Top Tactical Gear Picks for Deployment: A U.S. Military Special Operations Forces (SOF) Perspective

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By Jeff Gurwitch

All photo and video content contained in this article was shot by Jeff Gurwitch, and is copyrighted. Jeff Gurwitch and (DR) own the copyright on all photo and video content. All DR photos and videos were shot with a Sony Cyber-shot RX100 (DSC-RX100/B) Digital Camera with 20.2 MP (20.2-megapixel) still camera and 1080p HD video camera capability.

The following article is property of (DR) and Jeff Gurwitch, and is copyrighted material. If you are reading this article on another website other than, please email us the website address/URL (where the unauthorized DR article reprint is located) at defrev (at) gmail (dot) com. Thank you.

September 5, 2014

When it comes to tactical gear, what you choose to wear and use in terms of body armor, pouches and kit usually changes constantly, depending on your mission, terrain and climate. Just because your kit and set-up worked for one trip doesn’t mean it’ll work all missions. Once you get on the ground and start operating, you may find yourself changing out what you use and wear at the start of your next deployment, in order to match your mission and surroundings.

There are certain items I’ve found I can’t live without, and others, like body armor carriers (tactical armor plate carriers), that I change out depending on what I’m doing. Some items I’ve had forever, and some are relatively new. I’ve found some of these new items to be outstanding, and have made them permanent additions to my combat loadout.

Body Armor to Plate Carriers: A Quick History

In terms of body armor, what I wore in 2003 during the invasion of Iraq is very different from what I wear now. The first widespread vest issued; The Interceptor (regular for Army and the SPEAR/ BALCS for SOF) were based more on the needs of a SWAT team entry member than a Soldier. A SWAT member typically only has to travel a short distance to the target, usually from vehicle to the breach point (less 50 meters) and wear their kit for a time measured in hours.

For Iraq this was o.k. The way we executed operations were very much in line with SWAT operations with the generally flat the terrain and many improved roads. Most operations took place in urban environments. Typically, one had to walk maybe 1,000 meters to the target from the infill platform and back. At the time, my job focused around CQB (Close Quarters Battle), for which the SPEAR vest, and later Eagle CIRAS Maritime, were appropriate. While these vest were heavy and bulky, being full vests to include side armor, they both offered the maximum in ballistic protection.

On the left SPEAR vest Iraq 2004, on the right EAGLE Maritime CIRAS 2005. Both offered great coverage and are great if you are only doing CQB. The issue with both; too heavy and bulky for long dismounted movements especially over rough terrain. In the picture on the left, yes that’s an original 1945 Remington Rand I’m showing off, rebuilt and reissued into service. (Also note the Safariland 6004 SLS drop leg holster I have for it).

The issue with a full vest: Unlike SWAT operators, most Soldiers operating in Afghanistan can usually measure how long they have to wear their gear in days, and are expected to be able to travel distances in miles at a time, rather than meters. The full-coverage SPEAR-cut vests were fine for Iraq, but in Afghanistan with its rough terrain and extreme elevations, full vests have proved way too cumbersome and heavy. Seeing the need for lighter gear, the U.S. military has stepped up, and for some time now, we’re also issued Eagle MBAV plate carriers.

I’ve used an Eagle MBAV on two trips, and thought up until my most recent trip that it was a perfectly acceptable plate carrier. I say “recently” because in the area I was assigned, the terrain was very unforgiving, and even the Eagle MBAV was too heavy and bulky. I’m actually behind the power curve compared to most of my peers. A lot of fellow Soldiers have learned a long time ago the need for a more minimalist style plate carrier, with a maxim emphasis on mobility and light weight.

EAGLE MBAV 2012, 1st deployment using one.

Plate Carriers Top Picks

The most popular plate carrier I see in use is the Crye Precision Jumpable Plate Carrier (JPC). The JPC offers the protection needed (being able to hold issued Level-IV plates), and has just enough MOLLE webbing to fit the pouches and gear you need. The JPC is super-lightweight and has the tightest cut, thus offering maximum freedom of movement. Wanting to replace my Eagle MBAV, I wanted something with the same minimalist design as the Crye JPC or a Tactical Assault Gear (TAG) Banshee Rifle Plate Carrier or Banshee (QD) Quick Deployment Rifle Plate Carrier.

Crye JPC, because it is a very streamlined and minimalistic in design, it is a very popular choice among Shooters looking for a lightweight plate carrier.

In my search for a better plate carrier, I ending up calling in a favor to a friend and former SF Green Beret, Michael Lose, owner of ATS Tactical Gear. As it turns out, he’s been working on a plate carrier with the same minimalist design I’ve been looking for. He sent me his ATS Aegis Plate Carrier to try out, and I have to say that I’m pretty pleased with it. At first glance, it’s cut is very similar to a Banshee, which is exactly the style I was looking for. The plate carrier is sized based on the size of your hard plates. For me, that’s a medium. My carrier came with a cummerbund, which Velcro’s in the front and back and can be adjusted to fit by letting it out in the back of the carrier.

ATS Aegis plate carrier front and back, semi stripped of pouches.

The cummerbund contains side plate pockets. If hard side plates are worn, they sit securely via elastic bands in the cummerbund. I use the side pockets to hold both soft armor panels and medical gear like chest seals. What makes the side pockets a perfect fit for chest seals is that the chest seals can be stored flat in the pocket. Being similar in size to a side plate, chest seals can fit in without having to fold or roll them up. Chest seals can deform over time if folded or rolled up for long periods. Permanent creases set in from being folded, and this can lead them to being less effective in making a seal when needed.

Aegis plate carrier from the side: The inside of the carrier I found to be well padded (not too much, just enough). Also note cummerbund, inside both small soft side plates and chest seals. The shoulder pads open at the top, facilitating hydration tubes and wires for communications gear.

The inside of the carrier is well-padded, and on the front of the carrier there are clips to clip in a chest rig. I didn’t need the clips. No problem. They can be un-looped from the MOLLE webbing. The Aegis’ shoulder pads are velcroed in on the inside, so you can take them off if you don’t like them. Since the tops Velcro open, you can run hydration tubes or communications cables through them. I find it a nice touch that the shoulder pads are included, unlike some other plate carriers out there which require you to purchase shoulder pads separately.

Overall, I’m very pleased with the ATS Aegis plate carrier. It’s the exact minimalist design I was looking for, holds all the gear I need, and is very comfortable to wear. My only regret is not getting it sooner in the deployment!

Aegis plate carrier, front and back all, rigged up. Note correct wearing of plate carrier (high in front to cover vitals). The Aegis has just enough MOLLE to carry everything I need. Over the years, even though I have changed body armor numerous times, the basic load I like to carry has for the most part remained the same. My basic load consists of 6 rifle mags, 1-2 pistol mags, 1 grenade, radio, IFAK, hydration reservoir and a GP pouch for extra items like GPS, NODS etc.


One product I’ve been wanting to cover in DR for some time now are Safariland Holsters. For the longest time, the Safariland 6004 Self Locking System (SLS) Tactical Holster drop leg holster has been the industry standard. The 6004 was the 1st drop-leg I was issued when first getting into SF back in 1998, and I used it exclusively as my duty holster until last year (2013). Today, Safariland is still on top with their Automatic Locking System (ALS) holster(s) used in conjunction with their Quick Locking System (QLS). Both the ALS and QLS have been out for a number of years now, and are the top choice for both the Military and Law Enforcement for serious work.

I think the ALS has bested the SLS design, as I’ve found the ALS to be a tad bit faster on the draw. There’s no need to rotate the hood all the way forward. You just need to pull back on the ALS lever with your thumb as you get a full grip on the pistol. And, putting the pistol away securely is a breeze. You just re-holster, and the pistol automatically locks into place.

Two Operators conducting pre-deployment training. Both are using Safariland ALS holsters attached via QLS mounts to drop leg platforms. On the left Berretta M9, the shooter on the right Glock 19. Also note Source Kangaroo 1l hydration pouch on the shooter on the right.

This was a big issue with the SLS design. Under pressure or stress, you see a lot of shooters forget to rotate the hood back after holstering, possibly leading to losing your pistol in dynamic movement. It’s because of these same attributes (being fast on the draw and secure when you need it) that the Safariland ALS is also very popular in the completion world, especially 3-Gun.

The Safariland QLS has become popular because it allows you multiple options in mounting the same holster to other rigs and platforms or using the same belt rig and using different pistols without having to switch whole holsters. Down range, how you see it being used the most (myself included) is a Safariland drop leg or Universal Belt Loop with their QLS mounted to a duty or war belt. You may also see Soldiers using a second Universal belt Loop or paddle equipped with the QLS. While on mission, the Operator wears his holster on his war belt. Then, after the mission, while hanging out on the FOB or base, he can unclip his holster from his duty belt to belt clip and can wear it stand-alone on a normal pants belt for personal protection.
I find the QLS especially handy because my work gun is different from my personal pistols. I can switch out holsters very easily between my two war belts (I have one set up for work, the other, 3-Gun) to match whatever pistol I’m using, without having to switch belt rigs.

My current duty rig; Safariland SLS holster for a M9 attached to drop leg via QLS with a separate Universal Belt Loop. When I don’t want to wear a whole battle belt to carry a pistol I can now just pop it off via QLS and attach to UBL. Note that’s the same ATS War Belt reviewed here on DR back in June 2011. This is my third trip using it and its holding up just fine.

Safariland holsters are also my preferred holster for competition like 3gun. Using the QLS I can run one rig and change out holsters as needed. Pictured; left M&P9L in ALS holster, center SLS for M&P9 Standard and right SLS/light capable holster for M&P9 Standard w/Surefire X300 pistol light.


I’ve run a hydration pack on my kit since my very first combat deployment, usually a Camelback 2L reservoir in a Diamondback carrier. Now, following the minimalist theme, smaller 1-liter bladders have become popular. In an effort to save weight and space on kit, many are now downsizing to carrying smaller bladders–just enough water to support yourself if needed for short excursions away from vehicles or your support gear (day packs/rucksacks). A very popular choice is from the Israeli company Source. I have a couple of their full size bladders, and just recently purchased their Kangaroo 1L Collapsible Canteen reservoir to fit my ATS plate carrier.

When it came to reservoirs, I didn’t really put too much thought into what brand of hydration bladder I carried, as long as it didn’t leak. While I do like Source’s fold-open top design for easy refill of their reservoirs, it wasn’t until a coworker turned me onto an accessory offered by Source, their Universal Tube Adapter (UTA), that I became convinced that Source products are the way to go.

Source Kangaroo 1L bladder

The beauty of the UTA is that now it’s a simple matter of just detaching the sipping valve from the Source hydration tube and attaching the UTA when you need to refill your bladder. This is obviously much easier than having to take your kit off or have you buddy top off your reservoir. The UTA allows you to hook it up directly to a faucet or pour bottles of water right back into the bladder. The UTA is a simple accessory that makes staying hydrated easier than ever.

Source UTA connects to reservoir via quick disconnect adaptor that comes standard on all Source military products. Once UTA is connected to drinking tube you can refill your bladder via bottles of water as pictured or hook it up directly to a faucet. Because of this Source in now my preferred hydration gear.

Side Note: Hydration Cover

One item that I’ve found to be indispensable, and that has been with me since 2004, is a Nalgene insulated 2L reservoir cover. Working in the Middle East where summers get past 110 degrees, I’ve found the Nalgene insulated cover to be well worth the $15.00 I think I spent on it. While it doesn’t stave off the extreme heat here forever, it certainly extends the time your water stays cold while on mission. Common practice here is to just put some frozen bottles of water in your kit, and, as they melt (which they will), you have cold water to drink.

Using the insulated cover, I can put ice-cold water in my bladder and have it stay cold significantly longer than possible when not using one. Unfortunately, Nalgene has discontinued their insulated cover and I have yet to find a company that sells something similar. My plan now is to bring it into a sew shop and have it trimmed down to 1-liter size to fit around my Source Kangaroo bladder.

Nalgene insulated cover for a 2L bladder, too bad it is discontinued. This on my list as of gear to never leave home without.


One item that I wish I had, but didn’t bring, is a smaller day pack. For this deployment I brought a Camelback Motherlode. While it’s an excellent three day pack and makes a great bug-out bag if you want to be able to pack lots of stuff, it’s way too much pack for what I needed. Most missions I conducted lasted around 24 hours or less in duration. For that, you only need to be able to carry an extra hydration bladder, some extra ammo and IFAK items, spare batteries, and a MRE or two. If we did end up operating longer, there are resupply systems in place to get you the stuff you need. So, for mission sustainment, my recommendation is that 24hrs worth is all you really need.

Even though it’s a great 3-day pack, I found the Motherlode to be way too big and bulky, and it sits horribly on top of body armor. Plus, I suffered from what a lot of people do when they get a large pack; you end up jamming too much extra stuff in it just because you have the space. I also own the smaller Camelback Mil Tac HAWG, which I think might have worked well but I did not bring (which I totally regret).

The best and most popular packs I see being used are from TAG (Tactical Assault Gear) and Ares Armor. The TAG Combat Sustainment Pack and the Ares Armor Combat XII Pack are both very similar in design. Their main compartments are just big enough to accommodate a hydration bladder, and you can stuff in a poncho liner or light jacket. Additionally, they come with separate outer pockets, which is great for extra medical gear, chow, batteries etc. The best feature I think offered by both packs; built into the top of each are triple M4 mag pouches, giving you quick and easy access to ammunition.

TAG’s Combat Sustainment Pack; One main pocket for a hydration bladder, three out pockets perfect for items like batters, combat dressing and extra chow. On top three separate pockets for M4 magazines and a small pouch perfect for an extra pistol mag or a Multi-tool.

The Ares Armor Combat XII Pack attached directly to the back of a Crye JPC. Like the Combat Sustainment Pack, it too has a main pocket perfect for a hydration bladder, outer pockets for quick access extra gear and rifle magazine pouches on top.

I think the TAG Combat Sustainment Pack and Ares Armor Combat XII Pack are both excellent choices for a short duration sustainment pack. I frankly don’t think you can go wrong with either one. Each one is just the right size to hold enough gear to support a 24hr op, and not too bulky. Both can also be worn either with straps like a backpack or directly mounted to your plate carrier via MOLLE straps.

Size comparison; TAG Combat Sustainment Pack vs. the Camelback Motherlode. As you can see the Motherlode is quite large being a true 3 day pack. Plus it did not help much that I added extra pouches with the intent of having quick access to; left Nalgene water bottle, center pouch complete extra IFAK and right GP pouch for extra batteries and a cleaning kit. Plus you can barely see it in the photo but I also have an extra M4 mag on both sides of the pack above the water bottle and GP pouch.

The Wrap Up

There is a common saying within the military, “Carrying 100 lbs of lightweight gear does no good because it’s still 100 lbs of gear.” When prepping for a deployment, it’s all about balancing protection vs. mobility and mission sustainment vs. weight. I’m in favor of using any tactical gear that saves weight, is adaptable, or prolongs a capability. Each one of the items covered in this article falls into one of those categories. From the minimalist ATS Aegis plate carrier, the super adaptable Safariland QLS system, to mission sustaining Source hydration products, Ares Armor and TAG packs. All these items get my vote for great options when choosing the right tactical gear for today’s modern warfighter.

About the Author (Jeff Gurwitch):
– Currently serving with U.S. Army Special Forces
– Competitive shooter: USPSA, IDPA, and 3-Gun.

Company Contact Info:

Ares Armor
206 N Freeman St
Oceanside, California 92054
Phone: 760-650-2737 (ARES)

ATS Tactical Gear – Headquarters
709 South Main Street
Hopkinsville, Ky. 42240
Phone: (270)439-0302
Fax: (253)295-7036

ATS Tactical Gear – Show Room
15858 Fort Campbell Blvd.
Oak Grove, Ky. 42262
Phone: (270)439-5237
Fax: (253)295-7036

CamelBak Products, LLC.
2000 S. McDowell, Suite 200
Petaluma, CA 94954
Toll Free Orders: 877-404-7673
Toll Free Phone: 800-767-8725
Fax: 707-665-9231

CRYE Precision LLC (FEDEX and UPS Shipping Address)
Brooklyn Navy Yard
63 Flushing Ave.
Building 3, Suite 807
Brooklyn, NY 11205
Phone: 718.246.3838
Fax: 718.246.3833

Crye Precision LLC (USPS Shipping Address)
Brooklyn Navy Yard
63 Flushing Ave., Unit 252
Brooklyn, NY 11205

Safariland (Ontario Headquaters)
3120 E. Mission Blvd.
Ontario, CA 91761
Toll-Free Phone: 800-347-1200
Toll-Free Fax: 800-366-1669
Training: 800-347-1200
Tel: 904-741-5400
Fax: 904-741-5407
Email Contact Page:

Safariland (Jacksonville Headquarters):
13386 International Parkway
Jacksonville, FL 32218
Toll-Free Phone: 800-347-1200
Toll-Free Fax: 800-366-1669
Training: 800-347-1200
Tel: 904-741-5400
Fax: 904-741-5407
Email Contact Page:

7 Hatnufa St.
Tirat Carmel, 30250
T +972-4-8136400
F +972 4 8571459
Military Website:
Commercial Website:

Ahron McNaughton
Military/Tactical Gear International Sales Manager
Phone: +972 4 8136409
Fax: +972 4 8571459
Mobile +972 52 3190567

Nachum Bigger
International Sales Manager, Commercial
Phone: +972 4 813 6400 Ext. 123
Fax: +972 4 857 1459
Mobile: +952 52 620 6881

Tactical Assault Gear (TAG)
4500 Emperor Blvd. Durham, NC 27703
Toll Free: 1-888-890-1199
International: 1-919-627-9595
Fax: 919-941-5195
General and Technical Inquiries:
Order Inquiries:

© Copyright 2014 and Jeff Gurwitch. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without receiving permission and providing proper credit and appropriate links.

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About David Crane

David Crane started publishing online in 2001. Since that time, governments, military organizations, Special Operators (i.e. professional trigger pullers), agencies, and civilian tactical shooters the world over have come to depend on Defense Review as the authoritative source of news and information on "the latest and greatest" in the field of military defense and tactical technology and hardware, including tactical firearms, ammunition, equipment, gear, and training.

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