Congrats — you've made it to our complete bulletproof plate buyer's guide. If you're reading this, it's probably safe to say your job is no walk in the park. Are you a cop? Do you work in the military? How about a security guard? All of these — and more — require bulletproof vests and plates. There's simply no way around it. You need quality protection from potential shootings on the job, and that's why we're here to help.
With risky jobs like these, a high-quality bulletproof plate isn't just a want, it's a need. Trust us. To determine which type of body armor you'll need for work, read on to learn about the NIJ plate protection levels, sizes and materials.
Choosing Your Bulletproof Plate Protection Level
A bulletproof plate — also called an armor plate, ballistic plate or trauma plate — is inserted into a bulletproof vest to provide additional protection for the wearer. The National Institute of Justice, or NIJ, is an agency of the United States Department of Justice that regulates these plates.
Through the development of tools and knowledge, the NIJ's main role is to research and improve the country's crime control and justice issues. So, you might see how this organization pertains to protective body armor.
Basically, the NIJ sets the testing standards and protocols for bulletproof plates. To evaluate overall safety and effectiveness, it determines the threat and caliber level the armor in question can withstand. More specifically, it aims to ensure a bullet won't puncture the plate and expose the wearer to blunt force trauma. Pretty important job, right?
Here's the thing about the NIJ's body armor levels — each one provides a different level of protection. The NIJ currently has five threat levels, and each one is classified by the caliber of bullet it can stop. The five threat levels are:
- Level IIA
- Level II
- Level IIIA
- Level III
- Level IV
We know, we know. Roman numerals make everything more confusing. And paired with letters, they look even weirder. But not to worry — to help you choose the right protection level for your job, we'll break down each of these levels so they're a little easier to understand.
1. Level IIA
This is the current lowest NIJ protection level. Sorry, Level IIA, but at least you made the cut!
Level IIA is the lightest and most flexible among the five, but it's largely outdated and not a first choice for many. Typically a form of soft armor and easily concealable beneath clothing, Level IIA protects against 9mm and .40 S&W ammo from short-barrel handguns. It doesn't offer protection from rifle ammunition.
2. Level II
While Level II body armor offers slightly more protection than IIA, it's also not really considered one of the big guys. A relatively soft and thin ballistic body armor, it's designed to protect from common handgun rounds — usually up to .357 Magnum rounds from short barrels and 9mm.
Like IIA, Level II plates are flexible, light and discreet under clothing, but they defeat a higher ammunition range than IIA and offer more blunt force protection. Due to their lightweight nature and overall ease of use, Level II options can be popular choices for some police forces and even security-conscious citizens.
3. Level IIIA
Now, here's where we start to segue into the more heavy-duty stuff. While Level IIIA does not provide rifle protection, it's been tested by the NIJ to stop .44 Magnum and 9mm ammunition from longer barrel handguns — unlike levels IIA and II, which really only protect from short barrel rounds.
Our level IIIA plates are also tested to withstand common rounds such as: .45 ACP, .38 Special, .40 S&W, .380 ACP, and .357 Magnum.
4. Level III
Level III body plates are the first to protect against rifle rounds. This type of body armor usually contains hard and heavy materials, so it's not quite as concealable. But with this heavy material generally comes greater protection. Level III plates are NIJ-tested to withstand a lead core rifle ammunition of 7.62mm.
Our level III plates protect against everything our level IIIA plates do, and are also tested to withstand common rifle calibers including: .308 Winchester, 5.56x45mm M855, 5.56x45mm M193, .223 Remington, .22 Long Rifle, 7.62x51mm NATO, 7.62x39mm, 5.45x39mm, and .300 ACC Blackout.
5. Level IV
Finally, NIJ Level IV provides the highest protection level, hence the higher number — makes sense now, right? It's been tested to resist armor-piercing rifle ammunition from a .30cal steel core.
Our level IV plates will protect against everything listed above, and are also tested to withstand various common sniper rifle calibers including: 7.62×54mm R, 7.62x51mm NATO, 5.56x45mm NATO, .223 Remington, .308 Winchester, .300 Winchester Magnum, .338 Lapua Magnum, 5.45x39mm, .30-06 Springfield (M2AP), 7.62x63mm (.30-06 JSP), and 6.5mm Creedmoor.
Hard vs. Soft Body Armor
There are two main classifications of bulletproof plates. There's hard armor, which is made from heavier and sturdier materials, and soft armor, which uses thinner and lighter materials.
While levels IIA, II and IIIA are all considered soft armor, III and IV are hard plates. Later, we'll dive into some specific hard and soft materials used for bulletproof plates, so stay tuned!
Getting the Right Size and Fit for Your Bulletproof Plates
Next, we'll teach you how to fit your body armor so it isn't too tight or bulky — because let's face it, neither of these is pleasant.
Types of Plate Cuts
Before we move into sizing, let's go over some common ballistic plate cuts:
- Full cut: This has a rectangular or square shape and provides full back protection.
- Shooter's cut: This has a rectangular shape and cut-off corners, providing better movement and agility for shooting.
- Swimmer's cut: This resembles the shooter's cut, but more of the top area is removed for additional shoulder and upper back movement.
- SAPI: This stands for “small arms protective insert.” A SAPI usually weighs three to five pounds and is preferred by military personnel.
Like choosing the best cut of steak, you need to pick the right plate cut for you. Determine how much torso coverage you'll require, or if you need something that enables easy movement or weapon handling.
What Size Armor Plate Do I Need?
When deciding how to buy a bulletproof insert, size does matter. While it's not necessary to cover your whole body or torso, you'll certainly need something that protects vital organs like the lungs and heart.
The two common plate sizes are 10x12 inches and 11x14 inches. While 10x12 is the standard fit for many, some may require 11x14 for proper coverage. But even if you're a larger person, don't automatically assume you'll need 11x14. The best way to find the right size is to take some measurements for yourself.
Grab a measuring tape and place the end above your collarbone. Stop the tape measure about two or three inches on top of your navel. Another method is cutting out two pieces of cardboard in 10x12 and 11x14 sizes. Cut the corners to replicate the body armor cut and hold it up to your chest — if 10x12 covers your vitals sufficiently, this size should work for you. If not, opt for 11x14 instead.
Choosing the Right Bulletproof Plate Material
Now, we'll dive into the common materials used for bulletproof plates, as well as some pros and cons of each one.
Kevlar is usually classified as soft body armor, as it protects against low- to medium-velocity firearm rounds. Kevlar plates are available in three different grades according to quality:
- Standard Kevlar: Very stiff, often used to make tires
- Kevlar 29: Used to make brake linings, asbestos replacements and industrial cabinets — usually the most ideal Kevlar grade for body armor
- Kevlar 49: Often used to create plastic parts for boats, bicycles and planes
A synthetic fiber with impressive tensile strength, Kevlar is an ideal material for body armor. Its molecules are unidirectional and parallel to one another, making them very tightly bound and sturdy. It's lightweight yet strong, as well as rust and corrosion-resistant. Kevlar is effective in absorbing vibrations.
Many of these Kevlar plates can't withstand high-velocity rifle fire, so keep this in mind before purchasing one. And while they can stop bullets from certain lower caliber rifles, this may result in dangerously high blunt force trauma. You'll need to add multiple layers of Kevlar underneath a bulletproof vest to increase its protection level.
It's also common to reinforce Kevlar bulletproof vests with steel or ceramic plates to create armor plate carriers. However, this makes the armor bulky, uncomfortable and less concealable. Another con is that Kevlar is easily damaged by UV rays, frequent washing, dry cleaning and bleaching agents.
Have we talked your ear off about bulletproof plates yet? No? Good! Moving on to the next material, steel.
One of the most popular materials for hard body armor, combat and law enforcement settings, there's no denying steel's impressive ability to deflect bullets and protect against blunt force trauma. Steel plates are often inserted into carrier vests, which have specially designed pockets for the plates.
Perhaps one of steel's best qualities is that it can take multiple shots to one spot, unlike other materials like ceramic. If you're part of a tactical combat force and need something strong to protect from heavy rifle gunfire, a steel plate may be the one for you.
As much as we've raved about steel plates, there are a couple of drawbacks to consider. For one thing, steel is a heavy material, so it's going to feel bulky when you put it on. It makes it tough to conceal a bulletproof vest. For this reason, uniformed patrol officers and civilians — specifically those looking for something lightweight and discrete — tend to steer away from steel.
3. Polyethylene (PE)
Like steel plates, polyethylene — or PE — is one of the best ballistic panels for subduing blunt force trauma, making it a favorite among law enforcement and military personnel alike. Learn more about its pros and cons below.
Classified as hard body armor and often paired with carrier vests, PE plates provide multiple benefits on the job. While they can be up to 15 times as hard as steel, they're also significantly lighter and more comfortable to wear, usually only weighing between one and five pounds. Perfectly bonded plates can withstand multiple bullet hits to the same spot and still prevent them from entering.
Provided the threat does not exceed Level III, PE plates offer impressive protection from rifle gunfire, making them the lightest rifle-protective plates you can buy. Did we also mention PE plates are lighter and thinner than Kevlar plates in all protective levels? Sounds like a pretty good deal if you ask us.
The main drawback to PE bulletproof plates is that they are highly susceptible to damage from high temperatures. Military personnel working in considerably hot regions — like deserts — may not always find PE favorable, as the harsh heat can easily compromise the plate's effectiveness.
You should also know that PE body armor can be more costly than other types because the materials and process used to manufacture PE are expensive. But hey, you're getting a real bang for your buck, so you may find it's well worth every penny.
Last but not least, let's check out the pros and cons of ceramic bulletproof plates.
Ceramic bulletproof plates are typically used as inserts in soft ballistic vests. While they're classified as hard armor plates, ceramic plates are far lighter than steel — yet, in some circumstances, they'll offer the same level of protection. Another bonus is that ceramic plates are much cheaper than PE plates. When considering these factors, they may sound like the total package.
Ceramic plates have a drawback to consider. They can't take multiple shots to a single spot or precision fire. If you know anything about ceramic items, you know how easily they shatter into pieces when dropped or hit.
While the ceramic plate won't completely shatter into pieces, the spot that's been hit can crack severely. At this point, the plate is essentially ineffective, and a bullet will almost certainly go through the same spot or the surrounding area if shot again.
Ceramic plates are very fragile, so it's important to be extra cautious when handling them. They're more ideal if you aren't exposed to heavy gunfire threats on the job, especially from automatic or semi-automatic weapons. You'll need to replace a ceramic plate if it shows any signs of cracking, water damage or extreme wear.
Which Bulletproof Plate Is Best?
First of all, give yourself a pat on the back. You've made it through the complete bulletproof plate buyer's guide! Hopefully, you've gathered some useful information about the different types of plates. Now that we've compared and contrasted different threat levels, sizes and materials, how do you determine the best bulletproof plates for your job?
Try to choose a bulletproof plate that protects against common calibers you'd expect to encounter. Also, consider whether you need something lightweight and concealable, or heavy and sturdy, as well as the temperatures and conditions you'll be working in. Factor in the cut and size, too, so you get max protection while still being able to move.
Stay Safe on the Job With Atomic Defense
Extreme jobs call for optimal protection. And that's why you need the best bulletproof plate out there. No, seriously — you need one. It's actually quite crucial for your safety.
At Atomic Defense, we specialize in body armor and other NIJ-tested accessories for military and law enforcement. Browse from our variety of insert plates, like:
- Level IIIA: Our IIIA ballistic plates stop various shotgun and pistol rounds like 12 gauge, .40, .45, .380 calibers and more.
- Level III: Our ceramic and PE body armor plates protect against 9 and 10 mm, .40, .45, .380, .38 Special and lesser calibers.
- Level IV: Our level IV inserts withstand up to 7.62 AP and API rounds from rifles.
But seriously — get a bulletproof plate. And if you're struggling to determine what kind of bulletproof plates to buy, let us help you. Reach out to us with questions any time.