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Load Bearing Vests

Written by Kelly Spence

Tactical Response conducted a field test of four different load bearing vests (LBV) supplied by some of the primary manufacturers of tactical equipment in the industry. These manufacturers included: 5.11 Tactical Series, BlackHawk Products Group, Eagle Industries and Tactical Tailor.

The LBVs tested were the standard vests for SWAT operators. They were vests that the majority of tactical team members would wear—not specialized or customized for specific SWAT positions. That means they were not specific to snipers or breachers who might have different LBVs than the rest of the operators. The LBVs tested were also non-ballistic, i.e., they did not contain armor; instead, they fit over armor. They included, or were capable of including, pockets or gear pouches integral to the vest, but did not include auxiliary hydration devices.

Tactical Response requested the following criteria of the LBVs supplied by the participating manufacturers: that the vests be built of a rugged material capable of being used for an extended period of time in the field; that they be capable of supporting the customary amount of gear and equipment; that they be built for law enforcement/military operations; and that the materials, fixtures and colors meet industry and government standards. There were no price limits set for samples in this field test as cost is a necessary consideration when making decisions about tactical equipment and its performance level.

The LBVs were sent for review to 12 testers across the United States. These testers were tactical and police officers who used the vests in tactical training and some operations. The field test took place over the course of eight weeks during the summer and fall of 2009. These vests were tested in a variety of environments and under a range of conditions, as the reviewers included residents of Wisconsin, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Indiana, Colorado, Ohio, Wyoming, Texas and Alabama.

The areas of evaluation that were rated by the users included: comfort when fully loaded, venting, ease of entry/exit, ease of attaching pockets or accessories, consistency of PALS/MOLLE webbing, durability of nylon and plastic fixtures under “normal” tactical law enforcement use, sizing, color, ease of integration with other tactical gear, overall construction and design, and overall function and suitability for the task.

The vests were given a score in each category on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being “Poor” and 5 being “Excellent.” Following is a description of each LBV and a summary of how it ranked among the surveying officers, including which features were most praised, what problems officers had, and the overall average score of each vest.

Tactical Tailor: Tac-Vest 1A Rifle

The Tac-Vest 1A Rifle is Tactical Tailor’s standard tactical vest, designed for the average rifleman. The primary purpose of this vest is to carry ammunition, and it has six magazine pockets on the front with this objective in mind. These pockets are capable of carrying two 30 round 5.56 mags, one G36 mag or other similar sized magazines. Two utility pockets and one smaller pocket are on the front, while the back of the vest is equipped with one hydration pocket and two additional utility pockets.

Other features include two internal map pockets, an internal hydration sleeve, a reinforced drag handle, and adjustable sides and shoulders which allow the vest to fit over clothes or body armor. The MSRP for the Tac-Vest 1A Rifle is $145.75.

In the category of comfort, most officers reported that the Tactical Tailor LBV had no padding, but alternately that it did not create pinch points or “hot spots.” It is made of thinner material, which allowed the officers to feel less like they were wearing a vest, but this also caused the LBV to feel less sturdy and stable when they were running or moving quickly.

Officer Ernest Manerchia of the City of Chester PD in West Chester, PA, questioned the ability of this vest to evenly distribute the weight of his equipment: “The vest had adequate support for the weight; however, I felt it was a bit thin to carry the amount of gear necessary in a comfortable fashion.” On the other hand, the thinner material of this LBV, along with the ample mesh material, allowed for easy ventilation. Officers reported that the Tactical Tailor vest breathed well and permitted air flow.

One of the greatest points of contention with this LBV was the fact that it was non-configurable—all the pouches come attached to the vest and there is no PALS/MOLLE webbing to allow adjustment or customization. Some found this to be more of an issue than others.

Peter Jenkins, federal agent, reported that “there are no locations where MOLLE pouches can be added by the wearer” and that “to be completely confident with this vest, the wearer must have knowledge of the pouch locations.” Yet Officer William Barnes of the Tenafly, NJ PD found that “The vest had ample room for ammo and accessories. [The attached pouches] were easy to use and adjusted to the size needed.”

The lack of PALS/MOLLE webbing and straps also affected this vest’s score in the “ease of integration with other tactical gear” category.

With regard to sizing of the Tac-Vest 1A Rifle, while some of the testers complained that it was limited, others felt that the vest could be sized to fit a variety of officers. Sergeant Mick Williams of the Bloomington, IN PD stated, “The vest is very adjustable and fit my 6-foot, 185-pound frame no problem. With adjustment in the shoulders and around the body, it would adjust easily to a variety of body types.”

Overall, the testers found this to be a good vest, but perhaps not their top choice. Jenkins said that while the vest “appeared flimsy, when worn it was able to fit to the form of the wearer,” and he felt that it allowed “the comfort of a secure load with as much venting as possible.” Manerchia, conversely, felt that the Tactical Tailor vest was more suited to the summer months and was not strong or sturdy enough.

Though some still felt averse to the fixed configuration of the pouches, others, like Williams, believed a fixed pouch vest to be “more stable and more consistent from team member to team member.” Williams also suggested that this would be a good vest for teams on a budget, as it can adjust to fit a variety of body types and has standard pouch placement.

The Tactical Tailor Tac-Vest 1A Rifle received an overall average score of 3.9 out of 5.

BlackHawk: Omega Elite Vest Cross Draw/Pistol Mag

BlackHawk’s Omega Elite Vest with Cross Draw and Pistol Mag is made of heavy-duty nylon mesh intended to allow maximum ventilation. It is adjustable for length and girth and has side release buckles for quick donning and doffing.

A variety of accessories accompany this LBV, including two internal map pouches, an interior hydration pocket, adjustable flap magazine pouches, four pistol magazine pouches and three M-16/M4 pouches which have the capacity to hold six magazines. The back of the vest has heavy-duty webbing for attaching BlackHawk’s S.T.R.I.K.E. pouches. The MSRP for the Omega Elite Vest Cross Draw/Pistol Mag is $189.99.

In the categories of comfort and venting, the BlackHawk LBV got some mixed reviews but scored well overall. Most officers reported that the vest had excellent padding and that it vented well. Some expressed a concern in regard to sizing and comfort that, while they found this vest to be easily adjustable, they felt there was too much extra material after adjustment which could potentially pose a problem by getting caught or snagging.

The Omega vest got above average marks in the “ease of entry” category. Chief Sean Marschke of the Sturtevant, WI PD was pleased with the quality YKK zippers and BlackHawk fasteners, and Investigator Brett Hollander of the Mason City, IA PD liked the emergency cut-away shoulder strap system.

BlackHawk’s LBV got near perfect scores for its PALS/MOLLE webbing. Jenkins said, “The quality of the MOLLE webbing is one of the strongest I have seen, allowing multiple pouches to be added no matter the weight.”

However, he also had a problem with its limited placement: “Although the MOLLE/S.T.R.I.K.E. webbing is constructed in a durable manner, it only exists along the back of the vest. BlackHawk has already secured pouches along the front area of the vest.” Other testers also expressed concern with the limited configurability.

While most testers had no conflicts, some had problems integrating the BlackHawk LBV with their other gear. Officer Michael Vecchiarelli of the Tenafly, NJ PD stated, “If I needed to don the vest expeditiously over my duty belt, it would undoubtedly prevent me from accessing patrol equipment with ease.” Overall, the testers seemed pleased with the Omega Elite vest’s construction and design, as well as its function and suitability for the task. Manerchia said, “This is the vest I choose to do my job as a SWAT officer. I like the fit and versatility of the vest and the way it adapts to my missions.” Hollander stated, “I could easily configure this vest to fit my needs.”

Williams, however, was not as pleased with the design, particularly with the cross draw holster, which he would have removed altogether in favor of an additional mag pouch. A couple of testers suggested adding a Velcro strip to allow users to affix “POLICE” identifiers.

The BlackHawk Omega Elite Vest with Cross Draw and Pistol Mag received an overall average score of 4.5 out of 5.

Eagle Industries: TAC-V1-MS

Eagle’s MOLLE Style Tactical Vest, the TAC-V1-MS, is the latest of its tactical vest designs. Made with 1-inch Mil. Spec. cross-webbing for attaching MOLLE pouches, this vest is designed to be modified and configured by the individual wearer. The inclusion of mesh keeps this LBV light and promotes air flow; yet it is durably constructed with #1000 denier abrasion resistant Cordura. It is also adjustable for height and girth.

Additional features include: two interior map pockets with YKK zippers, two non-slip Lammy suede shoulder pads with stock stops, and hydration capability. This vest comes with no preconfigured pouches or attachments. The MSRP for the TAC-V1-MS alone, without extra attachments, is $171.75.

However, Eagle also sent a number of accessories to the testers along with the vest. The ratings in each category for the Eagle LBV are based on the fully-loaded, multiple-accessory version. The total MSRP of the vest, including all the extra attachments that were reviewed in this field test, is $575.86.

The majority of officers found the Eagle LBV to be extremely comfortable and good at distributing the weight of their equipment. According to Luker, the “vest rides well and holds equipment in balance,” and Shaeffer added that there were “no pinch points or hot spots.” Komrs found that the Eagle vest “remained comfortable even after extended wear.”

Officers also found the venting capacity of the TAC-V1-MS to be adequate. “The mesh venting allowed heat to escape so it wouldn’t trap between my body and gear,” Gripentrog said.

The Eagle vest received perfect marks in the “ease of entry” category. Every officer said that the vest was easy to doff and don. Shaeffer noted that the “zipper and clasp provide added security and easy access.” Gripentrog thought that this LBV would be ideal if he needed to quickly get into battle or if he found himself in water and needed to get the vest off to float.

The webbing system was reported to be consistent and well-made. A number of testers mentioned that the pockets held tight to the vest, thus keeping gear secure and making accessories less likely to snag on equipment. While most said that the pouches were easy to move and reconfigure on the vest, some seemed to feel that the tightness with which the pockets held to the vest presented some slight difficulty in moving them. Yet the testers seemed pleased and impressed overall.

The nylon and plastic fixtures of the TAC-V1-MS held up well during the training exercises of the reviewing officers. Gripentrog found the nylon to be very tough and mentioned that he “liked the drag strap because it ran down both sides, allowing it to be very strong.” Zeissler observed that “Eagle gear always seems to be durable.”

Most found the sizing of this vest to be accurate and easily adjustable. Gripentrog said, “I found it very easy to size myself. I liked the adjustable strap with buckles. They allowed me to make minor increases and decreases due to added clothing or body armor.” Conversely, Luker mentioned that the LBV “could be bigger to accommodate armor or heavy clothing.”

The testers seemed to have little problem integrating the Eagle LBV with their other tactical gear, and Luker noted that “if there were a conflict with other gear, it could be moved around,” due to the configurable nature of the vest. The only concern raised in this category was with the pistol holster on the left breast. Gripentrog found that this conflicted with his rifle and rifle sling. Other than that, officers seemed to have no conflicts.

The TAC-V1-MS scored well overall, and the reviewing officers were largely pleased with its design and functionality. Luker found this vest to be very versatile: “It can be used for multiple tasks, including crisis intervention, high risk entry or rural operations.” Shaeffer said that it “allows for easy access to pockets and accessories,” and Komrs used the term “top shelf” in describing the Eagle LBV. Zeissler stated that “Velcro® for ID panels needs to be more abundant”—a concern that seemed to come up with most of the LBVs reviewed in this field test. Yet for the most part, the Eagle vest was found to be well-constructed and suitable for the tasks at hand.

The Eagle TAC-V1-MS received an overall average score of 4.6 out of 5.

5.11 Tactical: VTAC LBE Tactical Vest

The VTAC LBE Tactical Vest from 5.11 is specifically designed for special operations and tactical situations. The stiffened mesh material from which the vest is constructed provides the structure and stability necessary to hold the wearer’s equipment. Its pouch attachment system is compatible with standard MOLLE gear and accessories; it does not come with preconfigured pouches or attachments.

Other features include hidden document pockets, a grab handle located on the interior of the vest, a hydration pocket on the back interior, YKK zippers and high impact plastic clips. It is also girth and length adjustable. The MSRP for the VTAC LBE Tactical Vest alone, un-configured, is $79.99. However, 5.11 also sent the testers a number of pouches and accessories along with the vest. The total MSRP of the vest and all the extra attachments is $237.87.

Most testers found the 5.11 LBV to be extremely comfortable. Corporal Alvin Luker of the Craig, CO PD felt that the vest “could be worn for a prolonged period of time during an operation if required,” and Sergeant Scott Komrs of the Riverton, WY PD said, “The vest provides padding and support and holds the equipment in place.”

While most found venting and air circulation to be more than adequate with the mesh nylon material of the vest, Sergeant Charles Zeissler of the Madison Co. Sheriff’s Office in Huntsville, AL said that “due to its heavy-duty construction, [the vest] is very warm,” although he admitted this may have been due to the southern climate in which he tested the LBV. Most testers, however, agreed with Sergeant Craig Gripentrog of the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, Georgetown, TX, who said that “The mesh design allowed my body to breath and heat to escape.”

The officers seemed pleased overall with the ease of donning and doffing the 5.11 LBV. Gripentrog said, “I really liked the heavy-duty zipper and quick-release buckles. The side buckles also made sizing very easy and quick.”

Testers were also pleased with the quality of the PALS/MOLLE webbing system. Zeissler said that the “pockets hold tight to the MOLLE webbing,” and Gripentrog found that “The PALS/MOLLE webbing allowed me to move pouches around for easy access.”

The 5.11 vest received perfect scores for the durability of its nylon and plastic fixtures. According to Gripentrog, “The nylon and fixtures were very strong. No damage occurred as I dragged a 200-pound officer by the drag strap.”

The VTAC got mixed reviews for sizing, however. Luker felt that the vest “could be a bit bigger to accommodate soft armor under it,” and Komrs agreed that the “size seemed small.” Yet others reported that it was easy to size to the wearer.

This vest scored relatively high overall, and most of the reviewing officers were of the opinion of Detective Michael Shaeffer of the Akron, OH PD, who said that the 5.11 vest was “very functional and suitable for tactical operations.” Luker agreed, adding that it “allowed for interchangeability of equipment for mission-specific tasks.”

There was some dissent on the location of the drag strap; while Gripentrog liked the placement, Zeissler did not like that it was hidden on the back interior of the vest. However, on the whole, the 5.11 vest was high-ranking. Gripentrog said, “This LBV is great for the SWAT operator and the everyday line officer.”

The 5.11 VTAC LBE Tactical Vest received an overall average score of 4.6 out of 5.

Kelly Spence is the assistant editor for Tactical Response magazine. She can be contacted at kspence@hendonpub.com.

Published in Tactical Response, Jan/Feb 2010

Rating : 2.0


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