Handguns are less powerful and easier to defend against using the appropriate body armor as opposed to rifles and shotguns. When considering the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) rating system for body armor, Level IIIA is the premier protective standard against handgun threats. For threats more severe than handguns, such as rifles or armor piercing ammunition, higher levels like III, III+, and IV are required. This is due to the velocity of rifle rounds, and their general constriction. Level III for example is capable of stopping 7.62×51 traveling at 2750 FPS, which would easily defeat any pistol/soft armor. 

What is NIJ Certification?

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. It is responsible for setting the standards for body armor and certifying that body armor meets these standards.

How Handgun Protection is Tested

The NIJ uses rigorous protocols to test body armor against various types of handgun ammunition. This testing process includes multiple impacts on the armor at specific velocities. The aim is to determine the armor’s ability to resist penetration and the amount of backface deformation (the dent in the armor’s backside) caused by the bullet’s impact. 

Soft body armor handgun protection - Tacticon Armament
Soft Body Armor Handgun Protection

NIJ Certified Handgun Resistant Body Armor

Various manufacturers produce NIJ-certified handgun resistant body armor. Tacticon offers a very thin, one-pound IIIA pistol plate, and backpack armor plate insert, as well as a soft armor panel that will soon be available for commercial sales. Level IIIA body armor plates are known for their durability and protection. 

Backpack Pistol Protection Plate Insert -Tacticon Armament
Backpack Pistol Protection Plate Insert

Level IIIA Handgun Protection

Level IIIA is the strongest rating given and tested for pistol armor the NIJ gives. It is slightly thicker/heavier than level IIA and II, however, the difference is minimal. Level IIIA is rated to stop 44 Magnum jacketed soft point rounds and 357 Sig, including all other (common) handgun calibers which are discussed below. 

Why You Should Use Level IIIA Handgun Body Armor Plates

Level IIIA body armor plates are lightweight, durable, and easily concealed, making them functional for everyday use. The high tensile strength fibers used in their construction are resistant to high temperatures and salt intrusion from seawater or other sources of moisture.

These features, along with their ability to withstand multiple hits, make them a viable choice for handgun defense. Keep in mind, handguns are used in over 90% of shootings, the armor is easily concealed, light, and can be worn for long periods. Kevlar body armor used to be the premiere of pistol rated armor.

However, thanks to the advances of UHMWPE we are able to have a thinner, lighter form of pistol armor. Kevlar has roughly 5 times the strength of steel in terms of strength to weight ratio. UHMWPE is roughly 15 times, comparatively. This makes for incredibly lightweight body armor.

Types of Handgun Rounds Level IIIA Protects Against

Body armor protects against various types of handgun rounds, each of which has different impact levels. The following sections examine the interaction of various common handgun calibers defeated by level IIIA body armor.

Handgun Bullet Threats .380 ACP - .357 MAG - Tacticon Armament
Handgun Bullet Threats .380 ACP – .357 MAG

.40 S&W Body Armor

The .40 S&W is a popular caliber used in many pistols including Glock models 22, 23, and 27, and the Smith & Wesson M&P40, several Sig Sauer models, and many more. .40 S&W was really popular in the 90’s and early 2000’s but the popularity is waning due to advancements in bullet technology, higher capacity among 9mm, and price. 

When a .40 S&W round strikes Level IIIA body armor, it is stopped by the armor, causing a dent or bulge but not penetrating. The wearer will still feel a significant impact similar to a very hard punch, which could result in bruising or broken ribs.

.357 SIG

The .357 SIG caliber is used in pistols like the SIG Sauer P226, Glock 31, and some others. This round is relatively rare now, and did not really catch on the way Sig had hoped it would. This is due to the expense, and lack of availability of the round. 

9 MM Body Armor

The 9mm caliber is used in a vast array of pistols, including the Glock 19, Beretta 92FS, and SIG Sauer P320. This is by far the most common pistol round due to its price, capacity, availability, effectiveness, and ease of use. 

.45 ACP Body Armor

The .45 ACP is a standard caliber used in many pistols, including several 1911s, Glock 21, and SIG Sauer P220, HK USP etc. There are still a lot of people that love this caliber. 

.38 Special Body Armor

The .38 Special caliber is commonly used in revolvers like the Smith & Wesson Model 10 and Ruger GP100. Whatever you have heard, .38 really is not comparable to a 9mm, it is less effective, and only available for revolvers. I love revolvers, but not .38. If anything, a .38 tends to be more comparable to a heavy .380 round, another common weapon for concealed carry. 

.357 Magnum Body Armor

The .357 Magnum is a high powered revolver round used in guns like the Smith & Wesson Model 27, Ruger Blackhawk, Colt Python, etc. Level IIA is not rated to stop .357, this is where level II comes in, however, IIIA is more effective at reliability stopping this caliber regardless of the ammunition used. 

.44 MAG Body Armor

The .44 Magnum is a large bore caliber used in revolvers like the Smith & Wesson Model 29 (“Are you feelin’ lucky?”) and Ruger Super Redhawk. The only pistol armor rated for .44 Mag is level IIIA. Even though this round is less popular since the popularity of semi automatics has soared, there are many still around. 

Understanding Hammer-Fired vs Striker-Fired Handguns

In general terms, hammer-fired handguns use an external hammer to strike the firing pin and discharge the bullet, while striker-fired handguns use a spring-loaded firing pin. Both types can use a variety of calibers.

Striker-Fired Handgun

Striker-fired handguns, like the Glock series, Springfield XD, and Sig 320 series, have a consistent trigger pull and no external hammer. When a bullet from a striker-fired handgun hits body armor, the impact and resulting effects on the armor and the wearer are largely determined by the bullet’s caliber, not the firing mechanism. Striker-fired pistols are a relatively new addition to the semi automatic field (even though they have been around for decades) and are known for their safety and reliability. 

Single-Action Handgun

Single-action handguns require the hammer to be manually cocked before each shot. Think of 1911, older style revolvers, and semi automatic handguns that are carried with the hammer back. Gotta love the old school cowboy guns.

Double Action/Single-Action Hammer-fired Handgun

Double action/single-action handguns can be fired by either a single action or double action. Typically the first round on a semi automatic is double action because the gun will be fitted with a decocker, or safety/decocker hybrid that allows for the gun to be carried with the hammer down. The popularity has decreased in years because the first round is fired with a trigger pull that is generally twice the pull weight causing many shooters to shoot low. These have fallen out of popularity due to the prevalence of striker-fired pistols.

Double-Action-Only Hammer-fired Handgun

In double-action-only handguns, each trigger pull cocks the hammer and releases it. A lot of CCW guns and internal hammer revolvers utilize this method. Some “hammerless revolvers” or internal hammer revolvers use this, as do some semi automatic handguns such as Kahr Arms. 

Level IIIA Handgun Body Armor vs Soft Body Armor

Level IIIA body armor can be soft inserts or vests made of soft material. However, they must be used and cared for correctly to ensure effectiveness.

Maintaining Your Handgun Body Armor

While soft body armor like Kevlar vests are an option, they come with maintenance challenges that could impact their effectiveness. For this reason, some may opt for Level IIIA plates like those offered by Tacticon, as a superior and more manageable alternative.

Level IIIA Handgun Armor Plate front view and side view - Tacticon Armament
Level IIIA Handgun Armor Plate
  • Must Stay Dry. Although Level IIIA body armor is resistant to water, wearing it while wet can reduce its protective capacity. Users should avoid situations where the armor might be submerged.
  • Age and Usage Issues. The NIJ recommends replacing body armor every five years, as it can become less effective over time. Using a soft body armor vest frequently may also decrease its durability faster than this timeframe if worn everyday in humid environments. 
  • Cleaning Is An Issue. Soft body armor cannot be ironed (as it could melt the fibers), machine washed (as it can become waterlogged), or tumble dried (which can reduce its performance against handgun fire).
  • Storage Woes. Soft body armor should always be stored flat, never hung up. Extended hanging can cause the vest to sag and offer less protection.
  • Replacement Costs. After a vest has been shot, it should be replaced. A second round hitting the same spot could penetrate the vest more easily.

Level IIIA Handgun Protection FAQ

Can handguns penetrate body armor?

It depends on the bullet caliber. Level IIIA body armor is the standard for soft armor and is rated to stop .357 Sig at 1450 FPS and .44 Magnum, and every lesser threat such as 9mm or .22LR. 

Can body armor stop 9mm?

Yes, Level II, IIA, IIIA and rifle plates can stop 9mm rounds. Every level of NIJ Certified body armor will defeat 9mm. 

What gun will penetrate body armor?

Armor piercing rounds will generally penetrate soft armor, even from a handgun. When it comes to rifles, most level III and III+ plates are vulnerable unless specifically rated for a specific armor piercing round. Level 4 will stop nearly all armor piercing rounds. 

What pistol rounds will penetrate body armor?

Rare rounds such as the S&W 500 may penetrate soft body armor. Likewise, armor piercing rounds may penetrate as well. 

Will 5.7 pistols defeat body armor?

Certain 5.7 rounds may defeat Level IIIA soft armor due to their velocity and bullet design. 

What does body armor protect against?

Body armor is rated by the NIJ at different levels to protect against specific ballistic threats, edged and pointed weapon threats, and explosive damage. 

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, Level IIIA body armor offers a reliable defense against handgun threats. However, proper use and maintenance are critical for ensuring its protective capacity. While soft body armor options exist, Level IIIA plates provide superior protection and easier maintenance. While no armor is completely “Bulletproof” and pistol armor is still vulnerable to rifle threats, level IIIA will stop nearly all common pistol threats, making it a great option for everyday, concealed body armor. Always assess personal safety needs, evaluate the available options, and make informed decisions when selecting body armor

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