Understanding the Difference in NIJ Ballistic Levels

Understanding the Difference in NIJ Ballistic Levels

Firearms remain a dangerous threat to law enforcement and security officers alike. Thousands of lives are saved, however, thanks to ballistic-resistant body armor.

Body armor is a critical piece of equipment for personal protection, but the different types and styles of armor can be confusing to choose from.

Understanding the difference in NIJ ballistic levels is vital to selecting the right piece of body armor for protection needs.

National Institute of Justice Ballistic Levels

The National Institute of Justice has set the minimum performance standards for body armor in America since 1972.

The NIJ ballistic level is the most important thing to look for when purchasing body armor because it indicates what type of threat the armor will protect you from.

The most recent standard, NIJ Standard 0101.06, has five levels of protection – Level IIA, Level II, Level IIIA, Level III, and Level IV.

Body armor must pass a strict set of guidelines and testing to meet the NIJ standard.


Level IIA contains soft body armor composed of layers of high-strength woven fibers that offer the lowest level of protection on the list.

Light, flexible, and easy to conceal, this armor used to be ideal for undercover work, however, modern armor technology has made Level IIA largely outdated. Higher-level armor that offers more protection is now just as easy to conceal.

Level IIA Protects Against:

  • .9mm full metal jacket (FMJ) at 1165 feet per second (ft./s)
  • .40 Smith & Wesson (S&W) FMJ at 1065 ft./s

NIJ Level II

A step up from IIA, Level II body armor is still light, flexible, and easily concealed under clothing but provides improved protection against blunt force trauma and a wider range of ammunition.

Most modern body armor meets the Level II standard.

Level II Protects Against:

  • Most common handgun rounds
  • .9mm FMJ at 1245 ft./s
  • .357 Magnum Jacketed Soft Point (JSP) at 1430 ft./s


Level IIIA armor is the most recommended soft body armor for its versatility and level of protection. This armor level can be found in everything from vests to bulletproof backpacks and is an excellent option if you’re looking for something lightweight and concealable but with ample protection.

Level IIIA Protects Against:

  • Nearly all handgun rounds and even shotgun slugs
  • .357 Sig FMJ Flat Nose (FN) at 1470 ft./s
  • .44 Magnum Semi Jacketed Hollow Point (SJHP) at 1430 ft./s


Level III armor is the first level of hard body armor that protects against rifle rounds. Heavier than soft armor, Level III uses hard plates rather than woven fibers.

The heavier plates are not concealable but offer far greater protection against various threats.

Level III Protects Against:

  • 7.62mm FMJ (US Military designation M80) at 2780 ft./s and is tested to multiple hits of 6 rounds on a single plate.

NIJ Level IV

Level IV armor is the highest-rated level of protection under the current NIJ standards.

Level IV consists of heavy ballistic plates that can stop one shot of armor-piercing ammunition. Because it’s designed to take only one shot from high-powered rounds compared to the six rounds Level III plates are tested for, Level IV armor is not always a better option for protection. The weight and lack of flexibility also make this level of armor uncomfortable for everyday wear.

Level IV Protects Against:

  • One round of 7.62mm armor-piercing (AR) at 2880 ft./s

What Level of Protection Is Right for You?

Deciding what NIJ Level is right for you depends on a few factors:

  • What type of rounds do you need protection against?
  • What kind of environment will you be in?
  • Do you need to conceal the armor?
  • Will you need to move quickly while wearing it?
  • How long will you wear the armor at one time?

These questions are essential to answer before purchasing body armor. People often buy the heaviest or strongest armor they can find, which then goes unused because it’s uncomfortable to wear for long periods or severely limits mobility.

Consider the trade-off between protection, cost, comfort, and concealability – higher protection will be heavier and more uncomfortable; lighter and more flexible armor will offer less protection.

Ultimately, the best body armor is a body armor that you will actually wear.

Interested in learning more about our NIJ Ballistic Level body armor? Browse through our Armor products and other equipment or contact us today.