Level III vs Level IIIA Body Armor | The biggest differences and which one you should buy

Level III vs Level IIIA Body Armor | The biggest differences and which one you should buy

Level/Type IIIA Body Armor

According to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), Level/Type IIIA body armor is designed to defeat a .357 Sig FMJ Flat Nose (FN) weighing less than 8.1 grams or 125 grain.

The muzzle velocity must be under 1,470 ft/per second at this weight for a Level IIIA to stop the bullet.

Level IIIA will also defeat a .44 Magnum Semi Jacketed Hollow Point (SJHP) if it weighs less than 15.6 grams (240 gr) and a muzzle velocity of slower than 1,430 ft/s.

Level/Type IIIA armor that has been conditioned can defeat a .357 Sig FMJ FN weighing 125 grain, but with a reduced velocity of 1,410 ft/s. A .44 Magnum SJHP weighing 240 grain and a muzzle velocity of 1,340 ft/s will NOT penetrate a conditioned Level IIIA armor system. 

What is Conditioned Body Armor?

Conditioned armor is meant to emulate the environmental conditions that the wearer of the armor will be exposed to in the field. For example, if you’re wearing Level IIIA armor in the south, temperatures can reach well above 120℉.

In places, such as Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama, the humidity in the summer averages 80%. These extreme temperature conditions can have a negative impact on the practicality of the armor.

The NIJ exposes every armor they test to these conditions to ensure they can hold up in extreme environments. 

Once the armor is put through the temperature and humidity conditioning tests, it’s put through a mechanical damage test.

This test is called the tumbler test, which consists of the armor being placed in a drum machine and tumbled around inside like a clothes dryer.

The point of this test is to emulate the wear and tear of the armor by throwing it around in a controlled environment. All Armor is tested before conditioning and after conditioning to get a complete analysis of the armor’s capabilities. 

Level/Type III Body Armor 

Level III body armor is stronger than Level IIIA because it’s meant to defeat rifle caliber rounds. Level III will always have a hard plate insert that must be tested in a conditioned state.

The Level III conditioned armor is tested against a 7.62mm FMJ (M80 military) weighing 147 grain and a muzzle velocity of 2,780 ft/s. A 7.62mm FMJ is normally fired from an AK-47 style rifle or a sniper rifle.

This ensures Level III armor will stop a 5.56mm bullet fired from the most common AR-15 models. 

Level III flexible armor is required to be tested in both new and conditioned state to get a complete understanding of its capabilities.

Flexible armor is tested with the same specs (147 grain, 2,780 ft/s, and 7.62mm) as the hard plate.

The biggest difference is the flexible armor must be tested in conjunction with the hard armor.

Make sure you understand that flexible armor rated at a Level III will not stop a 7.62mm (.308) bullet without the hard armor insert.

The NIJ will not approve of any flexible armor replacing a hard plate unless there are at least 2 flexible plates in conjunction with each other.


According to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), ICW armor is the combination of 2 separate flexible armor plates or a flexible plate with an armor insert.

ICW armor is generally designed to offer protection against higher caliber bullets or added stab-resistant capabilities.

For an ICW armor system to pass the strict NIJ standards for Level III, they must be tested together.

If the flexible armor is designed to be stab-resistant, the label must specify which level of stab-resistance (level 1,2,3) it’s approved for. The NIJ standards for stab-resistant armor can be found here. 



This is one of the most popular questions we get from potential customers in Law Enforcement and military service. Level IIIA armor is rated to be able to stop Magnum rounds fired from handguns and everything from a .38 Special to a 9mm.

Level III armor is specifically designed to defeat rifle caliber rounds fired from a .308 (7.62mm), a 5.56mm, and all other handguns.

The Level III is still unable to stop bullets fired from the dreaded Dragunov Sniper Rifle and heavy machine guns that fire an M2 Armor-Piercing bullet. 

What is the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) Program?

When deciding which body armor you want/need, it’s important to look at the statistics of police who are killed on duty.

As grim as this is to research and discuss, knowing how officers are dying in the streets will help you make better decisions. For example, the LEOKA Program states so far this year, 5 officers have been killed by handguns.

3 officers were killed by rifles and another 5 were killed by unreported guns. According to the FBI, the most dangerous places for law enforcement officers are the southern and western regions of the United States. 


With dozens of LEO’s killed every year from guns, we sometimes forget how many more have been saved by body armor. According to the FBI, from 2002-2011, 498 police officers were killed by firearms.

In that same time period, more than 2,000 police officers have been saved by wearing body armor.

According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) /Dupont Kevlar Survivors Club, more than 3,100 LEO’s have been saved up to the year 2018.

With thousands of lives saved up to this point, there is no excuse to not wear body armor while on duty. 



Knowing how criminals are fighting against law enforcement will help you make the best decision on what level of protection you need.

With the majority of officers being killed by gunshots to the neck or head, why does body armor matter?

The short answer is by wearing armor, you reduce the size of the target. This makes the shooter aim for a smaller target, rather than shooting at your chest or back. This will increase your chances of survival in a shooting while on duty. 

Who Should Wear Level IIIA Body Armor?

Level IIIA body armor is designed to defeat all handgun bullets (up to .50 Cal). Level IIIA is what I would wear if I were a patrolman that spends the majority of time in a police car.

However, the NIJ conditioning tests reveal degraded resistance from Magnum caliber bullets in hot and humid environments.

For example, if you’re a police officer in the south or western region of the U.S., you might want to be safe and go with a Level III. 



Level III body armor is able to defeat rifle caliber bullets, such as 7.62mm and non-military grade 5.56mm bullets.

Level III armor is what I recommend for daily use for police officers, security guards, and federal law enforcement agents (F.B.I., A.T.F., and N.S.A.). The ability to defeat all handguns and the majority of rifles will ensure your safety in most cases.

Level III armor is harder to conceal underneath your clothing, but will offer better protection than the IIIA. 

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Level/Type IIIA and Level/Type III body armor are designed to be worn by LEO’s in both civilian and federal government forces. Level IIIA armor is going to stop every handgun caliber round up to a .44 Magnum.

Since the majority of LEO’s killed and wounded are by small arms, such as handguns, Level IIIA is sufficient for normal police use. Level III armor is designed to withstand the shot from an AR-15 and other sporting rifles.

Regardless of which armor you choose, think about the perceived threat you’re going to face in your day. This will help guide you in your decision to use either Level IIIA or Level III armor. 

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