As we’ve covered many times in the past, all body armor is not created equal. Like most things in a market-driven global economy, you get what you pay for. When you’re trusting your life to a piece of equipment, that is not the place to worry about a few dollars in price difference. When it comes to body armor you want the uncompromising best and most comfortable product on the market.
Nothing Is Completely Bulletproof
Body armor is not actually bulletproof. That comes as a surprise to many outside law enforcement and the military. Body armor is rated to stop certain types of ballistic projectiles ranging from low-velocity handgun rounds all the way up the ballistic scale to high-velocity, armor-piercing rifle rounds. Wearers of body armor must decide what threats they’re most likely to face and fit their armor to the most likely threat scenario. Even if you’re wearing a bulletproof vest there may be specialized bullets or unusual circumstances that allow a projectile to penetrate the ballistic panels.
The performance of body armor is rated against standards set by the National Institute of Justice, most commonly called the NIJ. Those have numerical designations like II, IIIA, III, and IV. There used to be a IIA but the NIJ deprecated that standard.
Certification vs Testing Only
There’s a difference between official NIJ certification and meeting NIJ standards. Body armor manufacturers can self-certify that their products meet NIJ standards. One might hope they hired an independent lab to run those tests for them.
“In general anyone can say that body armor ‘meets’ NIJ standards without any formal verification,” says Damien Black, CMO of Spartan Armor Systems.
The next level up is NIJ Certification. To get that a manufacturer has to submit their product to an NIJ certified lab and have it undergo stress testing before ballistic testing. Products that pass that stringent testing protocol will have a mark that says “NIJ Listed Model.” Products bearing the mark must still be retested periodically to maintain that listing.
“Spartan Armor Systems carries 8 different NIJ certified body armor models, “ says Black. “For our body armor that is not NIJ certified, we still use an independent NIJ certified laboratory to test every body armor product before it ever goes on the market.”
The Names You Trust
Anyone can claim to meet NIJ standards and that’s why it’s important to know and trust your source for body armor. Tricky marketing language can sometimes disguise the fact that you’re buying aftermarket body armor that has not been properly tested.
There are some types of common weapons that body armor is not rated to stop. One common threat that isn’t rated are shotgun pellets. Any group of shotgun pellets can vary widely in both velocity and material penetration due to the pellets hammering or deflecting one another on impact. Because shotgun pellets can have complicated physics, most ballistic vests are not rated to stop them.
Don’t Take Chances
Sticking to NIJ listed products is the safe way to go and many institutional customers are required to do so. But do be aware that body armor manufacturers may not certify every product they sell.
Body armor is a product that may be called on to protect you under the most extreme conditions and threats that the item was designed to endure. It’s worth taking the time to get to know your supplier and understand the ratings and listings the armor meets.