Chest Rigs: A Love Song

Other than kettlebells, if any object screamed aloud for the attention of Lean, Solid Dogs, it would have to be some kind of (a) surplus outdoor equipment (b) made to carry heavy loads over long distances, (c) especially in hot, dry climates, and (d) with a Communist parentage. What if I told you that such a thing exists? And that it’s been upgraded by Western capitalists for comfort?

As you can see, I’ve had some work done to make my cheekbones and jaw more prominent.

Ladies, gentlemen, lean solid dogs, I present to you [drumroll] … the South African Pattern 83 chest rig.

The weird brown bib got to South Africa by a circuitous road from China that led through Israel.

During the Cold War, what did South Africa and Israel have in common? Both were Western-style states outnumbered by neighboring hostile Soviet client states, but for political reasons they had to be as self-sufficient as possible for arms and so they produced more of their own military equipment than would otherwise have been rational for countries their size. This included everything from nuclear weapons to small arms and “soldier systems,” the everyday items of individual clothing and equipment.

In the Sixties, both Israel and South Africa were using the standard rifle of the Western-leaning world, the FN FAL. Dubbed “the right arm of the free world,” the Belgian-designed FAL was used by most Commonwealth and NATO countries (except the United States) and their African and Latin American client states, being as ubiquitous and iconic among anti-Communist armies as the Kalashnikov was among their enemies.

Americans who recognize the FAL mostly know it from coverage of the Falklands war, where it was used by both sides. (Royal Marines Museum, Portsmouth)

The FAL and the Kalashnikov also symbolized the very different strategies of the Cold War’s two rival camps. In the Kalashnikov, the Communist Bloc had pioneered a new direction in small arms: a rifle requiring little training. The Kalashnikov used a small, light-shooting cartridge that conscripts could learn to use adequately with less marksmanship training. And famously, the Kalashnikov tolerated abuse, neglect, and harsh climates. It was ideal for the mass conscript armies for which the Soviets designed it, and later for Third World insurgents and part-time guerrillas. 

The FAL’s big cartridge (on the right) is seldom used as a rifle round anymore. It shoots farther, flatter, and harder than its old ComBloc rival (left), but it is harder to shoot well and weighs too much. (Photo by ammotogo.com)

The FAL continued to use an older style full-strength rifle cartridge like those of the World Wars, which offered terrific knockdown power and accuracy at the longer ranges where the NATO armies planned to engage any Communist spearheads in West Germany.  The powerful FAL was commensurately harder to control and slower to shoot, but the NATO armies could afford the extra time and expense of training their troops to a high standard in traditional rifle marksmanship, so they accepted the tradeoff. (The big NATO round is also just a lot heavier, and this is not a small thing—ammunition gets heavy. It may have helped that NATO expected to be fighting a defensive battle with supply lines only getting shorter as their armies sagged under the impact of Soviet tank armies. In contrast, the Soviets planned for their columns to race forward at top speed, and they always had to worry about keeping them supplied from their own fairly primitive logistical infrastructure. They must have been happy to save weight and bulk.)

IDF with FALs in 1965. The following year these rifles did not fare well in air thick with particles kicked up by the tanks.

Being in the Western orbit, Israel and South Africa kept things simple and used the FAL in the Sixties. That is, until the Six Day War of 1966. Israeli soldiers had trouble keeping their FALs clear of airborne sand and dust, and many soldiers armed themselves instead with Uzi submachine guns or captured Kalashnikovs. After the war, when the Israeli Defense Force looked for a new rifle, they ultimately chose to manufacture their own version of the Kalashnikov!

South Africa enters this story in 1980, when they replaced their own FALs. The international pariah had few other sources of arms and military expertise than Israel, which was almost as hungry for allies as the South Africans, and the Israelis had proven the worth of their homegrown Kalashnikov variant in dusty conditions like the ones in which the South Africans were fighting the Border War. So the South African Defense Force (SADF) chose to manufacture a licensed variant of the Israeli rifle.

In selecting a Soviet design and improving it, the two countries were doing something that China had been doing expertly for decades. China was also a country surrounded by enemies, beginning with the Soviet Union itself. The two Communist countries divorced messily in 1956, and China abruptly lost access to Soviet help for its arms industry. Nevertheless, by then the whole Chinese military was already outfitted in basically Soviet style, so henceforth their designers would begin from inherited Soviet designs (even reverse-engineering later Soviet inventions, like the famous RPG-7) and then improve upon them.

Their proudest achievement was the chest rig. When the Soviets invented the Kalashnikov, they created a great rifle but never got around to inventing a good way to carry those big, heavy “banana magazines.” Soviet soldiers were given long, floppy belt pouches holding almost 5 lbs. of ammo to hang on their belts, along with a canteen and a shovel and other items. The Chinese copied this set-up at first and hated it. When you stood, the gear pulled the back of your pants down—the Chinese are a slender people and this was not working for them. When you crawled or climbed a tree, you might accidentally crawl right out of your equipment belt. And when you ran, gear flopped in all directions like a beaded dress on a go-go dancer. As we say in Chinese, bù xíng: “no-go.”  

In response, they invented the chest rig. Or to use its colloquial Chinese name, the “belly bag” (肚兜). Other people had experimented before with ways to carry gear, guns, and ammo on the torso instead of the waist—people in America began wearing shoulder holsters in the 1870s for pistols, ammo, and other items, and the British tried a “jerkin” full of pockets and pouches. But the Chinese chest rig hit some kind ergonomic sweet spot. It let you carry plenty of weight and bulk reasonably comfortably. It was quick to get on and off. It’s cool to wear and does not chafe. It leaves your arms free and stays snug when you run. You can crouch, lie, crawl, and roll. And you can access your gear, with either hand, without looking, even while sitting or walking. 

The South Africans took notice—and southern Africa now had plenty of Chinese armaments floating around—and when they adopted a Kalashnikov, they adopted the Chinese idea of the chest rig too and upgraded it along the way. The South African chest rig was now made of a water-resistant nylon instead of canvas, adjusted easily with slide buckles, and closed with Velcro instead of Chinese frog buttons. And South Africa padded the straps for despicable capitalist comfort. 

And in the age of Iraq and Afghanistan, chest rigs seem to have gone mainstream around the world, a fact of which the Chinese internet is extremely proud. “Score-keeping” of national accomplishments, inventions, and slights is a prominent feature of national psychology in the People’s Republic, and one site features multiple articles with titles like “Even the US Military Likes Our Army’s Soldier Systems and the Soviets Copied Them Massively” and “Even American Soldiers Like the Chinese Type 56 Chest Rig.” But they are right. In Afghanistan the Soviets picked up the Chinese chest rigs from their enemies and came up with their own version in the Eighties dubbed the lifchik (“bra”). And we have photos of American troops wearing Chinese chest rigs in Vietnam and early in the Allied war in Afghanistan.

American Ranger in Vietnam, Soviet airborne soldier in Afghanistan, and some kind of American specops ninjas early in the Afghanistan war, all wearing the Chinese Type 56 prior to their services developing their own chest rigs. (Photos from kknews.cc)

*          *          *

I tried the South African rig to replace the Coaxsher radio harness I was issued for search & rescue work. Though many people like the Coaxsher, I kept loosing things out of its tight elastic sleeves. I would try to shimmy my radio in hastily with both hands, often while moving or juggling other tools, and soon I would find that it was wriggling out under pressure from the stretchy sleeve material. One night during a long search, the radio popped right out and went missing in the underbrush. Happily a teammate found it hours later, but I now had to dummy-cord the radio to prevent it from inching out. Yet on my very next search I lost my GPS unit! The reason was the same: it did not fit into the tight elastic sleeve well and would squeeze out if I put it in hastily, without stopping to coax it in with both hands.

The big chest rig solved that. Even while moving, I can drop my clunky brick of a radio into the roomy pouches one-handed every time, and when the Velcro closes over it, it’s not going anywhere.

Still being a search and rescue newbie, it’s often enough that I’m nervously looking at a map in one hand, a GPS in the other, dangling my radio by its antenna with my teeth, and trying to grow an extra hand to flip open a compass. If I have to be all thumbs with the equipment that I do have, I’d rather not lose any extra bits.

And like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag, the chest rig seems to fit everything I try to stuff in. Presently mine contains various batteries, pens, a notebook, a radio, a GPS unit, two compasses, drink mixes, food, plastic bags, gloves, gauze, sunglasses, cellphone, a flashlight, and a pair of chopsticks (long story). Everything is right under my nose, like a toolbox that floats in the air in front of me, and I can get at most things with either hand without looking.

Thus I love and cherish this chest rig more than any other piece of equipment: I have many boots, many rucksacks, many tents and sleeping bags and kettlebells, and though I have my preferences, I can make do with any of them. But the chest rig is the best damn piece of outdoor gear I own and I’ll never go back.

And nowadays they are everywhere. Capitalism has done its magic and made chest rigs available cheaply for thirty bucks on Amazon, in lots of different configurations. For whatever it might be worth, among new production items, the closest thing I know to the South African is made by Blackhawk for AKs, and they offer an innocuous gray color that does not make you look like a door-kicker.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s