Vietnam War Individual Equipment


Will the Vietnam war ever stop being fascinating? Not to me it won’t. One of the many things  from that period that is fascinating to me is what the fellows carried and used while in the war. Not just the Special Forces,  but the regular  guy.  The equipment started out much like the gear of the past generations. Made of cotton and canvas and metal.  Then , towards then end, we started to see the first widespread use of the nylon and plastic that would be the materials of the ALICE system used all through the 1980s and most of the 90s.    Today we will take a look at two set ups used in the war and a few other things.

First we have  up a near mint set of the webgear that would have been carried by an infantryman in the US Army.  It is the M-1956 Load-Carrying Equipment (LCE), also known as the Individual Load-Carrying Equipment (ILCE).  This is the system that replaced the the combat pack of WW2 and Korea and the multitude of cartridge belts used to support the older US family of weapons.  The M56 gear was developed and came out during the time the military was  going to the M14 and then on to the M16.  Because it was a time when a lot of the older legacy weapons  were still being used, the equipment was very general purpose. Especially the M56 ammo pouches.

The M56 ammo pouch  would carry a 6-pocket M1 cotton bandoleer of M1 Garand enbloc clips (8-rounds each; total of 48 rounds), 8 x M1 Garand enbloc clips (8 rounds each; total of 64 rounds), 2 x BAR magazines (20-rounds), 4 x M1 or M2 carbine magazines (30-round), 3 x 40mm M79 grenades, or 2 x M26 hand grenades plus 2 x hand grenades fastened on the sides of the case.   Then with the newer rifles it  would hold 2x M14 magazines and 3x M16 magazines.  Or so it is said it will hold only 3  mags for the M16 but it will hold 4x M16 magazines though tightly.

The belt is  is a slightly different design than the WW2 era belt but in function it is nearly identical. With the adoption of the M56 pouches, this combo did away with  the the M-1936 individual equipment belt, the M-1923 cartridge belt for the Garand , and the M-1937 cartridge belt for the  BAR.   The M56, like the older belt, also has the holes for using equipment  that attaches via the 1910 wire hangers.

The new H harness suspenders are cotton canvas with two webstraps for hanging various items from like the flashlight shown above and the  general purpose first Aid/Compass pouch on the other. The H -harness is very wide and flat and comfortable.    Out of all the older military webbing I have tried over the decades, the M56 H suspenders is the most comfortable.

The M56 canteen covers are heavy canvas with heavy wool lining. They aren’t that different  from the older covers  but use the “slide keepers of all M56 gear.  The slide keeper is now known as “ALICE clips”.   Covers held one 2 quart canteen and cup. Though they were used by special operations forces to hold rifle magazines and various grenades  in other units like MACVSOG. Those units needed to carry considerably more ammo and munitions that the average infantryman and the  M56 ammo pouches were not enough.   The canteen covers could be worn on the belt or on the field pack ( AKA butt pack) by attaching it to wide webbing straps on each side of it.  Or, they could be attached to webbing straps on the various rucksacks used in the war.  The cover was meant to be soaked in water  to help cool the water in the canteen.  This soaking and drying  faded the color and it is common to see surplus covers nearly  khaki in color from fading.

The field pack, also known as the butt pack, is the samll backpack looking bag at the center rear This pack is the M1961 pack and is and upgrade from the original M56 pack The M61 pack has a rubberized collar inside to protect the contents as well as eyelets along the outside flap  to attach more equipment.    The field pack was meant to carry the items the soldiers needed,  one day’s ration, toilet paper, socks and such.    It didn’t take long to find out that the “butt pack  ” did not hold enough.

In addition to the M56 gear  you can see the M16 bayonet with scabbard and light weight rip stop poncho attached to the bottom of the M61 field pack.  A M56 entrenching tool cover was also issued.  The shovel cover held the folding shovel and had  two grommets and strap for attaching the rifle bayonet to it to make room on the belt.   Also, a convoluted sytem of webbing straps  exists with the purpose of carrying the bed roll. I have a set but did not picture it  since putting it together is a nightmare.

Next up is  a belt worn in the early days of the war in some units  whose automatic rifleman used the M14. It   was issued to indig forces who  used the older US family of weapons from Korea nad WW2 and it was a popular choice by US Army Special forces.

Of course we are talking about the M-1937 cartridge belt for the BAR.  This one is an unissued example made during the Korean war era. This is why it is a dark shade of green instead of the OD3 mostly used during WW2.      The  BAR was popular because it would hold would hold more M16 magazines  than the M56 pouches that was standard issue.  The belt also was lined on the bottom of the magazine pouches with holes for the older 1910 wire hangers and the  webbing on the back had room for M56 canteen covers.  The top holes on the belt would also fit the M56 H-harness.

Each  cell of the BAR belt would  fit x M16 20 round magazines.  I have read many times that it is possible to get 5 mags in each pouch but I have never been able to get 5 in all of them.  It does require stretching to get it to hold  5 magazines.  It would also hold a variety of other items if desired.    One of the practices of SOG recon teams was to hang a older WW2 type canteen covers off of the lower grommets  for additional canteens or to use as munitions pouches. Using this they could carry grenades or the larger 30 round M16 magazines.   In various books about SOG, it  is noted that the canteen cover was hung on the left side for reload magazines and the right side for hand grenades.

The 1910 attachment holes also allowed for attaching more pouches like extra first aid kits from WW2, the jungle survival kit, handgun holsters or  pouches for radio antenna.  You can see int he image below the way a Special Forces SOG recon man has set up his BAR belt.   Often later int he war the SOG  troopers replaced  the H harnes and M56 web belt with the STABO  harness. The BAR belt was added  to the STABO rig.  The STABO  harness allowed a man to snap into a rope from a chopper quickly to be lifted away.

Above you can see how the older 1910 wire hangers allowed the user to  attach the older equipment like this WW2  era type first aid pouch and the  jungle first aid kit.

I have also recreated the common practice of tapping water purification tablets to the plastic USGI canteens. The M56 covers did not have the side pouch for the tablets.   Perhaps extra tablets would have been taped to the canteens anyway so as to always  have extra in a convenient spot. The covers have been painted over  for camo  sake. Which was another common thing seen done by the SOG recon units, along with uniforms and guns.   Being the BAR belt is mint I demurred from  painting it.

Another iconic piece of equipment common;y seen during the war was the now rare lightweight rucksack. The pack was originally designed for arctic use to replace the mountain rucksack. It was the first all nylon piece of equipment to be adopted by the US Army

The pack will hold more items that you can carry and most equipment the soldier did not need to immediately fight with was store on or in the rucksack. Things like  LAWS rockets,  rations, shovel, machetes, extra canteens and clothing could be places inside its main compartment of the three smaller ones outside or hung from the webbing and cargo straps on the frame.   The pack could be worn  low on the frame, in the middle or high up depending.

Of all the things my Dad spoke about using during the war, the light weight ruck, the M16 and the poncho liner was like the holy trinity to him.  For years I hear about how comfortable the curving tubular pack frame was.  Finally after 30 years I was able to track down two of these packs for him and bought both of them. He was right, the pack frame is very comfortable  when wearing it. Below you can see how the frame curved for the body.

The suspension system of straps on the frame also kept the pack off of the back and allowed air to move through to help  stop over heating. The original waist belt band is missing on this example and some one had replaced it with the ALICE pack style kidney pad at some point post war.  IF you look at the shoulder straps you can see the quick release feature. The vertical straps are cargo straps for holding  items added above the pack.

From the side you can see the webbing straps to hold addition canteens.  Both the left and right side have webbing straps for the older 1910 wire attachment or the  M56 covers with  ALICE clips.  A web strap with buckle goes around the canteen to secure it and to keep it from flopping around.   This pack was replaces later in the war with the tropical rucksack  that is the  basis for the later ALICE pack.

A pack that did serve as inspiration for the tropical  ruck was the ARVN ruck or also known as the indigenous ruck sack.    The pack was made in the US for ARV troops. It became popular with US troops who could get it  as it was a better option than the M1961 butt pack. This pack is the one seen in the movie Platoon.

The ARVN ruck used the same  X frame that was later used int he US tropical ruck .   The ARVN rucksack is a handy pack about the size of modern  assault packs.

The ARVN ruck is hard to find now a days as it was made and issued only for the military of the Republic of South Vietnam.    It was never issued to US forces for US military use.   It  was a handy little pack though and you can still see  the influence it had in later years on other packs.




  1. I got my first set of M-56 gear when I was four from my soon to be stepdad and used it for years “playing Army”. About twenty years ago a local surplus store got a huge lot of that stuff and me and a buddy spent an afternoon picking through a pile and setting up a half dozen sets, minus the buttpacks, for guys who wanted some retro goodness. Most of the pile was nasty but we were able to do pretty well hand picking.

    As a teenager the senior advisor for my Explorer post found a deal on ARVN rucks and everyone got one for I want to say twelve bucks or so. For a day or overnight pack they were pretty good and the only other relatively cheap packs out there were made by Coleman or somebody and were more than $12. Really wish I had kept it as they are hen’s teeth now but I passed it on to another explorer when I went to basic.

    By the time I went in the army ALICE was the standard but I ran a ‘56 pattern buttpack because the nylon ones were shit and failed constantly.

    Good article, as usual. I think I had everything mentioned in my collection at one time or another over the years.

  2. Always wanted a lightweight ruck or jungle ruck but man are they expensive now. I see the waistbelts pretty frequently on ebay if you want to replace it with a period one.

    Ps. Im surprised you didn’t have the marine M61 set up in here.

    • I guess I have never really had a desire for the USMC M61 stuff. I don’t really know why. AS you know I am a bit of a nut about Vietnam USMC sniping rifles and such but the regular gear not so much. I guess maybe because it is not as instantly iconic as the M56 gear The Marines stuff was still very reminiscent of Korea/WW2 grear to me I guess. I have a Korean war era USMC rifleman set up though, Maybe that will be for another day. I’m not even sure if many people will even find this post interesting. how about you? enjoy it ? or just something to do when sitting on the toilet when nothing else new was on?

      • Well I’ve been a collector for 14 years now so technically nothing new but i still thoroughly enjoy it and eagerly await more. I can did out my rig and send a pic. I’ve downsized the collection over the years sadly but still have the ket parts. A good friend of mine who introduced this to me was a vietnam marine hence my initial focus on marine gear in the beginning. We actually used to do big displays for the local city veterans days and veterans reunions before real life got in the way. Haha

  3. Great post Shawn. Vietnam web gear has always been interesting to me too.

    As an aside, I wore a H Harness any time I could get away with it during Drill before getting a MOLLE vest pre deployment.

  4. Good post! The evolution of load carriage has always interested me.

    I would love for someone to make a Oder used version of the lightweight ruck and frame out of 500d. Some come close (Karrimor SF), but don’t have that…flair.

    I’ve been experimenting with modern field/butt packs. They went away as we shifted to vehicle based ops, but I’m sensing a comeback as we spend more time on traditional dismounted light infantry stuff.

    • I feel you. I would love a modern ARVN pack myself. They’re so comfortable but at 50 years old Im not about to put them through the ringer.

      • BlackHAwk used to make a small fieldpack that really was like a modern ARVN ruck. But that was back when they still made pretty good stuff. My friend has one and its sitting in my storage shed right now. Maybe I will get it out and take some pics of it. It may be a collectors item all its own now a days. It was made during those years when MOLLE and ALICE was still used in about equal measure. I would like to do more modern gear reviews but I can never figure out how to approach it

        • Yeah that’s a tough nut with huge market of it. I pretty much stopped the collection at the beginning of the 21st century becasue it was just too broad.

      • The buttpack is something I want to spend more time with. Was planning a write up comparing the ones I’ve got, but I’d be curious about your opinion. It seems rather divisive out there, with some of the “old school” that love them, and a lot of “new school” that say to just use a small assault pack.

        • I really like butt packs. Sure its not as easy to get into as a 3 day assault pack without taking of the belt and harness etc. but I wouldnt put the kinda things in it that I would need RIGHT NOW. Maybe the best way to use one is the MOLLE II systems buttback one that can hook to belt MOLLE. etc but also has that strap and buckle where you can wear it around your hips by itself independent of the rest of the belt etc and you can move it around to the front. I guess I am not a real hardliner on the issue. I love buttpack and the assault pack both. What is your thinking on it?

          • Up to now, I’ve basically run with a slick back. I didn’t need to carry much, since it was mostly going to be for training classes and short duration stuff. A pack is handy enough to grab, throw on, or ditch as needed.

            But if you don’t really need the flexibility of being able to ride around in a vehicle, or you know you’re going to be on foot for a while, I really like the idea of keeping essential gear on the belt. The buttpack seems like a good way to keep essentials (but, as you said, not urgent) items nearby, while distributing the weight to the hips. A light assault pack could be brought in to carry heavier/bulkier items (3L water bladder, for instance), but could be ditched without serious consequence.

            IMO, I think it definitely has utility for more old-school soldiering and lost ground mainly because there just hasn’t been much of that going on lately.

          • I bet if the Army had to go back to hot wet terrain like the jungles of Vietnamm we would see a return in the popularity of the buttback as well as the belt and web strap harness with as little covering the back and chest as possible.

          • Yeah, agree.

            When people talk about hot/humid jungles and dismounted patrols, I question how much the current iteration of the plate carrier will play into that. Same goes for close fitting frameless (or internal frame) packs that don’t allow for air circulation.

  5. The old H harness was a better design that I wish they would’ve stuck with. One of things I loved most about it was the straps weren’t open ended and were easily adjusted on the fly opposed to the newer Y harness where everything was usually rolled up and taped down. Adjusting the harness to raise or lower your load to prep for a long foot movement kept your gear from interfering with the ruck.
    I came in back in the 90s so most of the older stuff had been discarded but it still turned up every so often. It was always interesting to see the transitional gear like the early 30rd M16 mag pouches with the button flaps separating the mags that was still around. I’d love to find the early single 20rd M16 pouches my Air Police predecessors used but those were AF specific so they’re very rare.
    Even if we returned to a jungle centric, dismount patrol mindset our wider acceptance of the benefits of modern body armor might preclude a 1 for 1 return to this style gear. It’d be a hybrid between the two is my guess. Of course, seeing the Marines going through their recent tropical equipment assessments and companies like Velocity Systems with their modern take on the jungle rig (complete with butt pack) may mean I’m reading the tea leaves wrong.
    Also for gee whiz, for a modern take on the old tropical ruck see the Australian company Platatac’s Z-ALICE. I bought one some years back and love it. Very simple design and good size.

    • Agreed on reading the tea leaves.

      I actually have one of the Mayflower buttpacks, seems nice. I also ordered up some mag and canteen pouches, but an industry-wide shortage of Ranger Green material has all of that on hold (things that make you go “hmmmmmmm…”)

      I have a plan to use the Mayflower jungle gear on a BFG beltminus h-harness for a hot/humid weather rig.

      Next to that I have a First-Spear patrolling harness, which looks a lot like the USAF DFLCS and Ranger RLCS , both modern versions of the h-harness. I’m a big fan of it so far, especially when I want to load it up.

      There does seem to be a trend in the gear market to bring back some of the older ideas and update them.

    • I have read a few places,but never seen on myself. that the Canadian military used a pack and tube frame very similar to the light weight ruck like mine pictured. I read a few years ago some people bought some of the Canadian frames to use because they are nearly identical. have no idea of how true that is

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