Let’s talk about the chest rig. There are a lot of ways we could take this, from classic nylons carrier to loaded down plate carriers and MOLLE vests. My main focus is on the standalone version, but the information applies just as readily to plate carriers and the other methods. It remains true any time you’re raising the load higher on your torso.
In our load-carriage series, we’ve primarily discussed carrying the fighting load around the waist where it distributes load to the hips. This is historically the 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 throughout 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 Americans had a grenade vest that looks very similar to modern chest rigs during WWI. The Germans later did it as well with rifle clips.
Yes, clips…not magazines.
The British and Canadians developed the so-called battle jerkin that looks awfully like an early version of the 1970s Israeli Ephod.
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 images during the Rhodesian Bush War. Fighters used copies of the Type 56 rig so much and so effectively that we colloquially dubbed it, “The Rhodesian Rig.”
Below are some photos of the battle jerkin and Rhodesian Rig.
Chest Rig Evolution
The primary benefit of the tactical chest rig is mobility. It stays higher on your center of gravity and stays out of the way of the hips. Even though chest rigs were never officially adopted into the US Military until much later than everyone else, they had enough of an influence that experimentation began with the ALICE system in 1988.
We called it 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.
This video shows the 1986 experimental version as an example. Beneath everything, it was still basically an ALICE gun belt with upgraded straps.
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, known as LBV-88, to varying amounts of happiness. The most common complaints were that it was too hot, pouches too awkward, and the whole thing was just a lot of nylon. When given the choice, reverting back to the underlying LC-2 ALICE gear was the preference.
This system is still around in some storerooms but was mostly replaced by the next system: MOLLE.
With MOLLE, we arrive at the Fighting Load Carrier (FLC) and Tactical Assault Panel (TAP). These worked okay enough. They never really fit right, especially when loaded down. Furthermore, they didn’t solve the problem of heat buildup.
Some special units began making their own in-house versions of the old Rhodesian chest rig. Eventually, it spread to the regular Army Ranger units and earned the title Ranger Assault Carrying Kit (RACK). It utilized the same MOLLE modularity of the FLC and TAP, but in a more traditional chest rig format.
This was the first “modern” tactical chest rig, and what most people think of today.
During all of that early era, armor and fighting kit were two separate items. As we got deeper into the 2000s, it became common practice to mount equipment pouches directly to the armor system.
The combination armor and load bearing kit using lightweight plate carriers and directly attaching pouches to it is the “cool guy” way to do things today. But that doesn’t make the more classic RACK-style chest rig obsolete.
If looks and feels sloppy to wear a plate carrier without any plates in it. So, if you either don’t own armor, or don’t need to use it for any particular reason, a RACK-style chest rig is still very valuable.
Costs/Benefit of Chest Rigs and Plate Carriers
For practical reasons, I’m staying out of the pro-cons of wearing ballistic plates for protection. That’s another topic entirely. The primary benefit of chest rigs, and plate carriers, is mobility. It gets things off of the beltline and reduces interference with the back and legs.
The hazards come from putting too much “stuff” in front of you and under your arms.
Chest Rig Benefits
- From an energy expenditure standpoint, weight carried higher on your torso is more efficient when traveling over level ground. The situation flips when you get on uneven terrain, however.
- 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 convenient for hopping in and out of vehicles all day.
- 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 Rig Hazards
- Chest rigs hinder heat management. Your torso, along with your head, is a high blood-flow region that your body uses to dispel heat. By covering it with a chest rig, you limit the usable surface area for cooling off.
- Mounting gear higher on your chest puts more strain on your core muscles. 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 with heavy loads. If the chest rig is heavy enough, you should counterbalance it with weight in a backpack. Yes, this is more overall weight but it produces less strain from imbalance on the back and core.
- 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. 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, and under your armpits, then overall movement becomes awkward since it gets in the way of your arm’s natural swing.
- Due to roadside explosives, British troops in GWOT enforced operating procedures to remove all extraneous hard objects in open pouches from their chest rigs. If you were hit, unsecured objects in your chest rig tended to blow upwards towards your face. That’s certainly an issue if you’ve stuffed multitools, knives, pens, or other pointy objects in there. But that’s a rather unique circumstance to that conflict.
My Personal Chest Rig Setup
You’ve probably seen this one before in other photos. In the picture below, it’s more or less by itself along with my CCW belt 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.
It’s best to think of the chest rig as part of a system that includes some other load carriage method. Maybe that’s your tactical or battle belt, or maybe it’s a small assault pack. Either way, you shouldn’t try and carry “all the things” on your chest.
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 reduces bulk. With this configuration, I can still get low to the ground and easily manipulate my weapon through loading or malfunctions.
I have a small enclosed utility pouches on each side. 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 stuff two magazines in each of these spaces or my PRC-152 radio clone.
On the backside of the center section, you’ll find 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, your belt, or in your pockets.
Keep it simple, keep it light.
Wearing the Chest Rig
One of the most common mistakes I see is people wearing chest rigs too low on the torso. Remember, it’s a chest rig and not a belly rig. You should treat it the same way you would a plate carrier by having it high and tight to your chest. This keeps it out of the way of anything on your belt or something like hip straps on a heavy ruck.
My personal preference is to have the top of the main panel about even with the “notch” at the top of my ribs. Another way to position it imagining a line passing lengthwise through the center of the rig. Align that to your nipples.
On the rear, if there’s an “H-Harness” style, then I want it running just over the top of my shoulder blades.
Yes, it might feel a little awkward at first, but that’s how high it should be. If you want to wear it down by your waist, then get a belt rig instead since it will be far more supportive.
Don’t be afraid to cut the adjustment straps shorter and secure them. I think reluctance to cut straps like that is one of the. main reasons chest rigs end up too low. The other is simply inexperience.
Recommended Tactical Chest Rigs
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 to go with it
- 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.
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 heavy 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.
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?