The Ins and Outs of Body Armor

Doug Clabough, Southern Specialty Enterprises

There are 4 main types of body armor: 1) soft, 2) composite, 3) hybrid, 4) hard.  There are five classes of body armor, Level IIA, Level II, Level IIIA, Level III and Level IV.  These levels are established by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).  The designations established by the NIJ and are defined by them.

When buying or selecting armor there are two common designations to be aware of: CERTIFIED and Compliant.  Please don’t confuse these as there is a big working difference. The Certified product is a product that is tested and audited by the NIJ. It is an expensive process and costs upwards of $35,000.00 per product to certify per year.  Compliant means that the manufacturer pays an independent lab to test to NIJ test standards, usually once, and the company warrants that all subsequent manufactured product meets this standard.  It is common for a manufacturing company to NIJ Certify one or two products, usually Level IV, as required by government or ITAR regulations. Then they can advertise as NIJ Certified, while the balance of the product line is complaint.  The terminology and disclosure is intentionally kept vague.  As a registered dealer, I only purchase and sell Certified product when possible.  In some cases, usually steel, almost no one is NIJ certified.  It is a commodity and the profit margins do not support extensive testing. (https://www.justnet.org/pdf/Understanding-Armor-Protection.pdf).

My company is an active dealer for 5 body armor manufacturers.  We pick and choose which products we stock from each of them.  We stock a significant inventory of Level IIIA through Level IV.  We don’t stock or sell Level II or IIA, as we deem them a waste of time and money.   We buy carriers from a company which supplies military grade carriers.  The main market sectors we service are First Responders (Law Enforcement & Fire/Rescue), Teachers & Students, and the Target Sector which is everything from security guards, couriers & port workers to Hazmat truck drivers.  When selling to an individual, we require a background checked ID, and we document to whom we have sold a product.  While the Law does not require us to do so, it is common sense and good ethical business to do so.  We do not sell Body Armor online.  We want to make sure who is receiving the product and make sure they understand how to care for and maintain it.

When selling to anyone, but especially a first responder, we always ask questions to match the buyer with the correct product. We attempt to determine the 98 or 99% of the threat level that the buyer needs to mitigate and we match that threat to the best product for the buyer given the environment in which he or she works.  Sometimes the buyer is unable to function while wearing the best protection and the buyer makes an informed decision or compromise based upon the variables he or she faces.

Level II mitigates 9mm through .40 S&W., while Level IIA mitigates through a .357 fired from a short barrel handgun.  Essentially, Level II & IIA are in the same price range as Level IIIA.  This removes cost savings as a factor and the limited mitigation factor essentially make these levels not something we choose to sell.

Level IIIA is tested to stop ammo fired from a .44 magnum at 1470 ft. per second with a 158 grain bullet and anything below.  It must mitigate 6 bullet strikes.  Usually the length of barrel is 4” or longer.  The test distance is 8 meters or less.  This product is almost always Soft Armor, but can be composite or hybrid.  Soft is the most popular, as it is more comfortable, flexible and it is light weight.  Our Level IIIA soft armor weighs from 1.25 pounds to 1.6 pounds depending upon size.  We stock both rectangle and shooters cut in Level IIIA.  We order Hybrid or composite if a customer wants it.  Our soft is an engineered product principally made up of Kevlar, other ballistic fabrics and a dilatant gel, which hardens immediately upon a hard impact.  Manufacturers establish a life span of 5 years. We stock this product in configurations for carriers and for backpack/briefcase armor for civilians such as TEACHERS AND STUDENTS.

It is prudent at this point to state that .556/.223 & 7.62 x .39 ammo have not been tested & approved by the NIJ on any Level IIIA products.  To pass the NIJ standards a piece of armor has to withstand 6 hits at the prescribed distance.  Ballistics studies have been done on these rounds on weapons (AR & AK Pistols) with less than 14.5 inch barrels and the results are that the rounds essentially become handgun rounds.  Here are links to two such studies: (http://www.sadefensejournal.com/wp/?p=1093)  &  (http://www.gunsandammo.com/editorial/barrel-length-vs-velocity/247991). At 55 grains to 68 grains a .223 bullet moving at 2100 feet per second at the muzzle degrades in velocity dramatically after the bullet leaves the barrel.  It essentially becomes a handgun round and lacks the modulus of impact that a 158 grain .44 magnum slug will carry at 1470 ft. per second which is the known impact speed.  Without adequate testing in a laboratory controlled situation, you cannot be certain that a Level IIIA will protect you against an AR/AK pistol.  However, a high percentage of these weapons that are faced in an urban environment are 7 to 10” barrels with greatly reduced velocities.  If you are reading this, you should be knowledgeable enough to make your own inferences with the information supplied. When using this information keep in mind that there are no guarantees as to which round you face coming out of an AR or AK pistol.

One question that we are repeatedly asked is will a Level IIA and a Level IIIA protect me against an AR/AK round.  I checked with my manufacturers technical people and to a person they indicated they are unaware of any testing that has been done on these products in a combined situation.  As adults we have to assume that the tests have been done and the results produced are not ones they are willing to share with us.  The manufacture our Level IIIA has indicated that a Soft armor would have to be in the vicinity of 3 inches thick to mitigate a .556 or .308 at 50 feet from a long barrel at 2800 feet per second.  The cost would be unaffordable and it would weigh over 10 lbs. (see the section on Level III Hybrid for a viable compromise).

Level III armor comes in two types, both hard.  We stock steel Level III and a hybrid product in Level III.  Level III is rated for rifle Ammo, tested at 50 feet for multiple hits typically 6.   For testing purposes, the products are tested against .556/.223 and .308 (both 7.63 x .39 and 7.63 x .51).  The test load is 2800 feet per second, while the projectile is a non-steel core, non AP and non-incendiary.  Level III does not mitigate .30-06 or 7.62 x .54R.  You will see some companies market a Level III+, which does not officially exist.  Often it is used to designate a product usually AR 600 which is said to mitigate a .30-06 or 7.62 X .54R round, fired at 2800 feet per second and non-steel core.  This is where we always explain that a large amount of the surplus ammo in the marketplace for these weapons is faster than 2800 feet per second and contains steel in the core.  Buyer beware on Level III+ (note we do stock it, but we always explain it).   

Level III steel is largely compliant, not certified.  Steel Armor carries a designation of the Letters AR accompanied by a number ie: AR 600.  The AR stands or Abrasion Resistant, while the number designates the Brinell score or a Brinell Hardness Number (BHN).  AR 650 is typically the highest number found in armor.  AR 500 is typically the lowest number found in armor.  AR 550/600 is middle of the group.  The Brinell Score ranks the hardness, the tensile strength and the deformation of the steel under a known impact.  A higher Brinell Number is achieved by heat treating and alloys with other metals.  Steel armor without a coating spalls or throws off fragments or shrapnel.  This characteristic is improved by coating the product.  The most common coating is PAXCON, (Line X).  We typically buy product with a base coat of Line X only.  A second coat is wise, but it can be applied by the customer for under $20.00.   When ordered from the manufacturer it costs from $50.00 to $100.00.  Steel weighs typically between 9 and 12 lbs. per plate.  We also recommend a smooth rubberized coating (flex seal type) to improve carrier life (note not offered at the manufacturing level).

Level III Hybrid is just that, a hybrid of engineered technologies and products married in a sandwich form.  The one we carry is a certified product that is much lighter than steel, weighing in at about 4.5 lbs. per plate.  It typically out performs steel in that it absorbs the impact and distributes it over a larger area.  There is deformation in this product, but it does not transmit as much of the modulus of impact or blunt force trauma directly to the body as steel does.   Our hybrid is ceramic reinforced by RFP, bound with UHMWPE, combined with ballistic fibers fused with a binder and backed by a metal plate reinforced and bound with RFP, Kevlar, Aramid & other products.  As such it achieves a high impact resistant product with a high melting point.  It transmits a lot less blunt force trauma than steel at the lower weight.  The product costs about 40% more than steel, but is much more comfortable when worn for any duration of time.  Before we sold this product we tested it at a range at the 50 feet distance, firing with a .556/.223 and then with a .308.  The attached picture is the result of this procedure.  We put 3 rounds of .556/.223 with following up with two .308 close shots and then one edge shot with a .308 to test the product for weakness.  It held up nicely, with some deformation due to grouping and shot order and no penetration.  Rifle rounds present the most danger so we wanted to check this for ourselves.

Level IV is tested to stop .30 caliber steel core armor piercing rifle ammo.  Level IV is hard armor.  It can be steel, but steel is very heavy, so it is usually a ceramic product with reinforced steel mesh or a ballistic fiber.  There are steel & ceramic hybrids, which combine the characteristics, both good and bad. Both steel and ceramic are heavy and not very comfortable.  While we have those available to us, we choose to stock a hybrid Level IV at 6.5 lbs.  The hybrid is the same type construction as the Level III product, but engineered to mitigate the .30 armor piercing ammo.  It comes in at around 6 lbs., roughly 50% of the weight of most Level IV products and is a tried and true technology.

Composites are available in Level IIIA, Level III and Level IV.  A composite is usually a polymer resin with a reinforcement, often a ballistic fiber.  The most common composite is Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene, or UHMWPE for the acronym.  It is light weight, coming in slightly lower than Hybrid in weight, usually thicker than hybrid and it has a much lower melting point.  The cost is 2 to 3 times that of soft armor and hybrid and can be as much as 4 to 5 times as much as steel.  I am personally not a fan of this product.  The performance, the light weight are present, but the costs and lower melting point of 147 degrees centigrade, offset the positives on this product, in my opinion.  We may choose to stock it later after it adjusts its price level to compete in the market place and the performance is improved enough to satisfy any misgivings.  For now, it is a special order item.  Composites are being driven in the marketplace at the current time by a shorter supply of Kevlar.  Dupont chose to cease Kevlar production in its Northern Ireland plant in 2018.  That plant produced roughly 20% of the worlds Kevlar.  It was older technology and as I understand it, could no longer produce product at a profitable level.   Now the bulk of the Kevlar produced in the world is produced offshore in state of the art facilities and it will take them a bit of time to ramp up to fill the void.  In the meantime, UHMWPE is being offered to fill the void.  I include this so that you will understand that UHMWPE has been available for a long time from Honeywell in the Spectra line of products, and it is now being driven into the market place due to a market void.   It is still expensive and it still has a low melting point.

It is not uncommon for governmental agencies to not equip law enforcement officers with the correct product.  Due to minority business set asides, they often overspend for lower quality products.  The state of Texas supplies Game Wardens with Level IIA, when they face poachers with rifles.  Only after the recent state grants have Law Enforcement departments across the state started to step up and supply officers with adequate protection, but it is often not across the entire department and sometimes not comfortable and wearable.  We offer all 1st responders a discount of up to 25% lower than we sell other customer segments as officers supplement their department issued armor or in some cases replace it with a more wearable option.  It is our goal to support all 1st responders to the best of our ability.  If you have any questions, you may reach us at (281)-879-0801 or email address: dougclabough@peoplepc.com.