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Flak Vests / Rucksacks

Flak Vests & Body Armor


The standard Army infantry vest at the beginning of the war was the M1952A from the late Korean War era. It would be the most commonly seen fragmentation vest in Army use through 1966. The vest is easily distinguished by its brown color, lack of a collar, and epaulettes on the shoulder. It features a zipper front with nylon over flap. This style of vest would remain popular with vehicles crews as the lack of a collar make it more comfortable to wear with a helmet. When looking at ways to improve the vest, the first thought, aside from more effective materials was to increase the area of protection. The new vest was very similar to the M52 in basic design: zipper front, two pockets, lace sides, etc. but it featured a collar. Hence they were labeled as Armor, Body Fragmentation Protective, With, 3/4 Collar.

The first six months of production saw a version with epaulettes on the shoulder. This is the first vest with the "823" specification on the label. The next variation in the Army Flak Jacket came when they decided to simplify production of the vests and dropped the epaulettes on the shoulder. The resulting vest is the iconic Army flak vest of the Vietnam War. At this point, no other changes were made and the spec tag still retained the 823 designation. The vest would continue production in this manner through 1968. There were some minor issues with the design, chief among them a tendency for the armor to bunch up inside the vest. As a result, in late 1968, an improvement was designed into the internal ballistic filler in an effort to prevent bunching.

The new model was cosmetically identical, but featured a different contract specification number to reflect the change in material. These changes would take place in the production year of 1969 ending the 823 contract series production and replacing them with the 122 series as the code for the new anti-bunching inserts.At this point, it was still referred to as Armor, Body Fragmentation Protective, with 3/4 Collar Fragmentation and featured the zipper front. The final changes to the 3/4 Collar Flak were ordered in late 1969 for production to start in 1970. The vest would retain the 122 designation and the new anti-bunching inserts, but they would change the zipper front closure to a velcro closure. The thought process was that zippers could be damaged in combat by shrapnel or fragments making the vest difficult to remove from a wounded solder. This was the first cosmetic change since the epaullettes were removed at the end of 1966. These vests began production in 1970 and had a nomenclature change as well. At this point, the vest was renamed Armor Body Fragmentation Protective Vest with 3/4 Collar, M-69.

While production and design improvements were being made on the 3/4 Collar vests, there was still a push to apply the technology from the ceramic plates of the Aircrew Body Armor (chicken plate) for infantry use. The concept was a bullet proof vest for infantry use was intriguing and the need for it became more apparent as casualties grew in Vietnam. The result of Natick's efforts was Variable Body Armor. The armor set consisted of a nylon felted vest with a front and rear ceramic plates. It was named Viarbale Armor as the carrier could be worn alone for protection from fragments, the plates could be worn alone utilizing velcro straps, or the plates could be worn in conjunction with the vest carrier to provide maximum protection. The system did provide protection from .30 cal AP rounds, but due to its weight at 20 pounds and the bulk of the system it was never popular in the tropical heat and humidity of Vietnam. Variable armor could be worn with the carrier as shown or the plates could be worn together without the carrier. Due to the weight, 20 pounds, the system was very unpopular with Infantry and was never widely used. The final photo is the standard Aircrew Body Armor (chicken plate) issued to pilots, crew chiefs, and door gunners. It is often found without the back plate as pilots sat in armored seats and the crew chiefs / gunners had engine / transmission parts behind them. Click image to view gallery or larger image.


USMC Vests

From left to right: USMC M-55 Fragmentation Vest, 1st variant. This style came out in 1955 and features hard, overlapped Doron plates inside a cotton shell. The vest has a zipper front and no pockets. This version was made into 1967 when the second version was introduced with the addition of nylon pockets (2nd photo). Another version of the vests is shown in the 3rd photo. This vest has a rope ridge on both shoulders and the shell is made of nylon vs. cotton. The final photo is of the Marines answer to the Army Variable Armor system. This was an experimental vest manufactured in 1971. It used ceramic plates in a nylon ERDL carrier and featured a built in pack on the back of the vest carrier.

Fore information on Vietnam era Flak Jackets including early USMC variants, see the articles section on the "What's New" page.




There seems to be some confusion amongst reenactors and new collectors as to the types of rucksacks issued during the Vietnam War. I am often asked the differences between an early Alice pack and the lightweight ruck. So here are some pointers and features to look for.


Lightweight Rucksack

The lightweight rucksack is the primary Ruck used in the Vietnam War and is the "standard" for an infantryman. There are several minor variants of the Lightweight Ruck, but all have consistent main features. The rucksacks consists of a tubular aluminum frame and detachable nylon bag. The frame has multiple straps (shoulder straps, upper horizontal strap, mid horizontal strap (introduced in 1968), lower back support strap, cargo straps and buckles, and a waist strap. The straps attach directly to the frame and not to the bag. The bag is made of nylon and has three external pockets and one main interior pocket. The bag could be attached in either the upper or lower location on the frame.



The first experimental version was designed in 1962 with limited production Introduced in 1963. These early rucks are often referred to as P-62 by collectors. It will feature a welded frame. The easiest way to tell one of these is you come across it is that they have a white sewn in tag for the nomenclature vs. being printed on the bag itself.



The rucksack was standardized and ordered into production with a slight modification to the shape of the welded frame and the nomenclature was stamped on the bag itself. This is often referred to as a P-64 or "welded frame" rucksack. Other small differences are on the bag itself. The drawstring closure for the main compartment will be clear vs. the later brown bell shaped closure. The waist belt issued with the earliest welded frame rucksacks is unique in that it essentially looks like a pistol belt with a Davis buckle.



In 1965, the production of the rucksack frame and lower back supporting strap were simplified. The frame was changed to a riveted design vs welded. This eased the manufacturing process and reduced the weight slightly. The lower strap was changed to a simple 2" wide web with buckle and the bell shaped closure on the main compartment is now brown vs. clear. The waist strap is a simple 1" nylon webbing with D ring and snap hook. Collectors will often refer to these as P-65 rucksacks for clarification. They are the beginning of the "standard" rucksacks.



The changes between the earlier riveted rucksacks and the P-68 are very minor. The one key difference from a collector standpoint is on the frame itself. The frame is riveted like the P-65, but they added a second horizontal strap to the frame that runs below the top horizontal strap.


Tropical Rucksack

The Tropical Rucksack was introduced in 1968 as part of the M-67 equipment. The 1968 dated example that I have has the early plastic snaps on the pockets like all first issue 1967 gear. It was first issued to "priority" units including Special Forces, Rangers, and Divisional Recon. It would be more common to see the Lightweight Ruck in a line unit in 1968 than the Tropical Rucksack. This Ruck is easily identified as it has an integrated frame in the shape of an "X" that can be seen looking at the side of the Ruck that goes against your back. This pack was bigger than the lightweight rucksack, but incorporated the same basic ideas of a large compartment with three external pockets.


Not An ALICE Pack

I am often asked the differences between an early Alice pack and a Vietnam era rucksack. People often confuse both the Lightweight Rucksack (because it has a frame) and the Tropical Rucksack (because the outside is similar). If you are not confident, here are some pointers on features to look for.


Lightweight vs. ALICE.

Unlike the Alice Pack, all of the cross bars on the Lightweight Ruck frame are rounded. It has no flat structural parts (aside from one small side tab). The pack also incorporated multiple attachment points on the exterior for machetes, canteens, etc. Key features to look for that are different from an Alice Pack are: 1) the method of attachment. A LW Ruck uses two nylon straps that go around the frame and secure to buckles on the pack body. The Alice Pack has a built in "pocket" that is padded and sits on top of the frame. 2) External Pockets. The LW Ruck has pocket flaps and pull tab closures much like an Alice Pack. However, the LW Ruck has the base of the closure tabs sewn to the pocket and the Alice pack has snap closures on the bottom of the pocket.


Tropical vs. ALICE.

Unlike the ALICE Pack, the Tropical Rucksack has the shoulder straps sewn to the rucksack body. There will also be an X shaped metal frame built into the rucksack. On the pocket side, while the large exterior pockets look similar, the Tropical Rucksack has plastic snaps on the pocket.