What is combat gear, and why do you need it? Well, your combat gear is simply your gear that you wear from day to day, in a combat situation, or more aptly for us, a TEOTWAWKI situation. I am a young prepper living in the central Carolinas. I have been collecting military gear, such as uniforms, helmets, vests, and such for over 8 years. Over those 8 years, I’ve seen what the average soldier wears through combat in Iraq and what a Delta operator might wear in Afghanistan. However, please keep in mind that as preppers, most of us have never received the specialized training of a soldier, and 99% of us have never had the training of a Special Forces Operator. That being said, let‘s discuss what an average prepper might need in the way of combat gear.
The uniform is the most basic of items that a prepper can find, and might be one of the most useful. There are several different types of camouflage to choose from. The most ubiquitous form of camo that can be found is the US M81 Woodland type, commonly called Battle Dress Uniform (BDU). This camo was used from 1981 until 2005 when it was dropped by all branches of service, except for auxiliary organizations, like the Civil Air Patrol (http://www.gocivilairpatrol.com/) (check that program out as well, it’s a great resource for knowledge). It seems that everybody and their brother has a pair of the BDU pants. However, they can frequently be found at local thrift shops and occasionally at Goodwill and Salvation Army for under $5 for the pants, and under $3 for the shirts. I personally have picked up all of my BDU items from surplus stores and Goodwill [thrift stores] for under $4 for the pants, and normally $1 for the shirts (large sizes as well). The great thing about the BDU pattern is that the US Military made a lot of their gear in this pattern, so you can have a lot of your gear match in color (this would certainly help in blending in to the environment. If you have two shades of green, some black, and some tan on your gear, you might stick out just a little bit).
In 2005, when the BDU was dropped from service, most of the branches of the Armed Forces went to a pattern designed for their duties. Most of these patterns are pixilated or better known as “Digital Camo”, such as the Army Combat Uniform (ACU) pattern, which is an ugly mix of gray and tan squares. One of the most effective uniform patterns that came out of this switch was the Marine Pattern (MARPAT), which is available in Woodland or Desert types. The woodland stuff blends in really well with the surrounding environment, better than the BDU. However, it costs significantly more, with prices being around $15-$30 for a shirt and the same for a pair of pants. Beware of Chinese-made copies. To differentiate: Genuine MARPAT material has a small Marine Corps Emblem known as the Eagle, Globe and Anchor or EGA and “USMC” stamped below that in very small letters printed on all of the fabric.
There are also many other camo patterns, too numerous to discuss here, but I would like to discuss Multicam. This is a camo pattern that is being introduced to our soldiers in Afghanistan, dubbed the AMU (Army Multicam Uniform). It has a good color to it, and it tends to blend into most environments quite well. It is more expensive than MARPAT, but because it is being mass produced for the military, look for prices on it to drop like a rock in the next five to ten years. The Multicam pattern is being used on rucksacks, vests, helmet covers, etc. just like the BDU and ACU patterns have been.
So, which pattern is best for you? If money were no object, I would get five sets of Multicam. However, most of us don’t have the luxury of a large piggy bank. I have used the BDU pattern in the woods around here (mostly hardwoods like Oak), and in the prone position, as well as the kneeling position, I avoided being spotted until I made my presence known. The BDU however, has four front pockets that are parallel to the ground, while MARPAT and Multicam have two slanted chest pockets, facing inwards, and pockets on each sleeve that are slanted at a 45° angle which help in accessing the items in those pockets. Special Forces operators, finding the digital patterns not suitable to their needs, modified BDU uniforms to the same pocket configurations as the MARPAT and Multicam, removing the bottom pockets, moving them to the sleeves, and slanting the top chest pockets. I have found this to be quite utilitarian, especially when using a vest that covers up your front pocket area. These modifications can be made on a standard sewing machine, or the sewing ladies at the off-base surplus stores (if you live by a military base) can help you with this, at a normally reasonable price.
In my personal opinion, you cannot go wrong with a simple US Military surplus pair of black leather combat boots. There are two types of the BDU black combat boots. One type is all leather, and offers a lot of ankle support. The other type is commonly referred to as the jungle boot, with only a leather shoe, and canvas reinforcement above the ankle. The boots are normally quite a bit more expensive than the uniform itself. Like-new condition ones, in large sizes can go for $30-$60 a pair. But, if you shop around, you can really find bargains. Since the BDU uniform was in use for so long, thrift shops often have used BDU boots in stock. I was able to find my first pair for $2, and although they were quite used and already broken in, I added a $10 pair of insoles and they wear great.
If you don’t want surplus, that’s fine. There are a multitude of commercial boot makers that the soldiers have utilized during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Among the best are Danner, Altima, and Oakley. Most of the commercial boots come in two varieties; low top and high top. Unlike the standard military issue boots, low top boots allow for more movement and agility. Some of the best low tops are the Oakley Assault Boots ($130 range) and the Danner Hiking Boots ($150 range). Most of your commercial high top boots are of poorer quality than surplus (save for the aforementioned brands), and had a zipper on the side of the boot that facilitates putting on the boot and removing the boot. However, this zipper is likely to break and be more of a hindrance than anything. You simply cannot kill lace up boots. Laces break? Tie them back together! Break them again? Then why didn’t you replace the laces with 550-Paracord and be done with it!
Combat Load Bearing Equipment
There are three ways to carry your “battle rattle”; the ALICE system, the MOLLE system, or a vest. The ALICE system was used by the US Military from the 1960s until about ten years ago. It utilizes metal clips which attach to a utility belt. The belt is also held up by suspenders. There are a variety of pouches that were made for the ALICE system- everything from radio pouches, first aid kit pouches, canteen pouches, magazine pouches, etc. It is not hard to find the components to the ALICE system, and at dirt cheap prices. You normally can buy a complete system for under $30. The ALICE system is customizable to a certain degree, and is a good starting point for combat gear. The standard surplus ALICE gear is OD Green. The cheaper commercial stuff (that is not very reliable) comes in black as well as tan. There is also the transitionally-issued Load Bearing Vest (LBV) that was used by the military in the 1990s. It is BDU woodland camouflage colored and has four M16 magazine pouches on the front, as well as two grenade pouches. It has suspenders and tightens by lacing up the sides. You can also attach an ALICE utility belt to the bottom of it.
The MOLLE II system (spoke “MOLLY”, not “MOLE-Y” or “MOLE”) is the newest system developed for the US Military to carry the standard gear for a soldier. The MOLLE system includes different types of pouches, similar to the ALICE system, but instead of using clips, it utilizes straps that slip through loops on a MOLLE compatible vest, backpack, or Camelback. The MOLLE system is more customizable than the ALICE system, but it is also more expensive. It comes in all of the major camouflage colors of the US Army, as well as tan and black. The most versatile way to carry gear with the MOLLE system is something called the Fighting Load Carrier (FLC). It is a vest that covers the chest fully, and has wrap around MOLLE loops. It closes with a zipper on the front as well as buckles. The FLCs can be found for $15-$30 a piece, and the pouches can cost around $3-$6 each.
Another way to carry your combat gear is through a vest . There are many makers of these vests, and some are MOLLE compatible, while others already have all of the pouches sewn onto the vest. All of the vests that I have ever seen have the option of attaching a utility belt below the vest. Also, vests adjust in size around the sides, and it laces up. Normally, one size fits all. Some of the most popular makers of these vests include Blackhawk, 5.11 Tactical, UTG, and Condor Tactical. From what I have heard from soldiers, seen in the surplus stores, and my own personal experience, the Blackhawk brand is very durable, and can take a significant beating. There are way too many layouts of vests to be discussed thoroughly here, but I personally use the Blackhawk Omega Elite Cross Draw vest, which allows me to carry 3 magazines for my battle rifle, 4 magazines for my pistol (not including one in the pistol itself), as well as a small FAK (First Aid Kit), my Ka-Bar knife, some 550 paracord, a strap cutter, and a multi tool. Not to mention I can always attach more pouches to the belt if the need arises.
Body Armor and Helmets
We always see “Bullet-Proof” vests and helmets in the movies. Sadly, this is not an accurate term. While some helmets and body armor are designed to stop bullets, others are not, and it’s important to know the difference. The US Military first started issuing Flak Jackets to the B-17 Pilots flying over Germany. The first body armor for the soldier on the ground came during the Vietnam conflict. However, the first Kevlar body armor came into existence in the mid-1970’s, and is called the Personnel Armor System for Ground Troop (PASGT). There were vests that were issued in the BDU Woodland pattern, and they came in various sizes. However, these vests were designed to stop grenade shrapnel, not bullets. They do, however, offer protection against some small caliber rounds.
There are also PASGT helmets (mostly called Kevlar helmets) that are relatively cheap on the surplus market, for under $50. These helmets are normally green or black and you can buy BDU, ACU, or MARPAT covers for them. The updated version of the PASGT helmet, known as the ACH (Army Combat Helmet) offers more ballistic protection to soldiers. However, please be aware that with helmets, you lose a lot of mobility. It’s difficult to have a full range of vision with a PASGT helmet on in the prone position.
Commercial body armor is a hot business. There are different levels of protection, and those are a separate article by themselves. However, a good rule of thumb is to remember that “soft armor” (Kevlar) is rated to a 9MM pistol round, and “hard armor” (Ceramic plates inserted into body armor) will stop up to a 7.62×39. A higher level of protection can be offered by wrapping ceramic plates with soft Kevlar armor. Most of the personal body armor that Law Enforcement wears is soft armor, and Military uses the Ceramic plates. The plates and the soft armor can be inserted into a piece of equipment known as a plate carrier, which, true to its name, holds the plates for you. If you are looking for a good concealable armor, Safariland makes some interesting products that, when worn cannot be seen under a t-shirt. Kevlar fiber does deteriorate over time (depending upon who you ask, of course), and ought to be replaced every 5-7 years. The military body armor system, called the Interceptor Body Armor (IBA), is a plate carrier system that works with either soft or hard armor, and has MOLLE loops to allow for your combat load. It comes in BDU, ACU, Tan, and will soon be available in Multicam. They are, however, expensive (especially with the ceramic plates!).
Where to Get Your Battle Rattle
When you are in the market for buying personal combat gear, I do not advise buying online. The online marketplace generally has the same prices on the same items everywhere on the net. However, you can find real bargains if you are willing to look for them. First, I would advise looking online to see what you like, who makes it, and what the general price tag is on it. Then, go to your local flea market, and look around for the surplus dealers. Or, if you can afford it, drive down to your nearest Army or Marine base and look through the surplus stores, and get to the local off-base flea market early. Flea Markets are Surplus stores are the best when it comes to gear, and sometimes uniforms. However, I recommend buying pants from your thrift stores because they have lower prices on camouflage pants than your local surplus dealer. If your surplus dealer does not have what you are looking for, get to know him, and let him know what you are on the lookout for. It helps to bring printed pictures of exactly what you want. Often times they have duffel bags of stuff they aren’t putting out, and they might just have what you want. Don’t be afraid to haggle. Also, don’t be scared of used items. Most of the time, they are gently used an therefore priced much lower than new items.
[JWR Adds: There is also a subtle psychology to the sight well-worn looking web gear. The sight of brand new looking web gear screams “newbie” or “armchair commando”. But seeing old, well-worn web gear imparts the “wizened veteran” look, and usually respect and “don’t mess with him” restraint. Older gear also looses the sheen that is typical of new nylon, so it is less reflective.]
Get the dealer’s name and phone number (or a business card) and call him and ask him if he has a certain item, or if he will be getting any new items soon. Most dealers make trips to their sources every so often, and they have the best stuff right after they get back from buying it.
– Most recent US Military magazine pouches are designed to fit the M16/M4 5.56 NATO 30 Round Magazine. If you are looking for something to fit an AK or FAL magazine, then bring a magazine with you when you shop to insert into the pouch and make sure it fits. I have found radio pouches will work well with AK magazines.
– If you buy the ALICE system, invest in extra clips. They often cost about a dollar a piece, and are well worth it when they break
– Larger ALICE pouches fit on the back of the belt, and the pouches often have holes where the suspenders hooks will fit into the pouch.
– MOLLE webbing is ideal for the placement of walkie-talkies and chem-lights (glow sticks)
[JWR Adds: Pouches for odd-shaped magazines such as Saiga 12 shotgun drum magazines, XS drum magazines, and FN P-90 are available from TheVestGuy.com. They can make nearly all of their gear in MultiCam, on request.]
Now that we have learned exactly what is available, at the lowest cost possible (because being frugal is part of the preparedness concept), get going! Try on different gear. Find out what is best for you. Research what soldiers are currently wearing, and look up pictures of special forces soldiers, because they normally carry the lightest gear possible, which is ideal for bugging out. Find something you like, except for the color? Then spray paint it! Soldiers have been doing that for twenty years now, and it doesn’t hurt. So, I hope this article has helped point you in the direction of what you may one day need to save your life! Hey, who knows? Maybe you’ll turn that Bug Out Bag into a Bug Out Vest.