Make Holes, Prevent Holes, Patch Holes
EAG Tactical 3-Day Carbine Operators - Lakeland, Florida - December 2009
(photo courtesy Eric Germany)
Many people may question why a non-law enforcement civilian would "need" an armor system. The answers vary based on the person in question, but they may range from preferring to have some added protection at training classes and matches, to being a requirement (typically along with a ballistic helmet) for a shoot-house training class, to wanting to have something to throw on for that "bump in the night", all the way up to romanticized paranoid delusions about the collapse of society. For the purposes of this article the why is as important as the how, as is typically the case with all things found on this site. Identifying a need or what you want to do with something typically makes for a very easy litmus test for figuring out if a specific item is right for you.
My interest in having an armor system began after I had taken several classes with Pat Rogers of EAG Tactical, and during one he said "we're doing a shoot house class soon, you should come". A "shoot house", for those that don't know, is a training environment that is set up to train close quarters battle scenarios involving fighting indoors. Much like a cop would find chasing a suspect into a house, a Soldier may find looking for insurgents in Iraq, or a regular Joe may find in his own home. They vary in type and style, but very often these training situations find the student in the "house" with other students working on small team tactics, and hence the requirement for body armor that may not exist in a traditional training class where everyone is standing in a line firing at a single target on a traditional range. Often shoot houses are constructed so that the interior walls can be reconfigured for different scenarios and only the outer walls or berms are designed to actually stop the rounds. Some require frangible ammo, and some are designed to be used only with Simunitions or similar.
Since I was unable to attend that class I tabled the idea for several months until I was at one of the carbine drills (practice) nights that I run where we have from 12-20 shooters on the first Tuesday evening of every month. At one point I saw the shooters weren't getting a concept so I had them put their carbines on "safe" and sling them with hands off before I stepped in front of the line. It was while I was in the middle of making my point that I realized I was potentially standing in front of 20+ armed people, many of which I did not know very well. My concern was not over a malicious shot intended to take me out but an errant round from a shooter with their head stuck up their fifth point of contact. It was that experience that made me take an interest in what I consider to be PPE (personal protective equipment) as well as securing medical supplies and training for dealing with gunshot wounds.
For the purposes of this article I am going to avoid going down the rabbit hole that is the various types, styles, threat levels, etc. for personal body armor. There are tons of resources online for researching these things. Each product has it's strengths and weaknesses, and various sizes, weights, and costs. I am not qualified to discuss what threat level and type of armor would work for someone else. I will say that for my own purposes it was important for me to have a concealment-cut for my soft armor, and the ability to add or remove the hard armor plates as needed.
ARMOR & CARRIER
I first purchased MSA Paraclete Twaron concealment-cut armor and carrier. The carrier was very tight on the soft armor I purchased with it which caused bunching, the plate access required removal (at least partially) of the soft armor inserts, and the access point was a zipper on the inside that resulted in a small nubbin that poked the wearer in the ribs. I also purchased the carrier in 1000D Cordura which made it heavier than it needed to be. Far less than ideal. I kept the soft armor and returned the carrier. I then briefly looked at the custom cut armor carrier from Eagle Industries. The good news is that you send them a tracing of your armor and they custom make the carrier to your soft inserts. The bad news is that the pocket on the outside is designed to take a small trauma plate, not a ballistic plate and the buyer has to commit to two carriers.
Right around the time that I was thinking I was going to have to have a custom carrier made I became aware of a company called Mayflower Research & Consulting and a new concealment-cut carrier that they were bringing to market (for those that are interested, they also have a MOLLE version). I ordered one of the very first carriers available from Grey Group Training. These carriers are designed to take a wide array of concealment-cut soft armor which is good because every maker does their cut a little differently. In truth Mayflower themselves have their own cut and offer the carrier plus armor. Since their armor adds a $800 premium over the carrier alone I chose to keep the armor that I already had which cost me approximately $500 less.
The carrier has all the features I initially wanted. Single, wide straps on the sides, a plate pocket that was accessible from the outside, a lightweight material (500D), etc. It also had features I had come to find desirable after my brief ownership of the Paraclete carrier, like a Velcro inner slot instead of the zipper and a looser fit to avoid bunching. Additionally, in trying on the Paraclete carrier before I returned it one of the things that became readily apparent to me was that my shoulders were going to be getting a lot of straps. First was whatever clothing I was wearing, then the armor, then a chest rig, then perhaps a hydration carrier, then my sling.... things were adding up. I was beginning to get concerned about the buildup of nylon in this location under the stock of my carbine. One of the things that sold me on the Mayflower carrier was the two little 1" ITW Fastex buckles on the front. These buckles are removable "repair buckles" leaving behind only the nylon loops that are hard-stitched to the front of the carrier. These buckles are important because they allow the user to attach load carriage directly to the front of the vest.
This was, to me, pure genius. With the right chest rig this would allow me to have two pieces of gear (one chest rig and one armor carrier) that would allow me to:
1) use the carrier and soft armor alone for concealed armor
2) use the carrier, soft armor, and plates for a slightly less concealed armor setup
3) use the carrier, soft armor, plates, and attached load carriage
4) use the load carriage, with shoulder straps attached, without the armor at all
This setup had the potential to address all of my armor and load carriage needs in one comprehensive system and in an easy-to-reconfigure system to boot!
For now I am using soft armor only in the carrier while I research the hard plates that I want to use. The carrier is designed to take SAPI medium-sized plates but will fit up to a 10" wide plate depending on how thick the plate is. Like all things there ain't no free lunch and picking rifle plates is a balance of cost, weight, thickness, and durability.
Mayflower Armor Carrier - Front with buckles removed
Mayflower Armor Carrier - Buckles for attaching chest rig
I have been using a chest rig in competition and training environments for over 10 years now. In that time I have gone through several versions of the base rig, loaded it up, stripped it back down, loaded it up again, added and removed parts & pieces, and generally have a pretty good idea of what works for me at this point. I chronicled the history of my ups and downs with chest rigs in the article Evolution of a Chest Rig. I had been using the current configuration for several months and overall found it worked very well for my needs but lacked the ability to easily add trauma supplies and was not compatible with any known armor carrier at the time.
Eagle Industries M4/FB Chest Rig with Leatherman pouch, Benchmade Rescue Hook 7 in pouch, tourniquet in Blue
Force Gear Tourniquet NOW! strap, and Pentagon Lights MOLLE Light (discontinued item)
The problem was that the Mayflower specific chest rig wasn't out yet. And the prototype versions that were being shown included pouches that I had no use for. They were showing an all-MOLLE version but the chest rig alone was supposed to retail for over $100 and I would have to add pouches and pockets as I needed them. I found out that the Tactical Tailor Mini-MAV chest rig had almost the exact same buckle spacing as the Mayflower carrier and tracked down a used example for $25 shipped. Upon arrival I had to do some reconfiguring of the buckles to get it to mate up to the armor carrier, but with the addition of two HSGI Taco magazine pouches and a Blue Force Gear Trauma Kit NOW! (BFG TKN!)as well as a small pouch for a Leatherman tool and a Benchmade 7 Rescue Hook I was able to mock up exactly the configuration that I wanted and run it a couple of times to make sure the locations of the various items would work.
Tactical Tailor Mini-MAV chest rig attached to Mayflower Concealable Armor Carrier after factory buckles on MAV have been reconfigured
(Florida state flag patch from www.omlpatches.com)
Chest rig mock-up prototype using Tactical Tailor Mini-Mav, Eagle Industries Leatherman pouch,
Blue Force Gear Trauma Kit NOW! with Tourniquet NOW! on top, HSGI Taco Magazine Pouches, and
Benchmade Rescue Hook 7 in factory pouch
Ultimately I knew that I wanted a hard-stitched solution. MOLLE is great for what it is, but I prefer to have a purpose-built rig without the added weight and bulk of the MOLLE rows and attachment systems, but with a little bit of MOLLE left to add items as needed. Luckily we have a tactical nylon gear maker relatively local to me at US Grunt Gear (thanks to Ben from Boresight Solutions for the introduction). I met with Robert from US Grunt gear on a Sunday with my Mini-MAV mock-up and two days later Ben was emailing me to tell me the rig was done. So I made my way back down to Miami to pick up the rig, and I was very impressed with what I got.
The rig is based on lessons learned from using chest rigs for load carriage for the last 10 years. I use a chest rig, not as a fighting loadout, but as a piece of support equipment for training classes and matches. All of my pistol shooting is done from a concealment setup or a holster that mimics the same location. When going to carbine I add a single carbine magazine pouch to the belt, or a carbine that is equipped with a Blue Force Gear Redi-Mod. I do my primary carbine and pistol reloads from the belt, or from the Redi-Mod if the carbine is so-equipped. The chest rig is therefore a means to carry additional gear to the line and to back-feed the other locations. My interest in armor coincided with my interest in medical gear and training, so I wanted a complete system that allowed me to make holes (ammo), patch holes (trauma kit), and prevent holes (armor). Since I had the Mayflower armor carrier I needed to have the ability to make and patch holes.
I have had great luck with my Eagle Industries Chest Rig M4, MOLLE, LE with the open-top pouches. Effectively what I wanted was this same rig with two magazines instead of three and with the ability to add medical supplies. US Grunt Gear makes their own version of an open-topped pouch that is lined with PVC instead of Kydex and that has a small amount of foam padding in the back of the pouch to retain the magazine. I had him use two of these pouches on the new rig and add MOLLE to the front of both of them. Having that MOLLE allows me to attach my Benchmade Rescue Hook on the far left pouch (as worn) and also to add a single carbine magazine pouch via Malice Clips if I have a need to carry more carbine magazines.
Next to these he replicated the BFG TKN! pocket but hard-stitched it onto the rig and added an elastic band at the bottom as well as the one on the top from the BFG pouch. I am using the original BFG insert in this pouch. On the opposite side of that pouch he added a single pouch modeled after his Modular Double Pistol Magazine Pouch which has a flap and can hold a pistol magazine, a Surefire light, or a Leatherman tool. We then made the new rig 1.5" wider on each side than the Mini-MAV so that a single column of PALS could be added on each side to add single pistol or other pouches as needed later. We included the two rows of PALS on the shoulder straps so that I could attach a light or tourniquet in these locations. The shoulder straps are removable and the buckles are spaced exactly right to mate up with the buckles on the front of the Mayflower armor carrier. Retail cost on the rig, with all of the pouches, was $100. US Grunt Gear is already making two versions of the rig, an all MOLLE version for $60 and a Sub Gun load rig for $80 with pouches for 6 Colt 9mm SMG magazines.
US Grunt Gear Integrated Chest Rig
US Grunt Gear Chest Rig in use without armor - EAG 3-day Carbine Operators - Lakeland, Florida - December 2009
(photo courtesy Eric Germany)
US Grunt Gear Chest Rig attached to the front of Mayflower Research Armor Carrier
removable shoulder straps shown at sides
US Grunt Gear Chest Rig attached to the front of Mayflower Research Armor Carrier
view from top showing buckle interface
Subsequent to the initial design and after getting a chance to use the rig in an EAG Tactical 3-Day Carbine Operators course at Southern Exposure Training Facility outside of Lakeland, FL in December of 2009, I had US Grunt Gear make me an "H" harness to replace the two crossed shoulder straps. The H-harness design distributes the load a little differently such that it pulls the straps away from the neck instead of in towards the neck. When using the chest rig standalone without the armor this is a nice feature to have over the course of a full day of training.
I am very happy with this complete system. Over the next several months I will get the chance to put the chest rig and armor system to the test and see if the theory stands up to my practice. I am very happy with the products and service from Mayflower Research & Consulting, Grey Group Training, and US Grunt Gear. Now I know that with this gear and the right training I have everything I need to make holes, prevent holes, and patch holes.