Levels of Protection
for Bullet Proof Vests
The Levels of Protection
Available in Bullet Proof Vests
By Joshua Nash for SafeGuard Armor
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Copyright © 2021  Barry M. Baker  
By utilizing improvements in materials
technologies, as well as the accessibility
of design technologies like 3D printing
and augmented reality, manufacturers of
bullet proof vests can easily create far
better products than ever before. This
means that vests can be made thinner,
lighter, and more flexible without
compromising protection. Indeed, even
high levels of ballistic protection can now
be worn in a covert vest, and bullet proof
vests increasingly offer stab and spike
protection as standard with little to no
increase in weight or size.

Of course the increasing range of
protection available can make it harder to
know exactly what your
bulletproof vest
can offer you in terms of protection. The
number of options available means that
all manner of unique situations can be
catered for and it is important that you
find the right vest for the environment
you will be working in. Fortunately, the
testing and standardization of protection
remains the same, and vests must still
meet the same standards. The levels of
protection in a bullet proof vest outline
exactly what it can protect against, and it
is important that you understand these
Soft Armor

Ballistic protection is standardised
according to testing standards set by the
National Institute of Justice, the world-
leader in ballistics testing. This
organisation then assigns levels (NIJ
Levels), so you can easily see at a glance
what ammunition each level of vest can
protect against.

Bulletproof vests that use Kevlar and
similar materials to offer ballistic
protection are known as ‘Soft Armors’,
whereas vests that use rigid plates of
ceramics and/or polyethylene are known
as ‘Hard Armors’. Hard Armor will also
utilise the soft fabrics found in Soft
Armor materials to help absorb the
impacts of attacks. Soft Armor is
available up to and including NIJ Level
IIIa, which not only provides the
protection offered by lower levels, but
can also protect against high velocity
9mm full metal jacketed round nose
bullets, as well as .44 Magnum jacketed
hollow points.

Each level of protection can stop the
ammunition listed at lower levels. Level
IIa armor is considered the minimum
recommend protection for all armor, and
is capable of protecting against 9mm full
metal jacketed round nose and .40 S&W
full metal jacketed ammunition, which are
commonly found in most handguns. Even
this ‘basic level’ is capable of protecting
against a wide variety of rounds, with
10mm Auto, .357 SIG, and even .45 ACP
rounds all covered by this level of
protection. The Level II armor,
conversely, can protect against all this as
.357 Magnum jacketed soft points and
the 9mm Parabellum fired at higher
speeds. As mentioned above, however,
the 9mm fired from a semi-automatic will
require Level IIIa armor.
Hard Armor

While Soft Armor can be achieved using
only flexible fabrics, Hard Armor uses
rigid plates that are naturally much
heavier and inflexible. This means that at
higher levels of protection armor will be
heavier and far less flexible. Most higher
level vests will consist of a Kevlar panel in
a carrier that also holds an additional
rigid plate, usually made of ceramics
and/or polyethylene, over the top. These
plates provide much stronger protection
at the cost of weight and flexibility.

Hard Armor is available at NIJ Level III
and IV,
which is the highest available level of
ballistic protection. Level III hard armor
protects against 7.62mmx51mm NATO
full metal jacketed rifle rounds, as well as
the 5.56x45mm NATO round. Most rifle
and automatic rounds are covered by the
Level III, including such staples as the .
30-06 and the .308 Winchester.
However, the highest level of protection,
the Level IV, offers protection against all
these bullets, as well as armor-piercing

While Hard Armor is heavier and more
inflexible compared to Soft Armor, they
are still relatively lightweight and
unobtrusive thanks to improvements to
material technologies. This means that
higher levels of protection, such as Level
III and IV protection, can be achieved
even in a covert vest. Many bullet
resistant vests are now available in covert
styles with the capability of housing
additional Level III or IV plates, meaning
you can have protection against more
powerful weapons in a discreet package.

For more information on the ballistic
protection of bullet proof vests, see the
NIJ’s Official Documentation regarding
testing and grading.
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