Body armor can be a complicated landscape to navigate if you are new to the field, and sometimes even if you are not. The NIJ updates standards, companies use complicated ratings outside of the NIJ purview, and there are so many options to choose from, so where to start? Today let’s discuss a tried and true NIJ rated level, level 3 body armor, why it’s great, its limitations, and how it is made. 

What is Level III Body Armor?

Level III body armor is the entry level NIJ rating for rifle rated armor. It is designed to protect the user from the 7.62×51 round, a common threat from machine guns, AR10s, M14s, and hunting rifles. There are three different materials used to manufacture level 3 body armor plates, which we will discuss later, making it the most diversely manufactured rifle armor. 

By comparison, the NIJ currently only has one other rating for rifle plates which is level 4. Level 4 body armor is designed to stop armor piercing rounds from a 30-06 rifle, making them the strongest rifle plates available. However, manufacturers make non-NIJ level plates as well such as special threat plates which are generally rated for intermediate cartridges and cannot pass the NIJ level III standard.

Many manufacturers also make level 3+ plates, which is also not an NIJ rating and often means different things from different companies, however the idea is they will go beyond the level 3 rating to stop threats not tested for by the NIJ.  

Is Level III Body Armor NIJ Certified? 

Body armor certification is conducted by the National Institute of Justice who sets the standards, and conducts testing to certify armor into threat levels. Think of the NIJ as the FDA for armor, only with very simple, set standards across the board to make sure the buyer knows exactly the capabilities of their armor. For NIJ level III a plate (if ceramic) will be dropped using a specialized piece of equipment on the front of the plate two times to make sure the plate will stand up to the pressures of wear and drops. From this point the plate will be shot six (6) times with 7.62×51 M80 ball ammo from 45 feet away. The first two shots must have backface deformation less than 44mm, and no penetration for all six shots. 

How is Level III Armor Useful? 

All levels of body armor have their place and time where they are the best choice. Level 3 body armor is no different, and there are many scenarios where it may very well be the best option. Level 3 is a good option when armor piercing rounds are highly unlikely to be encountered, meaning some, but not all military operations, law enforcement, and civilian ownership. Each of the three different materials level III is made of fit different purposes as well. 

What Does Level III Body Armor Stop?

Level III body armor is designed to protect against 7.62×51 military M80 ball. This is all the NIJ tests for certification. However, we know this armor will also perform against lesser 7.62 rounds such as 7.62×39. Certain level 3 plates will stop various 5.56 threats, but this is not unilateral across the board. It is important to check the manufacturer’s specifications for the armor and seek out third party tests of the plates. 


  • Level III armor comes in three different material choices with unique and specific benefits allowing users to choose.
  • Protection against 7.62×51 and other powerful rifles.
  • Protection against certain 5.56 rounds depending on the material.
  • Wide range of price options, some of which are very affordable. 


  • Cannot stop armor piercing rounds
  • UHMWPE plates are expensive, and pure UHMWPE cannot stop rounds with steel cores such as 5.56 M855 “Green tip” and 7.62×39 MSC.
  • Steel level III plates are heavy, around 6-10 pounds depending on the plate cute and size, and are vulnerable to 5.56 M193.

Always evaluate your specific threat environment and choose body armor that aligns with those potential threats. Safety is a personal responsibility, and informed decisions are the best decisions.

What Are Level III Body Armor Plates Made Of? 

Level III body armor plates are typically composed of one of three main materials, Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE), steel, or ceramic, each with their own set of benefits.

level III body armor

UHMWPE is a type of plastic with very high tensile strength, making it a lightweight yet durable option for body armor. It excels in dissipating the energy of a bullet upon impact, helping to prevent penetration. UHMWPE body armor, and tends to be far lighter than steel or ceramic alternatives giving the wearer more mobility and less fatigue. The down sides are difficulty stopping rounds with steel cores, and the price of these plates. 

Steel body armor
Steel body armor

Steel body armor made of ballistic-grade steel is a more traditional form of body armor. It is highly durable and capable of withstanding multiple hits. However, it is heavier than PE or ceramic armor, and can also suffer from spalling and fragmentation – where fragments from the bullet or the armor itself can cause secondary damage upon bullet impact. To address this, companies like Tacticon seal the plate in a polyurea build up coating to encapsulate fragments when the plate is struck by a round. Steel is the most affordable option for body armor, making it one of the most common choices. 

Ceramic body armor plates combine ceramic and composite materials to create armor that is relatively light and capable of stopping a larger variety of threats, including some armor piercing rounds. However, ceramic plates can be brittle and may crack or break if dropped or struck hard, potentially reducing their protective capability.

Choosing between UHMWPE, steel, and ceramic largely comes down to weighing the needs of durability, weight, threat level, and cost. Each material offers different advantages, and the choice should be guided by the wearer’s specific requirements and the expected threat level.

Level III VS IIIA Body Armor

Bulletproof vest
Body armor levels

To clarify some confusion that is out there, there are major differences between level III and level IIIA. Wherever there is an “A” in armor rating it is used to denote that armor is a lower level. Level IIIA is an NIJ level, but it is sub-level III, and is actually pistol rated armor designed to stop up to a 44 Magnum. However, it can in no way stop rifle rounds.  

Evolution of Level III Body Armor 

Early versions of Level III body armor found their origin in the Vietnam War among air crews in the form of ceramic plates backed by Kevlar. They were heavier than modern plates due to the ceramic composition. Ceramic technology has advanced leading to lighter and more effective ceramics. Introducing UHMWPE to replace the Kevlar backing has also reduced the weight of these plates. 

Pure UHMWPE plates are still relatively new, but have a fascinating history. These plates have led to some of the lightest rifle armor available. 

Steel has always had the risk of fragmentation and spall, but with modern coatings this risk has been reduced significantly making steel a safe choice for body armor, as long as the plate has a coating. Using steel of a higher Brinell Hardness such as AR600 has reduced the overall weight of the steel and increases its protective abilities against faster rounds. 

Lightweight vs Steel Level III Armor 

Lightweight armor makes a difference when wearing it for any real duration of time. As mentioned above, steel is the most common and popular choice for civilians because of its price availability, however it is heavy. Steel is able to withstand repeated hits, even stacked shots, and is the only material to boast this feature. One drawback of steel is that some plates struggle with M193 5.56 rounds due to their velocity, and some companies sell steel armor without the requisite build up coat. 

Lightweight armor, either UHMWPE or ceramic, is a viable alternative. Both cost more than steel, generally UHMWPE cost more than entry level ceramics. The downside of UHMWPE is the difficulty to stop rounds with steel cores, such as the ever common M855 5.56 round. These plates also have a warranty period of only 5 years before it is advised to replace them; conversely, steel has a warranty period of 20 years. 

At the end of the day, price is often the largest barrier between lightweight and steel body armor. 

It’s worth noting that trauma pads can be added to both soft and hard body armor to help disperse the energy from a bullet strike and reduce the risk of blunt force trauma.

Selecting The Right Level III Armor For You 

First, is level III right for you? Do you expect the possibility of armor piercing threats? If so, check out level IV body armor to combat these threats. Do you expect rifle threats? If the answer is no then consider level IIIA soft or hard body armor for protection against all common pistol calibers. If you expect rifle threats but not armor piercing rounds then level III may be for you. 

Now comes choosing the right level III armor. If you do not expect to wear the armor much, and want it for “Just in case” then steel may be the best option. Steel armor has a 20 year warranty, comes at an affordable price, and will be fine if it sits in your closet until the day you need it. 

If you will be wearing the armor a lot and want to remain lightweight then consider investing in ceramic or UHMWPE. The decision between the two should depend on whether or not you expect threats with steel penetrators such as M855. The weight trade off between the two is marginal at the end of the day. 

Level III Body Armor Common Questions

What bullets/rounds can Level III armor stop? 

Level III armor is rated to stop six shots of 7.62×51, and lesser 7.62 threats. Some level 3 will also stop 5.56 rounds from an AR-15. 

What is a Level III body armor rating? 

A Level III body armor rating signifies that the armor has been tested and certified by the NIJ to stop rifle rounds up to and including 7.62mm/.308 caliber rounds. This is assuming the armor is “Certified” by the NIJ rather than “NIJ Compliant.” 

How much does Level III body armor cost? 

The cost of Level III body armor varies greatly depending on the manufacturer, type of material used, and additional features. You can expect to pay anywhere from $100 to $1,000 per plate.

Can Level III body armor stop an AK-47?

Yes, Level III body armor is designed to stop 7.62mm rounds fired from an AK-47, depending on the type of bullet i.e. armor piercing, steel core, etic. 

Is Level III body armor enough? 

That depends greatly on the threats you expect to face. If you expect armor piercing rifle rounds you will need level 4. If you expect rifle rounds from standard rifles then level III should be ‘enough.’

How many shots can Level III armor take? 

Level III armor is tested to withstand six shots from a 7.62×51 bullet at a distance of 15 meters. However, real world conditions can vary, and multiple shots to the same area may compromise the armor.

Will Level III body armor stop .223? 

It should. Again, it depends on the round, armor, velocity of the round, etc. Remember, UHMWPE armor has difficulty against steel core armor, and steel can have difficulty against M193 5.56 rounds. 

Does .308 penetrate Level III body armor? 

Standard Level III body armor should stop .308 caliber rounds. This is the test round for level III, and any certified plate should stop this threat with ease. 

Final Thoughts

Selecting the right body armor requires a careful assessment of your specific safety needs and the threat level you anticipate encountering. Level III body armor offers protection against most common rifle rounds, which makes it an effective choice for a range of scenarios. The advancements in materials, particularly the shift from heavier steel or ceramic to lightweight polyethylene, have greatly improved the comfort and mobility of wearing this protection.

However, it’s important to understand the limitations of each armor level. While Level III body armor can stop bullets from an AK-47 or AR-15, depending on the round and armor material. However, it may not hold up against certain rounds, and will not stop armor piercing rounds, which would require Level IV armor for effective protection.

In the end, choosing body armor is about balancing protection, comfort, mobility, and cost. We encourage you to review these factors carefully, consider the insights shared in this article, and make an informed decision about the body armor that will best serve your safety needs. As always, don’t hesitate to reach out to us or other trusted sources for further advice on this critical safety equipment.

The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Tacticon Armament.