How to choose the right body armour
When looking to purchase body armour, buyers can feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of options available in the current market. There are many different factors for the prospective customer to consider and it can take months of researching to determine exactly what you require. With so much choice around, it can be helpful to know what are the primary considerations to focus on, in order to research in a more targeted manner and narrow down your prospective body armour options.
There are three main criteria that should be established before researching and purchasing body armour:
- Threat level
Determining threat level
The weight and cost of body armour are self-explanatory; determining the threat level that the body armour wearer faces is a more complex, yet absolutely crucial, task. In response to this, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has created a list of categories to help buyers accurately assess the threat level they are likely to face, and choose body armour accordingly which will provide them with adequate protection. The NIJ’s classification categorises body armour according to different threat levels numbered from II-IV (low to high), which are based on the effectiveness of the armour in withstanding certain types of ballistic threat.
However, it is important to verify the threat-specific stopping power that you require from your chosen model of body armour. You cannot rely on the NIJ classification alone, as the different ballistic threats tested within each category vary, and the threat protection provided by different armour can often be counterintuitive. For example, a slower or lower-calibre bullet may penetrate a certain class of body armour, when a faster and larger bullet will not. For this reason, it is important to determine the exact ballistic threats you might encounter:
- Size of calibre
- Type of bullet
- Speed of bullet
- Number of shots fired
Below, we have detailed the different NIJ threat levels, and the different types of body armour they apply to, each of which have been tested against specific ballistic threats.
NIJ Threat Level Testing Protocols
Body armour which is classified as Level II is made from materials like Kevlar, Dyneema or Twaron. It is typically softer, more flexible and more comfortable to wear than hard body armour in higher classifications. Level II armour offers protection against 9x19mm FMJ ammunition travelling at 1,174 ft/s and .357 Magnum jacketed soft point at 1,400 ft/s, and usually has multi-hit stopping power.
The next NIJ classification is Level III-A. Armour of this kind is typically soft. It can also be made of hard plates, known as ‘speed plates’, which do not offer the same coverage level as soft armour but are one of the lightest forms of body armour available. Level-IIIA armour is designed to withstand .44 Magnum jacketed hollow points travelling at 1,400 ft/s.
Body armour of the Level III classification is made of rifle plates, also known as ‘hard inserts’. Level III armour plates are tested to withstand six shots of 7.62x51mm NATO FMJ bullets travelling at 2,750 ft/s. As we mentioned above, there are situations where a bullet of a smaller calibre is actually more likely than a larger bullet to penetrate Level III body armour made from certain materials. This is the case for certain 5.56mm calibre bullets with a steel core: for example, the M855 ‘Green Tip’ bullet when fired at pure polyethylene plates; and the M193 bullet when fired at AR500 steel.
In response to this, many manufacturers have begun using a ‘Level III+’ classification, which indicates that their body armour also protects against these types of 5.56mm bullets as well as regular Level III threats. However, this classification is not recognised or regulated by the NIJ. Buyers should be very careful to verify the legitimacy of any body armour marked as Level III+, and should check with the manufacturer exactly which ballistic threats the plate is able to withstand.
Currently, the most advanced NIJ classification of body armour is Level IV. Level IV rifle plates can withstand a single hit from .30 calibre steel core armour-piercing ammunition and from 7.62mm armour-piercing ‘Black Tip’ ammunition. It is important to note that Level IV armour can only withstand a single shot, in comparison to Level III armour with stopping power of six shots, so Level IV body armour is not always the most suitable choice.
NIJ is not the only ballistic threat testing protocol which exists. The U.S. military developed the SAPI (Small Arms Protective Insert) program, which regulates plates used for military purposes. These plates were first used as part of the Interceptor Body Armour, and later in the Improved Outer Tactical Vest and Modular Tactical Vest. Since 2005, the U.S. military has used the Enhanced SAPI program (E/SAPI) which features plates in various sizes from extra-small (7.25x11.50 inches) to extra-large (11x14 inches).
FBI and DEA
Other testing protocols are managed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Administration, and feature ‘Special Threat’ plates which can withstand ballistic threats commonly encountered during domestic operations (such as AR-15, AK-47, and pistol ammunition). These plates, like the Venture FM-STX, are lightweight and reasonably priced. However, they are not categorised by the NIJ.
Several different materials are used to manufacture body armour plates, for example laminates, high-density polyethylene, ceramics and Kevlar. The type of material used depends on whether it is designed for hard or soft plates – for instance, laminates for hard body armour are usually thermally moulded or compressed. Each body armour material comes with pros and cons in terms of weight, cost and threat level protection. As a rule, buyers seeking the latest ballistic protection technologies and the lightest possible armour can expect to pay significantly more.
When assessing the threat-specific stopping power of body armour, there is another consideration that buyers must take into account. Body armour plates fall into two categories: Stand-Alone and In-Conjunction-With (ICW).
- Stand-Alone: this type of body armour does not require the buyer to wear a soft armour backer. Most types of armour belong to this category.
- In-Conjunction-With: ICW plates only fulfil their NIJ classification when worn over a soft armour backer.
Bulletproof vs bullet resistant
Buyers should be cautious of any company that advertises their body armour as ‘bulletproof’. No armour can be 100% infallible, and so ‘bullet resistant’ is the term which should be used to describe body armour.
For this reason, we would always recommend that you wear a soft armour backer regardless of which type of body armour you choose. This soft backer helps protect the wearer from blunt force trauma, which is inevitably transferred from the bullet to the body (even if the hit does not penetrate the armoured plate) and can cause severe injuries.
Before starting your research into body armour options, make sure you have determined your requirements and weighed up your priorities for each of the three vital criteria: cost, weight and threat level. Start by considering the following questions:
- How long will you be wearing the armour for?
- What kind of ammunition will you encounter?
- How many hits might you need to withstand?
- Do you need a specific kind of material, for example one which floats in water?
- What is your budget?
With that said, the safety of the wearer is of paramount importance. In a life-or-death situation, the buyer should seriously consider whether it is wise to make sacrifices on protection, endangering the wearer with heavier or lower-spec armour plates, just for the sake of a lower cost.