In this article we’re going to take a closer look at the process of NIJ Certification, specifically what it means for the end user and why you should buy NIJ certified body armor. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has set a standard criteria for meeting each “protection level”. What you might not know is the behind-the-scenes process of actually becoming NIJ certified, specifically the how and why.
The Difference between “NIJ Certified” and “Meets NIJ Standards”
NIJ Certified products undergo a rigorous testing process that goes far beyond simply shooting a plate of armor. During NIJ Certification, each plate of armor is exposed to conditions designed to stress the armor before it’s shot. When a body armor manufacturer says that their product “meet NIJ standards” it basically means that they tested the armor themselves, or hopefully they had an independent lab test the armor for them. We use an independent lab to test all of our body armor and we exceed NIJ standards.
NIJ Protection Levels and Background
The NIJ developed the set of standards in response to the needs of the Law Enforcement community. In fact, the first set of body armor standards were created back in 1972 (version 0101). NIJ 0101.06 standards being used today were released back in 2008. Body armor products have evolved a bit since 2008.
Body Armor threat levels under the current NIJ 0101.06 standards:
Tested to stop 9mm and .40 S&W ammunition fired from short barrel handguns. No rifle ammunition protection.
Tested to stop 9mm and .357 Magnum ammunition fired from short barrel handguns. No rifle ammunition protection.
Tested to stop .357 SIG and .44 Magnum ammunition fired from longer barrel handguns. No rifle ammunition protection.
Tested to stop 7.62mm FMJ lead core rifle ammunition.
Tested to stop .30cal steel core armor piercing rifle ammunition.
NIJ Certification Testing – Conditioning
During the NIJ Certification process, body armor undergoes a preliminary “conditioning” stage designed to simulate wear & tear before the first shot is even fired. The process for hard armor and soft armor are as follows:
Hard body armor undergoes a “uniform thermal exposure” conditioning process where it must be kept at a temperature of 65c (149 F) and humidity of 80% for a period of 10 days. Next, the armor is exposed to a low temperature of -15 C and gradually raised to 90 C (5 F to 194 F) in a span of two hours. Directly afterwards, each plate is dropped twice with 10 lb weight behind it. Ceramic body armor is subjected to an additional water immersion test.
Soft body armor on the other hand does not have a temperature testing aspect of the Certification process. To ensure soft armor can withstand constant flexing and movement, soft body armor is subjected to 10 days of machine tumbling at 5 revolutions per minute (72,000 times for each piece of soft armor).
Number of Plates Tested
- Level III Hard Body Armor: 9 Plates
- Level IV Hard Body Armor: 37 Plates
- Soft Body Armor: 28 Panels
NIJ Certification Testing – V0 and V50 Testing
When body armor undergoes NIJ Certification there are two types of impact tests performed; V0 and V50 testing. In a V0 test, the body armor plate must withstand a specific number of shots at a specific velocity with no penetrations (hence the “0” or zero in V0). During V0 testing, a Backface Deformation (BFD) measurement is taken which must be less than 44mm. BFD is caused by the bending of the plate and the dissipation of kinetic energy that travels beyond the plate due to the velocity of the round. The reason NIJ measures BFD is to determine the potential for blunt force trauma, which can result in secondary injuries ranging from bruises to more serious internal injuries. It’s important to note that level III plates are required to be shot 3 times whereas level IV plates are only shot once.
In the case of V50 testing, the body armor is intentionally made to fail. The velocity of each round is gradually increased to determine at which point 50% of the rounds penetrate the body armor. For example, our Elaphros level III lightweight body armor is V50 rated to withstand .30-06 rounds at 3,167 FPS before 50% of the rounds begin to penetrate the body armor. Below is a video of our Elaphros Lightweight Level III body armor undergoing NIJ Certification.
After ballistic testing is complete and passed all requirements
the NIJ has done a thorough review of the materials used in the armor system and build configuration, an NIJ Certification will be granted for a five-year period. Then and only then can an armor system bear the NIJ Mark on the label below.
NIJ Certification Testing – Yearly Inspection
After a body armor product passes NIJ Certification, the manufacturer is still required to submit to yearly inspection. The NIJ requires that certified products be included in their Compliance Test Program (CTP), under which body armor manufacturers must pass a yearly Follow-up Inspection and Testing (FIT). This inspection process ensures that body armor manufacturers are adhering to quality standards and not modifying their products after the fact. If a product is changed, it must start the NIJ Certification process all over again.