The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. Their purpose is to advance the knowledge of crime and justice in the United States by focusing on science and research. The NIJ was established in 1968 and has continued to put out vast reports and analysis each year.

One of the primary roles of the NIJ is setting standards for different types of law enforcement equipment and gear. For our focus today we will be discussing their role in setting standards for body armor. The NIJ evaluates and tests various types of body armor to ensure that they provide the necessary level of protection and meet quality standards.

The NIJ doesn’t manufacture body armor but sets the benchmark that manufacturers strive to meet, ensuring that law enforcement and other individuals have access to protective equipment that meets set performance requirements, repeatedly. The NIJ maintains and updates these standards regularly, reflecting the ongoing evolution of materials, technology, and threats.

What is NIJ Certified Body Armor?

NIJ certified body armor refers to protective gear that has been tested and verified to meet the performance standards set by the NIJ. The certification process involves rigorous and standardized testing procedures to ensure that the body armor can withstand the types of threats stated by the manufacturer. 

The NIJ rates body armor in different levels based on its ability to resist specific types of bullets traveling at particular speeds. These levels range from Level IIA, which protects against 9mm and .40 S&W, to Level IV which is designed to stop 30-06 caliber armor piercing rifle rounds. 

Manufacturers seeking NIJ certification for a body armor model must submit samples to an NIJ approved laboratory. The laboratory then subjects the armor to a series of tests to determine if it meets the required performance standards.

For example, the test will feature two drops on the strike face for ceramic armor plates. Then plates will be shot, the number of shots depends on the certification level the plate is testing for. Shots for rifle plates are from a distance of 45 feet, with a zero degree angle, the worst case for body armor. If the samples for that model pass all the tests, the NIJ includes it on their list of NIJ certified body armor. Body armor will continually be tested to maintain their certification often. 

Choosing NIJ certified body armor provides the assurance that the armor has been thoroughly tested and meets quality standards, repeatedly. 

NIJ Certified Threat Levels

The NIJ categorizes body armor into various threat levels based on its ability to stop specific ammunition traveling at particular velocities. Each level represents a different degree of protection.

NIJ (National Institute of Justice) armor levels = IIA, II, IIIA, III, IV - Tacticon Armament
NIJ armor levels

NIJ Level II Body Armor

Level II body armor is designed to protect against 9mm FMJ bullets and .357 Magnum JSP bullets.

It provides a moderate level of protection against common handgun rounds while remaining very lightweight, thin, and flexible. However, it is not designed to stop rifle rounds, or more powerful handgun rounds. 

Level II has many benefits. It is typically thinner, lighter, and more comfortable than higher rated body armor, making it suitable for long wear. It will also be very easy to conceal because of how thin it is.

NIJ Level IIIA Body Armor

Level IIIA armor can stop .357 Sig and .44 Magnum semi-jacketed hollow point bullets, and all threats stopped by Level II. 

It provides a greater spectrum of protection against nearly all handguns and shotguns than level II, and only increases the weight and thickness minimally. This level is a great balance of protection, comfort, and mobility, however it is still not effective against rifle rounds. 

NIJ Level III Body Armor

Level III body armor is the entry-level for NIJ certified rifle armor. What does level III armor stop? It is designed to protect against six (6) shots from 7.62×51 NATO spaced two inches apart on the plate. 

The benefits of level III or level 3 armor is that it protects against 7.62×51 and smaller/slower rifle rounds as well as all pistol and shotgun rounds. There are a variety of materials that can be used for level 3 plates including steel, ceramic, and polyethylene which provides consumers with many options to choose from concerning price and weight. 

However there are some downsides to level 3 plate armor. The armor is heavier and bulkier than level II, or IIIA soft armor and does not cover as much of the wearer. Certain materials used in level III plates are vulnerable to certain common rounds including the M855 (Polyethylene) and M193 (Steel) rounds chambered in 5.56. Level 3 also offers no protection against armor piercing rounds. 

Benefits  

Level III is the entry level rifle plate with affordable options for those willing to carry heavier plates. Depending on the expected threats level III will be sufficient for many users. There are wide varieties of available plates, plate cuts, and curve designs. 

Level III+ Body Armor

While level III+ is not an official NIJ ranting manufacturers use this designation to indicate body armor that falls between Level III and Level IV. This is generally used to denote that the plates can stop M193 and M855 which, as stated above, some level III plates cannot. This is an industry designation rather than an NIJ certification, however when NIJ .07 becomes the new standard level III+ will effectively be the new RF2 designation. 

Level 3+ offers better protection than level 3 without the weight and bulk of level IV while stopping the most common threats users will likely face. There are relatively affordable level 3+ plates on the market as well. These plates will come in the form of ceramic composite, and steel plates. 

The down side of level 3+ plates are that the threats stopped by the plate may vary between manufactures as this is not a standardized rating. Some plates can also be expensive, and there is no NIJ testing for this level. 

Level III+ armor offers a balance between protection, weight, and cost. This is somewhat of a ‘Goldilocks” level of armor where it protects more than NIJ level III but without the weight of a level IV plate. 

NIJ Level IV Body Armor

Level IV body armor is designed to protect against 30-06 M2 armor piercing bullets. To be NIJ certified, a plate must stop one round of M2 AP and then a lesser threat.

A30-06 black tip armor piercing bullets - Tacticon Armament
.30-06 Black tip armor piercing

Level IV provides the highest level of protection, including armor piercing rounds. However this often comes with the downside of weight, unless you are willing to shell out a lot of cash for a lightweight level IV plate. 

Level IV offers maximum possible protection for body armor. This level is capable of stopping basically all but extreme calibers, including armor piercing. While they may be the heaviest, they are the most protective, and some companies make heavy level IV plates that are very affordable by using less expensive ceramics. 

In conclusion, the level of body armor you need depends on the threats you expect to face. It’s essential to consider the trade off between protection, weight, mobility, and cost to choose the body armor that best fits your needs.

Body Armor Material & Manufacturing

Body armor is designed to absorb and disperse the impact of a bullet, protecting the wearer from harm. The materials used in body armor manufacturing play an important role in determining its effectiveness, weight, comfort, and flexibility.

Modern body armor is primarily either hard armor plates, or soft, flexible sheet armor. Soft armor is made from layers of woven or laminated fibers; whereas hard armor is constructed of materials such as steel, ceramics, or polyethylene to form hard, rigid plates. 

Types of Body Armor

Hard Armor

Hard body armor, or hard armor plates are designed to provide protection against rifle rounds. These hard body armor plates can be made of steel, ceramic, or polyethylene are inserted into plate carriers worn on the torso.

rifle rated body armor hard armor plates strikeface - Tacticon Armament
Rifle rated armor

Features/Benefits: Hard armor plates offer protection against rifle rounds, the primary weapon used in war and other fighting.

Pros: Provide protection against the deadliest ballistic threats. Plates can be replaced independently of the carrier, allowing for customization of protection levels.

Cons: Hard armor is heavier and less flexible than soft armor, potentially limiting mobility and comfort during prolonged use. Due to weight and rigidity restrictions hard armor will cover less of the body than soft armor. 

Soft Armor

Soft body armor is made from flexible materials, such as Kevlar and UHMWPE (Ultra high molecular weight polyethylene) that absorb and disperse the energy of a bullet’s impact. Soft armor can be concealed or worn overtly over clothing and is primarily designed to protect against common handgun rounds.

NIJ level IIIA soft body armor plate - Tacticon Armament
Soft body armor

Features/Benefits: Soft armor is lightweight and flexible, providing comfort during extended wear and allowing for discreet protection. Handguns are used in 90% of shootings in the United States, which soft armor is designed to protect against. Soft armor can cover greater portions of the wearer due to its flexibility. 

Pros: It is lighter and more comfortable than hard armor, providing greater mobility and less fatigue during extended wear. It can also be concealed more easily than hard armor. 

Cons: Soft armor does not provide protection against rifle rounds.

The choice between hard and soft body armor should be dictated by the nature of the threat, the importance of mobility, and the need for concealment. It is important to understand the limitations of any armor you may wear. 

NIJ Certified vs. NIJ Compliant

This is a very important distinction many people may not know when it comes to purchasing body armor

NIJ Certified means the body armor has been tested by a laboratory approved by the NIJ and has met the rigorous performance standards for a specific threat level. It provides an official assurance that the product has undergone rigorous testing and scrutiny.

NIJ Compliant typically refers to body armor that is designed and manufactured to meet certain standards, but has not undergone NIJ testing and verification. Manufacturers often use this term when they believe their product meets the standards but haven’t gone through the certification process. 

Bulletproof vs. Bullet Resistant

Although the term “bulletproof” is often used to describe body armor and vests it’s a misnomer. In fact, the industry has largely moved away from the term “bulletproof” in favor of “bullet resistant” because no material is guaranteed to stop every type of bullet every time.

“Bullet resistant” is a more accurate term, reflecting the fact that body armor is designed to resist the force of specific bullets and reduce their potential to cause harm. Different levels of body armor offer varying degrees of bullet resistance, providing protection against specific types of ammunition traveling at certain velocities.

Body armor doesn’t make the wearer invincible; it merely reduces the risk of serious injury when struck by a bullet. It’s also worth noting that even when body armor successfully stops a bullet, the wearer will still feel the impact and can sustain injuries from the blunt force, such as bruising or, in severe cases, broken bones.

NIJ Common Questions

What does NIJ certified body armor mean?

NIJ certified body armor has been rigorously tested and meets the performance standards set by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). It has undergone and passed a series of standardized tests performed by an NIJ approved laboratory, ensuring it provides the level of protection specified by its NIJ rating.

What is the NIJ rating of body armor?

The NIJ rating of body armor refers to its level of protection against specific types of ammunition traveling at certain velocities. The NIJ rates body armor from Level IIA (providing the lowest protection) to Level IV (providing the highest protection).

What is the highest NIJ level?

The highest NIJ level is Level IV. This body armor is designed to protect against .30-06 caliber armor piercing bullets.

Are NIJ compliant and certified the same thing?

No, NIJ compliant and certified are not the same thing. “Certified” means the body armor has undergone rigorous testing by an NIJ approved laboratory and met the performance standards for a specific threat level. On the other hand, “compliant” generally refers to body armor that is designed to meet certain standards, but has not undergone testing and verification.

What NIJ level is Kevlar?

Kevlar is a type of material commonly used in soft body armor, typically meets protection levels of NIJ Level II or Level IIIA, depending on the number of layers used and the specifics of the design. It can protect against most handgun and some shotgun threats, but it isn’t capable of stopping rifle rounds.

In the United States federal law allows civilians to purchase and own body armor. However, convicted felons are prohibited from buying, owning, or possessing body armor. Some states also have additional laws regarding body armor. Outside the U.S. laws vary by country, so it’s important to check local laws and regulations.

What is the strongest level of armor?

The strongest level of armor according to NIJ standards is Level IV. This armor is designed to withstand armor piercing rifle bullets. However, it’s important to note that even Level IV armor cannot stop every type of threat. No armor can provide complete protection against all potential threats.

Final thoughts

Understanding body armor and its various aspects is vital when you are purchasing armor for yourself or another. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) plays a crucial role in setting and maintaining standards for body armor providing an important benchmark for safety and reliability.

The choice between different types and levels of body armor should be based on an assessment of the potential threats, personal comfort, required mobility, and the need for concealment. It’s essential to remember that no body armor can provide complete invincibility, but appropriate armor can significantly reduce the risk of serious injury.

Furthermore, the terms “bulletproof” and “bullet resistant” are often used interchangeably, but it’s more accurate to use “bullet resistant” as no armor guarantees complete bulletproof protection. Also, while “NIJ compliant” and “NIJ certified” may sound similar, they have different implications regarding testing and verification.

Lastly, while body armor is generally legal for civilians in the U.S., those interested in purchasing body armor should familiarize themselves with any local laws or restrictions. Safety should always be a priority, body armor can be a valuable tool in ensuring personal protection.

Remember that knowledge and understanding about body armor are as essential as the armor itself. So, continue to educate yourself and make informed decisions to 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.

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