Most Law Enforcement Officers will be well aware of the importance of a bullet proof vest, and how it can spell the difference between life and death. However, it can be difficult to know exactly what vest is best for you, as there are a variety of options available that provide unique advantages and disadvantages. From covert breathable vests to full tactical armor, it can be difficult to know whether you are making the right decision when it comes to body armor. The first and most important thing to be aware of is the protection the vest can offer.

Body armor is available at different levels of protection according to the ammunition it can protect against. These levels are governed by the testing undertaken by the National Institute of Justice, which is widely recognized as being the world leader in ballistics testing. These ‘NIJ Levels’ outline the strength, size, and velocity of ammunition and weaponry in order to provide the wearer with a clear indication of what their armor can protect against.

Kevlar Body Armor

Kevlar is synonymous with ballistic protection, but not everyone is aware of what exactly it is. Put simply, it is a soft, flexible, and lightweight fabric that nonetheless is exceptionally strong.  Armor that uses Kevlar or similar materials is known as ‘Soft Armor’. ‘Hard Armor’, on the other hand, will also use soft materials like Kevlar, but with additional rigid materials like Ceramics or Polyethylene.

Soft Armor is available upto and including NIJ Level IIIa. Each level of protection is capable of protecting against the ammunition listed at lower levels in addition to the ammunition listed at that level. For example, an NIJ Level II vest offers all the protection of a Level IIa vest and more, but cannot stop the threats outlined at NIJ Level IIIa.

Level IIa armor is considered the minimum recommend protection for bullet proof vests, and is capable of protecting against 9mm full metal jacketed round nose and .40 S&W Full Metal Jacketed ammunition, which are commonly found in most handguns. Even this ‘basic level’ is capable of protecting against a wide variety of rounds, with 10mm Auto, .357 SIG, and even .45 ACP rounds all covered by this level of protection. The Level II armor, conversely, can protect against all this as .357 Magnum Jacketed Soft Points and the 9mm Parabellum fired at higher speeds. However, the 9mm fired from a semi-automatic cannot be stopped by a Level II, and will require Level IIIa armor. A Level IIIa vest can also protect against .44 Magnum Jacketed Hollow Points.

‘Hard Armor’

Hard Armor is much harder than Soft Armor- hence the name- because of the materials needed to offer the higher levels of protection it provides. Most Hard Armors will use rigid materials over the top of Kevlar vests in order to increase comfort and protection for the wearer. This means that these vests will naturally be harder, heavier, and bulkier than their counterparts at lower levels.

Hard Armour is available at NIJ Level III and IV, which is the highest available level of ballistic protection. Level III hard armour protects against 7.62mmx51mm NATO full metal jacketed rifle rounds, as well as the 5.56x45mm NATO round. Most rifle and automatic rounds are covered by the Level III, including such staples as the .30-06 and the .308 Winchester. However, the highest level of protection, the Level IV, offers protection against all these bullets, as well as armour-piercing variants.

The extra materials in Hard Armor naturally make the vest heavier and bulkier. However, advancements in material technology means the increase in weight and size is negligible, and high levels of protection can be achieved in vests designed to be worn under clothes. This shows just how thin the protective materials are, and also increases the options available to the wearer.

For more information on the ballistic protection of bullet proof vests, see the NIJ’s Official Documentation regarding testing and grading.