Body Amor Ratings: What’s Yours & Why Does it Matter?

You turn on the news to yet another active shooter situation. Whether it’s a school shooting, racially or ethnically provoked attack, or an out-of-the blue terrorist assault, it’s traumatizing. Now, you’re afraid to handle simple tasks or errands without some sort of protection.

You decide to jump in the market for ballistic protection to have at your place of work, school or home. The more research you conduct, the more confusing the options get.

Not one, but nearly every manufacturer claims that its product meets a different protection standard—specifically those set forth by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). But what do those safety ratings even mean? Which will protect you the most? And which is the most practical for the everyday person?

We’ve been there and we’ve asked the exact same questions.

To simplify your research, the article below digs into the meaning and differences between the various protection ratings created by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), as well other helpful info when purchasing ballistic armor.

What is the NIJ and What Does It Do for You?

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is known as the research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), and is responsible for improving the understanding of crime and justice issues through science. Big stuff.

So, what does this mean for you? The NIJ is the department in charge of setting, testing, and advancing the ballistic protection standards associated with purchasable body armor. These standards ensure a certain level of safety from ballistic protection—if used correctly—and are helpful when deciding which protection works best for your needs.

NIJ Body Armor Protection Levels & Performance Standards

How are NIJ Ratings Established and Tested?

Let’s make this simple. The various ratings established by the NIJ refer to a body armor unit’s ballistic performance—or the ability to handle the impact of a bullet without being penetrated and also without blunt trauma to the body.

The NIJ sets different standards of protection levels based upon the caliber and speed of a bullet that a piece of body armor is capable of handling. The larger and faster bullet that a piece of armor can handle, the higher the NIJ rating it will achieve.

And how does the NIJ test its standards? Pretty dang seriously. The department takes multiple samples of each piece of commercial body armor, subjects them to wear-and-tear, and then continues with follow up testing months and years later. That said, if a piece of armor is NIJ rated, there is a large amount of integrity behind it.

The Different NIJ Ratings

Listed below are the five basic NIJ ballistic protection ratings along with their tested capabilities and which types of armor they are most commonly associated with. To save you the headache, we’re going to cut this down to only what you need to know.

Level IIA

The NIJ IIA rating is designed to effectively absorb a lower velocity 9mm round or a .40 Smith & Wesson (S&W) round, which is typically fired from a lightweight handgun.

Armor rated at the NIJ standard IIA are most commonly lightweight ballistic vests—often weighing in far below 10 pounds, much due to its thin layering of aramid fibers. Level IIA protection is well suited for use by law enforcement looking for protection against low velocity ammunition.

Level II 

Like the IIA rating, armor with the brief NIJ II rating is capable of handling the impact of a 9mm or .40 SW bullet, but is slightly thicker and able to handle higher velocity 9mm ammunition—as well as a .357 Magnum round.

This means that body armor with the NIJ II rating is heavier and bulkier than that stamped with the IIA rating. The II rating is commonly found on ballistic vests.

Level IIIA

While thicker and heavier duty than level II, the materials used to construct IIIA rated armor are still soft and somewhat flexible. Armor with this rating is capable of protecting against .44 Magnum or 9mm submachine gun ammunition.

Body armor with the IIIA rating continues to grow bulkier than that of the ratings below it. This level is often offered in vests, but also used in other ballistic protection—like a deployable shield built from Kevlar such as the PopShield.

Level III

With the jump to the level III rating, armor is now able to handle small-caliber rifle rounds—like a 7.62mm bullet fired from an AK-47 or SKS rifle.

It’s important to note that armor with level III protection comes equipped with solid ballistic plates, which also significantly increases the weight of the protection. This type of protection is designed specifically to handle tactical situations and confrontations with more serious firepower.

Level IV

The highest level of the NIJ ratings, level IV, can withstand the impact of up to a .30 armor-piercing rifle.

Level IV armor is most ballistic protection offered in current day, and is what is issued to soldiers in the military. The high weight associated with IV rated protection makes it difficult to use for someone who is not properly trained.

Which NIJ Rating Suits Your Needs?

Ok, we’ve gone over the meanings of each NIJ rating, and you’re almost ready to purchase your own ballistic protection.

First, should consider where it is that you might need it and how you plan on using it. Of course, the higher the NIJ rating the more protection available, but that sometimes comes with consequences. Typically, a higher rated piece of body armor will be thicker and heavier than a lower rated piece, which can not only make it difficult to use but store. But then again, you don’t want to skimp on protection for something that is ultra-lightweight. As you can see, balance is key.

Considering that most gun crimes in the United States involve .38 caliber and smaller handguns as well as semi-automatic 9mm handguns, choosing a piece of body armor with a NIJ rating of level II should be adequate.

That said, however, if you are looking for more protection without too much added weight or hassle, a piece with a NIJ IIIA rating might fit the bill perfectly. The IIIA rating will do a better job of stopping larger, faster bullets and is offered in easier-to-use applications than the typical vest—like the deployable PopShield.

Whatever choice you make, choose a piece that fits your lifestyle and needs the best. Stay safe!