Body Armor For The Laymen: Part 2

Protective Rating Explained

In our previous article, High Ground covered the various types of body armor and its benefits v disadvantages. The purpose of this, the second in a series of publications on body armor, is to introduce to the reader to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), its Compliant Product List (CPL) for certified body armor, the testing process and its characteristics. 

1. The NIJ

The NIJ is the regulatory arm of the federal government that oversees (among other things) body armor, and ensures an even and consistent evaluation of manufacturers for overall safety. The NIJ, and its testing process (a.k.a. NIJ Standard 0101.06), are considered the “Gold Standard” when it comes to the current market of options available. But the process isn’t cheap. Often manufacturers have to submit multiple samples for destructive testing, data, and the overall evaluation process can take over a year. But the NIJ does not test against 5.56×45 or 7.62×39 threats—so there is a lapse in the testing process against today’s current threats. The NIJ is cognizant of this fact and plans to update its testing and rating system in the future.

Other certified laboratories (there are only three in the entire country) are capable of testing on behalf of the NIJ, but the results are sent to the NIJ for final review and approval before being certified. Approved plates must bear the approved NIJ seal on the back of the plate, along with the manufacturer’s data. However, in 2017 the NIJ revised their seal due to some manufacturers falsely representing their plates as certified with misleading NIJ-look-alike “seals”.

2. The NIJ Testing Process: 

NIJ Approved Seal

In general, the NIJ testing process includes the following process: 

  • Heat Exposure: Plates are heated in an oven to 149 degrees Fahrenheit in 80% humidity to evaluate for delamination or failure. This is a Pass/Fail only test.
  • Thermal Cycling: Over a period of 24 hours the plates are exposed to temperature variation between 5 and 194 degrees Fahrenheit to evaluate for degradation of the materials. This is a Pass/Fail only test.
  • Drop Test: From this point, the plates are then strapped to a 10-pound “dead load” on the back of the plate and dropped from a height of 4 feet, twice. This is to evaluate for breakage, but regardless of damage the plates are still sent to the next stage.
  • Submersion Test: In this stage, the plates are submerged in a tank of water for a period of 24 hours to evaluate for saturation changes that could potentially compromise the armor’s protective values. This is a Pass/Fail only test.
  • Ballistic Test: This is the final stage of testing evaluation, wherein the plates are shot at their appropriate threat level. Using a remote firing control device, the NIJ uses various barrel lengths (4-6″ for pistol, 22″ for rifle) for the caliber being evaluated in relationship to the threat level being evaluated. To ensure consistency, the NIJ uses customized loads in a heavily controlled and scientific setting to evaluate penetration and back force deformation (up to 44mm).
  • Site Inspection: Lastly, once plates have been cleared from all the testing, the manufacturing facility is visited to ensure the vendor has appropriate quality control, inventory management, and ability to track the armor throughout the manufacturing process. If a manufacturer has all these, and the plates have passed inspection, then the results are published and the vendor is listed on the NIJ’s CPL.

To best verify if a manufacturer’s product is approved by the NIJ, go to the NIJ website and check the NIJ compliant product list. It can take up to 60 seconds for the entire listing to load, and is alphabetized according to the name of the manufacturer. If the vendor or product model number is not on the CPL list, then that product is not certified per the NIJ. The CPL list itself is updated regularly.

To address current threat profiles amid an outdated testing process, the NIJ intends to update NIJ Standard 0101.06 to a more stringent NIJ Standard 0101.07. This revision (continually rolled back since summer of 2021) will clarify the rating system by dividing its current four categories into five. Two for Handgun (HG1 & HG2), two for Rifle (RF1 & RF3), and a new category for intermediate threat (RF2).

3. Beyond the NIJ

Source: The Science of Armour Materials (2017)

But NIJ certification doesn’t just end at the initial submission, manufacturers must work to keep such a prestigious rating. If, at any point, the manufacturer changes the means in production, materials, or design to an NIJ certified model of body armor, that certification is revoked and the manufacturer must resubmit the new model from the beginning of the submission process. Thus, it becomes a long-term investment for a manufacturer to commit to being NIJ certified. Furthermore, NIJ approved body armor is subject to random quality control screening in a process known as the Follow-Up Inspection Test (FIT). The FIT can be conducted every 12 months to 2 years (per the NIJ’s discretion), and is taken from a random selection of certified body armor (for Level II four plates are selected, Level IV uses two plates) and shot to testing specifications. This helps to ensure consistent manufacturing. In 2021, the NIJ updated its Export Administration Regulations (EAR) to formally move all body armor manufactured overseas (specifically in China) to its “Inactive” list that no longer mandates a FIT test, but also removes any NIJ certification. This was a move specifically to limit dubious overseas manufacturing where quality control is less stringent and prevent such manufacturers from attaining NIJ certification.

4. “Tested to NIJ Standards”

However, as noted there is some misrepresentation in the market, with little-to-no repercussions for those whom purposely mislead consumers. Enter the phrase “Tested to NIJ Standards” and “Tested to NIJ 0101.06”. This is a subtle way of saying that the body armor being marketed is not formally certified by the NIJ. Generally, manufacturers send their body armor to a third-party laboratory (predominantly not an NIJ listed alternative) for testing, and are only required to test to 1/40th of the actual NIJ certification process to attain any measurable data that allows the manufacturer to state “Tested to NIJ Standards”. These test results aren’t even submitted to the NIJ for review or publication, it just provides a manufacturer a more inexpensive alternative by which to say they met some level of the same testing standard as the NIJ. Moreover, there is no oversight of these third-party laboratories in that the quality of testing is controlled or even scientific—it’s basically all just on the lab’s good credentials. 

“To NIJ Standard” is a common misrepresentation conflating clever marketing with NIJ-appearing seals

The only exception to the expression of “Tested to NIJ Standards” is the applicaiton of this statement to helmets. The NIJ does not certify helmets as the guiding NIJ literature on the issue hasn’t been updated since 1981. Moreover, the NIJ maintains that the bullet’s impact against a curved surface, such as on the crown of a helmet, are often extremely difficult to consistently measure. Add to the challenge that the threat profile against helmets has changed so drastically since 1981, and the problems of the NIJ’s outdated rating system become even more apparent. Thus, a manufacturer will typically send a helmet to NIJ-approved or third party labs to have it tested against the performance values of NIJ Standard 0101.06 for body armor – ergo “tested to NIJ Standards” as a product description. But again, the full extent of what that testing data reveals is something not typically disclosed to the public.

5. So What Does It Mean to Be Certified?

The NIJ Ballistic Ratings were initially developed as a means to “catalogue” threat ratings against caliber. The hope was that if something were rated to X level, then that meant it was certified to stop Y threats. Unfortunately, technology has advanced faster than the NIJ can keep up with and as such, the older method of testing to specific calibers at specific velocities no longer takes into consideration the variance in materials and manufacture. But until the NIJ does update its rating system, the current one remains in place and is tiered as follows: 

5. A. Level II

This rating is strictly a handgun rating, and protects against common calibers fired from handgun/subgun/short-barreled handguns with corresponding velocities. At this level, submitted body armor is tested against 9mm at 1175fps, and .357 Magnum at 1250fps, from a distance of five meters. Level II body armor does not offer protection against rifle ammunition threats. In the future NIJ Standard 0101.07, this category will be incorporated into HG1.

5. B. Level IIA

Very similar to Level II, this rating is strictly a handgun rating, and protects against common calibers fired from handgun/subgun/short-barreled handguns with corresponding velocities. At this level, and where it differs from Level II body armor, is the submitted body armor is tested against lower velocity 9mm at 1090fps, and .357 Magnum at 1395fps, from a distance of five meters. Level IIA body armor does not offer protection against rifle ammunition threats. In the future NIJ Standard 0101.07, this category will be identified as HG1.

5. C. Level III

This rating is strictly a rifle rating, and protects against common calibers fired from a 22” barrel with corresponding velocities. At this level, submitted body armor is tested against M80, 7.62mm FMJ lead core rifle ammunition at 2750fps, from a distance of fifteen meters. Level III body armor is best to defeat lead core 5.56mm/.223 Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP) ammunition (typically hunting ammunition) at velocities under 3200fps (ammo dependent). Level III armor with hybrid elements (such as ceramic elements and often noted by a “+” annotation) can protect against threats up to 3200fps, but are dependent on vendor specifications and testing. In the future NIJ Standard 0101.07, this category will be identified as RF1. Editor’s Note: According to industry leaders, the future revision to NIJ 0101.07 RF1 for Level III/RF1 certification will include M193 ammunition at 3250fps as a testing round.

5. D. Level IIIA

This is where things get a little confusing. Level IIIA body armor is again, strictly a handgun rating, and protects against common calibers fired from longer-barreled handguns with corresponding velocities. At this level, submitted body armor is tested against 9mm at 1400fps, and .44 Magnum at 1400fps, from a distance of five meters. Level IIIA body armor does not offer protection against rifle ammunition threats. In the future NIJ Standard 0101.07, this category will be identified as HG2.

5. E. Level IV

Again back to strictly a rifle rating, Level IV body armor protects against common calibers fired from a 22” barrel including a single (yes, single) hit from a .30-06 M2 Armor Piercing with corresponding velocities. At this level, submitted body armor is tested against .30cal steel core armor piercing rifle ammunition at 2850fps, from a distance of fifteen meters. Level IV body armor is also best to defeat steel core M885A1 5.56mm/.223 “Green Tip” ammunition (typically military ammunition) at velocities under 3200fps (ammo dependent). Level IV armor is also valid against M193 ammunition, thus making Level IV plates the best choice for overall protection. In the future NIJ Standard 0101.07, this category will be identified as RF3 and specialized threat profiles, such as M855 using a steel core, will be moved to RF2. Editor’s Note: According to industry leaders, the future revision to NIJ 0101.07 RF2 for Level IV/RF2 certification will include M885A1 ammunition at 3250fps as a testing round.

6. All About the “+”

Consumers should be cognizant of non-NIJ ratings; to include the “+” designator. The “+” is an unofficial rating designation specific to that manufacturer, and typically in addition to NIJ certification. For example, from a credible manufacturer, the “+” rating on a NIJ approved Level III+ plate means that the plate model has been certified to meet Level III requirements (a rifle rating), but that the manufacturer has added some type of material to make the plate capable of defeating additional threats (typically 7.62×39 Mild Steel core or M855 “Green Tip”) outside of the established Level III profile, as denoted by the “+” marking. The manufacturer assumes the liability of this “+” advent by ensuring the company has properly tested the additional elements of the plate in an independent laboratory to meet the stated threat, but still those results are not submitted to the NIJ for approval. Ultimately the consumer bears the final responsibility of assuming a plate with the “+” rating will meet the stated threat, as the manufacturer is under no obligation to share its testing data with the public. In the future NIJ Standard 0101.07, this category will be identified as RF2.

7. The “Expiration Date”

A final word on the expiration dates to body armor. Fact is, unless roughly handled, the characteristics of the material in body armor does not spoil like food. Yet all body armor, regardless of their principle component (steel, Kevlar, or ceramic) does come with an expiration date similar to the following: 

  • Steel body armor: 15-20 years 
  • Standard ceramic body armor: 5-7 years

So why do ballistic plates have an expiration date? Really it comes down to liability coverage on the part of the manufacturer. The vendor guarantees that the material used will perform to the stated NIJ protection level for only a period of X years. Beyond that the vendor doesn’t know how you store it, use it, or what environment you are using it in and isn’t willing to guarantee beyond that expiration date that the end-user hasn’t done something to compromise the plate’s integrity. So is a ballistic plate beyond its stated shelf life still good, certainly—provided you have not dropped, soaked, shot, or otherwise done something to it and properly stored it when not in use. The scientific half-life for steel and ceramics is longer than most people will live, but realistically if you have body armor that is approaching 20 years of age, been properly stored, you’ll still want to think of replacing it as undoubtedly technology of ballistic protection and the threat have probably evolved beyond the protective characteristics of the armor. Otherwise inspect them regularly (for ceramics if you flex the plate in your hand you shouldn’t hear any type of cracking noise), check the exterior for frayed or damaged coating, and store as instructed. This will help ensure a long life to your PPE. 

Disclaimer: The purpose of this PPE series is strictly informational, much like our COVID Chronicles on plate carriers, this series is not intended by High Ground to sway or convince the reader that one specific brand of body armor is superior to all the others. In the end, this series is intended to provide the reader with a condensed and focused resource—nothing more. As always, check with your local laws as some states have regulations on ownership of body armor by civilians.

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