It took me a long time to come around to using a chest rig for infantry combat operations. Even then, it wasn’t until a method for quick attachment and streamlined wear that the chest rig became an attractive option.
For a while, gear in pouches attached directly to an integrated armor system seemed like the apex in load carriage methodology. This has culminated in armor systems with cumberbunds supporting copious amounts of PALS real estate.
My experience with cumberbund based systems has not been overly positive. The bulk of the cumberbund’s mounting surface is around the wearer’s mid section, from the front of the torso extending around the wearer’s waist. It has to split at least once to allow for donning and removal, meaning the most useful and critical real estate, up front, in the wearer’s workspace, is interrupted. Vests with laden cumberbunds can be challenging and laborious to don into in a hurry.
Wearing your gear around for a shooting course is one thing. Having to throw it on and get outside the wire as fast as you can to support a friendly unit that just got hit is an entirely different experience… Being able to get into your gear quickly counts in the real world.
Vehicle operations become much more difficult with a cumberbund. The increased bulk raises the potential for snagging against combat vehicle interiors. Exiting the vehicle when most of the weight in a combat load is worn lower on the wearer’s center of gravity requires more effort to unseat and move.
Close Quarters Battle, occurring inside building interiors, with the bulk of combat gear at waist level and extending all around the torso, particularly in narrow confines with furniture and other obstructions makes for challenged movement. The operator almost has to wade through obstacles or carefully account for the extra girth around the midsection while moving through the structure.
Attaining an effective prone position while keeping head and eyes up to achieve an effective sight picture with the helmet and collar of the armor system in opposition to each other, balanced over a pivot point at waist level is not only difficult, but possibly fatal to the grunt who needs to maintain a low profile and return fire in an effective manner.
Underarm movement is limited when gear is piled around the mid section and natural arm swing is restricted. The ability to move and shoot simultaneously is impaired when natural ranges of movement are limited.
Furthermore, attaching pouches and equipment directly to the armor systems precludes the option of running the armor slick. Situations where this might be desirable include: working parties (digging, filling sand bags, moving heavy equipment,) prolonged periods in a prone position, living and moving in protected areas where a combat load might not be necessary but maintaining a heightened protective posture is (such as a combat outpost or forward operating base prone to indirect fire) or moving through caves, tunnels and other highly restricted spaces. There are many instances where it’s good to have armor without the rest of the fighting load.
Those are some of the considerable downsides to running equipment attached directly to an armor system.
Chest rigs center and balance the load on the torso, and can leave a relatively smaller footprint than integrated armor, cumberbund equipped systems. This has a number of benefits.
It allows for freer and more balanced movement. It’s an under-appreciated fact that before, during and after a contact, an infantryman will have to conduct a lot of movement. First there is movement to the objective or until contact is initiated. That is followed by strenuous and frantic movement during the contact under fire. Finally, retrograde movement after the action is complete. A grunt that sets his gear up with the sole emphasis of feeding the weapon system is only anticipating part of his needs. In addition to accessing a fresh source of ammunition and other critical equipment quickly, though must be given as to how he will move under the weight of all that kit. It’s not just about feeding the weapon system. Mobility and movement are critical factors in combat.
Generally speaking (and depending largely on what you get and how it’s worn) a chest rig will allow for natural and free arm movement. It’s interesting to notice that most chest rigs are actually worn relatively low on the torso. This user preference might reflect the ease with which the wearer can access magazine pouches worn closer to waist level. However, the chest rig might be of more benefit when worn higher up and actually on the chest. It’s counterintuitive because it takes a different motion to access and extract a magazine, but the benefits in mobility along with retraining to make effective reloads from the new pouch location (“muscle memory”) validate the concept.
The prone position with a chest rig worn high on the chest is easy to get into, maintain, and most importantly, fight from. Keeping your head up, allowing for good cheek weld and sight picture is easy with the chest rig underneath the wearer keeping the torso propped up off the ground.
With the center of gravity and bulk up off of the mid section it becomes a lot easier to get into, sit in and get out of a vehicle. Potential snag hazards are minimized because the bulk of combat gear is not only in the wearer’s work space, but also well within the bounds of peripheral vision.
Movement through building interiors with attendant obstructions becomes a simpler task when the gear is worn higher on the torso and away from furniture and similar obstacles that are commonly built to waist high.
Running, climbing and jumping with kit worn over body armor is never easy, but with the load evenly balanced and when worn in such a way as to allow for natural arm movement, the (relatively) increased freedom of movement is noticeable.
Until now, one major drawback common to all chest rigs has been the cumbersome harness system, many of which often require assistance to don when layered over bulky armor systems…