Chest Rigs: Part 1 – An Unofficial History

If necessity is the mother of invention, then war is almost certainly the midwife.

Chest rigs have been around for decades (if not longer), though its evolution as a piece of tactical gear has taken a wide, wondering route. For Western parties, that interest waned some after the first Gulf War and wasn’t renewed again until well into the Global War on Terror. Though as we gain further distance from those conflicts—we see the re-emergence of chest rigs by those who view its use as more helpful in the field over traditional plate carriers or other load-bearing equipment. What follows is a (brief) history of the chest rig up until recent events, features, and potential uses of it into the future.


In its beginning, a “chest rig” was intended to be a simple piece of clothing (or other adornment) worn over clothing, while still providing immediate access to essential items. Often, its evolution over time has been in response to a changing need or factor on the battlefield.

Some of the earliest demonstrations of “chest” equipment were those worn by privateers around the mid-17th Century. For sailors, these were often simple leather suspenders or cummerbunds upon which extra pockets or straps could hold weapons and be easily accessed. Bear in mind the flintlock and hand grenades at the time were crude and a one-shot deal, as the enemy would be upon you before you had time to reload or make another munition ready. Captain Edward Teach (a.k.a. Blackbeard the Pirate; 1680-1718) was perhaps the most notable of these, whose line drawings often depict him wearing a six-musket suspender or bandolier (of which history notes he used quite often). Regardless of the illustration, the premise for Teach was the same—to modify an article of clothing to have a weapon close to the upper torso, and immediately at hand when others would not.

This type of personalized chest garment subsisted quietly for just over a century. And with American societal interests more rooted in isolationism at the time, there was little interest in improving a soldier’s individually worn gear. But invariably the United States found itself embroiled in World War I (1914-1918). And with the improved advent of fragmentary hand grenades, now instead of a specialized individual lobbing crude explosive at the enemy, literally every soldier had the capacity to do so (if only a few times). In WWI, the British had their ’10-Pouch Grenade Apron’ that ideally was worn over the neck as a smock. These were simplistic pieces of gear that were manufactured at scale quickly and cheaply. But the apron interfered with access to gas masks and other equipment so soldiers would wear the apron off to the side and wrapped around the back. Other notable examples during this conflict included the American M-1918 Hand Grenade Vest, or the Japanese Special Naval Landing Force ‘Ryudan-Nou’ grenade vest.

By the time WWII (1939-1945) rolled around, industrialization had taken root in supporting standing armies with uniforms and design. At this point, now chest gear was more to directly support the specialized soldier, such as the Italian Paracadutista’s ‘Samurai’ Assault Vest that allowed for horizontal stacking of magazines to Parajumper’s Baretta Mod 38A rifle. In the same context, the British developed the Battle Jerkin that was nothing more than a simplified hunting vest modified for wearing additional ammo or supplies.

Not ten years after the end of WWII, the world found itself again posturing for the next global conflict. However, this time the belligerents would use proxies to fight their wars, converging in Vietnam (1955-1975) where the trickle of U.S. “advisors” slowly turned into direct involvement. It was during this time period that we saw two key events relevant to the evolution of chest rigs in the world. The first being the involvement of the Chinese Communists (or colloquially known as Chicoms) to support the North Vietnamese Army. Here, the Chicoms introduced a number of what they called ‘belly bands’ (肚兜). Again, these were simple vertical canvas magazine pouches designed to support the larger “banana” magazines to the AK-47 and included; Type 53, 56, 63, (and later Type 79, and 91) Chest Rigs—each offering a variance on number of available pouches for the soldier.

Not to be outdone, the US developed the All-Purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment (ALICE) by 1973 and close to the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. But again, complaints arose in the limitations of ALICE gear and it wasn’t long before some soldiers in Vietnam began wearing captured Type 53s (or other such chest rigs) to capitalize on the increased ammo storage, or simply after they “adopted” a captured AK-47 and needed something to carry the magazines. Some examples of US soldiers in Vietnam modifying their ALICE gear into makeshift chest rigs were in MACV-SOG photographs whereby individuals had modified their individual ALICE equipment. The ALICE gear would remain an issued item to the military well into the 1990s.

The second key event relevant to the establishment of chest rigs occurred concurrently to the Vietnam War, and undoubtedly was influenced from the Type 53 or other Chicom chest rigs used there. The Rhodesian Bush War kicked off in 1964 and brought in multiple South African countries into the conflict. There Selous Scouts and British SAS were some of the first to take those Chicom chest rigs and modify the design into something fit for their own conflict. The Selous Scouts modified the Chicom chest rig design in a way that enabled for rapid movement in the field, and engagement while seated in a vehicle to ultimately lead their forces to victory in 1979. The Rhodesian Bush War Magazine Pouch is considered as pivotal in the advent of today’s modern chest rigs as the Chicom variants. Both types of chest rigs would also appear in the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989) with both sides capitalizing on the available surplus for the war.

After Vietnam, the U.S. went through a general period of malaise whereby it prioritized other avenues of military development. The ‘Star Wars’ program and other technological advancements in sea and air were favored over development of individual soldier equipment. It took until 1988 before a replacement to the ALICE gear emerged, although it did not see widespread deployment until 1989. The Integrated Individual Fighting Systems (IIFS, or LBV-88) was used by soldiers deploying for Operation Just Cause (1989), and in greater quantities by the time Operation Desert Storm (1990) rolled around. And despite all the technological advancements, the IIFS ended up being nothing more than a revisit of Edward Teach’s old pistol vest. The IIFS came in two basic configurations that capitalized on some components of the older ALICE gear; a riflemen vest, and a grenadier vest—with the premise being the pouches were stitched into the vest, and angled inward in a way that allowed for easier access.

By the time the first Gulf War ended (1991), the military recognized it needed to continually be adapting what its soldiers wore into combat. Soldiers needed gear that was both modular, and customizable based on mission essential needs. And this is where things sped up. In 1997 the Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment (MOLLE) system was introduced along with the Fighting Load Carrier (FLC). But the FLC ended up being nothing more than a redesigned LBV-88 with MOLLE webbing in lieu of pouches. Ultimately, as accessories based on the Pocket Attachment Ladder System (PALS) (the laddered nylon bands on the exterior of MOLLE equipment) came into production, the need for a platform that was easily/quickly worn over slick body armor and allot for gear to easily attached/removed/repositioned remained high. Add into that mix, civilian markets also jumped in offering their own designs and several chest rig concepts. This ultimately gave the U.S. its first real dedicated military chest rig design—the Ranger Assault Carrying Kit (RACK) in 2000 by Specialty Defense, and the Tactical Assault Panel (TAP) in 2013 by SDS. Both chest rigs had their start amid Special Operations and the 75th Ranger Regiment, before eventually filtering down to lower echelon units, such as the Airborne and Air Assault units.

While the U.S. was already involved in both Afghanistan (2001-2021) and Iraq (2003-2011), the SEALs had revitalized the older (circa 1997) military concept of “recce” (pronounced “wreck-e”), which was short for reconnaissance (or, as the Brits who were in the Rhodie war had called it, reconnoiter). In this role, an individual who was conducting surveillance, needed gear to be as light and as agile as possible. This favored chest rigs over the traditional plate carrier (which would ride in the sustainment bag until needed) and rifles that were light, but could fulfill a variety of roles on the battlefield. This recce concept largely remained unnoticed by civilian markets until marketing personas (often former members of Special Operations themselves) dragged it unwillingly into the light as a “one size fits most” concept. Since then, the premise of a “light” or recce setup has reemerged along with renewed interest in chest rigs as an essential tool in an individual’s otherwise deep toolkit. It is important to remember, recce is more concept than physical design – and for most commercial vendors merely a marketing title. It is well within the possibility for the end-user to configure most chest rigs for multi-mission useage.

The “Chest Rigs” editorials are intended as an informative series and a continuation on other useful articles that include explanations to body armor, plate carriers, and common hardware to tactical gear. These editorials are not intended by High Ground Media to sway or convince the reader that one specific brand of gear is superior to all the others. In the end, the intent of this series is to provide the reader with a condensed and focused resource—nothing more.

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