Body armor serves as a shield in various professional settings like the military, law enforcement, and individual protection for the everyday citizen. The demand for body armor among professionals, and civilians has risen and contributed to advancing research and the development of new technologies. The demand for armor, and gaps in the current NIJ rating system has led rise to the popular level III+ armor plates we have today, offering their own unique combination of protection, weight, and cost.

What is Level III+ Body Armor?

Level III+ body armor is an enhancement of level III designed to provide more protection against common rounds level III is not tested for. It sits in a metaphorical ‘sweetspot’ between level III and level IV providing protections for rounds that will penetrate level 3, but without the overbuilt armor piercing protection of level IV. 

How did Level III+ Body Armor Come About?

The original levels of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) included Level III and Level IV for rifle plates. However, some intermediate cartridges, particularly M855 and M193, could penetrate many early Level III plates due to bullet design and velocity. This led to a demand for an intermediate level of protection to bridge the gap between Level III and Level IV. Level IV, especially earlier plates, were heavier than many people wanted, and level III was substandard, so the industry met this demand with level 3+.

Is Level III+ Body Armor NIJ Certified?

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) sets and maintains the body armor levels guide. Currently under NIJ level III+ is not a formal NIJ rating, many Level III+ products undergo testing and certification to meet NIJ level III standards and may even obtain this certification.

National Institute of Justice (NIJ) armor threat level ratings - Tacticon Armament
NIJ Armor threat level ratings

Level III+ is an industry designation used by manufacturers to denote that the plate is a level III that is also capable of stopping M855 5.56 rounds (That’s the “+”). M855 is one of the most common rounds in the U.S. which helped give rise to level III+ body armor. You may see NIJ certified level III+ body armor plates, this means that the plate has undergone certification for NIJ level III, and additional testing against 5.56 rounds.

Level III+ Body Armor Materials

Level 3+ body armor is made from all the same materials of a stand level 3 plate with the exception of polyethylene.

Ceramic Plates

Level III+ Ceramic + UHMWPE Ultra-High Molecular Weight Polyethylene Body Armor - Tacticon Armament
Level III+ Ceramic Body Armor

The premiere when it comes to level III+ ceramic body armor plates. These plates are designed using a ceramic strike face with an ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) backer. This construction creates a robust plate where the UHMWPE provides support for the ceramic as well as absorbing the impact of the rounds. The ceramic shatters, as does the bullet upon impact breaking the rounds apart. Ceramic makes for a lightweight level III+ plate giving the user comfort and mobility. 

Steel Body Armor

Level III+ Steel Body Armor - Tacticon Armament
Level III+ Steel Body Armor

Standard steel body armor is a classic. It is cost-effective, available, and is resistant to multiple impacts in the same area. However, while they are the most affordable option they are the heaviest, and come with some risk of bullet fragmentation and spall. However, this is negated by modern build-up frag coating such as the one used on all Tacticion steel plates.

Lightweight Steel Body Armor

Lightweight steel body armor retains the ballistic protection of standard steel but with reduced weight by using harder steel, such as AR600. It’s still heavier than ceramic or UHMWPE and has similar fragmentation concerns, however can be made thinner and lighter. 

What Does Level III+ Body Armor Stop?

Level III+ body armor can halt threats beyond the capability of Level III armor. This includes higher velocity rounds such as the 5.56mm M855/SS109, commonly used in AR-15 rifles, which Level III UHMWPE armor cannot stop.

Benefits of Level III+ Body Armor

  • Greater protection against high velocity rounds, and steel tipped rounds
  • Versatility in material choices
  • A balance between protection, weight, and cost

Drawbacks of Level III+ Body Armor

  • Often more expensive than Level III armor
  • Cannot stop armor piercing rounds that Level IV armor can
  • Not NIJ certified

Level III vs. Level III+ Body Armor

The distinction between Level III and Level III+ body armor lies in their design, functionality, weight, cost, and the level of protection they offer.

  • Level III+ Design. Level III+ plates are designed to withstand threats that Level III plates cannot, making them slightly thicker and often slightly heavier. However, the overall design is similar to level III plates of the same materials. 
  • Level III+ Functionality. Level III+ plates function to protect against certain rounds beyond the capability of Level III plates. Otherwise, the functionality is similar.
  • Level III+ Weight Comparison. While Level III+ armor offers greater protection than level III plates, and as with any plate there is a range of weight plates come in. Level 3+ is no different and weights can range from 3.5-10 pounds depending on materials, but in general will be slightly heavier than level III.
  • Level III+ Cost. Level III+ armor, due to its enhanced capabilities, is generally more expensive than Level III armor.
  • Level III+ Protection. Level III+ armor offers greater protection against 5.56 rounds that some Level III armor cannot stop.

Level III+ Common Questions

Can an AR-15 penetrate a level 3 ballistic plate?

Yes and no, it depends on the material the plate is made of. UHMWPE level III plates cannot stop M855, and steel level III plates generally struggle with M193. So the answer depends on the plate and the round being fired at it. This is where Level III+ plates come in.

Can Level 3 body armor stop an AK 47?

Level III armor can stop 7.62mm rounds fired from an AK-47. However, armor piercing variants of this round will likely penetrate Level III armor.

Is Level 3 or 3+ better?

Level III+ armor offers better protection against more rounds than level III, especially against 5.56 rounds.

Should I choose ceramic, steel, or polyethylene Level 3 plates?

The choice depends on your specific needs and budget. Ceramic plates are lightweight but more fragile. Steel plates are durable but heavy, while UHMWPE plates balance weight and protection but are more expensive.

What does Level III+ body armor stop?

Level III+ armor can stop certain rounds that Level III armor cannot, including the 5.56mm M855/SS109 commonly used in AR-15 rifles.

What plate carrier do I use with Level 3 armor plates?

Any plate carrier or level III+ plates battle vest that can accommodate the size of your Level 3 plates should work. Always ensure that the carrier and plates are a good fit for your body size and shape.

What’s the difference between Level 3 and 3+ body armor?

Level III+ body armor offers enhanced protection, especially against certain high velocity rounds that Level III armor cannot stop. However, Level III+ is generally heavier and more expensive.

Final Thoughts

Level III+ body armor offers a versatile, cost-effective solution for those wanting more protection against AR15s and other common rifles. By understanding its strengths and limitations, you can make an informed decision on which body armor suits your personal safety needs best. Always consider your specific requirements and evaluate the available options to find the best fit.

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