Level III body armor has become increasingly popular among law enforcement, private security, and civilians due to its ability to provide ballistic protection against rifle rounds.

Level 3 body armor is designed to protect the wearer from a variety of different rounds but is not without its limitations.

Here, we will delve into the world of level III body armor, examining its construction, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) standards it must meet, and its effectiveness against various types of ammunition, including the M855 ‘green tip.’

Level III Body Armor Plates

Level III body armor is distinguished by its construction as a hard armor plate, as opposed to soft armor vests which are typically used in lower-level body armor such as Level II and IIIA. 

Level III plates are constructed from a variety of materials, including steel, polyethylene, and ceramic composites, with each material offering its own unique benefits and limitations.

steel, Polyethylene, and ceramic body armor comparison
Steel, Polyethylene, and Ceramic Armor Plate Comparison

Steel plates are the most affordable option and are known for their durability and longevity. 

However, steel is also the heaviest option, ranging anywhere between 5-12lb per plate. 

Steel plates also have the danger of fragmentation if struck by a round without some sort of frag mitigating coating.  

Polyethylene plates are constructed of ultra-lightweight plastics that are layered, pressed, and heated.

As a result, these plates are incredibly light (usually 2-3lb per plate), but generally quite thick.

Polyethylene plates have the added benefit of being buoyant, making them a suitable option for maritime operations. 

Lightweight polyethylene body armor plates are the most expensive in their class.

Ceramic plates provide a lighter alternative to steel plates, making them more comfortable for extended wear. 

They are a nice balance of weight, effectiveness, and price; but may be prone to cracking under extreme conditions, being dropped, or multiple impacts. 

NIJ Testing Standards for Level III Armor

The NIJ subjects Level III armor to rigorous testing to ensure it can effectively stop specific rounds.

Level III armor is tested against the 7.62x51mm M80 ball round, which travels at a velocity of approximately 2,780 feet per second. 

In order to meet the NIJ level III standard, armor plates must completely stop six rounds of this ammunition from penetrating the plate with less than 44mm of back face deformation for the first two shots.

NIJ Level III armor testing
SRT Plate Tested for NIJ Level III

What Will Penetrate Level III Armor

While Level III armor is designed to stop most common rifle rounds, it has its limitations. 

Particularly, the M855 ‘green tip’ 5.56 round which features a steel core penetrator and is known for its ability to penetrate some Level III armor plates.

M855 Green Tip Bullet anatomy
Anatomy of “Green Tip”

The NIJ does not utilize ‘green tip’ when testing plates. ‘Green tip’ rounds are not classified as armor piercing per their construction, however the steel core makes them more effective against hard targets such as car doors, windows, and walls. 

M855 was formerly the standard issue military 5.56 round from Vietnam to about 2010. 

This means there is a TON of surplus and newly manufactured ‘green tip’ on the market.

In fact, M855 is one of the most popular, common, and available 5.56 rounds on the market. 

If Level III Can’t Stop Green Tip is it Useless?

Not necessarily, level III will stop six rounds 7.62×51 which is used in the M1A, FAL, SCAR-H, AR-10 and countless models of hunting and battle rifles. 

Level III will also effectively stop common, less powerful intermediate cartridges such as the 7.62×39 and 55gr 5.56 rounds. 

Level III offers lighter-weight plates than many level IV (level 4) plates in the same price range.

Ultimately, the choice comes down to the user.

Are you expecting to need protection against M855? If yes, you may want to consider an SRT, level III+ or level IV plate.

Concerned about armor-piercing rounds? Level IV, or a special rifle threat plate rated for these rounds is for you.

Just looking for a plate that will protect you from a variety of rifle rounds, and all handgun rounds, but not concerned about M855? Level III will be a lightweight option that will fit this need. 

While level III armor plates may not provide protection against M855 green tip rounds, they still offer a range of benefits that make them a worthy option for certain users. 

Their cost-effectiveness, lightweight design, adequate protection against many threats, compliance with industry standards, and versatility make them a practical choice for those seeking a balance between protection, weight, and cost.

If you are concerned about green tip consider a level III+ plate in steel or ceramic, or SRT plate

to avoid the weight of a level IV armor.