SIG MMG 338 Program Series

Gear Modifications in Vietnam

I wanted to share these two photos of MG Ken Bowra when he was a 1LT serving in MACV-SOG’s CCN (TF1AE), in 1971 l, as the Reconnaissance Team Leader (One-Zero) of Recon Teams Idaho and Sidewinder. He wore an AK chest rig during missions and also sewed pockets on to the sleeves of his ERDL jungle fatigues.

These wartime mods were replicated by individuals  and small units from the war, up into the early 00s, but eventually became standard.

38 Responses to “Gear Modifications in Vietnam”

  1. Andy Parker says:

    Original RAID BDU!

  2. Terry Baldwin says:


    And of course pockets on sleeves was a fairly common paratrooper modification that first appeared in WW II with the M1942 uniform. It didn’t continue beyond that because, I suspect, subsequent uniforms (m43, M51) didn’t lend themselves to that modification. As you said, when jungles and ERDLs were fielded in the 60s a good number of SOF in particular started to use sleeve pockets again.

    I served with Colonel and later MG Bowra and there are other pictures of him in Vietnam that also show what I believe was some of the earliest use of “blood types” penned onto the fatigues – sometimes on the pocket flaps and sometimes centered on the chest or even on the top webbing of the jungle boots.


  3. lcpl1066 says:

    It seems it has become very fashionable these days to talk about how chest rigs aren’t practical (lessons from the past decade and a half of combat be damned!) for ‘real’ patrolling. People claim that they don’t allow the chest to breathe and weight is more comfortable carried on the hips. Well, maybe those guys nostalgic for the jungle schools they attended in the 80s and 90s know something these guys didn’t know. Until I learn what that is, I’m going to take after these guys and keep the weight of my combat load as high and close to my body as possible.

    • Terry Baldwin says:


      I suggest you don’t jump to conclusions from a couple of pictures. Notice that LT Bowra has a 30rd magazine in his weapon. At the time there were no 30rd ammo pouches in the system. The AK rigs were the only readily available solution.

      Minus that, I think you can also see that the bulk of his combat load is on his harness not on the chest. Note how the m1956 ammo pouch and canteen cover are sagging. He doesn’t just have a pack of menthols in there. He is in fact choosing NOT to keep his combat load “as high and as close to my body” as you are suggesting would somehow be preferable.

      Wearing a chest rig may be your personal preference but keep in mind that wearing gear (harness or chest rig) over body armor as has been common in the last 15 years isn’t like wearing the same loads without body armor. YMMV but you might not want to make a choice based on any one single example.


      • DSM says:

        Quite true, field gear hadn’t caught up to the weapon, or, at least hadn’t made it to the field. In your opinion what would our last 15yrs of evolved body armor centric and other chest mounted load carriage be worth in that jungle environment?

        • Terry Baldwin says:


          Hard to say. In Vietnam some American units did wear body armor, most notably the Marines and ‘Mechanized’ Army units on most of their combat operations. So it can be done and today’s body armor / plate carrier options are light years ahead of what they had to wear.

          Body armor has much different physiological impacts on soldiers performance in dry hot than wet hot or dry cold and wet cold environments. I’ve worked in all those environments but only worn armor for any extended length of time in the desert. It never got fun, but I did get more used to it over time.

          When I think of ‘patrolling’ I am thinking of wearing kit for days on end – even when sleeping (continuous combat). In that kind of scenario I would not want to wear armor. However, if the mission profile allowed me to mostly wear armor at night for raids – and do without in the day it is of less concern (episodic combat).

          Looking at jungle combat specifically a lot of casualties are produced by bad water, heat injuries, immersion foot, etc. Issues that armor doesn’t mitigate and in some cases exacerbates. So I would not be inclined to wear armor in the jungle except briefly for ‘actions on the objective’.

          Some people like chest rigs in the jungle but I am more of a fan of harness systems. Of course that might be because I’m inclined to go ‘old school’ when it comes to gear choices.

          One last thing, even SOF ‘back in the day’ had very little gear that wasn’t in the Army supply system. Look at what the Son Tay Raiders wore for example. Not much that you could call ‘high speed gear’ at all. Pictures of soldiers in combat usually show guys simply making the best of what they had, no more and no less. Something to keep in mind.


          • some other joe says:

            If I may offer a caveat, armor is much easier to transport worn than rucked. That’s a consideration if your plan is only to wear armor during “actions on.” Do you hump it or truck it or wear it on the approach?

            • Terry Baldwin says:

              some other joe,

              I was thinking of slick armor and that could be strapped on top of a ruck and put on in the ORP. I really don’t think that would be any harder on the soldier than wearing the armor. If you kept the shoulder harness of you kit slick as well you could even just throw the armor on over your harness. Reversing the process afterwards.

              Of course mission and specific circumstances dictates. If you expect contact earlier you would wear it “on the approach” as you say. I’m not suggesting there is ever just one and only one ‘right’ answer in combat.

              But leaders do have to make decisions that take the environmental impacts on their soldiers wearing armor for extended periods into account as well as the enemy threat. Especially if you are not operating in a temperate zone.


              • some other joe says:

                I’ve always found armor feels like it weighs a lot less if I’m wearing it vs carrying it. It probably has a lot to do with how the load is distributed and I’ve never been cool enough to get away with just the couple of plates and some webbing of the more minimalist vests. YMMV, but if I’ve got to move it with LPCs, I’m wearing it rather than throwing it in a ruck.

                • Terry Baldwin says:

                  some other joe,

                  Sure, as a general rule ‘wearing’ the weight makes it feel lighter than ‘carrying’ the weight. You are right. It’s not that the total weight is actually any different but how it is distributed also matters.

                  But I wasn’t just considering the weight but also the impact on the soldier from humping his combat load while encased in armor. To be clear, I’m NOT talking about trying to make the soldier feel more ‘comfortable’ either.

                  With his torso wrapped in Kevlar he is much more at risk for heat injuries for example than if his upper body is not enclosed by armor. Weight is only one consideration – and not necessarily the most important.


          • CWG says:

            Its wild how quickly logistics for rapidly changing mission requirements have shifted even in the last 15 years. My first tour saw lots of magazine and canteen pouch use for tons of things there weren’t intended for. My last deployment gave me access to the REF task force for one-off or small team custom gear and equipment, not to mention being able to order something online to carry a specialized tool that was issued and have it in country in a week.

      • James says:

        There is a decent thread on lightfighter about jungle 2nd line gear. While initially there was much discussion of low and loose belt rigs ,it has gradually shifted to split front chest rigs and belt kits worn high because of pack hip belt issues. Getting the belt rig low enough to avoid the hip belt meant loosing space on the front due to pouches impeding mobility especially going up hills. The Blue force Gear Belt-minus and Split-minus are getting a lot of use apparently,but both are worn just above the hip belt often with the front open.

        • Ben says:

          It’s possible to rest the backpack on the rear pouches. If you use a setup like UK PLCE. I used a low belt with berghaus pack(with hip belt)and it worked just fine. Armor was only used on the approach and assault. But yes full body Armor and helmet in jungle ops sucks

          • James says:

            That still leaves the problem with the front mounted pouches unless you wear the hip belt above your hips negating a lot of the benefit. Probably why a lot of guys didn’t use the belts. Moving the pouches to the side might seem like a fix, but it really messes with some people.

    • Exploriment says:

      It’s my understanding that chest rigs caught on in the British Army in the 1970s because of the Northern Irish experience. Many of the soldiers were crammed into very confined armoured troop carriers and the traditional webbing wasn’t feasible in that scenario. Loads worn up on the chest rather than the hips made more sense. A case of the mission dictating the gear.

      • Terry says:

        I own an ex-NI armoured personnel carrier (Alvis Saracen) and yes, it is fairly cramped in the back. It’s not too bad without any gear, but if you had belt kits and L1A1s then it would have been very cozy. A chest rig works a whole lot better.

        For most of its service in NI, mine was configured as an ambulance, but it was reconfigured as an APC before being sent to Hong Kong. It’s a fun vehicle now, but I wouldn’t want to have served in it.


  4. Brando says:

    Trickle Down Gear

  5. gd442 says:

    MACV SOG…a shiny example of how a real combat unit should operate and function with real MEN in it.

  6. Asinine Name says:

    He seems to be wearing Corcoran jump boots in one of those pics. He also seems to be using the 1qt canteen cover to carry frags, since the only dedicated grenade pouch that seemed to be (theoretically) available at that time was some kind of USN/USMC pouch that was sized for 3 x M18/M34.

    • Weaver says:

      I was also going to comment on the use of the 1-quart canteen cover to carry frags.

    • Terry Baldwin says:

      Asinine Name,

      Those photos were part of a series taken one after the other. I think if you look closer you will see that LT Bowra was wearing jungle boots in both. But I agree with you and Weaver that he is probably carrying frags in the canteen pouch. That was a common practice.


  7. Mandaloin says:

    Other than pens, what would a sleeve pocket best be used for?

    • Matt says:

      Hello Sir,

      during my active time in the Bundeswehr we carried a small plastic Box inside the sleeve pocket. It contained various things like needles, fishing hooks, a button compass some painkillers and other spare parts witch are prone to be lost in the field. others carried a spare firing pin in it. beside the box some people used these pockets for small bandages or cigarettes. all in all lots of things you want to get hands on pretty quick. (Please excuse my bad english)

      Kind regards Matt

      • some other joe says:

        Look, pal, we only speak two languages around here: English and Bad English.

        ie, no apology required.

      • Ab5olut3zero says:

        I do something similar with the MRE drink bag in my shoulder pocket. It generally carries aspirin, stomach tablets, secondary notebook/pencil, fire source, and cigarettes back when I smoked. Don’t jump me too hard- I’ve quit now except for gunnery- then all bets are off. On another note- I really love reading the comments from the more seasoned among us. I learn so many things every time SSD posts historic pics. Thanks!

    • Chuck says:

      Lucky Strikes and condoms, of course.

    • Iheartptbelts says:

      I carry a tourniquet in each shoulder pocket. With modded pockets that had button holes i would throw in a signal mirror in one and a whistle in the other, both tied down to the button hole.

    • Mandaloin says:

      All good ideas, thanks gents.

    • JKifer says:

      rite in the rain notebook, chapstick, camo tube, issued small anti fog kit for eye pro, jolly ranchers/gum… etc.. little things that make life nice in the field that get lost easily..

  8. Joe says:

    Damn, that group photo is straight up gangsta..

  9. SN says:

    40 years later and they would have gone into business for themselves selling these mods via the internet.

  10. Hubb says:

    If anyone is interested in more information or pictures about MACV-SOG and their equipment, then read the books written by Major John L. Plaster (USAR, retired). He has written awesome books about his time in that unit.

  11. pbr549 says:

    My Dad was with SOG when he was in Vietnam. He told me they had to scrounge the 30rd magazines from the Air Force.

  12. PLiner says:

    I’m surprised no ones noticed or mentioned that he’s wearing a STABO rig.