military body armor

6 Things You Didn’t Know About Level 4 Body Armor

by Matt Collins

Over the last decade, professional-grade Level 4 body armor has become accessible to just about everyone in America.

soldier with gun

(Image courtesy of DuPont)

And it couldn’t have come along at a better time, either.

Following waves of social unrest, with the ever-present threat of another mass shooting, Americans are more on guard than ever—spending $2.3 billion on body armor in 2021 alone.

But in the rush to gear up, are you getting the right gear?

It’s a question worth asking, since most new body armor buyers are working with limited knowledge and experience. It’s not always apparent, after all, what makes one type of Level 4 body armor different from another type of Level 4 body armor. So it’s easy to buy armor based on the price tag, instead of buying for practical protection, which can keep you from truly getting your money’s worth.

With all this in mind, let’s look at six body armor facts you might not know yet, and find out which type of armor is right for you.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    Body Armor Fact #1: It’s NOT “Bulletproof”

  • 02

    Body Armor Fact #2: Armor Has a Shelf Life

  • 03

    Body Armor Fact #3: There’s Regularly Scheduled Maintenance

  • 04

    Body Armor Fact #4: Armor Changes the Way You Move and Fight

  • 05

    Body Armor Fact #5: Armor Plates Aren’t “One Size Fits All”

  • 06

    Body Armor Fact #6: Not All Level 4 Body Armor is Created Equal

  • 07

    Next-Gen Ballistic Protection

Body Armor Fact #1: It’s NOT “Bulletproof”

Ballistic armor is not a magical solution for real-world gunfights.

Unlike movies and TV shows, where actors can strap on a Kevlar vest and endure an endless hail of gunfire, practical body armor usage is a little bit more nuanced.

Call of Duty’s bulletproof Juggernaut

Call of Duty’s bulletproof Juggernaut. (Image courtesy of EarlyGame)

When armor solutions are tested by central authorities like the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) in the United States and the European Union, they’re given an armor level. And each level corresponds to a specific level of protection against various types of ammunition.

These different levels, notably, determine the type of hit an armor plate can withstand without being punctured. The higher the level, the greater the variety of hits it can sustain. But as you go up in level, you also go up in weight.

Level 2A body armor is the lowest level of protection marketed as ballistic armor. Designed to protect against lower-velocity handgun threats, including 9 mm and .40 S&W ammunition, it will NOT stop rifle rounds.

Level 2A armor is also some of the lightest armor around, with vests typically weighing between 4-6 pounds (1.8-2.7 kg). This makes it suitable for long hours of use in the field.

Remember, too, that when it comes to street crime in America, handguns are most often the weapon of choice. So even though Level 2A won’t protect you from armor-piercing rounds, it can still be a practical choice for everyday carry/wear. After all, its lightweight construction makes it less of a hassle, so you’re less likely to leave it at home when you go out.

Level 2A is also an outstanding armor choice for backpack inserts, since it adds minimal extra weight and can provide you with a full shield for your upper torso in the event of a shooting.

For these reasons, Level 2A vests are commonly used by law enforcement officers and security personnel who need concealable protection against handgun threats while maintaining a high level of mobility and comfort.

Moving on to Level 2 body armor, this category provides protection against higher-velocity handgun threats, including armor-piercing 9 mm and .357 Magnum ammunition.

That’s a slight increase in protection over 2A, and it only comes with a slight increase in weight, adding between 5-7 pounds (2.3-3.2 kg). Essentially, Level 2 is a small upgrade to Level 2A, with the added weight as the only real downside. As such, it’s a great choice for all the same scenarios as Level II armor.

Level 3 body armor comes next–an extremely popular choice for military and civilian buyers, since it’s designed to protect against rifle rounds, including 7.62x51mm NATO and 5.56x45mm NATO ammunition. That includes the vast majority of small arms in the world today.

The trade-off once again comes in the form of added weight. Level 3 steel plate armor is heavy. That means individual plates can weigh up to 15lbs (6.8 kg). Though composite materials can help lighten the load, they often come at a much higher cost.

Bear in mind that beavier plates can mean more exertion for the wearer. And despite the fact that Level 3 armor is rated to stop most small arms fire, it won’t always stop armor-piercing shots, or higher-caliber rifle rounds.

This level of protection is commonly used by law enforcement tactical teams, military personnel, and security personnel who need protection against rifle threats in high-risk situations.

MIRA tactical body plate

A MIRA Tactical body plate. 

Last is Level 4 body armor. This is the top tier, designed to provide protection against armor-piercing rifle rounds, including 7.62x63mm AP (.30-06 AP) and 7.62x54mmR API (B32).

Unfortunately, the sheer weight of this kind of armor often makes it an impractical choice. Steel plate Level 4 body armor, after all, can weigh up to 20 pounds and, as such, cost quite a bit.

And even though the plate will stop the bullet, an impact with this kind of force can cause what’s called “spalling” with cheaper plate armor. That’s when chunks of the plate are shaved away and ejected at high speeds either upward (toward the user’s head) or downward (toward their leg).

Though affordable Level 4 body armor ceramic plates used to be inaccessible, retailers have finally started bringing this level of protection to the masses. Thanks to materials like ultra high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE), these plates are lighter than Level 3 steel, and have demonstrated the capability to take multiple high-caliber hits without spalling or penetrating.

That’s about as close to bulletproof as you can get.

Body Armor Fact #2: Armor has a Shelf Life

Most folks don’t necessarily expect body armor to last forever… but they also don’t expect to see anything like an expiration date on their new Kevlar vest.

In reality, soft body armor is typically composed of multiple layers of tightly woven fibers like kevlar or dyneema, which are strategically designed to absorb and distribute the energy of an incoming projectile. When a bullet strikes the armor, these fibers catch it, slow it down, and spread the force over a larger surface area. This dispersion of energy minimizes the impact on the wearer’s body, reducing the risk of injury.

Microscopic close-up of Kevlar weave

Microscopic close-up of Kevlar weave. (Image courtesy of ResearchGate)

Over time, like any other garment, these fibers gradually relax and separate ever so slightly. As a result, the vest will become less and less effective after the end of its certified service life.

Likewise for the plate carriers used with hard armor plates. They can deteriorate over time and with regular use. Note that if hard armor plates are struck by a bullet, the plate can shatter or have its surface deformed. Many types of armor plates, it should be noted, are capable of sustaining one hit, but not multiples.

Everything from abrasion, physical stress, and UV exposure can weaken the fibers in soft armor or degrade the materials in hard armor, ultimately reducing their protective capabilities.

Bear in mind, too, that extended exposure to moisture and high humidity can also weaken the fibers in soft armor and lead to corrosion in hard armor plates. Such deterioration compromises the structural integrity of the armor.

In the same way, extreme temperatureswhether hot or coldcan also negatively affect the materials used in body armor. More specifically, heat can cause delamination or weaken the fibers, while extreme cold can make the materials brittle.

Even prolonged exposure to sunlight and UV radiation can accelerate the degradation of the fibers and materials used in body armor. This degradation can lead to diminished protection.

So it’s crucial to store your body armor in a clean, dry place that’s temperature regulated and within the manufacturer’s recommended storage parameters.

Body Armor Fact #3: There’s Regularly Scheduled Maintenance

And yes, you also must perform regular maintenance on your body armor as well.

That includes routine visual inspections of body armor to identify signs of wear, tear, damage, or deterioration. Pay close attention for split seams or torn stitching, and any areas displaying visible harm, including both the outer carrier and the armor inserts.

You may also need to clean your armor after use. Soft armor can be wiped down with a damp cloth or hand-washed using a mild detergent and water. Remember to avoid harsh chemicals that can harm the fibers, and clean hard armor plates with a damp cloth.

Simple tutorial for body armor cleaning.

Accessories like trauma pads or plate backers should also be checked regularly.

Maintenance is extremely easy as long as you stick to the manufacturer’s recommendations for maintenance, inspection intervals, and replacement schedules. Note that different brands and models of body armor may have specific care requirements.

In accordance with this, we strongly recommend keeping detailed records containing your body armor’s purchase date, manufacturer information, and any maintenance or inspection dates. Remember: this kind of documentation could prove to be life-saving in the long run.

Body Armor Fact #4: Armor Changes the Way You Move and Fight

While modern advancements have led to lighter and more ergonomic designs, body armor still adds a significant load to the wearer—enough to change the logistics of fighting and moving.

Imagine, for example, being a police officer responding to a high-stress, dynamic situation that requires rapid movement and agility. You’re wearing a heavy plate carrier, and before you know it, you’re breathing heavy and starting to feel exhausted. If you’re not prepared and trained for that kind of situation, the consequences could be disastrous.

In 2016, a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene examined the physiological effects of body armor on police officers. Alarmingly, researchers found that wearing body armor significantly increased heart rate and perceived exertion during simulated physical tasks.

Body armor can also trap heat against the wearer’s body, leading to discomfort and heat-related issues. In hot and humid conditions, the added layers of protection can result in excessive sweating, dehydration, and even heat exhaustion.

A well-documented incident involves U.S. military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the scorching desert heat, soldiers wearing body armor experienced heat-related illnesses, with symptoms ranging from dizziness and nausea to heat stroke.

Soldier with gun

Militaries focus on physical fitness for operators equipped with body armor.  (Image courtesy of Overt Defense)

The heat factor, it should be noted, can lead to excessive sweating, rapid fluid loss and dehydration, further exacerbating the risk of heat-related issues. So maintaining proper hydration becomes a logistical challenge, especially when access to water is limited.

Finally, body armor can restrict the wearer’s range of motion, making it challenging to perform tasks that require bending, reaching, or crouching. This can even impact marksmanship—especially when shooting from unconventional positions.

And there’s no one simple solution for all these problems, either…

Getting the proper cut and size of armor plate can help improve your range of motion. Pairing that with the right type of plate carrier can do even more for you. But you’ll also still need to train regularly and condition yourself to be prepared to fight in full body armor.

Note that law enforcement agencies often include physical fitness and tactical training as essential to an officer’s preparation. Not only does regular training improve physical abilities, it also helps officers acclimate to the demands of wearing body armor.

Body Armor Fact #5: Armor Plates aren’t “One Size Fits All”

Soft armor kevlar vests are often sold in conventional sizes like small, medium, or large.

But rigid armor plates come in various shapes (or “cuts”) to fit different purposes for different users.

First off is full-cut or rectangular or square plates, which offer maximum coverage of vital organs. They extend to the shoulders, covering a more significant portion of the upper torso.

Full-cut plates are often used by military, law enforcement, or police tactical units when the likelihood of confronting an armed threat is high. Though they offer the greatest possible protection and coverage of the torso, full-cut plates can limit the user’s range of movement. They’re also heavier due to the increased amount of material used.

Next is “shooter’s cut” plates, also known as swimmers-cut plates. These feature trimmed corners on the upper section to allow for better arm movement, particularly when aiming or shooting.

Significantly, these types of plates have become more popular in recent years, especially among special forces and competitive shooting communities, where the slight advantage in mobility can make all the difference. Though shooter’s cut plates do expose more of your shoulders, they still almost completely cover your vital organs.

After that, we have Small Arms Protection Insert (SAPI) plates, which are designed to fit inside a standard plate carrier. They have a standardized shape and size for compatibility with a wide range of carriers.

Essentially, SAPI plates are the best of both worlds, offering substantially more coverage than a Swimmer’s Cut plate without quite as much mass as a square plate. The standardized size also makes them a more practical choice for agencies and armed forces that typically procure body armor plates by the hundred or the thousand.

Note that SAPI plates can be used with a wide variety of different plate carriers or armor configurations. But they’re not a perfect fit for every user out there.

Here, it makes sense to mention Enhance Small Arms Protective Inserts (ESAPI)–essentially just an upgraded version of SAPI armor, with slightly better protection at the cost of a slightly heavier weight. They’re also often equipped with trauma padding that can reduce the risk of deformation.

Finally, there are multi-curve plates with unique contours designed to maximize ergonomics and comfort during long hours of use. Because these plates require more intensive construction methods, the price is typically higher than flat/single curve plates.

But multi-curve plates conform to the body’s shape, reducing discomfort and minimizing gaps between the armor and the wearer’s body.

A visual guide to armor plate shapes

A visual guide to armor plate shapes.  (Image courtesy of NDA)

Side plates are often seen as an optional consideration when buying body armor.

As the name implies, these narrow plates strap into most plate carriers' elastic cummerbund. Coming in various sizes and shapes, they can protect the side, particularly the area around the ribcage.

Because these plates can add a few extra pounds to a carrier, it comes down to a question of whether the added protection is worth the added pounds in any given situation.

Body Armor Fact #6: Not All Level 4 Body Armor is Created Equal

Body armor certification is a rigorous and reliable process you can trust your life to.

But just seeing that a piece of armor is level 2A or level 3… that doesn’t always tell you the whole story. Often, the reality is far more complicated, with differences from one producer to the next.

We’ve already talked about spalling—and how your own steel body armor could be the source of potentially deadly shrapnel launched just inches from your face. We also mentioned how these plates can deform on contact, leaving them ineffective against follow-up shots of the same caliber.

Steel plate shattered by multiple direct hits.

Steel plate shattered by multiple direct hits.  (Image courtesy of 10-8 Forums)

Of course, it’s nice to be able to shrug off one bullet impact. But it’s far better if you can take four to five without having to worry.

And then there’s the primary downside of body armor: the massive weight and exertion of carrying around steel plates. That’s not nearly as much of an issue with ceramic and composites. But due to the way NIJ certifies products, Level 4 armor is Level 4 armor whether it’s a 5.9lb MIRA tactical plate or a 10.2 steel plate.

Granted, steel armor can be slightly more affordable in terms of price. But in terms of practical usability, flexibility, and reliability—composite armor is truly the next generation of protection.

After years of careful research and development, MIRA Tactical’s composite Level 4 body armor is arguably the best practical choice for everyday protection.

Built using a combination of weight-saving UHMWPE and aluminum oxide ceramic, they tip the scales at just half the weight of their steel counterparts.

That means you’re getting a sub-six-pound plate that’s less than an inch thick and can stop multiple 3,000 foot-per-second armor-piercing battle-rifle rounds. All without risk of spalling or puncture.

Once again: it’s the closest you’ll get to bulletproof.

Next-Gen Ballistic Protection

From knights in shining armor to tactical operators in steel plate armor, the basic design of protective gear has only evolved a little over the last thousand years.

Composite Level 4 armor is a complete paradigm shift, however.

Using lightweight new materials, it can provide even better protection than steel plates in a more practical and maneuverable package. While steel plate armor is still slightly more economical, composite Level 4 Armor is ultimately going to be a better long-term investment.

Gun

(Image courtesy of Shot Stop)

But you can’t just stash your armor away for a rainy day. You must drill and train while wearing your armor, being mindful of your physical fitness to ensure the best possible performance.

Fortunately, lightweight Level 4 Armor makes it all that much easier.