Have you ever been told that Level III plates are “useless”? Do you believe the NIJ standards to be a thorough and absolute guideline for body armor? Should they be followed and adhered to without question? Read on, as we delve into these standards and discover if they truly are all we need for an adequate standard of ballistic protection.
The old ways - Tried and true, but are they enough?
As a relatively younger shooter, I have always been fascinated by the disconnects, disputations, and disagreements between older and newer generations of shooters. Any given day at the gun counter, I’ll hear the following comments:
“30-06 is all you need - ammo is always on the shelves, you can load it as hot as you’d like, and it's been around long enough to be tested by time!”
“300 PRC is where it’s at now - it’s an intelligently-crafted modern magnum cartridge, specifically designed to deliver the highest levels of accuracy and aerodynamic performance!”
“308 can do anything in the hands of the right shooter - ammo is plentiful, it’s great for younger shooters, and so many famous military snipers swear by the .51!”
“6.5 Creedmoor is the ultimate tack-driver - I can hit anything under 1,000 yards with ease, easily take down whitetail, and it kicks less than a .308!”
Growing up as the son of an avid reloader and ballistician, I was blessed to appreciate the versatility and purposes of all calibers, big and small, old and new. That appreciation bled into other walks of tactical life a great deal - enough to show me how most people, knowingly or not, introduce a great amount of bias into their gun counter conversations.
While the above examples may not be wholly or universally accurate, it seems fair to assume that all four individuals have some experience with the calibers they’re talking about; but it should also be fair to say that not all four rounds are equal (or at least serve equal purposes).
So what happens when you have a mass of individuals with little-to-no field experience, arguing online about why this is better than that?
You get Reddit.
That’s a joke… mostly.
On a more serious note, you get people that live and breathe by standards they either do not understand, or cannot translate into real-world practicalities. Take that thought, and let's talk about the National Institute of Justice’s standards for body armor.
The NIJ Standards - A Brief Review
As we know, there are different standards for different types of protection: Body Armor levels II, IIA, and IIIA are used for protection against various handguns, while Levels III and IV are used for protection from rifle calibers - with Level III+ being an unofficial bridge between Levels III and IV. That bridge, and the large gap it spans, is significant for the sake of this article.
As a refresher, here are the NIJ Body Armor Levels:
IIA: 9mm Full Metal Jacket Round Nose, .40 S&W Full Metal Jacket
II: .357 Magnum Jacketed Soft Point
IIIA: .357 SIG FMJ Flat Nose, .44 Magnum Semi Jacketed Hollow Point
III: 7.62x51mm FMJ Steel Jacket (M80)
IV: .30 Armor Piercing (AP) (M2 AP, known commonly as 30-06 “Black Tip”)
Each Level is specified by protection from at least one specific caliber or cartridge - in other words, if an armor plate stops one specific level’s caliber, it would be designated at that level by NIJ standards - assuming it passes the additional NIJ tests for backface deformation, shot distance, and so on. All tests are performed at close range, 15 meters. For informative purposes, Level III must withstand SIX rounds of 7.62x51 M80, while Level IV must withstand only ONE round of 30-06 AP.
That’s all fine and dandy, right? Easy to follow - but how practical is it, really?
Shortcomings of the NIJ Standards
You may have noticed, but 5.56 and .223 are nowhere to be found on that list. Yet, in the thousands of comments our social media posts receive, most of them are centered around 5.56 and which armor level stops what. Due to various misinterpretations and misunderstandings of the NIJ standards, we see a fair number of people regarding Level III plates as “useless” because they believe stopping 5.56 requires a Level IV plate and nothing less. We respectfully try to remind these individuals that neither Level III nor Level IV make any specific mention of 5.56, and that the only stopping requirements for those levels are 7.62x51 M80 and .30-06 AP, respectively. Ballistically speaking, there is a LOT of wiggle room between these rounds.
Predator Armor produces NIJ Level III body armor plates capable of stopping a variety of rounds, such as 7.62x51 M80, 5.56 M193/M855, and more. Inevitably, people will hear mention of these calibers and think “Well doesn’t that make it a Level IV plate then? Or at least Level III+?”
Remember: Level III+ is NOT an official NIJ standard. It is a standard created by individual armor companies to designate a plate that will meet Level III standards, as well as stop a few additional rounds, but is still compromised by 30-06 AP. Those additional rounds make it a “plus” plate. Because of the massive amount of calibers that can potentially fall between Levels III and IV, one could realistically designate every Level III plate as “III+” armor, since they will inevitably stop some additional rounds within that gap.
For an in-depth read on this, click here. For brevity’s sake, our III+ is notably stronger than our Level III armor, including protection from 5.56 (M193/M855) from a 20” barrel - whereas our Level III armor only stops it from a 16”. The Level III+ plate is capable of stopping higher velocity rounds. Both plates serve a clear purpose, but it is up to the buyer to decide what type of protection they are needing for their specific circumstances.
And to address the question, “Wouldn’t that make it a Level IV plate?” - the answer is no. Stopping .30-06 AP is what makes a plate Level IV; nothing more, nothing less. Although our III+ plates will stop numerous rifle calibers including .30-06 FMJ rounds, they will still be compromised by .30-06 AP rounds, which makes them Level III as far as NIJ standards are concerned. True armor-piercing rounds behave differently than your typical non-AP rounds in a ballistic sense.
So, a key imperfection of the NIJ standards is that they provide massive amounts of… gray area, for extremely common rifle calibers - and that’s a big deal. Gone are the days when everybody and their dog was shooting .30-06, and gone are the days when that ammo was readily available in surplus at every gun store in America. Just last week, my local Sportsman’s Warehouse didn’t have a single box of the stuff. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a viable round by any means, but I do chuckle when people tell me Level IV protection is the ONLY way to go. Your odds of encountering a .30-06 AP round is minimal to none. It is very hard to even find this ammunition anymore. Don’t forget our Level III and Level III+ plates will both stop a standard FMJ .30-06 round just not an AP round. I typically respond, somewhat jokingly, with the following:
“In the event you’re getting shot at by someone with a .30-06, what are the odds you are the good guy in that situation? How many evildoers are running around with that caliber?”
This presents another major issue with the NIJ Standards: because they are so vague in a world with literally hundreds of types of ammunition, the standards create major misconceptions and disillusions for those individuals who unquestionably swear by them. For example, do you expect 100% of your gunfights to be done with 7.62x51 and 30-06 AP, at 15 meters away, straight on, with no major environmental influences?
The answer is obviously no. Every gunfight will be at different distances, with different calibers, under different circumstances. Not to mention, numerous external and environmental factors (not present in official NIJ testing) will influence a bullet’s flight path, trajectory and impact, often to a significant degree. What this means is that just because your Level III armor cannot take an armor-piercing 30-caliber bullet at point-blank range, does not mean it is “useless” or that you’re “better off with no armor at all” - and yes, those are both comments we see regularly.
Remember the photo at the top of this article, with the shot-up plate? That plate was shot with 7-8 rounds of .300 Win Mag, 15-20 rounds of 5.56 M193, and run over with a truck several times. It is also a Level III plate as far as the NIJ is concerned - despite it being our III+ plate. I’d hardly consider that useless. It is capable of stopping almost any round that a Level IV plate is capable of stopping short of the .30-06 AP round. The real question is what rounds do you think you will face as a threat? Is .30-06 AP round something that you think you will come in contact with at a range of less than 20 yards? If you answer yes to that question in all honesty then you should get Level IV plates, but if not, like most everyone should answer, then Level III or Level III+ will be sufficient for you.
In defense of the NIJ Standards
Now, we recognize that there needs to be some metric for this stuff, right? That metric cannot be all-encompassing and include every round and environmental influence, because that’s just not possible. And this is where the standards do shine to some degree; in providing a basic metric wherewith other standards and expectations can (and should) be based.
That is exactly how they should be viewed. The NIJ standards should NOT be held in equal reverence to the Ten Commandments, with absolutely no room for question or flexibility.
Hell, people seem to forget what happened immediately after Moses received the Ten Commandments. Hint - Commandment #6 got a little blurry. Like all else in life, the true key here is moderation and common sense; finding the balance that allows you to respect the statutes, while understanding that they cannot universally cover every tactical situation and must be utilized with reason and rationale.
So, what is the solution?
As always, there is never going to be one “perfect” solution to something like this, since every scenario and environmental factor cannot be taken account of for every shot in every situation. Still, here are a few helpful steps to point you in the right direction:
Testing Targets - One way we’ve built trust in the armor industry is by offering optional testing targets with any order. This is a smaller piece of the exact same material your armor is cut from, allowing you to test the armor out for yourself, and see if the guarantees we make are indeed true. At the end of the day, no amount of technology can beat just seeing it for yourself.
2. Change the standard - Two parts:
Let the damn thing evolve! It baffles me that younger people today use a .30-06 as their “ride-or-die” armor rating when 90% of them neither own nor shoot the caliber. Personally, I would like to see standards based around common rounds - those that will realistically be shot at me in a SHTF scenario. Not to say .30-06 isn’t a fantastic round worthy of being a standard, but let’s face it - the odds of someone shooting at me with a .30-06AP round are minimal to none
Be open-minded - Remember that the federal government does not deserve to be the exclusive standard of quality - for anything. For how many anti-authoritarian and Libertarian folk follow our company, it sure baffles me how many of them will instantly turn away from our armor for the sole reason that it is not on a federal government list, even though we test to the EXACT same standards with an independent facility that is, of itself, approved by the National Institute of Justice. If another standard is able to rise up and become more efficient, let it. Relying exclusively on the government is not only naive, but goes against everything this nation was built upon. Okay, rant over.
3. Do your OWN homework - I know I trash on Reddit, and I also know there is helpful and legitimate information there too; I use it every day, believe it or not. But if you form your entire opinion and knowledge base exclusively off of the opinions of strangers on the internet, you are setting yourself up for failure. Put in your own work. Talk to experienced professionals. Research and understand ballistics, armor ratings, and everything that goes into them.
4. Don’t fall for clever marketing - Please avoid buying armor exclusively because it is expensive. We get it, “your life is worth more than $100” - so, what? Are you implying your life is worth some other arbitrary amount of money? This is exactly how companies with cunning marketing teams get you. They don’t have to do a damn thing, other than dress their website up nicely and put up a hefty price tag. Purchase armor based on research and credibility, NOT price.
Finishing things up
It becomes almost tiresome, at times, ending every article with the same “there is no perfect solution to this problem” speech - and I get that it can be annoying. But at the very least, it should prompt a strong lesson to learn within the tactical world:
If you want to stay alive, stay diligent and always be learning.
To be tactically proficient is to be adaptable and teachable, and we all know combat evolves (no HALO pun intended). It’s why we aren’t running around in full Knight armor, or using spears in place of guns. Weapons evolve, armor evolves, technology evolves - and it is up to us to remain aware of these things, learn, adapt, and prepare accordingly.
And while the prepared have everything to learn…
…they surely have nothing to fear.