A Quick Buyers Guide to Rifle Rated Body Armor Plates
There are many types of rifle rated body armor available, with models varying in both threat rating and materials. Many buyers find themselves confused by industry jargon, unclear differences in performance, etc. With this quick guide I hope to clear up some issues and make you a more informed buyer of rifle rated body armor plates.
NIJ Threat Ratings –
The NIJ (National Institute of Justice) is the entity responsible for creating body armor threat ratings in the United States. Body armor meant for sale to U.S. customers will typically follow the NIJ rating system, though there are exceptions to this.
The NIJ has a Certification program through which armor manufacturers can have a given armor model Certified and listed on the NIJ CPL (Compliant Products List). However, you should be aware that there is no requirement for armor to be NIJ Certified in order to be sold. Any armor model that does not appear on the NIJ CPL is NOT certified, no exceptions.
This is a fairly complex issue to tackle, but as this is meant to be a short guide I’ll give you the condensed version here – NIJ Certified armor is held to a certain set of standards and third party oversight, ensuring its quality and performance. Armor that is not Certified is not by default subject to any third party oversight and the manufacturers claims are not tested or ensured by anyone but the manufacturer themselves, and swindlers abound in the armor industry.
Before continuing, I want to make something clear – NEVER assume a plate stops a projectile that it is not rated for. A highly educated, well informed individual can make inferences as to a plates capability beyond its stated rating but this is almost always guess work. We will get into why making such assumptions is a problem later.
There are currently two official rifle armor ratings, as laid out under NIJ Standard 0101.06 (commonly abbreviated to simply .06 or NIJ .06), these ratings being Level III and Level IV.
The Level III rating, assuming the armor is NIJ Certified, means the armor is capable of stopping 6 hits of M80 ball at about 2780 FPS. This is a 7.62x51 load firing a lead core FMJ projectile, meaning M80 ball is roughly equivalent to most commercial .308 loadings. That said a level III plate can be depended upon to stop most commercial .308 and cartridges/projectiles of similar materials, weight, and velocity.
The level IV rating, again assuming the armor is NIJ Certified, means the armor is capable of stopping 1 hit of M2AP at about 2880 FPS. M2AP is an AP (Armor Piercing) .30-06 projectile. This projectile is composed of a full jacket and hardened steel core. Level IV plates are capable of stopping any lesser projectile, meaning any commercial 5.56/.223, .308, 7.62x39, etc.
Why material matters –
Now we get into the problem areas that often leave people confused. Armor material matters just as much as armor rating, as armor of the same rating but of different materials can perform very differently.
This issue is seen primarily with level III armor as this is where the greatest variation in materials is found. There are level III steel plates, level III UHMWPE plates, and level III ceramic plates. Each offers a different level of performance.
I’ll give you the quick breakdown –
Steel: Generally fails to stop high velocity projectiles such as M193 (a common 5.56 loading). Typically capable of stopping M855 (NOT the same as M855A1).
UHMWPE (polyethylene): Essentially the inverse of steel, fails to stop M855 or similar projectiles with steel components impacting the plate above ~2400 FPS. However, UHMWPE plates are typically capable of stopping M193 or similar lead core high velocity projectiles.
Ceramic: Stops both M193 and M855 alongside the level III test threat.
An important note to make here is that just because a plate can stop a high energy projectile (such as M80 ball) that does NOT mean it can stop any lower energy projectile. Projectile material, velocity, and energy matters.
That said if you desire a plate that stops all common CONUS (Continental United States) threats then a level III ceramic plate will typically be the best option. UHMWPE plates can offer extremely light weight and buoyancy, but at the cost of not stopping M855, M855A1, 7.62x54r MSC (Mild Steel Core), and similar projectiles.
Other threat ratings –
There is another category of rifle plates that fall under the ambiguous rating of “Special Threat”. This is NOT an NIJ standard threat level and plates that are advertised strictly as a Special Threat plate will not be NIJ Certified. Special Threat is an armor industry term typically used to denote a plate designed for “special threats” that don’t fall under the NIJ rating system.
Generally speaking a Special Threat plate will not be rated for M80 ball, the level III test threat, in order to allow for a thinner and lighter plate. These Special Threat plates are typically rated for common 5.56 and 7.62x39 threats. By excluding M80 ball or any .308 rating these plates can be made thinner and lighter than most level III plates as the ballistic stresses on the armor are lessened. Most 5.56 and 7.62x39 loads have very similar energy levels, typically around 1300 to 1500 foot-pounds of energy. Common .308 loads exceed 2600 foot-pounds of energy, an average of just over 1000 foot-pounds more energy than any 5.56 or 7.62x39 load.
This is part of the reason for level III and IV plates being so thick – the amount of ballistic material required to safely contain the energy imparted by a striking projectile is increased as the energy contained by the projectile increases.
That said Special Threat plates are typically non-Certified ceramic plates with no drop protection for the strike face. Examples include the TenCate 2000SA and Hesco L210. Such plates are typically rated for M855, M193, 7.62x39 MSC, and even 7.62x39 API (Armor Piercing Incendiary). These plates are a good choice for users who don’t have a need for superbly durable plates and don’t require protection from .308 or similar cartridges, and/or those who need concealable rifle rated body armor.
Now some may be wondering, why can’t a plate rated for an armor piercing projectile (7.62x39 API) stop lead core .308? As I mentioned, it’s a matter of projectile energy. Special Threat ceramic plates have a strike face optimized for stopping low energy projectiles with steel cores, but they lack the necessary amount of fiber based ballistic material (such as Kevlar or Dyneema) behind the ceramic strike face to safely disburse the extra energy found in “full power” rifle cartridges like .308. On the inverse, most level III plates, including level III ceramic plates, will not stop 7.62x39 API – though it should be noted this particular threat is almost entirely of concern only to operators in foreign areas with heavy active conflicts, such as Syria or Afghanistan.
Again, multiple factors must be considered when determining what a plate is capable of stopping – plate material, plate rating, projectile velocity, projectile material, and projectile energy are ALL determining factors in armor performance.
With that out of the way, I’ll list some armor models that I commonly recommend within each threat level:
Level III –
Hesco 3611C (Ceramic)
Hesco 3810 (Ceramic)
Hesco 3600 (UHMWPE)
RMA 1091-1094 (Ceramic)
Level IV –
Special Threat –
Only level III has notes for plate material as every other plate listed here has a ceramic component. This is also far from being an exhaustive list and I have mostly biased the plates listed towards the low to mid-range portion of the price spectrum. Also, I would like to note that it is ultimately up to the end user to make an informed decision when purchasing equipment such as body armor to ensure it meets their requirements. This is a very basic, surface level guide that doesn’t even begin to provide a deep look at body armor.
An extremely detailed write up on body armor covering the entirety of the NIJ .06 standard, the basics of armor construction, and more is in the works and will posted in the Downloads area of the blog when released.
If you’re interested in reading that write up when it is posted I recommend following the blog on social media and subscribing to the email list through the form below to be alerted when it is posted.
As always - stay safe, stay informed, and thanks for reading.