We’re almost done with our series on tactical load carriage methods. With this post, we turn our attention to the chest rig. The main focus of my article is on the standalone versions of the chest rig, but the information applies just as readily to plate carriers and other ways of moving the load higher on the torso.
So far, we’ve focused on carrying the fighting load around the waist, where it distributes load to the hips. Historically, this is the load placement of choice for militaries around the world going all the way back to the Romans. But it wasn’t the only option.
The so-called chest rig really gained notoriety during Vietnam. Chinese-made Type 56 canvas rigs dominated the NVA inventory for carrying AK-47 magazines all during the war. Many US special operations forces stole or copied the design to better blend in or use enemy weapons.
But the truth is that carrying equipment on the chest has a long history.
A Brief History of the Chest Rig
I don’t have any solid evidence to show you, but there is a fairly long history of carrying ancillary equipment on the chest. While it might not have been fighting equipment the way we consider it today, things like bandoliers have always been around.
The famous pirate Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, carried several pistols about his chest. Various depictions show them high, some show them lower, but the principle remains the same. Carrying them on the torso kept them accessible in an emergency
During the World Wars, it was common to store extra ordnance like grenades or spare clips in bandoliers stretched across the chest. The American’s had a grenade vest that looks very similar to modern chest rigs during WWI. The Germans later did it as well with rifle clips.
The British and Canadians developed the so-called battle jerkin that looks
These items never rose to the prominence of the Chinese Type 56, though.
Partly through American adoption during Vietnam, but also because of the iconic status the style reached during the Rhodesian Bush War. Fighters used copies of the rig so much and so effectively that we colloquially dubbed it, “The Rhodesian Rig.”
The chest rig had a lot of benefits to mobility, which I’ll get to. But for now, know that it had enough of an influence that the US military tried to incorporate it into the ALICE system. In we developed 1988, the Integrated Individual Fighting System (IIFS).
This system used the same ALICE gun belt threaded through the bottom loops, but moved the load higher up the torso. As far as I can tell, it was never as popular. The video above shows the experimental version developed in 1986.
The final version moved the magazine pouches further to the sides and angled them slightly. A lot of guys have logged a ton of time wearing this system, to varying amounts of happiness.
Common complaints were that it was too hot, the pouches were too awkward, and it was just a lot of nylon. This system is still around in some storerooms but was mostly replaced by MOLLE.
With MOLLE, we arrive at the Fighting Load Carrier (FLC) and Tactical Assault Panel (TAP). However, at this point, wearing fighting gear separately from armor was getting less and less common. As we got into the 2000s, it became standard practice to mount equipment pouches directly to the armor system.
Costs and Benefits of Chest Rigs and Plate Carriers
For practicality purposes, I’m staying entirely out of the pro-cons of wearing ballistic plates for protection. This discussion focuses solely on fighting load.
The primary benefits of chest rigs come from getting stuff off your hips and belt line. The hazards come from putting too much “stuff” in front of you and under your arms.
- From an energy expenditure standpoint, weight carried higher on your torso is more efficient when traveling over level ground. The situation reverses when you get on uneven terrain, where hip-mounted gear is more efficient.
- When using a chest rig, your gear is usually easier to access because it’s all right in front of you. There’s no need to reach around behind you to retrieve anything.
- Since there’s nothing on your back or hips, sitting in chairs or vehicles is a lot more comfortable. I sincerely think this is one of the main reasons chest rigs grew in popularity during GWOT (Global War on Terrorism). Classic foot patrols gave way to vehicle patrols, and chest-mounted gear was just more convenien for hopping in and out of vehicles all day to clear houses.
- Gear mounted high, even if it’s directly in front of you, doesn’t get in the way of crouching, kneeling, or walking uphill
- Chest rigs hinder heat management. Your torso, along with your head, is a high blood-flow region that your body uses to ventilate heat. By covering it with a chest rig, you limit the usable surface area for doing so.
- Mounting gear higher on your chest puts more strain on your core strength. This isn’t all that different from rucking, really. Any tactical fitness program you pursue should include a healthy amount of core work. But from a load-carriage standpoint, chest rigs require more core strength than belt kits, and will eventually tire you quicker if the load is heavy enough. If the chest rig is heavy enough, you practically have to balance it with a ruck in your back to prevent too much strain.
- Chest rigs increase your silhouette and make it harder to “get low.” With belts, we tend to move bulk out to the sides, which keeps our fronts flat and ready to press into the dirt for going prone. Putting all of your gear on your chest raises your profile off the ground and makes it much harder to fit behind low-lying cover.
- With excessive bulk in front of you, manipulating your weapon grows more difficult. If you add too much bulk to the sides, under your armpits, then overall movement becomes awkward since it gets in the way of your arm’s natural swing.
- British troops in GWOT enforced operating procedures to remove all extraneous hard objects in open pouches from their chest rigs. The hazards came from roadside explosives. If you were hit, objects sitting unsecured in your chest rig tended to blow upwards towards your face. That’s certainly an issue if you’ve stuffed multitools, knives, or other pointy objects in there. But that’s a rather unique circumstance to that conflict.
My Chest Rig Setup
Now we come to it, my personal chest rig. You’ve seen this one before in other photos. In this one, it’s more or less by itself, along with my CCW setup. This is what you might imagine for a situation where you were out and about concealed carrying, but happen to keep a chest rig and carbine in your vehicle. That’s probably a little “too much” for me, but this is something that law enforcement deals with regularly.
When approaching a chest rig, you really need to account for the hazards more than anything else. Aside from the heat management part, our biggest gains come from minimizing bulk.
My chest rig is a Max Velocity Tactical Special Operations Rig. I’m a big fan of it, but he gets them made in small batches so availability is sometimes difficult. I’ll provide some alternatives in a minute, but I highly suggest this one if they’re in stock.
You’ll notice immediately that I only have a single layer of magazines across my front. This is for reducing bulk. With this configuration, I can still get low to the ground and easily manipulate my weapon through loading or malfunctions.
On each side of the center four magazines, I have a small enclosed utility pouch. I can stuff my Vortex Solo monocular in one of these, admin items, or similar. To be honest, I go back and forth on keeping them there because I seldom use them. In fact, the one on my left sometimes gets in the way during drills.
The rig has two flattened “pockets” on each end under the armpits. I can stick two magazines in each of these spaces or my PRC-152 radio clone. On the backside of the center section are two sewn in pouches for a map and orienteering compass like my Suunto MC-2.
That’s it. You should only carry the minimum equipment needed on your chest in as low profile a way as you can. Everything else should go into your backpack (a subject for another day), on your belt (if you have one), or in your pockets.
The Bottom Line
Chest rigs are a great option for carrying gear as long as you don’t try and load them down too much. I prefer to think of them as a “plus up” to other equipment like a battle belt. You probably wouldn’t see me mix it with one of the belt rigs I discussed in the load bearing equipment article, though, since that would be a lot of straps to deal with. That doesn’t include any backpacks, either.
If you’re looking for some recommendations, these are my favorite chest rigs aside from the MVT model due to their lower profiles. Again, I look for a single row of magazines up front (or all MOLLE to attach my own pouches), and I prefer H-Harness style straps across my back to distribute the load.
Also, I tend to wear my chest rigs pretty darn high compared to most images you’ll see out there. For some of these options, you might have to trim the straps a bit to remove slack. I’ve also seen people wear these fairly low, more like belly rigs than chest rigs. It’s a little personal preference, but I find wearing high keeps it out of the way of any belt I might also be wearing.
In no particular order:
- Mayflower 5.56 Hybrid
- Esstac Trim Bush – Get it with the additional padded harness
- Tactical Tailor MAV (single or split front) – Get the X-Harness
- SKD Tactical All Molle UCR – Get the additional H-Harness kit
- Mayflower UW All Molle Chest Rig
- ATS Slimline Chest Harness or the Slimline II for all MOLLE
I know that’s quite a few suggestions, and I might have caused you some more confusion over which one is “best.” Don’t do that to yourself. All of the chest rigs I’ve listed, starting with the MVT one, are high quality and will serve you well. Pick one that’s in stock in the color you want, and just do it.
Over to You
We’ve gone through each of the three major carrying techniques: battle belts, load bearing equipment, and chest rigs. Each of them have their own benefits and risks associated with them. Sometimes you can combine them, as with battle belts and chest rigs, to minimize the drawbacks with each component individually. Other times, you just need to commit because it’s the best answer for the situation you’re in.
Looking back at these options, what is your favorite so far?