Body Armor Levels Guide

Body Armor Levels Guide

Body armor is a significant protection measure for those who go into harm’s way: law enforcement, military, armed guards, and anyone else for whom gunfire is a realistic possibility. Not all body armor is the same, however. Some will protect the wearer from pistol bullets, while other body armor can protect from rifle fire. Great protection levels are obviously desirable but come with some significant downsides including cost, bulk, and weight.

Choosing the right body armor is important. You don’t want to overspend on armor that does not serve a practical purpose or carry unnecessary bulk or weight around. On the other hand, you do want protection against credible threats. Body armor is divided up into varying threat levels by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). The NIJ specifies testing standards for body armor in the United States and ranks it according to protection level.

The NIJ standards (Level IIA, Level IIIA, Level III, and Level IV) have been around for a long time. In late 2023, the NIJ released new “Standard Protection Levels.” This article will cover the old and new standards, what’s changed, and what hasn’t. And we hope this will help you in the selection of body armor going forward.

The Short Answer: Here is a short breakdown of the NIJ levels of protection…

NIJ Level II / NIJ HG1: Protects against common pistol rounds including 9mm Luger and .357 Magnum.
NIJ Level IIIA / NIJ HG2: Offers protection against higher velocity pistol rounds such as .44 Magnum and 9mm submachine gun fire.
NIJ Level IIIA / NIJ HG2: Protect against rifle threats including 7.62x51 M80 ball, offering protection from main battle rifles and AR-15 and AK platforms.
NIJ RF2: An intermediate rifle level that covers all Level III/RF1 threats plus steel-core bullets like the 5.56mm M855 “green tip.”
NIJ Level IV / NIJ RF3: Provides protection against armor-piercing ammunition including .30-06 caliber, the highest level of protection.

Understanding the Basics of Body Armor

Soft Armor Plates

Body armor is essentially divided into two form factors: hard armor and soft armor. Soft armor consists of soft, pliable vests. Many soft-armor vests are made of Kevlar. These are the bulletproof vests frequently worn by police officers as part of their daily uniform. Soft body armor generally only protects against pistol bullets and may provide some protection against shrapnel, though ratings do not specify levels of shrapnel protection. Soft armor is also sometimes worn in conjunction with hard armor plates, especially in the case of military personnel, SWAT operators, or others exposed to exceptionally high risk.

Hard Armor Plates

Hard armor plates are much stronger and capable of standing up to rifle bullets, as well as pistol bullets. Most plates are made from ceramic. Ballistic plates will stop rifle bullets but at the expense of being rigid, having added bulk, and additional weight. Some can be worn standalone, and some must be worn in conjunction with (ICW) soft panels to provide their full measure of protection. Almost all military personnel wear hard armor plates, as should anyone with a real threat of rifle fire.

The Impact of Modern Body Armor

The lives saved by body armor are almost impossible to estimate. Effectively ballistic armor has saved countless law enforcement officers and has completely changed the outcomes and techniques used in battlefield medicine. It is impossible to overstate the impact that modern, effective body armor has had.

A Detailed Guide to Body Armor Levels

Determining the protection levels of body armor is the domain of the NIJ. Two documents detail these requirements. The first, Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor NIJ Standard-0101.06, published in July 2008 details the “old” standards. This document is still relevant because there are still countless plates and soft armor panels meeting the old standards on the market and in use on the street. The second is Specification for NIJ Ballistic Protection Levels and Associated Test Threats, NIJ Standard 0123.00, published in October 2023. Body armor standards are effectively broken into pistol-level protection and rifle-level protection.

NIJ levels of protection breakdown.

Body Armor Levels Break Down

Let’s look at each level of protection. The old levels are “NIJ Level xx” and the new are “HG1/2” and “RF1/2/3”.  Under the new naming convention “HG” stands for “handgun” and “RF” stands for “rifle.” The new NIJ levels are largely just a naming change, with all new levels (except RF2) corresponding directly to an old level. Fortunately, all of these levels are fairly easy to understand. Now let’s take a look at the protection each level offers.

NIJ Level II (old), NIJ HG1 (new): This is a pistol-only level and protects the wearer against ammunition up to and including 9mm Luger 124-grain FMJ RN at 1,305 FPS, and 357 Magnum 158-grain JSP. This is the lightest, thinnest armor available. That is solid protection against common pistol rounds.
NIJ Level IIIA (old), NIJ HG2 (new): Another pistol level, this one is slightly heavier and protects the wearer from ammunition up to and including 9mm Luger 124-grain FMJ RN at 1,430 FPS, and .44 Magnum 240-grain JHP. This is a big upgrade over Level II/HG1 as it protects the wearer from 9mm rounds fired from submachine guns and short-barreled carbines.
NIJ Level III (old), NIJ RF1 (new): This level is the first level offering protection against rifle threats. It protects the wearer from ball ammunition up to and including 7.62x51 M80 ball, 7.62x39 123-grain ball, and 5.56 M193 55-grain ball ammunition. This level provides protection from main battle rifles, and AR-15 and AK platforms.
NIJ RF2 (new, does not replace an older level): This level is completely new and is considered an “intermediate” rifle level. It protects against all threats in Level III/RF1 but also provides protection against steel-core bullets like 5.56mm 62-grain M855 “green tip” bullets.
NIJ Level IV (old), NIJ RF3 (new): This level protects against armor-piercing threats. It will withstand anything in the RF1 and RF2 categories, as well as .30-06-caliber, 165-grain armor-piercing ammunition. Threats of armor-piercing ammunition are primarily the domain of military and elite counterterrorist outfits. 

The NIJ documents (which you can read for yourself at the links above) go into great detail describing the testing criteria. This information includes bullet composition and testing (bullet weight, length, powder charge by weight, etc.), incidence angle, and acceptable hits for testing purposes, etc.

How to Choose the Right Protection Level

Choosing the appropriate level of protection is important. While we’d all like to have Level IV (RF3) protection at all times, it’s not really necessary or feasible. The extra protection afforded by Level IV/RF3 armor is certainly nice, but it imposes size and weight penalties. This adds to the burden carried by patrol officers day in and day out, and rifle fire is a relatively uncommon threat for most officers. When Level III/RF1 armor (and up) is necessary, however, there is no substitute! When evaluating your armor needs, consider threats that are actually credible in your operating environment and choose your armor accordingly.

Advanced Features of Body Armor to Consider

Building a Body Armor System

When selecting body armor, it is important to note that you are building a system, not just choosing multiple single components. Body armor will all be worn together. Soft armor needs to be contained within a vest to wear on the body, and plates need to be inside a plate carrier. Some plates are intended to be worn standalone, and some are meant to be worn with soft armor.

Plate Materials

Plates are made of a variety of materials. Ceramics is perhaps the most common due to its combination of relatively lightweight, excellent protection, and life span. Ceramic is vulnerable to cracks should it be dropped, so handle it with care. More modern materials like ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE), used in the DFNDR Armor we carry, are extremely lightweight without compromising on protection.

Wearing Your Armor Properly

Armor must also be worn correctly to provide proper protection. Soft body armor should conform to the body as best as possible. Side panels should wrap around the sides of the body. The neckline should be high up on the neck, both front and back. The same goes for plates; the top margin of a front plate should be just at or below the supra-sternal notch. The rear plate should be placed similarly. This protects critical organs including the heart, liver, spleen, and the great vessels (aorta and vena cavae). It is also critically important to have body armor of the correct size. If it is too large it will sag; too small and it will not adequately protect organs.

Choosing the Right Body Armor with Qore Performance

Getting the appropriate ride height is easy with the correct carrier. The Qore Performance ICEPLATE EXO® is consistently rated as the best ultra-lightweight plate carrier that sacrifices nothing in terms of durability or carrying capacity. ICEPLATE EXO® will hold your plates in the correct location, through everything from fast-roping to boat ops to running and scaling walls.

Infographic depicts key features of the ICEPLATE EXO from Qore Performance.

ICEPLATE EXO® is an amazing plate carrier on its own but also integrates seamlessly with ICEPLATE® Curve, our revolutionary plate-shaped water bladder. Not only does it provide easy access to hydration, but it also utilizes the thermal mass of water to heat or cool the wearer. At Qore Performance, we are committed to enhancing human operator performance and providing top-notch protection through our products. So, what are you waiting for? Shop the ICEPLATE EXO® from Qore Performance now. For other great options, check out our blog on The Best Plate Carriers of 2024

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