Bulletproof Ratings Explained
How do I decide what level of bulletproof protection I want?
The bulletproof product industry can be quite confusing for newcomers. You’ll see companies advertising different levels of protection and use terms like NIJ certified or rated. To summarize in the most simple way possible, in the U.S. the standard for certification of products that claim to be “bulletproof” or bullet resistant, is managed by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). The NIJ created a system of testing bullet resistant material and giving it a rating level. This U.S. standardized system is also used popularly as the industry standard in many foreign countries. When you purchase armor products, realize that some are actually “certified” by the NIJ and some are just “rated” to NIJ standards. If they don’t have an NIJ certificate, make sure you know and trust where their “rating” testing took place and that they have documentation from a reputable laboratory. Official NIJ certification is expensive and that’s why some manufacturers don’t go through the full process. Buyers should be aware however that there may be little to no regulation over companies that claim to only have their products meet the NIJ standard. Below is a graphic for technical readers of what caliber and muzzle velocity of ammunition each level is rated to stop. If you’re still confused, some questions that follow may help you decide which product you’re wanting to buy:
I don’t understand calibers and muzzle velocity. Explain to me what kinds of threats these products protect against for someone without technical knowledge.
Level II, IIA, and IIIA materials are generally referred to as “soft amor”. While they can be made of ridged fiberglass-like construction material to put built in walls and vehicles, when they’re used in clothing and vests, these levels are usually made with a Kevlar fabric or hybrid variant. A vest or backpack panel in one of these levels is generally fairly lightweight and semi-rigid like a rolled up newspaper. Level IIIA is less flexible than the level II products, but is still very lightweight. A IIIA backpack panel weighs about the same as a bottle of water. Level II, IIA, and IIIA panels are designed to protect primarily against handgun threats. Level IIIA is rated to protect you against penetration of virtually every shotgun threat as well. Despite the media attention drawn to mass attack incidents where rifles are used, they are still only used in roughly 1/4 of attacks within the U.S. To give you an idea of how to compare the levels that people are using for protection, consider that most police officers in the U.S. do not wear any vest rated above a Level IIIA for daily patrol. Many are still even wearing Level II vests due to price, flexibility, breathability, and weight.
Level III and IV materials are always made of stiff ridged material that is often quite heavy. Common materials are made with plates of AR500 steel, ceramic, polyethylene, or a hybrid mix of several materials. Patrol police officers often carry Level III or IV plates in carriers for extra protection that they keep in their vehicles. Special teams like SWAT will also wear Level III and IV vests when dispatched, but very rarely will law enforcement personnel wear a Level III or IV plate for everyday wear because of the weight and thickness of the plates. A full carrier vest with Level IV plates can easily weigh over 25 lbs. You may also see Level III+ listed on some of the steel plate products we sell. This is an unofficial designation that some manufacturers in the industry have used to describe a Level III plate that goes above and beyond normal protection standards. It’s not quite Level IV, but it provides better protection against higher velocity rounds and certain types of ammunition. Look at each individual product description to see what kinds of ammunition it has been tested to stop.
So to review, all of the “soft armor” products we sell in Level II or IIIA are rated to stop handgun rounds and some handgun calibers shot through “submachine guns” such as Uzis and MAC-10s. The Level IIIA products are rated to stop up to 12 gauge shotgun blasts of nearly every type and up to .44 magnum caliber handguns (which is virtually every handgun in existence). The Level III, III+, and IV armor is “hard armor” and is heavier and bulkier but will stop rifle rounds with the Level IV being the highest protection against armor piercing .30 caliber rifles.
I want to buy a bulletproof backpack for my child, but I want it to have protection against rifle threats. What should I do?
As mentioned above, soft armor is by far the least expensive, lightest, and most comfortable option for the majority of ballistic threats one might encounter in day-to-day life. The owners of AVS have Level IIIA panel inserts in all of their personal backpacks as well as in those of their children. The panels travel through TSA security on planes legally within the U.S. and in most foreign countries. Level II or IIIA vests are commonly used every day for added precaution at the shooting range and at your bedside for protection during a home invasion. Level II and IIIA soft armor materials are easily integrated into clothing, such as a child’s jacket, without adding much weight. Because ballistic protection in your backpack is useless if it’s too cumbersome that you won’t carry it, we usually recommend that parents avoid purchasing Level III and IV plates for children’s backpacks. While they are rated to stop rifle rounds, you have to weigh the tradeoff between the likelihood that your child will encounter rifle rounds versus the likelihood that they will be able to quickly lift up their heavy backpack as a shield or continuously carry it if it has an additional 10 lbs or more added to it. The industry has started to improve the design of the materials so that a single polyethylene backpack plate may weigh less than 3 lbs. However, the plates are usually about an inch or more thick and 2 or 3 times more expensive.
There is one other option. Some of our products, such as the Leatherback Gear backpack, incorporate (2) Level IIIA panels inside of them. We must stress that these Level IIIA products have not and cannot be rated to stop rifle rounds. However, in independent and unofficial testing by law enforcement agencies and others who replicated the results, the Leatherback Gear backpack did stop .308 and .223 rifle rounds when it was shot in backpack mode. That is to say, when the two panels were sandwiched together and not worn as a vest, the rounds went through the first panel but were slowed down enough that the second panel stopped them. Many factors go into whether the backpack can stop a rifle round such as the brand of ammunition and type of projectile (hollow point versus steel tipped, etc.). The protection effect is enhanced if you’re carrying textbooks, laptops, etc. inside the bag. Therefore, AVS and Leatherback Gear cannot make any official claims or guarantees and no one should base lifesaving decisions on purchasing solely based on this information. If you’re looking at a backpack that unofficially may have the ability to stop more than just handgun and shotgun rounds without the added weight and expense, then the Leatherback backpack may be an option for you.
What about knives and other weapons? Are bulletproof products also stab resistant?
The security industry has a completely different rating system for protection against bladed and piercing weapons like knifes and picks. Typically, protective clothing is designed to protect against bullets or knives, but not both. There are some multi-threat products that are rated for both, but this comes at the expense of tightly woven and inflexible material or laminated backings that act like a hard shell. It’s usually more practical to have such a product in a backpack panel, but not normally to wear in a vest for frequent wear. AVS does not sell blade or pick resistant rated products at this time. However, it should be noted that even most bullet resistant soft armor can greatly reduce the risk of injury from bladed weapons, especially in slash resistance.
I’ve always thought of bulletproof vests and panels as something only police can wear or need. Is it legal for U.S. citizens to buy and what kinds of people or jobs use it?
At the time of this update, all levels of bulletproof products from Level IIA to IV are legal to purchase, own, and possess throughout the U.S. except by felons or those using it for criminal purposes. Connecticut also requires the purchase be made face-to-face and not through the mail. As more attention is focused on unfortunate events where attackers happen to also be wearing body armor, it seems that political pressure is mounting to regulate the sell and possession of such products. We will update our website if regulations are enacted that would restrict the sale of certain levels of armor. AVS believes that those who are served by the legitimate benefits for armor use far outweigh those who unfortunately abuse the technology for criminal purposes. Here’s a growing list of the types of jobs or lifestyles of our customers from all walks of life that use bulletproof products:
Contract security guards • private security and executive protection agents • private investigators • process servers • Uber, Lyft , and taxi drivers • bouncers • bankers • quick check cashing companies • convenience store cashiers • those who make frequent bank and ATM deposits • home invasion protection • community disaster volunteers • tow truck drivers • vehicle repo operators • pharmacists • realtors • EMTs and paramedics • firearms instructors • target shooters • hunters • school teachers and administrators • company executives and human resource managers • social workers • CPS investigators • corrections officers • probation officers • liquor store and late night restaurant staff • animal control officers • drug rehab clinic and housing staff • homeless shelter staff • Amazon and other home package delivery providers • jewelers • pawn shop staff • parking enforcement • state and local park employees • concert and event staff • college and K-12 students • bull riders and rodeo clowns • church ushers and clergy • travelers to foreign countries • judges, attorneys and court personnel • elected officials and high profile politicians • celebrities • nurses, doctors, and ER staff • psychologists and therapists • news reporters • rare coin and memorabilia collectors • inner city public utility workers • metro and bus drivers • gaming industry booking agents.