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Chest rigs and belt kits, an age-old question that many fine folks have struggled to settle. Let me be up front and say that I don’t think this article is going to definitively answer that question for you because the simple truth is that they are both valid, and could very well complement each other depending on the circumstances. So the answer is basically, “Yes!” But perhaps you’re just starting out and want to figure out where to begin.

began my whole series on load carriage by talking about a fictional “Scenario X.” Unfortunately, 2020 has shown us that the hypothetical neighborhood defenders scenario is far from hypothetical, and that means there is a real need to figure these things out before the emergency hits.

Load Carriage Options

To start out, let’s get some basics out of the way. It doesn’t matter which way you choose to go if your gear is too heavy. Regardless of the carriage method, strive to keep your fighting kit’s weight to 30% or less of your lean body mass. If you want a nice round number, take that to mean 40-50 lbs for the average person. That number shows up repeatedly from the advice of old-timers to actual scientific research done by the US Army. 

That means total kit, by the way, including your clothing, gear, and weapon. You’d be surprised how quickly that adds up. Strive to keep it lighter than the goal so that it leaves you buffer room.

Now, when it comes down to it, you are faced with the same options humans always have. Do you want to carry it around your waist, or on your torso?  Both methods have their pros and cons, which I’ll get to. But it’s a little funny to think humans haven’t advanced all that much since time immemorial. I suppose there’s really only so many ways to do things with the human body.

Belt Kits & Battle Belts: Carrying on the Waist

Up until the mid-1990s, wearing gear around your waist was the most popular option within the US Military as well as others. This trend peaked with the ubiquitous ALICE gear. The shift away from this style of equipment coincided with a switch to vehicle-borne fighting and modern plate carriers.

When it comes down to it, your hips and legs represent the most powerful groups of muscles in the body and are purpose-built for shock absorption and mobility. If you’ve ever gone on a long backpacking trip, you’ve most definitely used a properly-fitting pack that effectively transferred weight to your hips.

Military load carriage is no different. The load-bearing harnesses of years past took advantage of human anatomy and placed the weight of equipment around the hips. Today, I believe the British still do the best job of this.

By about 2010, there was a “cult of the battle belt” around the internet. Guys like me were buying wide MOLLE belts and loading them down with lots of stuff, often with suspenders. I wrote about my own battle belt’s iterations in another article, but suffice to say that it works well- though I think battle belts should be a bit lighter and more minimalist. I’ll get there, though.

I’ve also built up several other styles of harnesses, including my most recent: the “Jungle Kit.”

My "Jungle Kit" built around a BFG Beltminus and Mayflower Jungle pouches. This is worn high around the waist, with the bottom edge roughly in line with the top of my hips. I don't wear this low like I do a pants belt.

Benefits of the Belt Kit

Carrying your fighting load around your hips is the least fatiguing method when traversing uneven ground. In 2004, the Army published this fact in a paper titled, Soldier load carriage: historical, physiological, biomechanical, and medical aspects. Also, interestingly, this same study pointed out that adding weight to the feet increased energy expenditure by 7 to 10% for each kilogram. That expenditure reduced to 4% when the weight was on the thighs.

The findings changed for flat ground, where situating the load slightly higher towards the body’s center of mass proved a more most efficient method. 

Aside from fatigue, another big bonus of placing weight on the hips is heat management. Under exertion, your torso radiates a lot of heat. Anything you place on your chest or back that blocks that radiation increases your risk of heat-related injuries. With belt kits, you maximize your body’s ability to cool off.

I followed a discussion over on Lightfighter between dudes rotating back through jungle school. These rotations are increasing with our shifting attention to the Pacific Theater. To a man, they all said belt kits were superior to chest kits, and nobody wanted to wear plates in that kind of heat and humidity.

Lastly, I find that well-organized belt kits and battle belts allow you to get lower to the ground in the prone. That’s great from both stability as well as a safety standpoint.

Belt Kits are Not Without Fault

While their primary benefits are comfort and heat management, belt kits and battle belts do have some hazards to be aware of. First, by placing everything around your waist, you’re increasing horizontal bulk. It’s very easy to snag on things in the environment when you have stuff sticking out several inches to each side of your hips. 

You’ll run into the same problem if you ever try navigating around the interior of a house while wearing a full LBE. Stuff sticking out to the sides is kind of a pain to deal with. However, I do find it easier if the bulk is in front of or behind me.

Unless I want to ride in a vehicle, that is.

Belt kits, by necessity, usually have robust pouches on your backside. These are great for long-duration patrols where you stuff food, socks, spare ammo, and “snivel” gear without needing a pack. But if you ever need to sit in a vehicle, it’s going to suck. There just isn’t any way to sit and lean back casually in a car or truck while wearing this style of gear.

On the topic of “stuff” sitting at your back, you also have to be aware of pouch placement. I avoid placing any tall pouches or hard objects up against my lower spine. In the event of a backward fall, that can lead to some pretty nasty back injuries.

You also want to avoid putting any tall or hard objects, particularly magazine pouches, directly in front of the legs. They absolutely get in the way of moving up and down terrain, kneeling, or squatting. 

Chest Rigs & Plate Carriers

Carrying fighting gear on the chest isn’t new. Adversaries in Southeast Asia were quite effective with Chinese cotton rigs. The same configuration was very popular during the Rhodesian Bush War.

Those conflicts had an effect on American military thinking by the 1980s, and we saw developments like the Load Bearing Vest (LBV), Fighting Load Carrier (FLC), and later the RACK system. By the late 1990s, interceptor body armor became common and soldiers started attaching their fighting gear directly to the armor.

Chest Rig Positives

Carrying the fighting load high on the chest has a few advantages. First, as the previously-mentioned study pointed out, it’s more efficient to over flat terrain. I also find that chest rigs interfere less with hip movements, such as squatting or kneeling. Raising the gear off the hips also leaves room to use an actual hip belt with a large ruck.

Some people think that placing magazine pouches on the chest makes it difficult to reload from the prone, but I’ve never found that to be true. It’s no more difficult than slightly rolling off a hip to access a belt-mounted ammunition pouch. I don’t think it’s really any slower or faster than waist-mounted pouches, it’s just different.

Mounting things on the chest also makes riding around in vehicles much more comfortable, since your gear is in front of you and not all over your waist or back.

What to Keep an Eye Out For

Where I usually see chest rigs or plate carriers go wrong is load and balance issues.

For a while, the trend was overloading the chest. I saw folks stuffing their chest rigs and carriers with 10+ magazines on top of the rest of their gear. This poses two serious problems.

US Marines rocking old school armor along with heavy rucks in Afghanistan, 2001

Mounting too much junk around your chest interferes with good marksmanship. If you can’t get a steady mount to the shoulder or cheek weld, then you simply can’t shoot well. 

I’ve personally had issues with freedom of movement in general. Pouches hanging out under my armpits tend to snag my arms and sling during reloads and manipulation.

 

The other problem is weight and balance. As you load up a chest rig or plate carrier, you raise the center of mass for your gear. The heavier and higher that is, the more strain it puts on your back and core to stabilize it. If all of the weight is on the front of the rig, it gets even worse.

A common practice is balancing that front-loaded weight with a small backpack, like an assault pack.

Chest Rigs vs Battle Belts: Why Not Both?

So what’s right for you? Well, that’s really personal preference. I’ve noticed a trend swinging away from loaded plate carriers and chest rigs, but not totally back to full-on belt kits, either. Instead, folks distribute the load between the beltline and the chest.

This solution, much like combining different types of optics on the same rifle, helps provide the benefits of both types while also minimizing the shortfalls.

So when you start searching around for battle belts vs chest rigs, realize that it really isn’t an either/or proposition. Both bring something to the table for different circumstances, and you always have the option to use them in conjunction with one another.

My go-to configuration, a moderate battle belt combined with lightweight chest rig. This has all of benefits of both while minimizing the downsides.

Let’s assume that you’re just starting out, though. Where would you begin? Well, that obviously depends on your 80% scenario. If you can’t specialize, then what works 80% of the time? I bet that overlap is pretty strong, though.

Thinking of it another way, I can think of circumstances where I would rather have the capability to load up a full belt kit complete with cargo pouches at the rear and padded straps to keep the harness comfortable. I can’t really say I’d ever want to carry a chest rig/plate carrier loaded with 8+ mags and other gear.

Over to You

What is your preferred method of carrying gear? Are there any lessons you’ve learned over time?

Let me know in the comments.

Matt

Matt

Matt is the primary author and owner of The Everyday Marksman. He's former military officer turned professional tech sector trainer. He's a lifelong learner, passionate outdoorsman, and steadfast supporter of firearms culture.
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18 Comments
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Tony
Tony
Guest

Perhaps it’s just me, but I never got a battle belt setup to work well with winter clothing. Works fine in the summer, but once is gets cold enough and I start throwing on more layers, it becomes troublesome. So my solution is to load up my chest rig but wear it low as more of a “belly rig”, with the bottom edges of the pouches just above my trousers belt. What minimal items I have directly on my belt (mostly just my pistol and my knife) are hanging down so they clear the hem of a winter jacket. This… Read more »

Ben Dover
Ben Dover
Guest
Replying to  Tony

Hey Tony

What kind of pistol do you have? Have you looked at any of the dropped & offset options Safariland or blade tech makes? Safariland does one that is a 2” option which typically will help it clear other options. Also T Rex arms does a dropped style with a leg strap to keep it tight to your body.

Tony1911
Tony1911
Guest
Replying to  Ben Dover

Hi Ben,

I do own some dropped and offset holsters. The problem with those is that they require an extremely rigid belt, or else there is a danger of the holster camming sideways during the draw. Which is why most dropped and offset extensions are meant for wide duty belts, not something you could thread through your trousers belt loops.

DAN III
DAN III
Guest
Replying to  Tony

Tony, I had to chime in on the pistol drop leg comment. Recently, I have started using a compromise on the drop leg. That being the G-Code (tacticalholsters.com) MULE. It sits much higher than the traditional drop leg. It does not flop around. Sits low enough for easy access allowing heavy clothing wear with less or no interference accessing your sidearm. I use the G-Code RTI mounting system for all my holsters. I find it superlative to any other mount system. In fact there is a RTI adapter for those wonderful SAFARILAND holsters. My apologies to the blog author. Not… Read more »

DAN III
DAN III
Guest
Replying to  The Marksman

Only thing about the RTI is that is proprietary. Your holster has to have an RTI mount to attach to the RTI wheel. However, if one is running SAFARILAND holsters there is a G-Code adapter (I believe it is GCA-39) for SAFARILAND holsters. Attaching the adapter to your SAFARILAND will allow it to be used with the RTI wheel. The RTI wheel and mounts/adapters are very unobtrusive. Unlike the SAFARILAND mount system which I find to be clunky and oversized for what it is intended to accomplish. I have been using the G-Code stuff for years. They also make holsters.… Read more »

Tony1911
Tony1911
Guest
Replying to  DAN III

The G-Code Mule looks pretty similar to my Safariland 6005 with its modified paddle. (I got the idea of the modification from here: https://www.m4carbine.net/showthread.php?518-6004-Shroud-Mod ) To me it’s just about the perfect amount of drop – enough to clear my gear, but no excess.

Sunshine_Shooter
Member

Another great post, as usual. I’m really enjoying your series on load carriage. I really hadn’t considered the idea of belt vs chest rig as being terrain-dependent, but it makes total sense. I like the idea of a hybrid belt/chest system so that no one zone is overloaded with stuff and it can be easily expanded by adding a backpack. As always, thanks for keeping me thinking.

John
John
Guest

I have been following your site for sometime and I really appreciate your well researched articles. Many of themas this one are along side my mindset when it comes to gear needs and preloaded kits. I find myself using my belt kit in my “average” use, call it a daily driver type set up. A buttpack, canteen pouches and suspenders, when my family goes out camping or hiking. However, when it comes to scenario X, as you say, it can be easily adapted for a more tactical use. Combine this with a chest rig as you have above, a great… Read more »

Paul
Paul
Guest

Matt – another great post getting people to think about and ‘try out’ their gear set up! My two cents – I use a mil-spec H-harness/belt and Uncle Mike’s bandolier (modified) shoulder holster for my javelina handgun hunting rig. In Arizona, even in February the desert can get warm especially hiking around the desert foothills. This rig allows me to attach the large mil-spec belt pouch ‘fanny pack’ directly to the rear of the belt, 1 mil-spec canteen, binoculars pouch and comm/nav pouches mounted on the shoulder straps. The large fanny pack holds everything I need to hold out overnight… Read more »

Matt
Matt
Guest

My battle belt serves as a quick “throw on” for bumps-in-the night and has some less-lethal/custody control options on it, as well as a blowout kit. Gear locations mirror where things are on my patrol duty belt for work. I also have two canteen pouches on the back for optional snivel gear or GP carry of mission-specific items but they generally just house my ear/eyepro and gloves. The belt primarily serves my pistol but has a pouch for a single rifle mag. It is slim enough that it can be somewhat concealed under a Carhartt or long flannel. My chest… Read more »

Luke G schroeter
Luke G schroeter
Guest

speaking on the belt kit ive been futzing with a Russian made smersh and have discovered that it is a wonderful piece of kit if you dont mind doing some digging for a properly built one from before SSO went more commercial. The only major issue is that rigging a pistol to it took a bit of extra work but it ended up working out in the end. That and the modularity is lacking if that is a sticking point for you.

Jerome
Jerome
Guest

Being a citizen learning the “how to” over the last 10-12 years, I have always understood the need for belt and chest gear balance. Primarily, bc as a non-professional, I might need to ditch part of a kit due to damage or circumstances. So if I have a majority of my gear on plate carrier or belt, of that’s the piece that goes, then most of my load out goes with it. The only aspect of my load out on my plate carrier that is not mirrored by my battle belt is an enhanced IFAK (added stuff that I’ve learned… Read more »

Nick Werner
Nick Werner
Guest

The Hybred of a battle belt, chest rig, and plate carrier has been the route I have gone. I create each setup with the idea to complement the other.

Nevertheless, it is always a continuing involvement.

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