NIJ Protection Levels: The Standard for Body Armour
From special forces to military troops to state police, body armour is a crucial piece of equipment that is used across the board for safety and protection. Though a small piece of equipment it has helped saved thousands of lives! However, did you know that there are various types of body armour available?
While every person who puts their body and life in danger will need some sort of equipment to protect them, not all will require equipment that provides protection to the same degree. For example, our military troops and state police officers definitely do not use the same type of equipment for their work.
The US National Institute of Justice
This is where the U.S. National Institute of Justice comes into play. The NIJ is the research, development, and evaluation agency of the United States Department of Justice. Their entire goal, mission and existence is dedicated to advancing the scientific research, development, and evaluation of the administration of justice and public safety. Meaning that this department helps to understand, evaluate, and set standards when it comes to safety for departments under their watch.
Over the last few years, the NIJ has updated their minimum performance standards, classifying body armour into 5 different levels that vary based on the threat degree at hand. There are many factors that play into the suitability of body armour, such as heat build-up, comfort, mobility, conceal ability, threat level, and cost – however threat level is the biggest factor that is looked at when troops, teams, and departments pick their gear.
The NIJ Threat Levels: The Standard for Body Armour
After conducting their research, the NIJ decided that 5 different threat levels would be developed to help departments and teams decide which body armour would be the right choice for them.
The five threat levels are broken down into: Level IIA, Level II, Level IIIA, Level IIII, and Level IV. All levels have been created strictly on their ability to stop rounds of ammunition being deployed at various velocities. It’s important to note that the standard set-in place currently is NIJ 101.06, however this is only referring to the ability to stop rounds at certain velocities. Other factors which were mentioned previously, such as weight, comfort, and so on, were not taken into account when creating these levels.
Here, we’ll cover what each of these levels mean, require, and how they apply to those who are in need of body armour.
NIJ LEVEL IIA – Soft Armour
Starting at the first tier, it’s important to note that the levels move from the softest material of body armour to the strongest. Which indicates that Level IIA consists of the soft, light, thin and very flexible armour.
This type of armour is primarily used by those who need to conceal their protection underneath clothing, as well as for those who are looking for an option that is more comfortable. It’s typically made out of either Kevlar, Twaron, or Polyethylene fibres.
In terms of protection, this type of armour will protect, or rather stop, a .9mm Full Metal Jacket at a speed of ~1165 feet per second, as well as a .40 S&W FMJ that is going the speed of about 1065 feet per second. One thing to note is that this type of body armour is starting to become outdated, and more are opting into the next level of available protection.
NIJ LEVEL II – One Step Above
Moving onto the next level in the NIJ threat scale we have the Level II. Still soft and deemed as comfortable, this body armour is also great for those who are looking for flexibility and the ability for easy conceal. The main difference however from this level compared to the first is that it has more protection against blunt force trauma.
The NIJ Level II works to protect wearers from a .9mm FMJ at a speed of ~1245 feet a second as well as a .357 Magnum Jacket Soft Point that’s traveling at 1,430 feet per second.
NIJ LEVEL IIIA – Introducing Hard Armour Plates
One of the main reasons as to why teams, troops, or individuals will gravitate towards the Level II and Level IIA class is because of the body armour’s easy ability to move and comfortability. But, if someone was looking for these features with a little more security and protection, they would likely select the NIJ Level IIA over the II class.
The third level in the threat level system, this body armour is soft, flexible, comfortable, easy to move around in, but is the first option available that offers hard plates and ballistic shields in some armour options.
These armour suits were designed to handle a .357 Sig FMJ Flat Nose bullet that is shot at a velocity of 1,470 square feet per second. It can also handle a .44 Magnum SJHP bullet at the speed of 1,430 feet per second.
NIJ LEVEL III – Welcome to Ballistic Plates
It is at this level of the National Institute of Justice Threat system that ballistic plates are fully welcomed and available for body armour. This level also provides armour that is inclusive of hard armour rifle plates, however, when looking for these options it is noted that the equipment is labeled as III+.
III+ is not referred to or officially recognized by the National Institute of Justice, however given that these armours can stop more than the recognized III rating, it was imperative that the difference was indicated.
Level III can stop 6 spaced bullets of 7.62X51mm NATO FML (Military grade) at a speed of 2,780 feet per second. This is comparable to the .308 Winchester bullet which is used mainly for hunting. For the body armour options that are listed at III+, their protection specs include the same rounds of ammunition mentioned above, however at higher speeds and velocities. In addition, they can also assist against threats such as the M855 and the M193.
Given the ballistic and hard rifle plates that are included in this level of protection gear, users can expect the armour to weigh a great deal more than level II and IIA. Here, the gear can range from 8 to 10 pounds depending on the material and size of the plate.
Plate size, material, structure of the body armour also determines the price point of the body armour. While levels II and IIA tend to be towards the more affordable side, users can expect to pay more at this range. However, price points will always vary, and cheaper options are always available.
NIJ Level IV – Armour-piercing Rifle Ready
And finally, there is the highest of the NIJ threat level; Level IV. Body armour designed for this level include ballistic and hard plates that are the highest rated plates under the NIJ 101.06 standards.
Designed to take on a hit from an armour-piercing rifle, this type of equipment can accept a 7.62MM armour piercing bullet that travels at a speed of 2,880 feet per second. Now, what’s different here with this level compared to others is that the body armour is only designed to take on 1 shot. Other options from different levels can withstand up to 6 bullets.
With that being said, this never means that armour from Level IV is always better than a Level III or lower. It only means that this type of armour is great for those who are looking for protection against armour-piercing rifles.
Bullet Resistance Standards
While the NIJ threat level is widely used for those searching for armour and protection, it is not the only certification standard out there. Other standards include the U.S. Military SAPI which has specifications and plates designed to fit military troop needs.
Many options were available over the years, however since 2005 this specification has relied on the ESAPI (Enhanced SAPI) program. In this program special threats plates are used which are of higher quality and ability, given they can minimize the weight and cost, all while deterring armour-piercing rifles. Two examples of plates that are used for this include the AK-47 and the AR-15 plates.
Which Armour is Right for You?
When selecting armour there are many things that need to be considered. While many will think about and refer back to the threat level program from the NIJ, it is essential that your decision is not based primarily off of threat.
Instead, weight, cost, flexibility, hours of wear, and comfortability should all be considered. Including how many bullets you’ll need protection from. As we mentioned above it’s wonderful to have a body armour that can protect you from a rifle, however if you are going to be exposed to multiple shots or if you need to be able to move and run quickly, a Level IV may not be the best option in the end.
It’s also always recommended that no matter the level you go with, you always pair your protection with a blunt trauma plate (for soft armour) or a soft armour vest. With the addition of this gear, you’ll be able to protect yourself and your body from the large amount of kinetic energy that is transferred from the bullet to the vest, and then to your body, preventing serious injuries.
And lastly, we want to remind everyone that no bodyguard, shield, plate, or armour is 100% effective. Be sure to stay safe, use all necessary gear and equipment, when need be, and work hard to prevent yourself from getting shot at.