Levels of Protection
The Levels of Protection Available in
Bullet Proof Vests
By Joshua Nash for SafeGuard Armor
Product Range
Essential Articles

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Copyright © 2018  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
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 levels.
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 variants.

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.