Body armor is rated according to specific ballistic threat levels. In the USA, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) sets the standard for testing and grading body armor.
Why does the NIJ rate body armor?
The NIJ is the research, development and evaluation agency of the US Department of Justice. Part of their mission is to make sure law enforcement agencies have access to the tools and resources they need to advance justice. They set the performance standard in a number of areas touching law enforcement, and that includes the body armor that law enforcement officers use. The NIJ is considered the authority on body armor quality and classification in the United States, and as a result their ballistic levels have become something of the standard for many American body armor companies.
The NIJ ensures compliance to their standards through their Compliance Testing Program (CTP). In this program manufacturers submit their body armor to one of very few NIJ certified labs, for testing and rigorous evaluation. If the product is found to comply with NIJ standards, it will be added to the Compliant Product List (CPL) which is often referenced by law enforcement agencies to support their purchase decisions.
It is worth noting that while NIJ ballistic levels are helpful for readily identifying armor types, the NIJ and CPL are very narrowly focused on the needs of American law enforcement agencies. The US military, by contrast, sets their own standards and protocols due to the vastly different use case for armor from a domestic law enforcement agency. Field agents and police officers, for example, are not likely to face the airburst artillery and mortar fire that our armed forces might encounter overseas. But there is correlation.
The NIJ performance standards and protocols are laid out in various publications:
NIJ 0106.01 … deals specifically with ballistic helmets. This standard was first published by the NIJ in 1981 as a “revision” to the original ballistic helmet standard NIJ 0106.00 (1975).
Today this performance standard is widely seen as inadequate and considered the “bare minimum” for ballistic helmets–it does not even reflect all of the modern NIJ threat levels. In 2001 the NIJ sought to update the standards again, recognizing its many deficiencies in the 21st century. In October 2023 the NIJ finally followed through with the publication of a new body armor standard, NIJ Standard 0101.07, and new protection levels, NIJ Standard 0123.00.
While new NIJ protection levels specifications have not yet been published specifically for ballistic helmets, NIJ Standard 0123.00 strongly suggests an update to helmet standards in the future based on these new threat levels. As we discuss NIJ ratings, it is helpful to know that in Spring 2024 hard armor and soft armor will be broken into separate categories:
New NIJ Standard Protection Levels for Hard Armor
In 2024, the NIJ standard protection levels for hard armor will become NIJ RF1, NIJ RF2, and NIJ RF3.
New NIJ Standard Protection Levels for Soft Armor
In 2024, the NIJ standard protection levels for soft armor will be NIJ HG1, and NIJ HG2.
NIJ 0108.01 … this one is about ballistic resistant protective materials. A long way of saying any rigid armor. Examples are ballistic shields, protective guard posts and add-on vehicle armor. It dates from 1985 so is also pretty old. It does still have some utility and at least it uses the same categories as our next one …
NIJ 0101.06 … which looks at body armor. This generally means anything that is worn around the torso of the officer or agent. A new draft of these standards was published for public comment in 2019, and ratified in October of 2023.
Alas, the wheels of justice turn slowly!
We will be publishing new content shortly explaining the new NIJ standards, and testing our new American-made Bastion® helmet to these new standards as they become available at NIJ-accredited laboratories. But, as of now, NIJ 0101.06 remains the standard to which our current helmets are tested.
So how is ballistic testing done?
(A quick summary for non-scientists!)
Tests are rigorous and highly controlled. They may only be conducted at one of a very few DOJ-certified laboratories and done in accordance with strict NIJ protocols and procedures.
Samples of the armor material are subjected to multiple firearm shots. As many as 48 over the number of samples. The shots are controlled for things like range, angle of strike, distance between strikes and distance from the edge of the sample.
Samples are tested in “as new” condition and in a “worn” condition. As you would expect, the conditioning methods to create wear are strict and consistent.
Samples are also submerged and tested in a wet environment. Most ballistic helmets are comprised of various synthetic ingredients that could have an adverse reaction to water, potentially weakening or causing delamination in the fibers and causing the helmet to lose its ballistic integrity. Submersion and continued ballistic testing is necessary to ensure a reliable product in realistic elements.
In all test conditions there may be no total penetration of the armor.
Beyond the bare minimum test of “does it stay intact and stop a bullet”, samples are also put through a backface deformation test in which a clay model is laser scanned, the helmet is placed on the model, and shot. The inside of the helmet (the “backface”) will deform with every shot, and the total impact of that deformation will be measured. Finally, the clay model is laser scanned after the test and evaluated for trauma. . This measures the “real life” effect and how much blunt trauma will be transmitted to the body when hit. The indentation of the clay should be less than 1.73 in (44mm) but naturally, every mm matters.
So, is it going to hurt? Oh yeah, but at least you won't have any metal in your body or fluids leaking out!
During testing all rounds are hand loaded to ensure consistency in their performance and are test fired and checked before being used in a test. Often the rounds are loaded to give a higher velocity than the standard ammunition that can be purchased.
It is not a perfect world, but if you buy body armor that has been correctly graded to the NIJ levels, you will be protected from the listed ammunition types and any others that have a smaller bullet mass and/or lower velocity.
Follow this link if you want to read the NIJ 0101.06 protocols for yourself. Parts of it are interesting, parts are boring and others will just make your head hurt.
So what are the body armor levels?
The NIJ classifies 5 levels of ballistic armor:
Levels IIA, II and IIIA are generally soft body armor and designed to give protection from a range of handguns. When we talk about a ballistic helmet having NIJ IIIA protection, obviously the helmet isn’t soft. Nonetheless, a true NIJ IIIA helmet will protect against any threat that a typical IIIA piece of armor can stop.
Level III and IV are hard armor and provide protection from rifle bullets. They are a soft armor which can hold additional hard armor plates protecting the most vital parts of the body, commonly called “plate carriers”. The classification relates to the hard armor plate specifically.
There is always a compromise between weight, comfort, cost and protection level. High protection levels mean increased weight, uncomfortable for long periods of wear and higher cost.
The word on the streets is that Level IIIA is believed to be the best all round compromise for general law enforcement duty use.
Levels III and IV are better for shorter, mission specific use, within increased threat levels. Think SWAT, high threat entry teams and taking down an active shooter who has military grade long guns.
Remember, the protection levels are specific to ballistic protection from firearms. They do not address blast mitigation (explosions) and blunt force trauma (falling building debris and the like). You are likely to get some protection but those aspects are not tested or categorized in the same way.
What protection do you get from each body armor level?
- 9 mm Full Metal Jacketed Round Nose (FMJ RN) bullets.
- .40 S&W Full Metal Jacketed (FMJ) bullets.
IIA is the lowest level. It is still around but modern weapons and better ballistic materials have almost made it obsolete. Its main attraction is that it is thin, light and comfortable. Perfect for all day, covert, under clothing use. But now you can get Level II armor that is just as thin and light. So why not get the enhanced protection?
As far back as 2008, the NIJ recommended that police units that had Level IIA protection, upgrade to Level II as their old IIA armor wore out.
- 9mm FMJ RN bullets
- .357 Magnum Jacketed Soft Point (JSP) bullets
This is still soft armor but with a higher level of protection against a larger range of handguns.
- .357 SIG FMJ Flat Nose (FN) bullets.
- .44 Semi Jacketed Hollow Point (SJHP) bullets.
Soft armor but with an even higher level of protection. Also includes armor hardened through the process of hydraulic pressure and epoxy resin (aka, a ballistic helmet!)
Level IIIA is a great compromise for general duty wear. It is still light enough to be comfortable and give an effective level of protection. It can be worn for a protracted duty shift, in and out of vehicles and while chasing down bad guys on foot. Expect some heavy breathing though!
- 7.62mm FMJ lead core NATO/USA M80 bullets.
- .308 Winchester would fit in here too but is not specifically mentioned by NIJ.
Hard armor. The plates are likely to be steel and/or ceramic with an impact absorbing, trauma reduction, backing of a synthetic material.
The carrier is likely to be a Level IIIA material.
- .30 caliber armor piercing (AP) bullets.
Essentially the same as Level III but with more resistant hard armor plates. Almost certainly thicker, bulkier and heavier. It is likely to reduce mobility and duration.
Here is a graphic illustration of the 5 Levels:
Beware of “dirt cheap” or “too good to be true” prices on ballistic helmets, or helmets that claim to carry a ballistic rating but are actually made of fiberglass or other non-ballistic materials. In recent years, especially with the advent of overseas trading websites and marketplaces like AliExpress, fraudulent products have grown in popularity and are very difficult to distinguish in photos. Here’s a hint: if a ballistic helmet costs less than $300 it’s probably not going to save your life.
Brand longevity, web forums, YouTube reviews, and price point are all helpful tools for deciding whether a ballistic helmet comes from a company you can trust. Don’t cut corners when your life is on the line.
How to determine the best ballistic rating?
Assess the most likely ballistic threats that you will face, most often.
Think how you are going to use your body armor:
- Is it an added layer of protection when the SHTF?
- Will it just be for short periods of time, or an all-day patrol?
- Where will you be using it? Urban or rural? Flat or mountainous and rugged?
- Under or over clothing?
You get the idea.
Identify products that fill your needs for threat level, bulk, weight, comfort and price.
To really do your due diligence, check to see if those products have been tested by an NIJ-certified lab by reviewing the lab report yourself. Be aware that many retailers have been circulating photos of the Ballistic Armor Co. Gen 1 ballistic helmet test dated 26-March-2014 from H.P. White Laboratory, Inc., a lab that has been out of business since 2020. We possess this genuine report in its original PDF format, and it is available upon request from our customer service. So while some ballistic helmets such as our Gen 1 remain on the market with credible ballistic test reports from H.P. White Laboratory, it is always best to verify that the reports are genuine by requesting the original PDF.
It is also important to note that in 2021 the NIJ revoked accreditation of China-made ballistic helmets. This has far-reaching implications for the informed ballistic helmet buyer. For one, NIJ-accredited labs may no longer test China-made helmets to the NIJ Standard 0106.01, so if you see a new brand pop up selling “NIJ rated helmets” made in China, beware.
Furthermore, the NIJ does not test or certify ballistic helmets, they only test and certify body armor for police, which is then listed on the Compliant Product List ("CPL"). The NIJ sets the standard for rating ballistic helmets, which can only be done by NIJ-accredited labs. Only helmets that were tested to this standard prior to the NIJ’s March 1, 2021 amendment could have been genuinely tested to the NIJ Standard 0106.01.
In light of new NIJ standard levels of protection, there will be no China-made helmets bearing a genuine NIJ HG1 or HG2 rating. This should make it simpler to detect genuine NIJ-rated helmets in the years to come, but it is still always best to err on the side of caution and buy from a known brand in the industry.
Once you’ve verified authenticity, check product specifications along with quality, fit and product care.
Buy your body armor!