Body Armor is a symbol of protection from knights, to Spartans, to the modern war fighters. 

Whatever the threat of the time, there has been armor to counter the threat. In modern times we stand a greater risk of ballistic threats than swords or arrows. 

There are different types of body armor and different levels offering variable degrees of ballistic protection. We will be exploring topics of soft armor, hard armor, the complicated NIJ ranking system, and much more. Let’s get started. 

What is Soft Body Armor?

Soft body armor has become the cornerstone of protective equipment for law enforcement, security guards, and civilians who want discreet protection from handgun threats. Soft body armor is flexible armor typically seen in a bulletproof vest designed to stop handgun rounds. There is a misconception that because something is called “Bulletproof” or “body armor” it will protect against all threats, but this is not the case. Soft armor is designed to stop handgun and shotgun rounds, at lower velocities than rifle rounds. 

hard body armor vs soft body armor
Hard rifle plate and soft body armor

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has defined a few levels of protection for soft body armor and rifle plates with each level designed to stop specific ballistic threats and calibers.

Soft Body Armor Materials 

Soft body armor is made from high-performance synthetic fibers woven together to create lightweight and flexible protection. 

Some of the most common and well known fibers include Kevlar and ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE). These materials are layered in multiple sheets to create the desired level of protection, with more layers providing greater protection.

Soft Body Armor Levels 

Level IIA soft body armor is designed to provide protection against 9mm, 40 S&W, and slower ammunition. This is the lightest and thinnest soft body armor level. Level IIA is very discrete under clothing and easy to wear for long durations.  

Level II soft body armor offers protection against everything level IIa soft body armor does, with the addition of 357 Magnum. This additional protection adds a little weight and thickness to the armor. 

Level IIIA soft body armor is designed to stop 44 Magnum and 357 Sig at velocities below 1450 FPS in addition to the rounds defeated by level II. Although generally sold as soft armor, Tacticon and other manufactures also manufacture lightweight IIIA hard armor plates for use in plate carriers and backpacks.

The benefits of Level IIIA are added threat protection, level IIIA will stop all common handgun rounds, and most shotgun loads as well.

Level IIIA is the desired rating for law enforcement given the diversity of the threats they encounter. When it comes to soft armor there is not a large difference in weight. Soft armor has the benefits of being lightweight, flexible, and comfortable. 

If you are seeking discreet, concealable armor that protects from handguns and most shotgun rounds, soft armor will meet your needs in a comfortable package. 

What Are Hard Armor Plates?

Hard body armor plates are designed to provide protection against rifle rounds and other ballistic threats soft body armor fails to stop. 

The NIJ currently defines (but this is changing soon) two levels of protection for hard body armor, level III and level IV. 

Both levels stop specific threats with a variety of material makeups.

Hard Body Armor Plate Materials

Ceramic body armor plate, polyethene armor plate, and steel armor plate
Hard armor materials

Hard body armor plates are made from a variety of materials that offer different levels of protection, weight, and durability. 

Steel Armor Plates

Steel plates are known for their durability and multi-hit capabilities from high powered rounds. However, they are also the heaviest option and if they are not coated with frag mitigation protection stand the risk of secondary injury from bullet fragments. Steel is the most affordable options due to material makeup.

Ceramic Armor Plates

Ceramic plates offer a balance between protection, weight, and durability. Ceramic materials are usually made from alumina oxide, boron carbide, or silicon carbide. They dissipate the energy from an incoming projectile upon impact. They are lighter than steel plates but not as durable under rough treatment. These are typically made of a ceramic composite strike face with a polyethylene backer to reduce blunt force trauma and provide support.  

Ceramic strike face with ceramic body armor
Ceramic plate and ceramic strike face

Polyethylene Armor Plates

Ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) plates are lightweight and provide solid protection against threats in their rating. However, they are more expensive than steel or ceramic plates and have greater limitations. The highest armor rating a pure polyethylene plate will achieve is level 3, due to its material. These plates are created by layering UHMWPE sheets over and over to create a strong plate of incredibly dense polyethylene fibers.

Polyethylene armor plates
UHMWPE armor plate

Hard Body Armor Levels

Level III hard body armor is designed to provide protection against the 7.62×51 M80 ball rounds, commonly used in hunting and battle rifles such as the FAL, M1A and AR-10. These plates can be made from steel, ceramic, or polyethylene.

Level III plates are only tested using the 7.62×51 M80 ball round, but most manufacturers test their plates to ensure they will also stop common, lower-powered, intermediate cartridges such as 5.56 and 7.62×39. 

However, keep in mind that just because level 3 will stop 7.62 does not mean it will stop a threat just because the bullet is smaller. 

The M855 “green tip” 5.56 round is known to penetrate some level 3 plates, and the M193 5.56 round is known to defeat some steel plates due to its velocity.

Our What Does Level III Body Armor Stop article will provide you with additional information about level III armor. 

Level IV hard body armor offers the highest level of protection available, designed to stop a 30.06 armor-piercing (AP) round. 

Level IV armor plates are generally made from ceramic or a combination of ceramic and polyethylene materials, we will explain the distinction in a moment. 

NIJ testing for level 4 is a single shot from 30.06 AP without penetration. It stands to reason that if a plate will stop an armor-piercing 30.06 round it will also stop all lower threats. Level IV tends to fall in the weight range of 4.5-9lbs depending on how much money you are willing to spend, unfortunately. 

Explore level 4 plates further with our Level IV Body Armor article that covers additional insights, materials, standards, legality, and more.

Special Threat Plates (SRT) are not NIJ regulated but are an industry rating based on the needs and user requests. For example, earlier we discussed level 3 plates are sometimes defeated by M855 rounds. This is where special threat plates come in. 

The purpose of special threat plates is to fill the gaps where level III fails without the weight and price of a full level IV. 

The most common example is level 3+ plates which meet the standards of level III rating but go beyond to stop M855 and other rounds that level III would not. Level III+ plates are available in both steel and lightweight ceramic, both having the intrinsic values discussed above.

Other special rifle threat plates are designed to stop intermediate cartridges such as common 5.56 and 7.62×39 rounds but fail to meet NIJ level III standards due to back face deformation from a 7.62×51 M80 ball round. Back face deformation is a sometimes overlooked, but critical part of plate performance, and is assessed during NIJ testing.

Basically, it measures how much the plate deforms towards the user when struck, potentially leading to serious injury. For more information click the link above to see how materials compare, and a more in depth look at back face deformation.

SRT plates of this nature drop the level III certification to focus on stopping intermediate cartridges such as 7.62×39 and 5.56. The idea is to shed weight and still be effective against the most common threats.

For example, we make a 2.7lb SRT plate designed to stop M193 and 7.62×39 and an SRT+ to stop M855 as well at 4.1lb. See our Special Threat Plates article for additional ballistic protection details.

ICW and Stand-Alone Plates

Earlier we mentioned level 4 plates are made of ceramic or ceramic and polyethylene.

That is because there are two forms hard armor falls into, ICW (In conjunction with) plates and stand-alone plates.

ICW plates and stand-alone plates serve different purposes.

ICW plates are designed to be used in conjunction with soft body armor to provide additional protection against rifle rounds. This type of plate functions by relying on the soft armor behind it to disperse energy away from, and protect the user from fragments and back face deformation. 

The user slides a ceramic plate over the soft armor, to utilize the soft armor as a backer. This is ideal for law enforcement and military, providing a modular system to meet the level of protection needed depending on the circumstances. This also allows parts replacement without having to replace the entire system. 

Stand-alone plates are heavier and thicker because they provide full protection by themselves. 

Typically stand-alone plates come in the form of a ceramic strike face and a polyurethane backer sealed together to make a single plate. This allows for a versatile armor system that can be used with or without soft armor. If you are curious of the origins of modern ceramic plates see our Level 3+ Ceramic Plates article.

Level IV hard body armor plates are the preferred choice for military personnel who encounter a wide variety of threats including armor-piercing rounds.

Parting thoughts

The NIJ independently assesses body armor levels into pistol armor (level IIA, II, and IIIA) and hard rifle plates (III, IV), under NIJ 0101.06, which will be evolving to a new ranking system, NIJ .07 in the future.

Soft armor and pistol armor plates are designed to stop handgun and shotgun threats; whereas hard body armor plates offer protection against rifle rounds that soft body armor cannot withstand. 

Understanding the differences between the various NIJ levels of hard body armor (III and IV) and their respective materials is important for selecting the appropriate armor to meet specific protection needs. 

With ongoing advancements in material technology and improved designs, body armor continues to evolve in performance, becoming lighter at the same time. 

At Tacticon Armament we test our armor rigoursly in our NIJ replicated lab to ensure our armor is the most tested on the market.

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