Body armor standards are sometimes confusing, especially if you’re not at least familiar with firearms. Two of the most common types of body armor are level II and level III.
What’s the difference between level II and level III body armor? Level II body armor is soft armor designed to provide a basic level of protection from pistol rounds. Level III body armor is hard body designed to provide a basic level of protection against common rifle rounds.
Let’s look into the differences between these two types of common body armor more closely.
- What’s the Difference Between Level II and Level III Armor
- Level II vs Level III Body Armor
- What Is Level II Body Armor
- What Is Level III Body Armor
When you look at the two different body armor types side by side it’s easy to see that there is a pretty significant difference between them, but that isn’t always are easy to see if you’re doing research on the internet to see which one is the best for you.
The main difference between the two is that one is soft and one is hard. This changes the types of threats that each body armor style can protect you from. Level II body armor will protect you from a lot of different types of pistol threats and level III body armor will protect you from some types of rifle rounds.
Level II body armor is normally the lowest level of body armor that I’d suggest to someone looking for protection from gunfire. I never recommend level IIa armor to anyone. It just doesn’t stop the types of rounds that you’re likely to come up against so it’s uncomfortable for no reason and basically a waste of money.
Level II body armor is soft armor that can stop some of the most common types of pistol rounds, and it’s also pretty easy to conceal.
If you’re going to conceal level II body armor, just be sure that you’re wearing something heavier than a t-shirt and you should be okay. On me, I just can’t wear a polo shirt over level II body armor and have it look natural. I have seen people sort of pull it off, but it’s not that common.
NIJ standards require level II body armor to stop up to a .357 Magnum round. It will also protect against all pistol rounds that are less powerful.
Level II armor is capable of defeating most pistol rounds. It protects against .357 Magnum, 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP & .38 Special.
Certain very high-velocity rounds can still penetrate level II body armor. This includes some of the previously listed rounds when they’re fired from a submachinegun length barrel and all rifle rounds. In order to stop rifle rounds, you’ll need to have body armor that is rated to at least level III by the NIJ.
If you’re looking for more protection than level II body armor provides, you should be looking for level IIIa body armor.
|Body Armor Level||Effective Against These Calibers|
|II-A||9 mm FMJ (Full Metal Jacket) at ~1,090 fps|
.40 S&W Full Metal Jacket at 1,025 fps
|II||9 mm FMJ, at ~1,175 fps|
.357 JSP at ~1,400 fps
|III-A||9 mm FMJ at ~1,400 fps|
.44 Magnum Semi-Jacketed Hollow Point at ~1,400 fps
The weight of level II body armor depends on the size of the panel and the manufacturer, but it usually falls between 1 and 1.25 lbs per panel. A full level II ballistic vest is about 5 lbs.
Level III body armor consists of a hard plate that is designed to stop all pistol rounds and a lot the common rifle rounds that you’re likely to come across. It’s normally made of steel or ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE).
Steel plates are by far the most common. They’re the cheapest and provide a little more protection than UHMWPE.
The main problem with steel plates is the weight and the fact that bullets shatter when they strike it causing spalling that can injure the wearer. To get around this, manufacturers like AR500 Armor add layers of soft rubbery materials to their steel plates. This layer allows the bullet to pass through it and then catches the shattered pieces of the bullet after it hits the steel plate.
UHMWPE plates are less common than steel plates but they are getting more popular as the costs drop a little. They’re much more expensive than steel plates but they weigh far less.
The plastics used to make this style of level III armor aren’t as dense as steel so the plates tend to be a lot thicker than steel plates. Make sure your carrier will fit a UHMWPE plate in it before you make any purchases! Being made of plastic does have the advantage of not needing to add spall protection because bullets usually don’t usually shatter when they hit UHMWPE plates and the plastic catches the fragments even if they do.
You can sometimes find ceramic level III plates. They’re normally too expensive for the level of protection they provide. If you’re considering level III ceramic plates, you’re better off going for level IV ceramic plates instead.
NIJ standards require level III armor to be able to stop up to a 7.62mm NATO round moving 2780 ft/sec. This means that it is capable of stopping most rifle rounds that you’re going to come up against.
Level III armor is capable of defeating most rifle rounds. Steel plates are usually capable of protecting from 5.56mm green tip “penetrator” rounds while UHMWPE level III armor usually cannot.
|Body Armor Level||Effective Against These Calibers|
|III||.308 Winchester Full Metal Jacket = 7.62 X 51 mm NATO rounds at ~ 2,750 fps|
|IV||30-06 Armor-Piercing .30 M2 AP One round at ~ 2,850 fps|
A steel level III armor plate is going to weigh between 9 and 11 lbs depending on the size of the plate. Steel side plates are usually 2 – 3 lbs. That weight can add up pretty quickly which is where the UHMWPE plates come in.
Level III UHMWPE plates weigh 3.5 – 5 lbs with side plates coming in around 1.5 lbs.
Level II armor is soft armor that’s designed to protect against a lot of the popular pistol rounds out there. Level III armor is hard armor that protects you against some popular rifle rounds but it may not protect against all AR-15 rounds.
For a higher level of pistol protection go for level IIIa body armor and for protection against more rifle rounds you want to get level IV armor.