Most every field of interest is shrouded in layers of mysterious jargon. As a non-avid knitter, for example, I’d be lost trying to navigate a site full of “Double Pointed Needles” or “Destash.” And the knitting community knows this: Upon doing more research, I learned that they have apparently appropriated the term “muggle” to refer to non-knitters such as myself. I am proud to wear the label.
The body armor industry is no different. With that said, some of the most important jargon to familiarize yourself with is that of armor “Levels” and the NIJ standards those levels imply. We covered this briefly on our Body Armor 101 page, but this article will kick off a series exploring those standards in more detail - what they test, and what they don’t.
The National Institute of Justice, or NIJ, published their first body armor performance standard in 1978; it was called NIJ Standard 0101.01, laid out in a document entitled Ballistic Resistance of Police Body Armor. Since then, the NIJ has updated the standard multiple times and currently holds to Standard 0101.06. This article will lay out the most important facts to know about this standard.
Defining our Terms
A favorite saying here at AR500 Armor is that a man who does not define his terms does not know what he is talking about.
To stay safe from that fate, let's lay out six key definitions. These are terms used either by the NIJ itself or by the body armor community that could use some clarification. We'll expand on the meanings of these terms later in the article, but here are their basic definitions:
1. NIJ Standard: The National Institute of Justice's documented recommendations for 1. Testing a piece of armor's protective ability and 2. Labeling that protective ability.
2. 0101.06: The name of the current standard. The next standard will be called 0101.07 and will feature some changes to the testing procedure, the labeling system, or both.
3. Type: The NIJ's way of labeling an armor's ballistic strength. Types of a higher number (Type IV, for example) will stop more powerful threats than types of a lower number.
4. Level: A colloquial term to refer to the NIJ's types. Level IV is synonymous with Type IV. An example of the free marketplace of ideas triumphing over government jargon.
5. NIJ Certified: A colloquial way of referring to a piece of armor that is on the NIJ Compliant List. The NIJ does not use the wording "certified" to refer to plates on its Compliant List.
6. NIJ Compliant: The NIJ's official way of referring to a piece of armor on the NIJ Compliant List. Also colloquially used to refer to any plates promised to meet NIJ standards, whether they be untested, house tested, independent lab tested, or NIJ lab tested.
With that said, let's examine one of the most commonly used terms in the body armor community in more detail:
What are the Levels?
NIJ’s “Levels,” such as Level IIA or Level III, are essentially shorthand for a list of threats a piece of armor can stop. As noted above, this shorthand is used by the body armor community but not by the NIJ itself. The NIJ refers to a piece of armor's specific set of threat resistance as its "type."
These threats are listed in the NIJ standards as specific ammunition at specific weights and specific speeds. The Level IIA, for example, is tested to these standards:
“Type IIA armor that is new and unworn shall be tested with 9 mm Full Metal Jacketed Round Nose (FMJ RN) bullets with a specified mass of 8.0 g (124 gr) and a velocity of 373 m/s ± 9.1 m/s (1225 ft/s ± 30 ft/s) and with .40 S&W Full Metal Jacketed (FMJ) bullets with a specified mass of 11.7 g (180 gr) and a velocity of 352 m/s ± 9.1 m/s (1155 ft/s ± 30 ft/s).”
All Levels are certified to two standards: A standard stopping power when new and unused, and standard stopping power when “conditioned-” a process intended to expose the product to extreme temperature and other tests to ensure it maintains performance in sub-ideal situations. Hard armor, for example, undergoes a process of heating, then cooling, then being dropped twice with a 10-pound weight behind it. Ceramic body armor also undergoes a water immersion test. After the conditioning, the plates are shot just as the new ones are, but with slightly less powerful bullets (normally bullets at a slightly lower velocity). For every Level, these stopping power standards are listed in the NIJ 0101.06
A Roman numeral followed by an “A” is a standard with less stopping power than the numeral alone but more than the numeral just below it. For example, the IIIA is more powerful than a Level II but less powerful than a Level III. Currently, the lowest rating in commission is the Level IIA- the Level I was made in the 1970’s original standard but later decommissioned. Oftentimes, “A” Levels are soft armor, but not necessarily.
A Roman numeral followed by a “+” is not an official NIJ standard- rather, this is a way to indicate a piece of armor that exceeds the standard of the Roman numeral the plus accompanies, without meeting the next Level’s standards. These plates are also known as special threat plates. For example, AR500 Armor’s Level III+ Steel Plate is tested to stop 7.62x39/7.62x51/5.56 M193s, 5.56 M855 penetrators, and .223/.308 WIN rounds, threats not listed under the Level III standard but is not able to stop the same high-power threats of a Level IV. Hence it is called a Level III+.
The NIJ 0101.06 standard says on this “Special Type” protection that “A purchaser having a special requirement for a level of protection other than one of the above standard types and threat levels should specify the exact test round(s) and reference measurement velocities to be used and indicate that this standard shall govern all other aspects.”
Here’s one key point to remember about these Levels, and about this standard in general:
The Standard is Voluntary
Agencies like the Food and Drug Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency create regulations on U.S. companies. If those companies fail to follow the regulations which apply to them, they are liable for legal repercussions. The NIJ is not like this; instead, its standards for ballistic performance are rightly called “recommendations,” and need not be followed if companies wish not to. In the NIJ’s own words,
“NIJ is not a regulatory agency, so its performance standards are voluntary. Neither manufacturers nor criminal justice agencies need to adopt these standards. However, there are reasons for both to do so. Manufacturers are incentivized to meet the standards' performance requirements because they reflect the consumers' requirements. On the purchasing side, the standards give public safety agencies the ability to compare different types of equipment against a common set of benchmarks.”
Many public safety agencies require that the armor they buy is certified as compliant with NIJ standards. Other than that, the usage of these NIJ standards is completely up to the suppliers and consumers of these products. One caveat, though: If a body armor manufacturer promises to meet these standards, failing to do so would be fraudulent and just as liable as any other commercial deception would be. Rest assured, the voluntary nature of this standard doesn’t make the industry an anarchic Wild West or an incognito corner of the Dark Web.
What Does the Standard Require for Compliance?
To meet NIJ Compliance Standards, a plate must stop the threats listed when shot in six areas around the plate (making for six shots total), according to both the “as new” and conditioned standards. Normally, several plates are provided by a manufacturer. This allows several different rounds to be tested against the plate in different circumstances without previous tests affecting the plate’s performance.
The plate design receives NIJ Certification as compliant to the standard if all the plates pass their respective tests. The plate is then added to this list. Note, however, that this list is not a comprehensive record of all plates which will sufficiently protect the wearer; this is only a record of the plates tested by the NIJ specifically. Many companies choose to test their plates independently of the NIJ, but according to NIJ standards, and certify adequate performance that way. That leads us to the next section:
Compliance vs. Certification
As noted in our section on definitions, armor providers will generally claim their armor is “NIJ-rated,” “NIJ-compliant,” “or “tested to NIJ standards,” or “NIJ certified.”
“NIJ rated” and “NIJ compliant” are broad terms that are often used to refer to any plates which will meet the appropriate standards- the plates themselves could be untested, tested in-house, tested independently, or tested by the NIJ’s recognized laboratories.
However, NIJ compliance means something very different to the NIJ- they use "NIJ compliant" to refer to what many people call an "NIJ certified" plate. This is one example of the term confusion that occurs in several places in the body armor industry.
“Tested to NIJ standards” does not indicate a specific kind of testing, but it generally will refer to either in-house or independent lab inspection that aligns with the NIJ’s own standards of how that testing ought to be done. Generally, companies will note what laboratory did the testing if their armor has been assessed independently.
“NIJ certified” armor is colloquially used to refer to plates on the NIJ’s Compliant Product List. Plates get on this list by being tested by a laboratory recognized by the NIJ. However, as noted above, the NIJ does not refer to plates on their list as "certified," but rather as compliant.
It's also important to note that independent lab tests are no less reliable than the testing done to receive a place on the NIJ Compliant Product List. The same standards are used. Some labs happen to be part of the NIJ's recognized list. Oftentimes, companies will even publish the lab results to demonstrate their credibility.
The NIJ Standard is a solid way to track which plates can be expected to stop certain threats, but as will be explored in future articles, it does not test for everything you will want to consider as a potential body armor user. Compliance to a specific NIJ standard is not the end-all-be-all of armor, partly because of the final note to make about this system.
The Standard is Subject to Change
The NIJ 0101.07 Standard, which is expected to be implemented by the first quarter of 2022, is going to make several significant changes to the ballistic armor system. Some of the most major changes include:
- The current Roman numeral naming system (Level III, etc.) will be replaced by a naming convention revolved around stopping Handgun and Rifle threats: HG (HandGun) will be for soft armor and RF (RiFle) will be for hard armor.
- Level IIA, the lowest threat level, will disappear.
- The test-round velocity for bullets testing conditioned armor will be the same as those for “as new” armor during testing.
- A new threat level will be introduced to close the gap between Level III and Level IV ratings.
Changes like these make it even more important to learn how to compare armor apart from one name system or standard. That’s why this series will seek to show what the NIJ standard doesn’t cover alongside analysis on what it does require.
Next time, we’ll address the NIJ’s standards regarding where a bullet must be stopped, and how that may not test for the protection you require for your armor.