Updated: Oct 8, 2021
What is an NIJ certification? What is the difference between being NIJ certified and NIJ tested? Why is it important to purchase NIJ certified armor and or armor from a reputable manufacturer?
These are questions that I am asked quite often. I often hear "__________ plates are tested on Youtube, they seem to work just fine" or "NIJ certification is just paying the government is useless" or "NIJ tested is the same as Certified." Today, we will evaluate the flaws in this mindset and the importance/ advantages of an NIJ certification.
Firstly, we must understand what goes into an NIJ certification and the difference between officially certified and only tested. The best analogy I can give, is an NIJ certification is like a comprehensive torture test of not only the ballistic capabilities, but also the reliability of the material and plate design under adverse conditions and possible damage. An NIJ TEST (by a lab such as OBL or NTS Chesapeake) is just a shooting test, and often does not tell us enough information to make a comprehensive evaluation of the quality and efficiency of a specific ballistic insert. An NIJ 0101.06 Level IV certification encompasses a sample size of 7-37 plates. However, generally speaking the NIJ will require the full 37 plates. These 37 plates are separated into groups, some will be tempered (subjected to torture testing) before being shot, while some will be shot without tempering. 𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐦𝐚𝐢𝐧 𝐭𝐞𝐦𝐩𝐞𝐫𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐩𝐫𝐨𝐜𝐞𝐝𝐮𝐫𝐞𝐬 𝐝𝐮𝐫𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐚𝐧 𝐍𝐈𝐉 𝐜𝐞𝐫𝐭𝐢𝐟𝐢𝐜𝐚𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧 𝐚𝐫𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐟𝐨𝐥𝐥𝐨𝐰𝐢𝐧𝐠:- 𝐃𝐫𝐨𝐩 𝐭𝐞𝐬𝐭𝐢𝐧𝐠:10 pounds are strapped to the rear of the plate, and the plate is dropped onto hard concrete from 4 feet, 2 times. 𝐇𝐞𝐚𝐭 𝐄𝐱𝐩𝐨𝐬𝐮𝐫𝐞 𝐂𝐡𝐚𝐦𝐛𝐞𝐫: Plates will be placed in a thermal exposure chamber for a period of 10 days at 149 degrees Fahrenheit. 𝐓𝐡𝐞𝐫𝐦𝐚𝐥 𝐂𝐲𝐜𝐥𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐂𝐡𝐚𝐦𝐛𝐞𝐫: Plates will be placed in a thermal cycling chamber for a period of 24 hours, with temperatures ranging from 5 degrees Fahrenheit to 194 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures will change every 2 hours. 𝐒𝐮𝐛𝐦𝐞𝐫𝐬𝐢𝐨𝐧: Plates will be submerged fully in water and allowed to soak, before being shot while dripping wet. These tempering procedures ensure that plates will uphold their ballistic capabilities no matter how adverse the conditions are, or even after being rough handled and or dropped. Next, moving onto the NIJ shooting portion. As mentioned above, a portion of the samples are tempered via various methods while some plates remain untempered. The NIJ shooting test (and the entire certification for that matter) is more like a scientific test. Everything from the velocity of the projectile down to the air pressure and air temperature of the room are recorded. Cartridges are custom loaded to ensure consistency. Back face deformation (how much the plate deforms or bulges into your chest when shot) is all recorded. For a plate to pass back face deformation, it must be under 44mm. Excessive back face deformation can lead to excessive blunt force trauma and internal trauma. 𝐖𝐇𝐄𝐍 𝐀 𝐏𝐋𝐀𝐓𝐄 𝐌𝐎𝐃𝐄𝐋 𝐈𝐒 𝐀𝐃𝐕𝐄𝐑𝐓𝐈𝐒𝐄𝐃 𝐀𝐒 "𝐍𝐈𝐉 𝐓𝐄𝐒𝐓𝐄𝐃" 𝐎𝐑 "𝐈𝐍𝐃𝐄𝐏𝐄𝐍𝐃𝐄𝐍𝐓𝐋𝐘 𝐓𝐄𝐒𝐓𝐄𝐃" 𝐓𝐇𝐈𝐒 𝐌𝐄𝐀𝐍𝐒 𝐓𝐇𝐄 𝐏𝐋𝐀𝐓𝐄 𝐇𝐀𝐒 𝐎𝐍𝐋𝐘 𝐆𝐎𝐍𝐄 𝐓𝐇𝐑𝐎𝐔𝐆𝐇 𝐓𝐇𝐄 𝐒𝐇𝐎𝐎𝐓𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐏𝐎𝐑𝐓𝐈𝐎𝐍 𝐎𝐅 𝐓𝐇𝐄 𝐓𝐄𝐒𝐓. 𝐋𝐚𝐬𝐭 𝐛𝐮𝐭 𝐧𝐨𝐭 𝐥𝐞𝐚𝐬𝐭, 𝐍𝐈𝐉 𝐅𝐈𝐓 𝐭𝐞𝐬𝐭𝐢𝐧𝐠. This is not part of the NIJ certification process, but rather something that comes with an NIJ certification. All NIJ certified plates are required to undergo regular NIJ FIT testing. All non ISO certified companies are subjected to an NIJ FIT on plate models roughly once a year, while ISO certified companies are subjected to an NIJ FIT on plate models every two years. An NIJ FIT test is a random quality control inspection done by the NIJ to ensure plates are consistently stopping ballistic threats. For Level 4 plates, 4 plates are chosen at complete random, for level 3 plates, 2 plates are chosen at complete random. (they can even be pulled from shipments about to go out to customers). These plates are then subjected to a shoot test. For level 4, it is 1 shot of M2-AP each, and for level 3 it is 6 shots of M80 ball each. If any of the plates suffer a penetration, the model will be temporarily suspended from the NIJ compliant products list. Then a full root cause analysis will be performed to determine if the cause was a one off mistake, or a design flaw within the plates. If the problem cannot be rectified, the NIJ will permanently remove the plate model from the compliant product list. This ensures some level of third party accountability that is not present with chinese made plates. 𝐖𝐡𝐲 𝐢𝐬 𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐬 𝐢𝐦𝐩𝐨𝐫𝐭𝐚𝐧𝐭? Now, why is this important? Why is it important to purchase an NIJ certified product rather than an uncertified (usually imported) model? I am specifically going to focus on the many imported armor models, that lack NIJ certification (only labeled as "tested") and are specifically marked as "Assembled in the US" rather than actually made in the US.
Simply put, these plates are made in China and imported to the US. They may say "Assembled in the US", but they are NOT manufactured in the states. These plates lack quality control accountability (No NIJ Certification, no NIJ FITs). A common practice in many Chinese plates, are the manufacturer will make the outer 1-2" edge of the plate out of foam, this means the Ceramic material does not extend fully to the edges. This is an abuse of the NIJ's "Minimum shot from edge distance" which is 2". In a lab testing setting, this makes sense for consistency. As shots close to the edge will often perform inconsistently or more poorly. This does not mean the outer 1-2" edge is not ballistically rated, it simply means performance is most consistent away from the edge. Making the edge foam, guarantees no round, regardless of caliber will be stopped. This is done as a weight saving technique, as the lower amount of coverage can result in a large difference in weight savings.
One of the most common plates that employs this design feature are the LAPG Level 4s. "But ________ youtuber tested them, looks good to me!" No. Youtubers present small sample sizes with inconsistent variables and often incorrectly set up tests. Most youtubers do not utilize a proper backstop, which is incredibly important to plate performance. The bare minimum for testing should be a clay backing to measure backface deformation (Roma Plastilina No. 1 at 98.7 degrees F), a Chronograph to measure bullet velocity and the stated round/ type and grain weight before each shot. Keeping the clay at a consistent temperature for a proper backface deformation reading is incredibly difficult and is often impossible outside of a lab setting. Simply put, a backing material thats too soft, or with too much give can make good plates fail. While a backing material that is too hard, can make bad plates pass. When a plate is allowed to fly backwards, or recoil back too much, it allows the kinetic energy to be dissipated more, instead of being properly transferred into the plate.
This however, is not as important as the clay backing itself. The NIJ uses a specific clay backing that has a consistent hardness, and also allows them to measure back face deformation. Backface deformation can be just as important as measuring penetration or non penetration. The issue with many uncertified imported models, is they lack a properly heat pressed backer, with a proper adhesive bonding. Separation of the backer can lead to greater backface deformation, which leads to greater blunt force trauma. Separation of the backer can also decrease a plates multi hit capabilities. As the Ceramic being glued to the backer is what keeps the tile together. The primary issue with Uncertified imported Chinese armor models, is inconsistency in manufacturing, lack of quality control assurances, inferior design features and manufacturing. Chinese Ceramics often will have a lower purity than what is found in Italian Bitossi Ceramics, or American Ceramics from Cerco or Coorstek. This can lead to lower performance. Additionally, Chinese made Polyethelene, will generally be weaker than branded Dyneema, a quality backing material is important in absorbing blunt force trauma and catching residual projectile fragments or cores.
Chinese Ceramic plates will also often have an unpressed ballistic backer. Backers in plates made by large reputable US manufacturing facilities will be heat pressed for density and added toughness. An unpressed backer is at a greater risk of delaminating when hit, which increases blunt force trauma. Another common issue, is weak adhesive between the backer and the Ceramic core. The adhesive used between the Ceramic and the backer should be as tough as Epoxy, you should not be able to easily separate it by hand. A weak bond between the Ceramic and the backer, generally will lead to delamination, increased backface deformation, and if the Ceramic is not reinforced with another polymer laminate layer (most Chinese plates are not), decreased multi hit performance.
Believe me when I tell you it is easier for me to sell uncertified Chinese plates due to their lower cost. Believe me when I tell you, most people do not know these issues, due to the general overall lack of information surrounding armor. So please do not see this as "attacking competitors" but rather a warning for unsafe and ineffective lifesaving equipment.
What is your life worth to you?