Choosing a Protection Level for Rifle Plates
Armor 101… I tell customers that armor is one of the most confusing commodities in the defensive industry. Understanding the rating systems, the materials, and the capabilities associated with each is a must for one to make an educated armor choice. When selecting armor, start with the most likely threat that you may face (be realistic) and work from there. It is always a trade-off (mobility, protection, cost, durability, visibility etc); just balance the capabilities to arrive at the best available solution for your requirement.
RATINGS/LEVELS (Rifle Threats)
Rifle Plates and Levels. NIJ is the rating that drives the armor train (for now). It is horribly outdated and does all of us a disservice. But NIJ is the only girl left in the bar and it is 2am...so it is what it is. So why is the NIJ rating system "out of date"? Well, the bad guys aren't shooting at us with 30.06 AP rounds for the most part. The current certification does not account for common threats such as 7.62x39, 5.56 (ball, M855, AP), or 7.62x54R.
Rifle plates are rated to stop 6 hits of 7.62 ball (Level III) or 1 hit of .30cal Armor Piercing (Level IV). Specifically:
Level III - Six (6) 7.62x51 NATO ball (147gr) hits (so essentially all Level III plates are "multi-hit") . Fired from 15m at 2,780fps.
Level IV - certified one (yes ONE) hit of 30cal M2 Armor Piercing (30.06, 166gr) fired from 15m at 2,880fps. A Level IV certification does not ensure the plate will withstand Level III as well the Level IV threat (it is not a progressive rating). However, this does not indicate that the plate will fail against a Level III threat, it simply indicates that the plate has not been tested and certified against it (NIJ certification is expensive for manufacturers).
SAPI - US gov't rating, 3 rounds of ball, 3 rounds of AP, exact test conditions are not available to the public. Not NIJ certified. There are no US marked “surplus” ESAPI plates. These are always stolen. Always. There are legitimate commercial "SAPI/ESAPI" plates, these are not marked US.
Special/ non NIJ - there are some really good plates out there that are specialty plates that are not NIJ rated. Reputable manufacturers have spent a lot of time and money to develop some innovative solutions that may not be NIJ certified, but may fit your particular requirements better than an NIJ rated plate.
Level III+, IV+ etc. Some manufacturers use these ratings to describe capabilities of their plates, but there is no such thing as a “+” rating. Usually used when describing a plate material that is known to have issues with a particular threat (eg M855 and poly) that the manufacturer has modified with an additional material to mitigate the non-NIJ threat shortfall. There are some very reputable manufacturers that use this rating, but it is marketing only.
Other considerations for ratings:
Stand Alone. Is just that, no soft armor / backer is required to achieve the certified rating.
In Conjunction With (ICW) - requires a Level IIIA backer or soft armor to achieve the rating
“Tests”. A word about “testing.” The videos we see on youtube and other media outlets. These are not tests. The conditions and repeatability of these demonstrations is nowhere near a viable armor test. These are simply demonstrations or shoots that show the viewer a set of conditions (that may or may not be manipulated by the individual doing the review). Approach these with a critical eye and always seek independent lab testing, a reputable SME, or the NIJ if applicable.
Armor “generalities” for those looking to assemble a protective hard armor plate solution. When it comes to plates there a few materials in common use, among these are ceramic (including blends), combos/hybrid, poly/poly hybrids, and steel. There are others, but just wanted to lay out some general attributes for each. Again, don’t take these as absolutes, just guidelines when considering materials. Each model plate and manufacturer must be assessed based on NIJ and/or reliable independent testing.
Ceramics. Ceramics are good at stopping bullets and tend to offer a wide range of protection to include AP threats (Level IV ceramics). Ceramics are great ballistic protection, but there are always tradeoffs. Weight is generally in the middle of the pack for NIJ ceramic (6-8lbs per plate). They can be damaged by rough handling, but it takes quite a bit to fracture one internally. General use and care will usually prevent damage to ceramic plates. Dropping on a hard surface, a sharp corner (think full steel ammo can thrown on plates in a trunk) will definitely be cause concern. The cost of ceramic plates has decreased over time, and a good set of reputable plates can be had for a reasonable cost.
Steel. Single component (AR fill in the blank material) steel is the cheapest material that is marketed as armor. Steel is the heaviest of all and is generally more susceptible to high velocity FMJ (XM193 and similar) threats… and have issues with where any defeated projectile fragments go after impact. Sometimes inexpensive, easy to find, and a lot of people sell cheap steel plates. While (good) steel does have its place when some very specific / specialized roles and conditions exist, odds are that yours (and mine) are not those conditions (ex Ultra Low Vis applications). I do not recommend single component steel for use in a plate carrier. With the surging interest in adding armor to personal rigs in the US I see a lot of message traffic about guys trying to put together cheap armor solutions. All materials have benefits and faults, just have to apply some educated judgment to determine a solution for you.
Ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene UHMWPE (sometimes referred to as “poly”) plate can be a Level III Certified plate. Poly plates tend to be lightest Level III, however M855 (a fairly common round in the US) can zip right through a pure UHMWPE plate. Hybrids are more capable (for some threats), but come with a weight penalty. Poly hybrids (dyneema etc with ceramic or alloy component) will often times solve the M855 issue, but may still have issues against an AP threat.
On Plate Shapes
There are choices for hard armor shapes / cuts, among these are SAPI, Shooters/Swimmers, or “square”. SAPI cut plates are not necessarily “SAPIs” (a specific rating) but just follow the cut of the SAPI type plates. These have clipped top corners and may or may not have slightly clipped bottom corners. These can be single or triple/ multi-curved. “Square” front or back plates are not recommended for a modern plate carrier.