We’re digging into the fundamentals of load carriage. I spend a lot of time talking about the art of shooting, selecting your equipment, and advocating for a strong body. Now it’s time to tie it together.
First, a disclaimer of sorts. This article on load carriage and equipment focuses on the defense of self, home, hearth, and community. The principles here still very much apply to hunting, especially in the mountains, but the types of loads I’m referencing are distinctly fighting-oriented.
In the last few decades, there’s been a huge amount of literature detailing the overburdened nature of the American soldier. That’s not really a new phenomenon, though. S.L.A. Marshall wrote about it in the 1950s. Earlier studies in wartime casualties and survivability emphasized the importance of “fighting light.”
But finding a balance between the capabilities of a human to carry weight, the distinct advantages of modern equipment, and the desire to protect the individual soldier is difficult.
Thankfully, you and I aren’t saddled with that burden. We aren’t worried about humping mortars, belt-feds, surveillance gear, and other specialized equipment. We’re primarily concerned with the ability to produce decisive victory with small arms and not get shot in the process.
Defining the Situation
By now you know I’m not one to openly pontificate about black helicopters and rebelling against a tyrannical government. Those may be interesting discussion topics, in their own right, but foremost on my mind is protecting my family and immediate community.
I grew up in South Florida. I survived Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and then had a fun back-to-back experience with Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma while in college. Losing power for long stretches of time was just part of the deal. One of the experiences that set me on the path to firearms ownership happened during the aftermath of Wilma, where someone kicked in the door of our duplex-mate and stabbed them 16 times with an ice pick.
It took an hour and a half for police to respond.
I’ve lived through blizzard conditions in Montana, as well as raging fires. I dealt with out-of-control wildfires in California while stationed there.
Like many, I watched in sadness as the little island of Puerto Rico struggled after a massive hurricane.
And now we’ve lived through the COVID lockdown and massive civil unrest that followed. Al the while, we’ve seen law enforcement either unable or unwilling to take decisive action.
The one thing that’s remained constant through all of these situations is that you’re probably going to be on your own for a while. Even more, you can’t do it by yourself. You need to sleep, eat. amd perform other bodily functions at some point. That means you need others you can count on.
Let’s set the scene. You live in a suburban neighborhood that’s distinctly middle class in nature. You’ve been hit hard by a “Nasty Nate,” a record-breaking weather system that’s taken down the electrical infrastructure. Your local government is all but shut down and the state government is far more focused on what’s going on in the densely-populated urban areas.
Of course, this storm is just a stand-in for any situation. The virus shutdowns, protests, and riots effectively caused this exact scenario. Ok, back to the setup.
The first few days were no big deal. You had a stash of food on hand, and you kept the family entertained the way you always have in the past.
Then the first week went by without recovery. You still had supplies for another few weeks, but many of your neighbors ran out by Day 4. The local grocery stores were a madhouse, as desperate people picked them clean and attacked others who had what they wanted.
Two weeks in, it’s a different story. The shortwave radio you kept stashed in your emergency kit is telling you that the urban areas are overwhelmed. Hospitals are at capacity, and people are starting to succumb to the second-order effects of power loss. No environmental controls in homes, expiring medications, no refrigeration, lack of potable water, it’s all adding up.
You also hear that the local criminal elements are taking advantage of the minimal police presence to venture into new territory. The storefronts have long since been looted, and they see suburban neighborhoods unaccustomed to “hard life” as ripe for the picking.
After a month, your neighborhood is a ghost town. Those who were able took off hoping for greener pastures. Others were tied to the area for family reasons or just decided to hunker down. After a group of criminals laid siege to a nearby neighborhood, you’ve been talking to your remaining neighbors about some kind of community watch and protection plan.
Among your group, you’ve got a few former military guys, though only one of them was infantry. You have a smattering of small arms, binoculars, medical supplies, and handheld radios.
The stage is set, now let’s talk about your other problem.
The Problem With Weight
I once thought that Scenario X sounded like something out of Red Dawn, but it’s a useful illustration. There aren’t black helicopters, blue-helmeted UN troops representing the Illuminati Global Order, or even jack-booted thugs looking to shoot your dog. It’s just a bad situation, and you have a need to provide some safety where others cannot.
And, if we’re being honest, it’s what nearly all of envisioned “how it could go” if the civil unrest happening in May and June 2020 continues to escalate. But I digress.
In a perfect world, you would be able to carry unlimited ammunition, high powered optics, food, water, communications gear, and wear highly-protective body armor, all while keeping it less than 40 lbs.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in that kind of world. Everything has a weight penalty, and weight is your absolute enemy.
Military forces throughout history struggled with balancing weight against capability. You can always increase the capability of a fighter by giving them more protection (armor), equipment, weapons, or supplies. But by doing so, you also decrease their mobility, increase their energy expenditure, and increase the likelihood of injury.
Remarkably, the average amount of weight carried by a soldier, from the Roman Legion to modern light fighters, has remained fairly consistent at 60-80 lbs.
The difference really stem from the amount of stuff carried for that weight.
The Roman Legion
I found a discussion on Stack Exchange about this topic.
There were two types of Roman infantry: light and heavy. The average heavy infantryman had a helmet, a mail coat, greaves, a shield, a spatha(broadsword), five weighted darts, and a javelin (pilum). The pilum was five to six feet long with a tip of iron weighing nine ounces. The total weight of the pilum ranged between five and eleven pounds (the pilum were heavier in the days of the republic than of the empire). The shield could weigh over twenty pounds.
The light infantryman carried much of the same items. However, he rarely wore armor. His shield was smaller and usually made of wood. Instead of using pilum, the light infantrymen carried hastae velitares. They were smaller and lighter than the pilum. Many light infantrymen also carried a gladius as a backup weapon.
In addition to their weapons, each infantryman carried spare clothing, a cloak, three to fourteen days of rations, a wicker basket for moving dirt, rope, a waterskin, and a spade or a pickax. These were attached to a cross-shaped frame, forming a pack. The light infantry usually ended up carrying 70-80 pounds of equipment and the heavy infantry often carried up to 100 pounds of equipment.
Maria Milani, another source focusing on Roman history outlined a similar kit.
They highlight that one group led Gaius Marius, popularly known as “Marius’ Mules”, carried 35-34kg of equipment. That works out to about 70-100 lbs of equipment. So, it’s really not too far off from the same kinds of loads we see today.
British Redcoats, 18th Century
It’s easy to assume that the 18th Century soldier carried a lighter burden. After all, there was no armor to worry about, and he didn’t have a myriad of weapons and a shield at his disposal. But, again, the assumption is wrong.
Each soldier carried a Brown Bess musket with a bayonet. Depending on the construction, figure about 14 lbs. A twelve-pound cartridge box hung around his waist along with a filled wooden canteen.
A backpack held more kit, including a great-coat, kettle, blanket, leather tools, hatchet, and three days of rations. You would expect that this kit only grew in weight as the war dragged on and losses mounted.
The total weight of the equipment was sixty or more pounds.
The Continental Army, coming from mostly British heritage, was likely similarly equipped. Though I might expect some of the guerilla units like Daniel Morgan’s traveled a bit lighter and that mobility increased their success.
WWI British Trooper
From that same discussion on Stack Exchange, I found information about a regular British load during The Great War.
The 1908 Pattern Webbing equipment comprised a wide belt with two ammunition pouches containing 75 rounds each. Soldier’s also carried left and right braces, a bayonet, attachment for the entrenching tool handle, entrenching tool head in web cover, water bottle carrier, small haversack, and large pack.
Soldiers attached a covered mess tin to their pack. Inside the haversack were personal items, knife, and daily rations.
The large pack normally carried the soldier’s Greatcoat or blanket. The full set of 1908 webbing could weigh over 70 pounds (32 kg). And that’s not including an 8.8-pound Lee-Enfield Rifle and a 2.4-pound Webley revolver.
This brings the total to over 80 pounds before we talk about the helmet, gas mask, or the emergence of crew-served weapons and supplies.
You should already start noticing a trend here. The equipment itself keeps getting lighter, so the soldier just carries more of it.
I know I’ve made the point, but I want to break down one more reference point. The military loves to write about how much weight each soldier carries.
By WWII, the weight started getting excessive. The paratroopers on D-Day jumped with loads between 125 and 150 lbs. To stay mobile, many of them ditched as much as they could as soon as they were on the ground and out of sight from the administrative officers who dictated packing lists.
The Navy published a study in 2007 detailing how the average Marine carried between 97 and 135 lbs. Weapons, communications gear, armor, mission-specific tools, cross-loading, supplies, and everything else “required” continued adding up. Add to that a risk aversion to casualties, and the hope is pretty dim.
During the Korean Conflict in the 1950s, S.L.A. Marshall was adamant that a soldier’s load should be kept below 50 lbs. That number kept showing up in the US Army’s ORO research, like Project ALCLAD. Being too heavy just had too many consequences to mobility and resulted in more casualties.
Alas, the Navy’s own study said the most optimistic reduction in weight would only bring it down to about 68 to 110 lbs.
I see this argument come up a lot in studies, actually. A lot of the old-heads sincerely feel like the average ground fighter is reliant on mechanization to carry excess loads, and we’ve forgotten how to truly get around only by foot.
Adding it All Up
At the end of the day, some weight is unavoidable. That’s why you have to be on top of your fitness. But that doesn’t mean you should use the military as a model.
I’ve mentioned S.L.A. Marshall a few times. He was a veteran of WWI, military historian, and author of Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation. He gets cited a lot, though not always for good reasons. Putting aside any controversy surrounding him as a man and his record, it’s a good read. His rule for a fighting load is that it shouldn’t exceed about 30% of your body weight.
Now, for this number, I suggest using your lean body mass and not gross body weight as I did in the rucking article for training.
For most adults males in decent shape, that works out to about 50 lbs or less. Repeated studies by the Army and Marines in 1954, 1971, and 2003 repeated this number. But it’s deceptively difficult to achieve.
Snip from the Navy’s 2007 NRAC Study on Lightening the Load
Luckily for our merry band of survivors in Scenario X, we aren’t a military fighting force occupying foreign territory. We, like our light-fighting adversaries in Afghanistan, live on top of our logistics train and don’t need to worry about much more than our Assault Load. This is the minimum amount of equipment needed to stay in a fight and survive.
The Assault Load
The Marines break down equipment loads into three major categories: Assault Load, Approach Load, and Existence Load. Similarly, the Army calls these categories Fighting Load, Approach Load, and Sustainment Load. FM 3-21.10 details these if you want to look, but it works out to the same numbers the Marines found.
As stalwart neighborhood defenders, you aren’t likely to march 20 miles to the fight, drop excess gear, and get to business. Rather, your goal is to stay light and nimble so you can move with aggressive action, minimize exposure, and keep momentum in your favor.
The short version of this is that the assault/fighting load is your minimum equipment required to fight, communicate, and survive in a combat environment. This means your clothing, weapon(s), ammunition, first aid kit, water, protective gear, and communications (i.e. radios, whistles, air horns, whatever you decide).
This needs to be as light as possible.
After many years of experimentation, training, and learning, I’ve more or less settled on this configuration here as my “standard.”
I detailed this history of my battle belt over in another post. You can find that here.
So what exactly should be in your assault load for defending your community along with your neighbors? We explore that topic in an entire series of articles focused on load carriage methods and gear suggestions.
Over to You
I’m curious about your thoughts so far. Have you considered a scenario like this in the past? Have you thought about what exactly you would be carrying and how much it would weigh?
I look forward to continuing this discussion.