Tactical Skills for an Adventurous Life

Load Bearing Equipment: History, Personal Use, and Pro-Tips

Today we’re continuing our look at ways to carry your gear and the considerations that come along with it. In particular, we’re digging into the H-Harness style load bearing equipment (LBE). This is the true evolution of classic military load carriage systems like ALICE gear and the webbing that came before it.

Previously in this series, we’ve covered a summary of load carriage options and the pros and cons between them. I’ve gone over battle belts as a lightweight minimalist option and one that everyone should probably consider.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this whole discussion started with an article where I detailed a hopefully-fictional emergency scenario. In this Scenario X, a natural disaster has crushed your state’s resources and infrastructure. You and a small group of your neighbors are now responsible for providing security for your families and community in the absence of state authority.

A Brief History of Load Bearing Equipment

For most of our military history, fighting loads were carried on the hips. This location reduces fatigue over uneven terrain and takes advantage of the naturally strong lower body bones and musculature. Up until 1957, this looked like a simple cartridge belt.

WWII Infantryman with m1945 load bearing equipment equipment
This archival US Government photo from 1942 shows an infantryman equipped with the classic cartridge belt

In the late 1950s, the Army Ordnance Board selected the M-14 as the new infantry rifle of choice.

The competing Infantry Board contested that decision, and would ultimately win out by fielding the M-16 a few years later. But the important change was the switch to rifles fed from detachable box magazines. This necessitated a new way to carry ammunition.

M1956 Load Carrying Equipment

Experience fighting in Korea as well as research done by Norman Hitchman during Project ALCLAD informed the decision to try and reduce the load on soldiers.

You’ll find that this is a recurring goal in military history. In reality, it always seems more aspirational than anything, but it’s a goal nonetheless.

The M1956 Load Carrying Equipment consisted of the following elements:

M1956 load bearing equipment
  1. Individual equipment belt (AKA pistol belt)
  2. Load bearing suspenders
  3. First aid case/compass pouch
  4. Ammunition cases
  5. Entrenching tool carrier
  6. Field pack (AKA the butt pack)
  7. Canteen carrier
  8. Sleeping bag carrier straps

Everything was made of cotton canvas material. Metal keepers attached each component to the equipment belt. In all, the system worked well, and the H-Harness design was quite comfortable. However, the canvas material was heavier than needed and tended to absorb water.

A few years later, the Army set about to improve the system by manufacturing components out of nylon.

The “Improved” M1956 AKA M1967

In the early 1960s, the Army performed two studies. One looked at further lightening the load on the soldier, and the other focused on conserving energy. As you should expect, both suggested the path was towards lighter equipment. This new effort was dubbed LINCLOE.

US Army Staff Sergeant 9th Cavalry Vietnam
US Army Staff Sergeant 9th Cavalry Vietnam

By 1967, LINCLOE produced a “modernized” M1956. It was basically the same style of equipment but made from nylon.

Natick Labs already had something in mind since they were experimenting with nylon materials in 1961. They succeeded in reducing the weight of rucksacks and load bearing equipment by 50% or more.

The army procured 20,000 sets of this experimental lightened equipment. The new gear never had an official designation, but troops on the ground called it M1967 MLCE, for modernized load carrying equipment.

Of note, the LINCLOE program produced a combat vest for carrying equipment. However, the Army decided to abandon the design in favor of continued development on the belt.

ALICE

The results of the LINCLOE program were finalized in 1973, and the official designation of ALICE was born. Standing for All-Purpose Lightweight Individual Carry Equipment. Frag Out Magazine has a great article on the full history of ALICE and its components, but I’ll just focus on the load bearing equipment.

ALICE load bearing equipment
Diagram of ALICE equipment belt and pouches

The equipment belt was very similar to the experimental designs already produced for the 1967 MLCE. One key change was the switch to Y-shaped suspenders instead of the prior H-Harness. Most troops found this less comfortable, as it didn’t distribute the load nearly as well.

Locating an older H-Harness, or fashioning your own, became a top priority for those with the clout to do so.

ALICE officially saw service from 1973 until being replaced with MOLLE by the early 2000s. There were several iterations of each piece of gear, particularly the magazine carriers. I believe production is still ongoing, though.

One of my housemates in college was in Army ROTC and had his issued ALICE webbing with him for all field exercises. I borrowed it a few times back then.

Further Evolution

After ALICE, things start to branch a little bit.

In 1976, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) introduced the Ephod system. All pouches were sewn in and the system was not modular at all. Still, it was intelligently thought out.

The Ephod distributed the weight all around the waist and had a sustainment pack built into the back. By all accounts, it was avery comfortable system.

The British have long used belt kits, calling it PLCE (Personal Load Carrying Equipment). Many of their units have only recently followed the US military in the use of plate carriers and chest-mounted loads.

In the mid-2000s the US Air Force put out a contract for what amounted to a modernized M1956 for the new century. The kid, dubbed Defensor Fortis Load Carrying System (DF-LCS) consisted of a wide load bearing belt and harness. The whole thing was padded for comfort and covered in MOLLE webbing. Eagle and LBT were among the original contractors.

Soldier Systems did a brief overview of it.

The system wasn’t all that popular, but my reading of comments from forums was that the people using weren’t setting it up correctly and just wanted something else.

My Personal Load Bearing Harnesses

Now that we’ve gone over the history of load bearing equipment, let’s look at the three examples I’ve developed for myself. One of these was more accidental than anything, as I just happened to have enough spare gear on hand to assemble it.

The Hot and Muggy Load Carrier

Hot weather load bearing equipment
“Hot and Muggy” load bearing equipment

This first example is actually my most recent, but probably my favorite.

One of the primary benefits of load bearing equipment like this is ventilation. For years, I’ve followed a discussion over on Lightfighter about an appropriate fighting kit for jungle environments. Every time someone rotated through jungle schools in Belize, Guam, or Africa, they reported back with things they learned and observed.

I assembled this rig over the course of 2018, with most of that waiting for the back ordered pouches due to a ranger green color shortage.

It’s built to be extremely lightweight with minimal fuss. There is zero padding and niceties here. The benefit to the low profile straps is that they do not interfere with any additional backpack straps like the thickly padded ones on my GR1.

Considerations

One of the recurring themes was that carrying gear on the chest was awful. A front and back plate carrier, combined with a rucksack, made for a miserable experience. They noticed that a lot of the British troops rotating through with their PLCE gear seemed much more comfortable.

Now, I have no plans of going off to some far off jungle, so this might be more academic than anything. But I do live in what should be swampland, and the summers are definitely humid and sticky. My goal from the outset was to assemble a system that carried a standard fighting load an up to 24 hours of supplies without the need for a ruck or backpack.

This enabled good heat management, but I needed to be mindful of weight. I still want to keep things as light as practical.

Another issue of concern was water absorption Like the early 1960s, water intrusion was a real issue to contend with. In the 60s, the answer was moving away from canvas materials and towards nylon. Now, just like then, we’ve made advancements in materials science that can help us.

That gets me to the issue of access. Since the early 2000s, the trend towards open-top magazine pouches worked great for fast-paced combat in the relatively close confines of an urban environment. The guys rotating through jungle school were learning all of the same lessons that we learned back in the 60s, though.

Vegetation will pull at everything and “remove” items off you that aren’t physically tied down or enclosed. Rain and mud intrusion will play hell with magazines.

If you’re working with a team, and you should be, then you have more time to work your reloads from closed pouches. Sub 1-second reloads aren’t the important thing here.

Configuration

This rig is based on a Blue Force Gear Beltminus harness. BFG actually discontinued this product, so I got it for a screaming deal on clearance. All of the pouches, except the IFAK, are from Velocity Systems/Mayflower’s Jungle line.

Load bearing equipment built for the jungle
“Hot and Muggy” LBE with added pistol and knife on the duty belt

From left to right, the pouches are:

  • 5.56 Jungle Pouch
  • Chinook Med TMK IFAK Pouch
  • Canteen Pouch
  • General Purpose Pouch
  • General Purpose Pouch
  • Canteen Pouch
  • 5.56 Jungle Pouch

The entire harness and all the pouches, except the IFAK, are made from ULTRAcomp material. This stuff is a super-lightweight laminate that doesn’t absorb any water whatsoever and remains stronger than 1000D Cordura.

All of the Velocity Systems pouches weave into the harness with Hypalon, a type of synthetic rubber that also will not absorb water. The IFAK weaves in using standard Cordura.

Helium whisper tabs made of hypalon
Hypalon backing woven into the harness, marketed as Blue Force Gear’s Helium Whisper technology

Magazine Carriage

Each magazine pouch carries three standard 30-round magazines. I’ve also discovered that they hold two 7.62 PMAGs or M-14 mags as well.

The pouches fully enclose the magazines and protect them from the elements. Fastex buckles secure the flaps, but there is also a hook and pile lining inside the lid to help keep them closed when the buckle isn’t fastened.

The shock cord you see wrapped around the pouches was something I added later on. This helps the pouch collapse inwards as I remove magazines and also minimizes rattling.

Using two of these pouches allows me to carry 6+1 magazines, or 210 rounds. How did I come to this number? The short answer is that 7 magazines is the standard combat load, and has been for years. It just made sense to use it.

The Rear Pouch Shelf

One of the great takeaways I learned from watching British troops is how their load bearing equipment works with their rucks. One of the downsides of belt kit like this is that you cannot use a waist belt on a backpack. What the Brits do is wear the ruck slightly high and then rest it on top of the rear pouches. This helps transfer the weight to the load bearing equipment.

Velocity Systems accounted for that. The four rear pouches are all level with one another. This presents a nice usable shelf, provided you have sturdy items inside of them.

Hot weather load bearing equipment
Adding a small backpack to the kit. You can see how the bottom of the pack will rest on top of the four rear pouches.

As with the magazine pouches, I added the shock cord later on, which helps minimize rattling and provides a place to hang foliage. I’ll do a review of the actual pouches in another post, but I’m very happy with these.

What about a pistol?

Conspicuously absent from this rig is a pistol holster. The truth is that as much as I like the lightweight ULTRAcomp material, it’s a little too flimsy for mounting a holster.

Instead, I can mount a holster on my pants belt.

In the photo is an old HSGI drop leg I had laying around. I like this one because it rides very high, stays put, and includes magazine carriers. A Safariland UBL would work just as well.

I left a gap on the right side of the harness between the magazine pouch and canteen pouch, this is to facilitate a cleaner draw stroke.

The “Rolling Heavy” Rig

Believe it or not, this next configuration took the better part of three years to get together even though it may not look like much.

Heavy load bearing equipment similar to IDF Ephod and US DF-LCS
“Rolling Heavy” LBE equipped for extra weight

If we’re tracing lineage, the “Hot and Muggy” rig is closer to the classic M1956 equipment, and this one is closer to the Israeli Ephod or the USAF DF-LCS system.

This rig is padded all over the place and uses heavy-duty shock cord between the panels to stretch and move with me. It’s very comfortable to wear, even when loaded up.

I took advantage of the padding by making this my “heavy” rig. What makes it heavy? I added a pistol, pistol magazines, and more rifle mags. I still built it for mostly going without a pack for 24 hours, but you can carry more “stuff.”

Configuration

The whole rig is a FirstSpear 6/12 Patrolling Harness (now discontinued). Like the Beltminus, I got it for a screaming deal because it was being discontinued. It sat around in my gear bin for a long time before I actually got around to setting it up.

Pouches, left to right:

  • Tactical Tailor Magna pistol magazine pouch
  • FirstSpear 6/9 M4 Double pouch (4 magazines)
  • ATS SOF first aid pouch
  • SOTech Canteen pouch
  • Velocity Systems / Mayflower Jungle Buttpack
  • HSGI hydration pouch
  • Tactical Tailor modular holster
  • FirstSpear 6/9 M4 Double pouch (4 magazines)
  • MVT small utility pouch

Magazine Carriage

All of the rifle magazines are stacked two deep rather than three, which keeps the horizontal bulk to a minimum. The pouch flaps only attach with hook and loop, so they are relatively fast to get into. This rig gives me 8+1 magazines, or 270 rounds. Unlike the Velocity Systems ones, these pouches only hold 5.56 magazines.

Obviously, the extra ammunition makes this one a little heavier. I kind of envision this more as a support-by-fire role or designated marksman role with a 5.56 rifle. The wearer might be a bit more stationary and use a magnified optic from mid-range.

The Pack Shelf

Unlike the “Hot and Muggy” rig, this one doesn’t really have a solid shelf to work from. The two canteen pouches are attached to the sides of the buttpack, not the harness itself, so they aren’t really transferring anything to the hips. The buttpack is still wide enough to take the load and transfer it, but it doesn’t work quite as well.

In any case, I probably wouldn’t be using this with a heavy ruck anyway because of the shoulder straps.

Combining the thickly padded straps of the FirstSpear harness with thick straps on something like the GR1 is a bit of a mess. I much prefer the thinner profiled straps of something like my Savotta Jaakari-S or Hill People Gear Tarahumara as a combination piece.

Hydration

Aside from the dedicated hydration pouches, the MOLLE panel across the back of this rig means I can attach things directly to it. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t do more than a hydration carrier.

It became trendy to attach small backpacks or radios on the back of gear for a while, but those configurations make it getting into or adjusting your gear a complicated arrangement.

The Minimalist Kit

To be honest, this final rig probably shouldn’t even be here. It’s made entirely of spare parts I had lying around. But, you know what? It still does its job.

Minimalist load bearing equipment
My minimalist load carriage belt that works for either 5.56 or 7.62

If I had to trace lineage, it’s a bit closer to ALICE

The main belt is a Velocity Systems / Mayflower Jungle belt. There’s not much fancy about it other than it has stitched loops along the length so the items you mount don’t slide around. It’s actually intended to be used inside of a padded MOLLE belt, but Velocity Systems gave you the option to use the belt by itself.

The suspenders are the Tactical Tailor Fight Light harness I originally used in Version 2 of my battle belt. They are low profile and actually pretty nice.

Pouches, left to right:

  • Tactical Tailor Universal Magazine Pouch
  • BAE Systems Eclipse canteen carrier
  • ATS medium upright pouch
  • BAE Systems Eclipse canteen carrier
  • Tactical Tailor Universal Magazine Pouch

The two magazine pouches are Tactical Tailor Universal models, also originally used on Version 2 and 3 of my battle belt. They each hold three 30-round 5.56 magazines or two 7.62 mags. In fact, in the photo, the one on the right has 5.56 mags and the one on the left has two 7.62 PMAGs.

I’ve found this setup to be very quick to get on and off, but I definitely feel more of the “pokey bits.” I used MALICE clips to attach all the pouches, and the hard plastic definitely makes their presence known. I may go back and replace all of that with gutted 550 cord or something else.

Load Carriage Height

If you choose to develop your own version of load bearing equipment like this, be aware of carriage height.

This style of load carriage is not a battle belt. Don’t wear it where your pants belt normally sits, as that would be too low and you’ll run into problems.

Instead, wear load bearing equipment along your actual waistline. Imagine it passing directly over your belly button, give or take a few inches depending on your personal anatomy.

This higher position aligns the bottom of the harness with the top of your hip bones. This is the most efficient way to transfer loads down through the legs.

Also, by raising the harness to a “belly rig,” you reduce interference with shooting positions and uneven terrain.

Hazards

Two big hazards come to mind with load bearing equipment like this.

First, the pouches going all around your sides and back are going to add horizontal bulk. During a CQB type of situation, you’re probably going to get snagged on doorways and furniture. This type of equipment just wasn’t designed for that kind of situation. Similarly, it pretty much precludes comfortably riding in a vehicle seat while wearing it.

Secondly, loading down this kit means that you’re carrying everything and it’s not easy to ditch. With a more minimal battle belt and backpack combination, you can drop the backpack and just fight off the belt. It’s a much more lightweight way to go.

The problem happens when you lose the pack and everything that was in it. With a belt kit like this, you can carry 24 hours of supplies on you, no pack needed. It’s just a matter of weight.

Summing Up Load Bearing Equipment

In this post, we’ve gone over a short history of military load carrying equipment. While most modern conflict sees more chest rigs and plate carriers than belt-mounted kit like this, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its merits.

Loads carried on the waist are easier on the back, are more energy efficient on uneven terrain, and honestly just feel more “natural.”

I showed you my three personal examples. Unlike my battle belts, I don’t really have an evolution here, as I built up each of these rigs separately over time. They all have their pros and cons, but I find I’m happiest with the lightweight Beltminus harness equipped with Velocity Systems Jungle pouches.

So over to you, do you think you’d find this style of equipment helpful? How would you rank it against battle belts and chest rigs so far?

Tene et Consta

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Cutright
Member
Cutright

Very nice. You must be part of the Rubbermaid Brigade (my nice way of saying gear queer) and it takes one to know one. I just started paring down all of this stuff as I figured out my evolutions and boy did it take up some space.

I must admit that your three articles caused me to peruse the ebay for some quality pouches that some other sucker was going to exodus from their basement.

The rationale behind your rigs is great. As always, the resources and additional reading is wonderful. In short, great article as always. I feel like I’m reading a better organized and better written AND more informed article that I would have written.

Good stuff.

Sunshine Shooter
Member
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I like this series too much. I’m still more of a belt-and-backpack guy but while I was reading this I starting trying to justify putting some sort of LBE system together…

Also, I’d never heard of “EntryGear” before. I’m already looking at things I shouldn’t be considering.

Colorado Pete
Guest
Colorado Pete

I’ve settled on a two-piece approach. A pistol belt with wide fanny pack, canteen w/cup & stove, IFAK, sheath knife, with extra water, a day’s simple rations, stove fuel, and a few other odds and ends in the fanny pack. Currently pistol-less. A J-frame 5-shot .38 lives in the pants pocket. If I thought it necessary, a 1911 holster & mag pouch can be added to the belt. Then, either original GI clip belt & suspenders w/extra canteen & bayonet for the M1, or, a current GI molle vest with AR mag pouches and extra canteen. I also have a fisherman’s short vest with many pockets that carry useful small items.

Rationale being, when I don’t need to have a rifle in hand, I can take off the rifle rig when I put down the rifle, and keep the pistol belt on with some basic supplies & sidearm, along with the fishing vest.

For a big ruck, I’d have to take off the pistol belt and attach it to the ruck, so I could use the ruck hip belt. The M1 clip belt & vest equipment are arranged to fit OK under the ruck.

At my age though I think I’ll just stay home and guard the front porch.

Ken
Guest
Ken

Interesting article as usual. Wow! Over my head …. again. LOL I should just send you my credit card information and let you set me up. LOL

Jayclimber
Member

I really enjoy your well thought out approach to setting up your gear and how it’s going to work for you! It would be interesting to hear what your anticipated mission parameters would be (reconnaissance, observation, long rang patrols, vehicle mounted ops, etc) and how your kit will help you fill those specific needs..

Your first rig, the “hot and muggy” seems to make the most sense for an all around setup that can integrate with an assault pack or a larger patrol pack all the while giving you some freedom to add a micro chest rig up front if needed.

I really like what you’re doing here!

P.S. I too have an abundance of pouches and platforms and enjoy trying to improve upon a given system. You’re definitely not alone in having that “problem”.

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