Level IIIA Body Armor – How it’s made, and what it stops

Body armor ratings can be confusing! You need to figure out what they mean so you can know if you’ll be protected or not.

According to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), level IIIA body armor has to be able to stop a 125 gr .357 SIG Full Metal Jacket Flat Nose round at 1470 ft per second. It also has to be able to stop a .44 Magnum Semi Jacketed Hollow Point weighing 240 gr at a velocity of 1430 ft per second.

Level IIIA body armor is a step up from level II body armor. It’s slightly thicker, making it capable of stopping higher power pistol rounds and rounds fired from submachine guns. It also keeps some of the concealability of its lighter sibling.

What Does Level IIIA Body Armor Protect Against?

As we stated before, the NIJ requires level IIIA armor to stop up to a .44 Magnum round and almost all pistol rounds lower in caliber.

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.

Level IIIA body armor can protect you against nearly all pistol rounds.

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

What Is Level IIIA Body Armor Designed For?

Level IIIA body armor is soft (and hard) armor primarily designed for use by people that are routinely facing the threat of handguns. It’s also perfect for carrying in a backpack or briefcase so you can carry some body armor with you every day.

It can be worn under clothing or on top of it which makes it very versatile. When worn under clothing it is usually very obvious that you’re wearing body armor (think your average police officer) but it does provide some concealability at a distance.

Many companies now make steel plates rated at level IIIA. They don’t offer any more protection than traditional level IIIA armor (they are slash and stab-proof) but they have the advantage of being much cheaper. The disadvantages come with more weight and a loss of flexibility.

You have to always consider the threat that you’re most likely to encounter when you’re choosing body armor. In the case of level IIIA armor, you can confidently face most pistols and submachine guns.

If you think you’re going to be exposed to rifle fire, then you’re going to need to get level III or level IV body armor. If you have steel level IIIA plates, don’t be fooled, they WILL NOT stop a rifle round.

AR 500 Armor and Spartan Armor Systems both sell high-quality body armor of all types.

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.

Soft level IIIA armor isn’t rated for slash and stab protection. Steel plates rated at IIIa are obviously slash and stab-proof.

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.

How Does Level IIIA Body Armor Work?

Level IIIA soft body armor stops the projectile by draining its energy with the use of modern ballistic fabrics and rapidly stopping it.

The protective level of soft armor can decrease rapidly once it has been shot. With modern materials, many manufacturers have been able to claim multistrike capabilities with their soft armor plates. Just know that no matter how tough those materials are, there is degradation after the first round, even if they can still stop several more.

Soft level IIIA armor panels come with the drawback of transferring quite a bit of blunt force trauma to the wearer. To combat this, companies have started making hybrid panels that add a level of trauma protection to their products.

Steel level IIIA armor takes a very simple approach to stop rounds. They are simply a plate of metal that is too thick for the rounds to penetrate.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t any technology or science in them though. Most steel plates have a coating on them to help catch the fragments of the bullet after it strikes the plate and breaks apart.

What Is Level IIIA Body Armor Made Of?

Soft level IIIA body armor is designed using tightly woven, high strength, fibers. These are usually aramid fibers like Kevlar and Goldflex or polyethylene fibers like Spectra and Dyneema.

If an armor panel is made of an aramid fiber it will usually be tightly woven in a simple pattern and interlaced with additional material as the panel is built. Polyethylene is normally not woven like Kevlar. Instead, the fibers are laid out parallel to one another and bonded together in various proprietary processes.

Once the materials have been made into sheets, they are stacked to the appropriate thickness and covered with an outer shell. This shell is usually designed to protect the armor panel itself but it can also add certain elements to reduce the blunt trauma that is transferred to the wearer.

Steel level IIIA armor plates are made using specially hardened steels that are designed to be uniform in thickness and hardness. They aren’t just common steel plates.

These plates are usually contoured so they can fit comfortably on the wearer and coated in some kind of spall protective coating. These coatings are made of various materials depending on the manufacturer.

Spall coatings allow thee bullet to pass through them so they don’t increase the protective level of the armor plate. Instead, they are designed to keep the fragments of the bullet contained after it hits the steel plate.

Armor without a spall coating runs the risk of deflecting bullet fragments into the wearers head/neck, hands/arms and legs/feet after the bullet shatters on the plate.

Is Level IIIA Body Armor Legal?

This is where I need to give the obligatory disclaimer…I’m not a lawyer so only use this section as a guide. It is not legal advice.

Level IIIA Body Armor Legality in the United States: In the United States it is illegal to possess body armor if you are a convicted felon. In Connecticut, it is illegal to ship body armor meaning that all sales must be made face to face. Many other states have made it a felony to commit a violent crime while wearing body armor. Others have made it illegal to wear body armor on school grounds. Check your local laws to be sure!

There has been some talk among politicians in the U.S. about making body armor illegal.

Level IIIA Body Armor Legality in Canada: In Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia a license is required to possess body armor. In the remaining provinces, there are no restrictions.

Level IIIA Body Armor Legality in the UK: In the United Kingdom, there are currently no legal restrictions on the purchase and ownership of body armor.

Level IIIA Body Armor Legality in Australia: In Australia, it is illegal to possess body armor without proper authorization in South Australia, Victoria, Northern Territory, ACT, Queensland, and New South Wales.

How do You Choose What Type of Armor you Should Buy?

The questions you should ask yourself always start the same when trying to determine what type of armor to buy…what is your expected threat.

  • Are you going to be facing pistol fire or rifle fire?
  • Do you need knife or spike protection?
  • Is it okay if others know that you’re wearing body armor?

With level IIIA body armor you then need to think about is you want soft or hard armor and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Soft armor can be more comfortable and it can usually be concealed easier. The downside is it is also usually much more expensive, has a shorter shelf life and tends to not offer much in the way of protection from blades and spike style weapons.

Steel level IIIA body armor is usually less expensive and can protect you from knives and stabbing attacks. It also has a much longer shelf life. The drawbacks come from increased weight and decreased mobility and concealability.

Related Questions

What is soft body armor? Level IIIA and soft body armor often refer to the same thing. When someone is discussing soft body armor they simply mean armor that can flex with the wearer. It can be level IIA, level II armor, and level IIIA armors.

Does level IIIA body armor expire? Level IIIA body armor has a shelf lFife that depends mostly on the style of armor. Manufacturers of soft level IIIA body armor usually give their armor a 5-year shelf life. Steel armor plates are usually said to have a 20+ year shelf life.

How much does lever IIIA body armor weigh? Level IIIA body armor’s weight is going to depend on who makes it and what it’s made of. On average, steel level IIA plates weigh around 5 lbs each and soft plates are usually around 1.5 lbs each. Advances in composite materials are getting plates down to 1 lb each.

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