Level II vs Level IIIA Body Armor – Soft Body Armor Explained

Level II vs Level IIIA Body Armor

Level II vs Level IIIA Body Armor

At first glance, there really doesn’t seem to be a lot of difference between most level II armor and level IIIA body armor, and there really isn’t. The main difference comes when you compare the stopping power that each one brings to the table.

According to the NIJ, level II armor can stop a 124 gr 9mm FMJ at 1305 ft per second (FPS) and a .357 Magnum Jacketed Soft Point weighing 158 gr at 1430 FPS. Level IIIa armor can stop a 125 gr .357 SIG FMJ Flat Nose at 1470 FPS and a .44 Magnum Semi Jacketed Hollow Point weighing 240 gr at 1430 FPS.

There are other differences that really tend to stick out when you’re wearing them for longer periods of time.

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The Difference Between Level II and Level IIIA Body Armor

The main difference comes from protection and the overall comfort level that comes with each type of armor.

Body Armor LevelEffective Against These Calibers
II-A9 mm FMJ (Full Metal Jacket) at ~1,090 fps

.40 S&W Full Metal Jacket at 1,025 fps

II9 mm FMJ, at ~1,175 fps

.357 JSP at ~1,400 fps

III-A9 mm FMJ at ~1,400 fps

.44 Magnum Semi-Jacketed Hollow Point at ~1,400 fps

Level II Body Armor

Level II body armor is what most people consider to be the minimum level of armor that those looking for protection from common pistol rounds should wear. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) requires level II armor to stop up to a .357 Magnum round. This means that it will also stop all pistol rounds up to that size.

What does level II body armor protect you from?

Level II armor is capable of defeating most pistol rounds. These include the .357 Magnum, 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP & .38 Special.

Keep in mind that 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.

Does Level II body armor protect against anything other than bullets?

Level II body armor isn’t specifically designed to stop anything other than bullets, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t protect you from something other than bullets.

Kevlar and other ballistic materials are very good at stopping the fragmentation from things like explosions. The fibers work in a similar way to how they stop a bullet.

This reason alone makes it a good idea to have soft armor under heavier armor plates if it’s likely that you may encounter IEDs and other explosive devices. It primarily applies to those in the military, but in a scenario where there is no longer rule of law in the U.S., it could make sense for everyone.

Most level II armor isn’t rated for slash or stab protection either. There is normally a layer of chain mail or laminate material in body armor that is designed to stop knife or spike attacks. Level II armor can hold up to slashing attacks pretty well, but stabbing attacks are more likely to pass straight through the armor since narrow piercing style weapons spread the fibers of the armor allowing the weapon through.

If you need both ballistic protection and bladed/stab protection, then you should look for body armor that combines the two types of protection and is certified to stop those threats.

AR 500 Armor and Spartan Armor Systems are great places to start looking for body armor.

Level IIIA Body Armor

Level IIIA body armor provides better protection against a full range of pistol calibers. The NIJ requires level IIIA armor to stop up to a .44 Magnum round and almost all pistol rounds lower in caliber.

What does level IIIA body armor protect you from?

Level IIIA armor is capable of defeating most pistol rounds. These include the .44 Magnum, .357 Magnum, .357 SIG, 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP & .38 Special.

Level IIIA armor is designed to stop most pistol rounds. It can still be defeated by certain types of very high-velocity pistol rounds and all rifle rounds.

A common question I hear from those that are new to body armor ask is, “Will Level IIIA armor stop 5.56 rounds?” Unfortunately, all rifle rounds will pass through level IIIA armor. It simply isn’t strong enough to stop rounds more powerful than pistol rounds. This goes for 7.62 rounds as well.

Does Level IIIA body armor protect against anything other than bullets?

Level IIIA body armor isn’t designed to protect against anything other than what it is tested for in the NIJ standard. They still provide the obvious benefit of being thicker than normal clothing so there is a certain level of extra protection from knives and other sharp objects.

The different types of fibers used to make level IIIA body armor are capable of stopping frag from explosives and explosive devices. This makes them good as a backing for heavier level III armor and level IV armor, especially for military members and police special tactics teams. This usefulness may extend to anyone in a dangerous area should the U.S. fall into a state of lawlessness after a large scale disaster.

Normal soft level IIIA armor isn’t rated for slash and stab protection. There is level IIIA soft armor rated for slash and stab resistance. It usually includes special polymers or metal inserts.

Your best option for level IIIA protection with stab and slash protection is most likely going to be steel plates. If that doesn’t work for you, there are manufacturers out there that make bullet and stab rated armor, but they’re usually in the UK where getting stabbed is a much more likely scenario than getting shot.

How Do You Choose Between Level II and Level IIIA Body Armor?

When you’re making the choice between level II and level IIIA armor, there are three things you need to consider: cost, comfort and expected threats.

Cost is both the least important and possibly the most important all at once. Overall, it’s the least important factor because it’s nearly impossible to put a price on your life. If you can afford it, spend as much as you need to in order to protect yourself.

Cost becomes the most important factor if money is tight and you’re in a position to either eat or get body armor. At that point, it’s hard to say that any body armor is worth the trade-off for food. I hope you’re not in that place!

Comfort should only a part of your thought process if you’re in a low threat area. Police officers that work in areas where getting shot is basically a statistical impossibility can probably get away with wearing the most comfortable armor available to them.

If you just can’t stand wearing level IIIA armor, understand that you’re choosing comfort over protection.

Expected threats should be the driving factor in your overall decision between level II and level IIIA. If you’re in an area that may face higher-powered handgun rounds or fast-moving common rounds (coming from subguns) then level IIIA is the option that you should go with. If you’re only expecting common handgun calibers then you can probably get away with level II armor.

Other Options When Choosing Soft Armor

Just because you’ve chosen which soft armor you should buy doesn’t mean that you won’t face a greater threat at some point in the future. Police officers should have the option to grab a plate carrier with hard armor plates in it and those that are prepping probably should as well.

Having a plate carrier available is a great way to have the comfort of soft armor on a regular basis while still having the option to get more protection when you need it!


Not all soft armor is the same and not all soft armor provides the same level of protection. When you’re looking for the best armor for day to day wear it makes sense to take the cost, comfort and expected threat into consideration before you make a choice.

Whatever you choose, just make sure that it’s going to give you the protection that you need!

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