Body Armor - Determining Threat Profile and Selecting Appropriate Armor Threat Rating

Body armor comes in multiple threat levels, the two primary base threat levels being rifle and handgun. From there it is broken down further with Level III and IV for rifle armor and Level IIA, II, and IIIA for handgun armor – all of this is under the NIJ .06 standard. However, there are threat ratings used in the industry that do not exist under the NIJ .06 standard such as Special Threat rifle plates. This issue, amongst others, has confused many buyers of body armor. With that said this article is intended as a general guide to determining the threat profile you face and choosing appropriate body armor to counter those threats.

For information on rifle armor threat levels, click here.

Before we continue, it should be noted that I am covering only ballistic threats here – knives and other stabbing/slashing implements will be covered in a future article.

Step 1: Determining Threat Profile

“Threat profile” refers to the profile or range of threats most likely to be faced by the end user of a body armor system. Determining the threat profile you need your armor to protect against typically involves getting the most representative data sample possible from the area in which you will be wearing your armor and using that as a baseline to determine the minimum level of protection that’s necessary, then adding requirements or refining your needs from there.

For example, the threat profile of a patrol officer in the United States will typically be composed of 9mm handguns as the most common threat by plurality, alongside handguns of a few other common calibers such as .38 Special, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP. Large caliber handgun cartridges such as the .44 Magnum are exceedingly rare in criminal use. Referencing FBI Table 119 reveals that assaults on officers wherein the shooter used a .44 Magnum handgun make up less than 1% of all instances. 9mm however makes up about 20% of encountered handgun threats.

With that in mind the ideal handgun armor level for the typical patrol officer in the United States is Level II. While IIIA does provide more protection, it will always do so at the cost of decreased flexibility, increased thickness, and increased weight compared to a comparably priced level II armor system. More protection almost always comes with a price, and in this instance - with .44 Magnum making up less than 1% of handgun threats encountered in criminal use - it is the author’s opinion that the trade-off is not worth it for most individuals, but as always it is best to make your determination based on your local conditions if possible.

An example of soft handgun rated armor, these are IIIA armor panels made by Survival Armor.

Another example would be a user deployed as a combatant to Iraq or Syria. In these areas where conflicts are active, involve the heavy influence of foreign nations, and can see high levels of intensity selecting appropriate body armor is critical. In this example we’ll focus on rifle threats, though explosive fragmentation can also be a notable threat in these types of conflicts.

Typical infantry weapons are of the AKM and PKM variety. A wide myriad of rifles and machine guns can be employed by insurgent forces, though the most common weapons are still AK or PK pattern in Middle Eastern conflict zones. The AKM and most AK pattern rifles employed in these areas fire the 7.62x39 cartridge. PK machine guns fire the 7.62x54r cartridge. As for specific projectile types, the most common are lead core or MSC (mild steel core) projectiles though API (Armor Piercing Incendiary) in both 7.62x39 and 7.62x54r has been encountered.

With that in mind armor capable of stopping MSC 7.62x39 at a minimum would be recommended. Ideally, the armor would be something capable of stopping both 7.62x39 and 7.62x54r MSC projectiles at muzzle velocities. Whether or not AP projectiles are a threat worth considering will be up to the end user, as this can vary widely by locality. 7.62x39 API can be stopped by many Special Threat plates on the market, such the TenCate 2000SA or LTC 28791.

A TenCate 2000SA, an example of a Special Threat rated rifle plate.

It should be noted that stopping 7.62x54r API will require Level IV plates, and these plates should be specifically rated by the manufacturer as capable of stopping common 7.62x54r API projectiles such as the B-32 projectile. As an example, the Hesco 4800 is rated for the B-32 projectile.

With all that said, determining the threat profile in your area/s is the first step to choosing the appropriate armor system for your use and this determination is ideally made using up to date information on commonly encountered threats.

Step 2: Choosing Appropriate Body Armor

With your threat profile determined you can now select the appropriate armor system to meet your requirements. From here you can select the appropriate armor level and then narrow options based on price, available sizes, etc.

So, for example, if you’ve determined that the threat profile for your area consists primarily of 9mm and .45 ACP for handgun threats and lead core 5.56 NATO and .308 Winchester for rifle threats then a good soft armor solution would be quality Level II soft armor (such as the SA2300 model by HighCom) and Level III rifle plates, such as the Hesco 3600. If M855 (colloquially known as Green Tip ammunition) is an expected projectile from 5.56 NATO firearms then you would stick with ceramic armor plates such as the Hesco 3611C.

A TenCate 3000SA, an example of a Level III UHMWPE plate.

However, let’s say that .308 Winchester and similar cartridges are a low priority threat or aren’t a notable threat in your area at all. In that instance it may be best to select a Special Threat plate such as the TenCate 2000SA or Hesco L210. Special Threat plates are generally designed to stop “carbine calibers” such as 5.56 NATO and 7.62x39 but not .308 or similar “full power” rifle cartridges. Special Threat plates are typically thin, usually around .55” inches in thickness which makes them an excellent choice for concealable rifle armor.

Other Requirements/Special Circumstances:

You may have requirements for your armor beyond it stopping basic threats. As mentioned above some users may desire a concealable rifle armor option, or they may require that their soft armor have an exceptional fragmentation rating, etc. Furthermore, there are other factors that may come into play, such as whether or not the user primarily wears their armor while on a boat or otherwise over large bodies of water where maintaining flotation can be important.

Using the last point as an example of special circumstances, going overboard or otherwise ending up in deep water with gear on can be a serious safety hazard. This is why some users who frequently operate over or near large bodies of water will add flotation devices to their gear. This is one area where UHMWPE plates, commonly called poly plates or polyethylene plates, can shine. UHMWPE plates offer, at worst, neutral buoyancy meaning they won’t contribute to dragging the wearer down if they’re in the water. The caveat with UHMWPE plates of course is their inability to stop M855, any AP projectiles, and certain other projectiles with steel components.

It should be noted here that Hesco now provides a buoyant ceramic plate, the 3810B.

The point being there may be circumstances specific to you that necessitate selecting your armor based on extra criteria besides threat rating alone. The way these circumstances or extra requirements factor into the end users selection of armor will be highly individualized and thus it is up to the end user to exercise proper judgement here.

Conclusion –

Selecting the proper threat rating for your body armor is not a difficult task once you have the proper information to make an informed decision. As always it is the responsibility of the end user to use their best judgement to decide what properly fulfills their needs for body armor.

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