The modern American soldier wears more armor into battle than any warrior since the medieval knight. And an entry team might wear more than that! In fact, it wasn't until the very end of the medieval era, when armor had become fully encasing, that the weight of it reached the equivalent of today’s soldiers. There has only been one reason throughout history to justify the wearing of such weight into combat - it works.

It is estimated that over 3,000 law enforcement officers have been saved by their vests in the past few decades and that those who do wear vests have 3.4 times greater1 chance of surviving the incident. Body armor can be uncomfortable, hot and annoying, but it is undoubtedly your best protection from the forces that mean to do you harm. Choosing the right level and quality for yourself can ease much of the downside of wearing armor. 

Body Armor Ratings

Ok, let's jump right into the point of this article. Most of you out there are probably aware that body armor comes in a number of ratings , but how much do you need? Keeping track of what level of defense these rating match up to, and which level you should be wearing for your job, can take a little thought. We are going to go through the various ratings, what they stop, and who tends to wear the armor at that level. Afterward I’m going to add some of my own experience on why prices may vary amongst pieces of armor with the same rating.

You should also keep in mind the difference between covert and overt style armors. Covert being the kind worn under clothes. Covert Armor is often restricted in its defensive capabilities due to the need for thinness and flexibility - in order to be worn discreetly. You can find covert armors up to Level IIIA ratings.

Its also important to note the level of protection will also vary on the velocity of the projectile. The same round can have much more penetrating power depending on the velocity at which it is traveling. Velocity is a big deal in body armor ratings - and you will note it is a big difference between why one vest is rated the way it is.

Also note, when we start talking about hard armor, there is a distinction between ICW and SA plates. ICW means "In Conjunction With" - that is, an ICW plate must be worn in conjunction with soft armor (underneath). If you wear an ICW plate without soft armor, it does not stop the threats it says it stops - very important when you find that 'good deal' on a plate or weight that seems too light to be true! So always make sure that your ICW plate is worn along with your soft armor. SA means "Stands Alone". SA hard armor plates can be worn all by themselves with or without soft armor underneath them. 

Stab Proof and Spike Proof Vests

Stab proof and spike proof are actually two different types of protection. A knife proof only vest may not be able to protect you from an ice pick/stiletto type weapon, and a spike proof only vest may not adequately defend you from a laceration style attack. Rarely are soft bulletproof armor vests able to protect you from either one (hard armor will of course stop most of these attacks). It's important to consider the threats you will be facing when choosing your armor - example: correction officers will often opt for spike protection due to the nature of the weapons they may face.


Level IIA

This armor can be light and is easy to wear very discreetly under clothes, but its uses can also be very limited. It is the minimum level of protection suggested for anyone who faces a threat that requires body armor.

What does it stop - Rated to stop threats up to: 9mm JSP; .40 S&W; .45 ACP; 12 gauge 00 buck

Who Wears it - This is worn by many police officers, though personally, I would recommend at least Level II if possible, because of velocity.


Level II

Level II body armor is widely considered a fair balance between size/weight and effectiveness. It is the most often purchased armor by departments who wear their armor under their uniform shirts (or in a uniform style external carrier). 

What does it stop - Rated to stop threats up to: 9mm 124g FMJ; 9mm +P; .357 Magnum

Who Wears it - This level is the standard for most on-duty officers. Security/Police personnel who are required to go on longer patrols or operate in warmer climates may consider this level of threat protection.


Level IIIA

Level IIIa is the highest rated soft armor you can find. It is usually thicker and stiffer than other vests with lower ratings, but if you are operate in the highest threat environments, you might choose level IIIa. Military issued tactical vests are usually rated at level IIIa with an additional fragmentation rating.

What does it stop - Rated to stop threats up to: .357 SIG; .44 Magnum; 10mm Auto; 12g 1oz Rifled slug;

This level should be adequate for the vast majority of handgun threats.

Who Wears it - Police officers, security personnel, and anyone else who requires a high level of protection while still maintaining a manageably comfortable garment. It is usually fine for everyday wear, though hot climates or constant movement may make the extra thickness of this armor uncomfortable. If you are going to wear ICW hard armor plates, you will want level IIIA soft armor to go with them.


Level III

Now we are getting into hard armor plates. Our modern day knights if you will. These armor levels (III and IV) usually require a good amount of conditioning before they can be worn comfortably for extended periods of time, and unless you're willing to put in the effort, should typically be reserved for stationary posts or jobs where the armor can be donned before the threat is posed (examples might be home defense or patrol units responding to active shooter situations).

What does it stop - Expected to stop threats up to: Most rifles; Lehigh .45-70

Note: Level III hard armor will stop .223, .556, and 7.62x39 threats; but is generally not rated to stop Green-tip .556 or Mild-Steel Core AK rounds. If these cartridges are among your threats, you should choose either Level IV hard amour or see one of the Level III+ Special threat Plates (Like this one). 

Who Wears it - Those dealing with tactical situations like barricaded suspects, active shooter response, or anyone else facing a threat involving rifles.


Level IV

Level IV hard armor is the highest level of protection available in a transportable, wearable form.

What does it stop - Expected to stop threats up to: Armor Piercing Rifle Ammunition - tested against 30-06 M2 AP.

Who Wears it - Military personnel, High-risk entry teams, Active Shooter Response, Any threat with high-powered (like, for real high powered) rifles.


Why You May Consider Paying a Little More for the Same Rating

Although all armor at the same rating level are certified to perform equally against the same threats, you may see the prices between makes and models, for example two different level II vests or two similar looking level III rifle plates, vary considerably. Typically you are paying for the weight and thickness (or like they sometimes like to say in the armor business, the thinness).

Higher quality armor might use specific materials that defend against the same threats, but with less weight or bulk. But these materials or construction techniques come at a cost. If you are wearing the same armor day after day, shift after shift, you (or your department) might consider spending the extra money. However, if your armor is worn only in certain situations, it could make a lot of sense to spend less but have it for sure when you need it. As the say, ounces add up to pounds and pounds equals pain! Just shaving off a few pounds (without sacrificing protection) can make a huge difference on the wear and tear on your body over a few years.

I hope this quick guide helps you when making your decision about body armor. We know this can be a very confusing topic for many and look forward to helping you with any question you might have. Our company is staffed with serving police officers and military veterans (heck, most of us are both!) – do not hesitate to contact Nelson & Co today.

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