There is a great deal of misunderstanding about body armor and its protective capability, or lack thereof, against rifle threats today. This is due in part to a lack of factual information, and in part due to virtually obsolete official rating system that is poorly understood among the general public and more than few professional users.
I am of course referring to the National Institute of Justice’s NIJ 0101.06 armor protection ratings. Since the early 1970’s this has been the standard by which body armor protection levels are measured. Unfortunately, changing threats and technology, as well as better understanding of ballistic science has made NIJ certification levels far from comprehensive or intuitive to use. If you care to inspect the NIJ ratings, you’ll notice a conspicuous lack of both 5.56mm and 7.62x39mm among their classifications. Two of the most common rifle cartridges in existence, and they aren’t even acknowledged as a benchmark in NIJ testing.
Selecting worthy armor is further complicated by the great variation in rifle projectile performance, even among different loads in the same caliber: An armor package that may defeat the 5.56mm M855 green-tip may not defeat the much earlier M193 load. Likewise certain 7.62x39mm bullets have much greater effectiveness against armor than others.
Handgun bullets are far easier to defeat than rifle bullets, and quality soft armor is more than up to the task even against multiple hits. But defeating high-velocity rifle bullets usually requires some form of hard material, either by itself or backed by soft armor. The variety of materials used for armor, among them ceramic, steel and polyethylene, makes discerning what is most effective even more challenging.
This article will serve to address several of the most common misconceptions and myths when it comes to choosing armor for defeating rifle threats, and hopefully arm you with the knowledge to know exactly what you are looking at when shopping for an armor solution that will meet your needs.
Understanding Ratings and Protection Levels
The NIJ ratings on armor resistance characteristics are the standard used at both agency and commercial levels, for better or worse. Mostly worse. The most common rifle threats today are not even covered by NIJ standards. Sadly, until such time as a major government agency decides to overhaul the testing and qualifying protocols, both commercial buyer and manufacturer alike will be utilizing these ratings for the foreseeable future.
The NIJ standards, in short, define acceptable performance by any given tested round both failing to penetrate the armor and presenting backface deformation within acceptable limits. Again, there are a great many specific, important (and snooze-worthy) criteria that determine a pass or fail when conducted under stringent testing procedures, but that is the essential part.
Below is a quick guide to protection ratings laid out by NIJ standards. Note this list is not inclusive as to all standards laid out by the NIJ. Those guidelines are publicly available and will be linked at the end of this article if you wish to learn more.
Level IIA –Defeats 9mm FMJ (124gr. @ 1225fps) and .40 S&W FMJ (180gr. @ 1155fps) fired from handguns.
Level II – Defeats 9mm FMJ (124gr. @ 1305fps) and .357 Magnum JSP (158gr. @ 1430fps) fired from handguns.
Level IIIA – Defeats .357 SIG FMJ (125gr. @ 1470fps) and .44 Magnum SJHP (240gr. @ 1430fps) fired from handguns.
Level III – Hard armor or plate inserts that will defeat M80 7.62x51mm NATO (147gr. @ 2780fps). Note that this rating is explicitly not 5.56mm or 7.62x39mm rated.
Level IV – Hard armor or plate inserts that will defeat M2 AP.30-06 (166gr. @ 2880fps).
Note that you do not see 5.56mmx45mm, 5.45x39mm, 7.62x39mm or 7.62x54mm on this list anywhere. That evokes one of the biggest misconceptions held about these ratings: that of equivalency. Many unknowing users might think that because an armor package is rated for armor piercing .30-06 that it can handle armor piercing 7.62x54mm, a close counterpart, as well. Or since level III certification protects against 7.62 NATO it will handily stop the “lesser” .223 Remington, 5.56mm and 7.62x39mm. Not necessarily.
I will touch on this later in the article, but the fact that an armor package is rated to stop one round does not mean it will stop any other rounds. It also does not mean it won’t. Armor manufacturers also manufacture armor with a “special” or “special threat” rating that is not NIJ standard, but may meet or exceed any of their ratings. There are many variables that go into making armor, and this exact scenario is one of the biggest mistakes one can make; using just the NIJ standards as your only benchmark for protective capability.
Common Armor Materials and Composition
Many materials will be used in armor construction, either by themselves or in combination with others. Speaking broadly, hard armor that is proof against rifle threats will come in one of a few flavors, ceramic being the most common, followed by various grades of steel and Ultra-High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE), colloquially called “poly”. These materials may be used together to form a composite armor package.
Each has strengths and weaknesses, and understanding these characteristics in conjunction with its protection rating is essential to selecting armor that will suit your purposes.
Ceramics- Middle of the road cost and weight. Good stopping performance against AP and high-velocity threats. Can be damaged and protection compromised by very rough or careless handling.
Steels- Low cost, but heaviest. Typically good multi-hit capability, but spalling and frag are significant (and lethal) secondary hazards even with coated plates. Susceptible to defeat by high-velocity threats, e.g. 5.56mm and 5.45mm.
Poly- Pure poly is light weight, but can be expensive. Pure poly is vulnerable to defeat by AP threats, including very common Russian 7N6 5.45mm and U.S. M855 5.56mm. Composite solutions can tune up performance, but add significant cost and weight.
None of these materials is “best” for any given situation, though modern ceramics are arguably the closest to all-around ideal.
Understanding Protection Against Specific Threats
A big issue with NIJ standards when it comes to rifle threats is that the protection ratings are not progressive, or inclusive. An NIJ Level IV plate must defeat a single round of M2 AP.30-06 to receive that certification, but that does not mean it will also withstand multiple hits of 7.62mm NATO FMJ. It might, but that will be entirely dependent on the armor’s material composition and design.
As mentioned above, it is a huge mistake, and grievous error, to think that any given plate will stop a spectrum of rounds that may be suggested by its rating, and any lesser cartridge. This is easy to do, as most shooters have a sort of hierarchy of lethality or power in mind when considering various cartridges. Understandable, but flawed when it comes to determining a projectiles performance against armor, as both the armor material and design must be proof against both the velocity and composition of the bullet striking it. Other factors like multiple hits or angle of incidence are significant factors as well.
It is up to you to verify with the manufacturer of the armor that it will stop any given anticipated threat. For instance, if you are anticipating multiple hits from M193 5.56mm as a potential threat, you must confer with the manufacturer and check their claims to ensure your armor is effective against it. Many steel plates are proof against 7.62x39mm, but will not stop M193 5.56mm. M855 5.56 with its steel penetrator will sail through straight polyethylene plates, but will be defeated by steel and ceramic. Is a totally comprehensive solution against 5.56mm threats available? Sure, but there are always tradeoffs and you must be the one to find out with certainty that any given armor solution can meet your needs.
Common Pitfalls When Selecting Armor
The easiest “gotchas” to fall for when choosing armor are, sadly, usually perpetrated by less ethical manufacturers using clever marketing. One you’ll hear commonly from a maker is something along the lines of “this vest/model defeats up to a 7.62mm NATO.” Up to in that example would lead many to believe that anything “beneath” the 7.62 NATO in the projectile pecking-order will be defeated by this armor.
Remember what we learned above? This is just not true; you must ensure that that armor solution is tested and rated for 5.56mm, 5.45mm, and 7.62x39mm if you anticipate those threats. What about a “lesser” round in this case, take the 7.62x39mm, that is armor-piercing instead of plain ball? Would the armor still defeat the weaker round that now has inherent armor piercing capability? So, our armor is multi-hit rated against 7.62mm NATO ball, but is it rated against 7.62x39mm AP? Good question! You must find out.
Another common mistake is purchasing armor to be used “standalone” when it is designed to be used “in conjunction with” (ICW) another piece of armor to offer its maximum protective value. For instance, a hard strike face may offer level III protection used with a level IIIA vest, but not when used on its own: the strike face depends on the soft armor to support and back it up in order to function as advertised. Whatever armor you are considering buying, know if it is rated standalone or ICW.
One can easily run afoul of non-standard ratings here also. It is common to see armor advertised as being NIJ Level III+, or something similar, with the “+” denoting additional protection against certain threats in its class. While not official, this commonly used commercial designation is can help you zero in on protection against a specific threat. One runs into problems because this designation is not standardized, and can be misrepresented by sketchy manufacturers.
Before trusting a maker’s flashy marketing, showing often exciting and spectacular tests of their various armor packages, you must apply critical thinking: the vast majority of video tests on the internet, sadly even many from armor manufacturers themselves, are not indicative of proper armor testing procedure and may not show actual performance. Videos are easily manipulated, and if you do not have access to third-party testing results of the armor in question you must precede with extreme caution.
If a product has not been lab tested following stringent protocols and attention to procedure than any claims made by the maker are highly suspect. When in doubt, always seek the assistance of an expert in the field, and try to limit your shopping to the big, known-quantity manufacturers with well-established reputations for 3rd party testing and verification.
This is unfortunate, as many makers, even smaller ones, offer specialized, highly effective packages against certain threats. You should not discount them out of hand because they are not a “Big-Name” brand, but you will have to dig a little deeper in order to vet their claims.
Armor comes in various cuts and sizes designed to fit the human torso more or less ergonomically. The armor package you select will also require a carrier to in order to wear it. Many carriers are designed to fit plates of a certain size and shape, so you’ll need to coordinate your purchasing based on your torso size and body composition in addition to the threats you are facing.
The fit of the armor is crucial to ensure you get maximum protection over your vital organs. A reputable dealer can help you get sized if you don’t know what size you need.
Like everything else, you get what you pay for with armor. A very popular armor solution for the budget conscious right now is steel AR500 armor. Steel armor is viable, as discussed above, but for most the drawbacks outweigh the benefits. Yes, it is very heavy, but it is also very cheap compared to ceramic or polyethylene plates. The biggest flaw with steel armor though is a greatly increased risk of wounding from spall and frag than with our other options. Spall is technically a piece of the armor itself breaking off from impact and becoming a secondary projectile, where fragmentation is a piece of the bullet breaking off.
In this context, you’ll usually see the problem just referred to as spalling. At any rate, when a bullet hits a steel plate it will often violently destruct in a radial fashion. These fragments retain sufficient mass to penetrate tissue and cause severe injury. Considering the location of the armor strike face, spall risk to the eyes, face, throat and inside of the arms is quite severe, as these fragments can easily pierce tissue and sever blood vessels.
Makers of steel armor try to rectify this flaw by adding a thick polymer coating over the steel with the goal being reduction or elimination of spalling. These coatings show promise, but at presently have not eliminated the issue.
Link to get the NIJ Standard-0101.06; Ballistic Resistances of Body Armor
Is level III, rifle-rated armor proof against the 5.56mm and 7.62x39mm? It depends: NIJ standards do not test against those very common cartridges before bestowing that certification, so it is up to the manufacturers to conduct testing and then offer their product accordingly.
It is up to you, however, to understand the vagaries and criteria of the threat you are facing and then ask intelligent questions when selecting armor. After preliminary selection is complete, you must research and examine all available data on the armor before making final selection. Nothing else will suffice when it comes to your safety.
Do you wear body armor for work or otherwise? What type did you select for the job? Are you shopping for some currently? Let us know in the comments!
Chad Nabors specializes in firearms, with a strong focus on concealed carry and pistols. His background is in commercial sales and training, and armor development and testing. He has trained many citizens on the pistol from basic to advanced skills. He is a vociferous proponent of the 2nd Amendment, and believes that defense of self and family is a moral obligation. He can be reached at grimgunner (AT) gmail.com.