Today 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.
Elsewhere, we’ve covered a summary of load carriage options and the pros and cons between them. A lot of time went into discussing battle belts as a lightweight minimalist option and one that everyone should probably consider at some point, and they also pair well with chest rigs.
If you recall, this whole thing started with a discussion of Scenario X, a natural disaster that 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.
When I first wrote about Scenario X, it seemed a bit like dystopian fiction. However, 2020 showed us that it might not have been too far off the mark.
A Brief History of Load Bearing Equipment
For most of our military history, fighting loads rode on the hips. This location reduces fatigue over uneven terrain and takes advantage of naturally strong lower body bones and musculature. Up until 1957, this took the form of a cartridge belt (pictured above).
In the late 1950s, the Army Ordnance Board selected the M-14 as the new infantry rifle of choice. The legion of M1 Garand fans rejoiced at selecting the de-facto choice of wood and steel. However, the competing Infantry Board contested that decision for years, and ultimately lost- but not before the Air Force adopted the M-16.
Forgive me, I’m a history nerd. The important change for our purposes today was not the M-16, but the switch to rifles fed from detachable box magazines rather than clips. This meant we needed 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.
To accommodate the new box magazines, the Army needed a new way to carry equipment. The M1956 Load Carrying Equipment (LCE) consisted of the following components:
- Individual equipment belt (AKA pistol belt)
- Load bearing suspenders
- First aid case/compass pouch
- Ammunition cases
- Entrenching tool carrier
- Field pack (AKA the butt pack)
- Canteen carrier
- Sleeping bag carrier straps
Everything was made of cotton canvas material while 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
The Army performed two studies in the early 1960s. One focused on further lightening the load on the soldier, and the other searched for ways to conserve energy for the soldier. As you should expect, both suggested the path was towards lighter equipment. The Army dubbed this as project LINCLOE.
By 1967, LINCLOE produced a “modernized” M1956 made from nylon.
Natick Labs already had a new material 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.
It’s notable that the LINCLOE program also produced a combat vest help carry equipment higher on the chest. However, the Army decided to abandon the design in favor of continued development on the belt.
It’s not the point of today’s post, but it’s easy to imagine that it continued evolving into other programs such as the LBV-88 Load Bearing Vest or the Fighting Load Carrier.
The LINCLOE program finalized its results in 1973, giving birth to the official designation of ALICE. 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 component.
The equipment belt was very similar to the experimental designs already produced for the 1967 MLCE. One key change was switching from the 1957 H-Harness to Y-shaped suspenders. 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 replacement with MOLLE by the early 2000s. There were several iterations of each piece of gear, particularly the magazine carriers.
After ALICE, things start to branch a little bit.
In 1976, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) introduced the Ephod system. They sewed the all of the pouches directly onto the harness. This removed modularity, but increased durability and lightened the weight. The Ephod distributed the weight all around the waist and had a sustainment pouch built into the back. By all accounts, it was a very 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.
More recently, we saw some new H-Harness designs from Eagle Industries and a variation for the Air Force known as DF-LCA (Defensor Fortis Load Carrying Equipment).
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.
By the time I was leaving active duty, most Security Forces were wearing plate carriers but had some of this gear nearby. As you’ll see in a minute, I have my own version of this harness produced by FirstSpear that has become one of my main ways of carrying equipment.
Quick Setup Tips
Before I get into my personal setups, I want to share a few universal lessons I’ve learned.
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 low on your hips where your pants belt normally sits. That’s not an efficient location to place a load. 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 of Load Bearing Belts
Two big hazards come to mind with load-bearing equipment like this.
First, the pouches going all around your sides and back add horizontal bulk. During a CQB type of situation, you’re probably going to get snagged on doorways and furniture. This type of equipment wasn’t designed for that kind of situation. Similarly, if you use a lot of the space to your rear for large sustainment pouches, 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.
To counter that risk, though, if 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.
Setting Up Your Load Bearing Equipment
Now that we’ve gone over the history of the kit, let’s talk about how you might configure yours. I’m going to use three examples of my own to show some variations and considerations you might want to make.
Let’s get something out of the way first. For a long time, I’ve been an advocate of combining a battle belt (or tactical belt) with a chest rig and assault pack. The reason I suggested this system is that it provides you with layers of capability that you can scale up or down over time. This also lets you acquire equipment over time without making something you owned previously obsolete.
In the hierarchy, you’ll notice that the battle belt and chest rig are lower on the pyramid and represent higher priorities than load bearing gear, which is up near the top.
With that said, I think there’s a very solid argument for a prepared citizen to jump right to a basic load bearing equipmetn setup even at the lower levels. Done well, it represents a complete “all-in-one” fighting kit package that you can grab and go on a minute’s notice. The only caveat there is that I think the kit should be minimalist and not interfere with other common tasks.
So let’s start there, with my take on a “Minuteman” harness configuration.
The Minuteman Harness
This harness sprung from the idea of replacing a battle belt and chest rig combination with a single piece of fighting gear that could still integrate with an assault pack and not interfere with riding in vehicles or sitting in chairs.
The goal was to carry just enough equipment to be effective in a combat situation and perform basic light infantry tasks. Of the three harnesses I’m showing in this article, this is probably the most useful, and represents the starting template I suggest for all prepared marksmen to begin with.
I make adjustments here and there, moving things around or swapping pouches for different variations- but the core elements remain.
Quick Breakdown of the Template
Here are some quick general specs:
- One rifle speed reload placed front support side
- 4 – 6 additional magazines carried in 2-3 mag pouches
- Flat IFAK placed middle of the back
- 2x Canteen Pouches flanking the IFAK
- Admin pouch for misc items on the strong side
- TQ Pouch placed for easy access
- Optional radio, dump pouch, or other utility pouch placed on the support side. If carried, it replaces a magazine pouch
This template requires 20-22 columns of MOLLE, keeps things away from the front of the hips, and covers most things a prepared civilian would need to do for a short to mid-term activity.
The back is relatively slick. The flat IFAK doesn’t cause issues with my spine and still allows sitting in chairs or a vehicle seat. The canteen pouches off to the sides do not get in the way too badly for sitting, either. But I can always remove the canteens from them and they collapse down when needed.
This kit also works well with an assault pack worn high and tight to the back for additional storage capacity.
My particular harness uses a now-discontinued Blue Force Gear Beltminus V1 as the base. The Beltminus is a very lightweight harness laser cut from Ultracomp laminate. Blue Force Gear made a few versions of this with the most recent being a V3 model that included additional padding and sewn in stiffeners to add rigidity.
The specific pouches pictured are as follows:
- Esstac mid-height kywi speed reload
- 2 x BAE Systems ECLiPSE two-magazine flapped pouches with bungee lock
- 2 x BAE Systems ECLiPSE canteen pouch
- SO Tech Viper A1 Mini IFAK
- Spiritus Systems Small GP pouch for administrative items
- T3 Gear TQ Pouch
The actual pouch selection here is less important. The BAE pouches, for example, were on a screaming sale due to being new-old-stock from an expired government contract, for example. The main point is using the template.
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. However, as I reviewed training reports from guys rotating through jungle schools and other light infantry work, it seemed that they were relearning lessons documented back in the 60s.
Vegetation pulls at everything and “removes” items off you that aren’t physically tied down or enclosed. Rain and mud intrusion will play hell with magazines when you’re down in the dirt. If you’re working with a team, and you should be, then you have more time to work your reloads from closed pouches. Sub one-second reloads aren’t the important thing here. My preference is a single speed reload available for reloading right now, and then flapped or enclosed pouches to hold and protect the rest.
My planned load here is 5+1, meaning five magazines on the harness and one in the gun. That’s 180 rounds of 5.56 ammunition. Why that amount? Frankly, it’s arbitrary.
I tried dig back into the research, and asked several SMEs about why a modern “standard” combat load was 6+1 magazines. The general agreement is that it was arbitrary as well, an artifact of M1956, M1967, and ALICE all using two magazine cases on the belt. Since those cases held three M-16 magazines each, the default load became 6+1.
What About a Pistol?
It seems blasphemous thee days that any kind of fighting kit doesn’t include a pistol. I didn’t include one here for two reasons.
First, the harness itself isn’t rigid enough to effectively support the weight of one. If I really wanted to carry a sidearm, then it would have to hang off of my pants belt. This would also mean relocating, or removing, some of the pouches on the strong side to make room for the draw.
Secondly, in the grand scheme of combat a handgun is strictly a “nice to have” when you have a rifle available. A pistol is most appropriate for personal defense within confined spaces. Many combat veterans have told me that they would rather just take some more rifle magazines.
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.
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 on every surface that touchest the body and it 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 there’s room for extras.
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 on the way out. 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
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 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 attach 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 my Savotta Jaakari-S or Hill People Gear Tarahumara as a combination piece.
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.
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” as the MALICE clips I used to attach them lay directly against me. I may go back and replace all of that with gutted 550 cord or something else.
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?