Not long ago, during a podcast interview, Mike Green and I had a side tangent about getting a plate carrier set up for his wife. She competes in the Tactical Games, and went through several iterations of plate carrier, pouches, and other “stuff” before settling on something that worked for her. During that interview, he mentioned the phrase “Pre-Combat Inspections” (PCIs), and it stuck with me.
My friend Justin at Swift Silent Deadly also recently wrote up some great articles on configuring a reconnaissance loadout based on his real-world experience. There were a few tidbits in there that reminded me of advice Max at MVT also wrote about years ago.
And then, I got the chance to join a group of guys doing a “gear shakeout” over in West Virginia. The goal of the day was running through some drills and brutality-style stages to evaluate “stuff.” That “stuff” was a mix of personal skill gaps as well as how well each person’s equipment supported or hindered their efforts.
With all of that going on, I figured it was time to put it all in one place.
The Goal of a Pre-Combat Inspection
US Army doctrine has a formal definition of PCIs as part of its troop-leading procedures. It’s actually a series of things, with the pre-combat inspection being one of them. The other two include Pre-Combat Checks (PCCs) and pre-execution checks. Each of these serve a different purpose to ensure a unit is prepared to execute operations and training according to standards.
In the military, these checks are individual and leader responsibilities. But since you and I are on our own, for now, it really is up to you to evaluate your gear and make adjustments.
Ultimately, the goal of the inspections is combating apathy and complacency. These two things are absolute killers in the field or anywhere else.
Administrative Gear Evaluation
I don’t want to conflate what I’m writing here with the doctrine around PCIs, PCCs, and such. Those checklists usually include a lot of other items such as a packing list of equipment and where it is carried.
Instead, we’re making up a new one focused only on your personal load carrying equipment and how its configured. You’ll find a downloadable checklist below to help out.
The Every Marksman Administrative Gear Evaluation (AGE) has two portions to it, and both are important. The first is an evaluation of equipment condition. This looks for signs of damage, poor attachment mechanisms, and otherwise keeping things tidy.
The second portion is about equipment fit and function. This includes several physical tasks to replicate real-world movement as well as simulation of using equipment as designed.
Keep in mind that AGE checks do not just apply to your Scenario-X gear, but also your competition equipment. You’re never wrong to check if your stuff is working out for you or not.
AGE Phase I: Equipment Condition
Why do you want to check over your equipment condition? Two reasons come to mind. First, you want to make sure that it’s in good working order, and isn’t likely to cause you problems at the worst possible moment.
Second, there’s a lot to be said for looking professional and squared away. I’m not saying you need to crease your sleeves and polish your boots, though doing both helps instill a bit of pride in personal appearance, but I am saying that you don’t want to give off the impression of being sloppy and poorly trained.
Creating deterrance is just as much about appearance of capability as it is actually being skilled. A predator is more likely to pursue the easy prey, so you want to look like you’d be hard to kill. The ways that you do that are subtle, but they stand out to those who are looking.
Let’s break this down into three segments:
- Damage and Wear
- Attachment security
- Physical appearance
Checking Damage and Wear
The goal here is simple. You need to make sure that your equipment is in good enough condition that it’s not going to fail you. Some of the obvious things to look for include holes, rips, cracks, and other physical things. The less obvious stuff is loose threads that might pull out, frayed tie offs, clogged Velcro attachments, and dried dirt/mud/blood.
This is your chance to look these items over, fix what can be fixed, or replace what needs to be replaced.
- Inspect equipment for any holes or tears in fabric
- Repair if possible
- Replace if the item cannot be repaired
- Locate all loose thread ends- clip them and burn the ends until flush
- Identify any cracks or breaks in hard items like buckles or fasteners
- Replace buckle/fastener if possible
- Replace complete item if fastener is critical and cannot be repaired
- Look for signs of rust on any metal component, mitigate if possible
- Inspect hook-and-loop attachment for dirt, hair, or other debris that reduces attachment security- clean as needed
- Clean any dried dirt, mud, or blood from all surfaces
Keeping your gear reasonably clean is important because it helps slow down wear as well as keep a more professional appearance. For nylon, the easiest way is simply a bucket of warm soapy water and a hard bristle brush. A “hard” toothbrush works well for this.
You should always keep your hook-and-loop attachments clean and free of gunk. Otherwise it looses it’s strength and can start to fail you. You can use the same toothbrush for that, or something a bit firmer like a file board.
Checking Attachment Security
The main thing you’re looking for here is that your equipment isn’t at risk of coming apart on you. The easiest thing to look for is whether your attachment method is correctly done. Something that many beginners do wrong is incorrectly weaving MOLLE straps back and forth between the mounting surface and the pouch.
You also want to check if your mountings are damaged. Old-school MOLLE metal snaps are notorious for rusting or bending, losing their strength. ALICE clips can bend or otherwise not hold up. You might also consider backup methods like gutted paracord, zip ties, or something else.
You also want to make sure you have dummy cord attached securely using tie offs and stopper knots.
- All mounting attachments are attached to specification
- Inspect attachments for rips, tears, rust, or other signs of damage- replace as needed
- Backup attachment methods, if used, are securely attached
- All adjustment straps finish through some sort of locking mechanism to ensure they do not come loose
- Check dummy cord tie off points for security
Not only does this check ensure your gear won’t fail you, or disappear, it again helps you present that extra bit of professionalism. As a quick note, if this is your first time setting up this piece of gear, I suggest waiting on the loose strap cleanup until you’re done with Phase II, as you might need to make adjustments with those straps.
Individual Equipment Physical Appearance
The last step of Phase I is tidying your gear up. This serves two purposes. First, and most obvious, is that a tidy appearance speaks to professionalism. You do not want to look like some person LARPing around the house and neighborhood without any actual skill or knowledge. If you’re at a point where you’re actively wearing this stuff, then you want to look like you know what you’re doing.
Secondly, keeping things tidy helps prevent unexpected entanglement or gear loss. Loose straps tend to get stuck on things, whether its your environment or other gear.
- All loose threads are clipped and burned (repeating the overall condition step)
- Loose strap ends greater than 2″ are rolled and secured in place with tape, web dominators, strap keepers, etc.
- Noise-reduction measures such as bungee-wrapped pouches, taped zippers/clips, are present
AGE Phase II: Fit and Function
Now that you know you’re equipment is in good repair, it’s time to check how well it’s meeting your needs. Again, this has two parts to it. The first, is about how well your equipment is actually riding on you. The second, and more complicated one, is checking that your gear actually supports your need and doesn’t hinder you from doing anything.
This sounds straight forward, and it is, but you also have to commit to it. One of the things I’ve found while testing our load bearing equipment is that you don’t really know how it rides and fits until you load it down with the stuff you plan to carry.
You’ll find that this first portion of the evaluation is fast, but you’ll likely come back to it as you make adjustments during the function portion. You’re looking for any obvious signs that your gear is not fitting correctly, such as immediate discomfort, imbalance, overly loose, or overly tight.
- Load your selected piece of equipment with all items you plan to carry (i.e. loaded magazines, sidearm, filled canteens, IFAK, patrol gear, etc.)
- Don your equipment as intended on top of the clothing you plan to wear
- Note any imbalances created from uneven gear load, such as too much ammunition/water on one side of the belt/harness
- Check the ride height of your gear- if it’s too high or too low, then adjust the straps until it rides correctly
- Adjust tightness around your body to be snug, but comfortable
Ride height will be different for everyone depending on personal anatomy. For LBE gear, I suggest starting with your belly button and adjusting up or down an inch at a time until you sense that the bottom of the belt rests on top of your hip bones like a backpack waist belt.
With chest rigs and plate carriers, I try to get them as high as possible without interfering with arm movement. My default is drawing an imaginary line through the middle of the chest rig and aligning it to my nipples. Again, adjust up or down as needed.
Plate Carrier Placement
With plate carriers, you need to protect your vital organs, so the default is placing the top of the front plate even with the top of the sternum. The notch where the sternum meets the two collar bones is a good reference point.
For back plates, the top of the plate should be about an inch below the T1 spinal vertebra. For reference, if you reach behind your neck and prod your spine starting from the base of the skull, the T1 vertebra (first vertebrae of the thoracic spine) is the big one that aligns with the top of your shoulders.
I borrowed these photos from Wikipedia under creative commons and added the annotations so you can see anatomically what I’m referring to.
Now we’re into the final tests. With everything in good condition and placed properly, it’s time to see how well your gear actually moves and works with you. Again, I have two areas of focus here. The first is “athletic” movement to see if anything is poking, rubbing, or otherwise stopping you from having good range of movement. The second is whether you can actually run your gear from the pouches as you have them configured.
I know it might sound like this is in the wrong order. I put movement first because you’re going to do a whole lot more “living” with your gear on than fighting in it. If the optimum pouch placement puts it somewhere that stops you from being able to go up and down the stairs, prone, or take a kneeling position then it’s not actually optimum.
Athletic Movement Testing
In an ideal world, I’d say you should go for a ruck wearing your gear. That ruck would include a bunch of obstacles, uphill, downhill, and more. Unless you live in a remote area, that’s unlikely. So the best we can do is some checks around the house to reveal any glaring issues.
Now, for the test. With your gear on, and loaded up with equipment, perform the following:
- Walk laps around a room/house/whatever to see if it actually rides comfortably on you
- Pass through doorways, around furniture, and other items liable to snag or bump your gear
- Go up and down stairs several times to see if any items interfere with your leg movement (this is usually Type II or Type III magazine pouches positioned too far to your front)
- If you have a larger box, crate, or some other large obect to stand on, do a big “step up”
- Take a kneeling and/or squatting shooting position to ensure you have freedom of movement and nothing jabs you in the gut or gets in the way
- Lay in the prone position to make sure you can comfortably get low to the ground with no pain or discomfort
- From the prone, low crawl 10-20 feet to verify you have freedom of movement
- Starting in the prone position, perform a pushup, explosively bring your legs under you and stand up
- Dash 10 yards, go prone, get back up, dash 10 yards to where you started (repeat 3x)
- Lay supine on your back, ensure there are no hard objects directly under your lumbar spine
After this sequence, any obvious issues become apparent. It might be as simple a battle belt that’s too heavy and slides down your waist. Or, it could be that you’ve got things in all the wrong places and need to re-think how you configure your equipment.
You might find that there is no “perfect” answer here. The most athletic you can be is by carrying nothing. So everything is a compromise, it’s just a matter of where you make those compromises and how difficult they are to live with.
Also, keep this in mind. All loaded up, is your equipment more than 50 lbs? If so, then you need to start removing stuff. The long-standing maximum weight for a fit military member’s fighting load is 40-45 lbs. Your goal should be 35 lbs.
Equipment Use Testing
This is the last step. Your goal now is simulating running your gear as if you were in a match or a firefight. This step also helps you build muscle memory about accessing each item of your equipment and how to set it up. This last stage is done with dry fire, though there’s no reason you couldn’t do it “live” if you were at a range.
Rifle Only Drill
- [Dry fire only] Replace all magazines in your equipment with empties and verify your area is safe for dry fire
- Present the rifle and simulate a controlled pair of two shots
- Perform an immediate reload according to your magazine management plan
- Simulate two shots
- Repeat the reload/controlled pair sequence until you have depleted all of your magazines according to your magazine management plan
What you’re looking for here is any obvious issues with gear placement. That doesn’t just mean pouches, but also how you position magazines within those pouches. I prefer to place all rifle mags with bullets pointing away from my center line (AKA bullets to the rear).
You might be asking, “Matt, what is a magazine management plan?”
This is a plan for what order you work through each of your magazine pouches. It might also include how and when you refill those pouches form others. For example, using time to remove fresh magazines from a secondary pouch on your strong side to refill spent mags in your primary pouches.
Rifle and Pistol Transition Drill
- Present your rifle and simulate two shots (a controlled pair)
- Perform immediate reload of the rifle
- Repeat two more times (this should leave you on your third magazine)
- Control the rifle with your support hand as you draw and present your sidearm
- Simulate two shots for a controlled pair
- Perform immediate reload of your sidearm
- Holster your sidearm
- Load a new magazine into the rifle and repeat the whole sequence
Everything you were looking out for before also applies here. You may find little things like your rifle dangling in front of you interferes with retrieving pistol magazines. You might also take note of how you like pistol magazines positioned. I like to have pistol mags as “bullets forward” or pointing towards my center line.
Repeat from Positions
With those two basic drills out of the way, feel free to test out variants. For example, how well does reloading work from a kneeling, squatting, or prone position?
Did your sling hang up on any piece of gear unexpectedly?
Perform either of the above drills, for 2-3 magazines, and then imagine you have been injured. Can you access your life-saving equipment? Can you do it with either hand?
It’s beyond the scope of this article, but this is also a good time to test if you know how to put on a tourniquet with one hand, too.
What About the Rest?
I didn’t mention the other stuff you might have, like canteens or items in a buttpack. Since those things are less urgent to access, it’s not as important to test them now. In fact, you’ll have enough of a challenge compromising where to put your “stuff” between the athletic test and functional test that you might question if you want to keep the extras at all.
Wrapping it Up
Now you have a better idea how to do a gear shakeout before you ever leave your house. You’d be surprised just how many errors or issues you can identify with your equipment with just a little bit time and effort, and no need to actually burn your ammo stash.
Keep in mind that this said nothing about your personal capabilities. Your equipment should never exceed your ability to carry it and fight. If it does, then you’re asking for trouble in the form of injury or worse.