The world of body armor can be complex and intricate with numerous specifications, materials, and designs to understand. In this post we will focus on one specific and common piece, Level IIIA body armor. We will break down what exactly Level IIIA body armor is, how it is made, where it fits among other armor levels, its National Institute of Justice (NIJ) certification, as well as the importance of body armor

What is Level IIIA Body Armor?

Level IIIA body armor is specifically designed to offer protection against the vast majority of handgun rounds. 

Formerly made predominantly from Kevlar, and now UHMWPE (Ultra high molecular weight polyethylene) it is created using multiple layers of woven fibers. These layers are then compressed together under high temperature and pressure conditions to form a protective panel.

Close up of Ultra-High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE) - Tacticon Armament
UHMWPE

Unlike the rigid plates found in higher levels of body armor (Levels III and IV), Level IIIA body armor is predominantly made into flexible soft armor that can be tailored to fit the wearer more snugly by conforming to the user, although some companies also make level IIIA hard armor plates

Level IIIA hard body armor plate front and side view - Tacticon Armament
Level IIIA Hard Armor Plate

Level IIIA body armor occupies a unique space within the armor level spectrum, offering the highest protection for pistol rated armor. 

Meanwhile, Level IIIA body armor falls short of the rifle protection of Levels III and IV, which are designed to withstand rifle rounds.

Is Level IIIA Body Armor NIJ Certified?

The National Institute of Justice sets standards, evaluates, and certifies body armor in the U.S. Level IIIA armor sits between Level II pistol and III hard rifle armor on the NIJ rating scale of body armor levels

To be certified Level IIIA, armor is specifically tested against .357 SIG FMJ and .44 Magnum Semi Jacketed Hollow Point. 

If the armor can stop these threats it will not have a problem with lesser threats, such as 9mm, and is certified NIJ Level IIIA. 

However, as with all types of body armor, it’s important to note that no armor is completely bulletproof, and Level IIIA is not designed to protect against rifle rounds.

Is Level IIIA a Soft Armor?

Yes, primarily but not exclusively. There are level IIIA hard body armor plates that are remarkably thin and lightweight. The term “soft” refers to the flexible, wearable nature of the armor, which is unlike the rigid plates found in Level III and IV armors.

Soft body armor strikeplate - Tacticon Armament
Soft Body Armor

Soft body armors are primarily made from high-tech synthetic fibers such as Kevlar or Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE). These materials have a remarkable ability to absorb and disperse the energy of a bullet impact, significantly reducing the likelihood of injury.

Kevlar, the most commonly known material, is a type of aramid fiber that is both lightweight and extremely strong. On the other hand, UHMWPE is a type of polyethylene with high resistance to impact and is also often used in the manufacturing of bulletproof vests. UHMWPE is now the primary material used in level IIIA armor because it is lighter and stronger than Kevlar, creating a lighter, thinner panel capable of defeating the same threats. 

One of the main reasons individuals may choose soft body armor, such as Level IIIA, is for its superior comfort and flexibility compared to hard armor. Soft armor can be worn covertly under clothing, making it an ideal choice for protection, especially for law enforcement officers or security who need their armor to maintain a low profile.

What Does Level IIIA Body Armor Stop?

Level IIIA body armor is specifically designed and tested to stop the vast majority of handgun rounds. This includes .44 Magnum and .357 SIG, which are some of the most powerful handgun bullets. Level IIIA can stop lower velocity rounds such as 9mm, 40 S&W, and 45 ACP, providing protection against most handgun threats. Additionally, level IIIA will stop most shotgun rounds.  

However, it’s important to remember that while Level IIIA body armor offers protection against these rounds, it is not designed to protect against rifle rounds or armor piercing ammunition.

Benefits of Level IIIA Body Armor

  • Comfort and Flexibility: Level IIIA body armor is soft and flexible, making it comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. It can be easily worn under clothing, which is beneficial for covert operations or any situation where discretion is necessary.
  • Lightweight: The materials used in Level IIIA body armor, such as Kevlar or UHMWPE, are lightweight. This reduces the burden on the wearer, allowing for greater mobility and less fatigue over long durations.
  • High Protection Against Handgun Rounds: Level IIIA body armor can effectively stop most handgun rounds, including high velocity bullets from a .44 Magnum or .357 SIG. This makes it a solid choice for law enforcement officers or security personnel who are more likely to encounter threats from handguns.
  • Multiple Hits Capability: Level IIIA soft armor can take multiple hits in the same general area without compromising the wearer’s safety.
  • Stab and Slash Resistance: While it’s not primarily designed for this, soft armor can provide a certain level of protection against attacks from knives or other sharp objects.
Man wearing a bulletproof vest - Tacticon Armament
Bulletproof Vest

Drawbacks of Level IIIA Body Armor

  • Limited Protection Against Rifle Rounds: Level IIIA body armor is not designed to stop rifle rounds. For situations where there’s a potential threat from rifles, higher levels of body armor (Level III or IV) would be more suitable.
  • Not Ideal for All Climates: The materials used in Level IIIA body armor can degrade in extreme temperatures and humidity. This will shorten the overall lifespan of the armor so care should be taken to minimize the effects of the environment. 
  • No Armor Piercing Protection: Level IIIA cannot protect against armor piercing rounds. For these types of threats, Level IV hard armor plates are needed.


What Is Level IIIA Body Armor Made Of?

Level IIIA body armor is typically made from advanced woven fibers, such as Kevlar, Twaron, or UHMWPE (Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene). These materials are known for their exceptional strength-to-weight ratio and flexible properties.

Kevlar is an aramid fiber and has a long standing reputation in the body armor industry. It has excellent heat resistance, robust tensile strength, and is lightweight. However, it may not handle blunt force as effectively as UHMWPE.

UHMWPE is a type of polyolefin made up of extremely long chains of polyethylene. Its high tensile strength, combined with its lightweight and flexible properties, make it an excellent material for body armor. UHMWPE also has a higher energy absorption rate than Kevlar, which translates to improved protection against blunt force trauma.

Level III Vs IIIA Body Armor

While Level III and IIIA body armor are both designed to protect the wearer, they cater to different threat levels.

Level III Body Armor is hard armor, made from materials like polyethylene, steel, or ceramic. It’s designed to stop rifle rounds, such as the 7.62×51. The downside is that these plates are heavier, offer less coverage, and lack the flexibility of Level IIIA armor.

Soft Body Armor vs Hard Body Armor strikeplates - Tacticon Armament
Soft Body Armor vs Hard Body Armor

Level IIIA Body Armor is soft armor, although it is also made into hard armor plates, and is designed for comfort and flexibility. It’s made to stop handgun rounds and shotgun blasts. However, it won’t provide protection against rifle rounds that Level III armor would.

Choosing between Level III and Level IIIA body armor comes down to the specific threat level you’re expecting to face.

Selecting The Right Level IIIA Armor For You

Selecting the right body armor depends on various factors such as the nature of the threat, mobility needs, comfort, duration of use, and discretion. If you are in a role where there’s a higher likelihood of encountering handgun threats, Level IIIA could be the right fit. Its lightweight and flexible design makes it easy to wear without compromising mobility. Plus, it can be concealed under clothing, making it suitable for covert operations.

However, if there’s a potential threat from rifle rounds or armor piercing ammunition, you might want to consider hard armor options like Level III or Level IV. Remember, the best armor for you is the one that matches your specific requirements and circumstances. Always evaluate the options and make an informed decision.

Level IIIA Body Armor Common Questions

What is Level IIIA body armor?

Level IIIA body armor is a category of pistol rated armor that provides protection against most handgun rounds. It’s typically made from materials like Kevlar or UHMWPE, offering a balance between protection and mobility.

What can level IIIA body armor stop?

Level IIIA body armor can stop most handgun rounds, including 9mm, .40 Smith & Wesson, .45 ACP, and .44 Magnum. It can also stop some shotgun rounds.

Is Level 3A a soft armor?

Yes, Level 3A armor primarily comes in soft body armor panels. It’s made from flexible, woven materials that allow for more mobility than hard armor options. Hard armor plates are available as well in level 3A. 

Can Level 3 body armor stop AK-47?

Yes, Level 3 body armor is designed to stop rifle rounds such as those from an AK-47. However, level IIIA body armor will not. 

Will IIIA stop 9mm?

Yes, Level IIIA body armor is capable of stopping 9mm bullets, along with most other handgun rounds.

How long does 3A body armor last?

The lifespan of Level IIIA body armor can vary based on use, but many manufacturers recommend replacing it approximately every five years. Always refer to the manufacturer’s guidelines.

How strong is Level 3A body armor?

Level 3A body armor is strong enough to stop most handgun rounds and some shotgun rounds. However, it is not designed to stop rifle rounds.

Is IIIA body armor stab proof?

Ballistic armor is primarily designed to protect against bullets, not stabs. While Level IIIA may offer some protection against stabs, most are not officially rated for it. For stab protection, consider stab resistant vests that are designed for that purpose.

Will Level 3A stop shotgun?

Level IIIA can stop many shotgun rounds, such as buckshot or birdshot, but may have difficulty stopping a slug.

What level is Kevlar?

Kevlar is a material used to make soft body armor that falls under Level IIA, II, and IIIA of the NIJ’s body armor standards, depending on the number of layers used in the armor. It can stop rounds from most handguns.

Final Thoughts

Understanding the specific capabilities and limitations of Level IIIA body armor can help individuals make an informed decision when seeking protection. While it offers protection against most handgun rounds, it’s important to remember that it isn’t designed to stop rifle rounds.

Level IIIA is considered soft body armor, and it offers a degree of flexibility and comfort that can be beneficial in situations where mobility is essential. Still, the protection it provides needs to be matched with the specific threat you’re likely to encounter.

It’s also crucial to consider factors such as the weight and bulk of the armor, your physical ability to carry it, and the specific situations in which you’ll be using it. Remember that the best body armor for you is one that fits your needs and can reliably provide the protection you require.

Finally, always remember to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for care and maintenance to ensure your body armor continues to provide you with optimal protection. Armor is only as effective as its condition allows, so regular inspection and proper storage are key to extending its service life.

Level IIIA body armor can be an excellent choice for many individuals, but it’s crucial to thoroughly understand what it can and can’t do. Take the time to evaluate your personal needs and consider whether Level IIIA, or perhaps a different level of body armor, is the best match for you. Stay informed, stay prepared, and stay safe.

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