a particular armor plate is better than level III, but not able to stop armor piercing rounds as is the case with level IV body armor. For example, our level III+ Spartan AR550 body armor has undergone special threat testing to confirm its ability to easily defeat XM193 and M855 rounds. This is because the Brinell hardness rating of AR550 steel is superior to AR500 steel. Unfortunately, the NIJ does not currently have a rating system that spells out this difference to the end user. In fact, our Spartan AR550 body armor has been certified by the NIJ, but because there is no level III+ rating under NIJ 0101.06 we are required to label each AR550 plates as level III. In the not too distant future, the NIJ will be revising their rating levels and is expected to draw the distinction between level III and level III+ body armor. All this being said, our Spartan AR550 body armor is our most popular body armor plate. If you’re shopping for body armor that will defeat nearly everything, then AR550 is the ticket. At only about $50 more than steel core Spartan™ Omega™ AR500 plates, Spartan AR550 body armor offers more piece of mind and protection. This is why we sell a lot of Spartan AR550 body armor plates to members of Law Enforcement and Security Contractors.

Level III+ Body Armor Products

Level IV Advanced Threats

Level IV body armor carries the highest price tag, but for good reason. Under NIJ 0101.06 level IV hard body armor must be able to defeat .30 caliber armor piercing (AP) bullets (U.S. Military designation M2 AP) with a specified mass of 10.8 g (166 gr) at a velocity of 2880 ft/s (± 30 ft/s). Note that this must be in a “conditioned” state, meaning that the armor must first undergo a series of drop tests and water submersion tests before being shot with .30-06 armor piercing rounds. Level IV body armor is typically chosen by individuals in high threat occupations such as SWAT members. It’s important to note that most level IV body armor is made from ceramic which does have the potential to crack if dropped or slammed hard. Ceramic body armor also has a 5-year shelf life, in comparison to the 20+ year shelf life of steel core body armor.

Level IV Body Armor Products


In closing, body armor threat levels are a helpful way to identify the product(s) that best fit your needs. The current NIJ threat levels make it fairly clear as to the protection offered by body armor plates, but will be improved when the revised NIJ ratings are released in the not too distant future. With the most common threats coming in the way of handguns, level IIIA body armor is an inexpensive option to provide comfortable protection for the everyday American. If you’re looking for protection against rifle threats, it’s important to know the key distinctions between level III, level III+ and level IV body armor.

Need additional help selecting the body armor that’s right for you? Don’t hesitate to contact us!

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