Way back in the day, I remember putting on a flack jacket and then a load bearing harness (LBE) to carry my six M16 magazines, field dressing, four grenades (that I never got), two canteens and my poncho. Getting it all on and off was a pain but it was better than not having it if I needed it. Today things are a bit different: armor-integrated carriers are the norm and MOLLE attachment makes customizing each vest fairly easy. Something we also learned was that sometimes it’s good to be able to ditch the vest in a hurry (falling in water is one of those times). “Cutaway” vests were born. As an upgrade to the standard MOLLE system, BlackHawk created the S.T.R.I.K.E. system and they’ve combined that with a cutaway design that makes for high levels of versatility. Let’s take a look:
Right off the bat let me say that these vests are cut generously. I’m 5’10″ tall and weigh in the neighborhood of 200 pounds (within 10 pounds of that neighborhood depending). My waist is 36″ and my chest is 46″. The large STRIKE Cutaway was too big for me. I ended up with a medium and had to pull the adjustable wrap around slabs in quite a bit. Then again, if I put hard armor plates inside the vest then I might have to let the vest out a bit.
Yes, the vest is that adjustable. You can make it longer over your shoulders and adjust it as much as eight to ten inches (or more) around your middle. Everywhere except the shoulders is covered with STRIKE (MOLLE) webbing. In the picture below you can see the front and back of mine, what’s carried and how much room is left. The one shown is in Coyote Tan but the vest itself is available in tan, black, OD and ARPAT.
If you look at the front of my vest (shown on the left above) you can see, from left to right:
- A utility pouch that contains my medical stuffs
- A CRKT Bearclaw knife (clipped and ziptied on)
- A double pistol magazine pouch
- A light / handcuff pouch
The drinking tube that comes over the left shoulder is fed from the 100 oz. hydration system contained in the pouch on the back (right side). The velcro patch panel is another attachment available from BlackHawk. Next to the hydration pouch on the back of my left shoulder is my radio pouch (blue radio shown in photo). The drag handle is clearly visible. What is important to note on both the front and back is how much STRIKE webbing is still available to mount more kit if needed. Even the hydration carrier has STRIKE webbing on the outside so you can stack pouches if necessary.
Now, look carefully at the left side of the photo again, at the upper right shoulder (above the medical pouch and Bearclaw) to see the black half-circle that is peaking out of the shoulder strap. That half-moon black circle is actually a complete loop that attaches to a stiff plastic (carbon fiber) strap that locks the front half of the carrier to the back half of the carrier over the shoulders, and the side wraps to the back half of the carrier. So, if you reached up and pulled that handle you could get the front half of the vest to completely fall away from the back of the vest. While I talk to many law enforcement special operations personnel who don’t understand the need to be able to ditch their vest, amazingly enough those who work on or near the water get it immediately.
If this vest is full to include soft and hard armor inserts, ammo, med supplies, light, handcuffs (2 pair), radio and knife… what’s it weigh? The answer is over 30 pounds. If you fall into a pool, river, lake or other body of water with it on, can you swim with it? Don’t delude yourself – the answer is NO. You will start sinking like a stone. If you want to get back to the surface (and that mildly important thing called air) then you need to get out of the vest… FAST. Yank that strap out and the vest will fall away. If it doesn’t freely fall away you can push the front half off and the back half will fall away. While it may suck to lose all that kit to the bottom of a lake or river, it’s better than losing your life.
Because of the wrap around design with the buckles (which have since been replaced with hook-and-loop) the vest is easy to get on over your head and just as quick and easy to get off. Depending on how you have yours adjusted to fit, you may be able to get away with only opening one side to get it on and off.
Okay, so that’s all the subjective stuff. Here’s some of the objective information straight from BlackHawk:
- Lightweight: only 3.5 lbs; lightest cutaway available
- Ambidextrous for high performance
- Fast and easy to put on and take off using side release buckles
- Secure release strap has a round handle that is secured inside a protective band of nylon on the front panel shoulder
- Two-stage release so operator can choose partial cutaway of side panels only
- Cutaway function can be easily disabled if desired
- Simple construction that is very easy to reassemble
- Adjustable waist and shoulder system for girth and torso length for tailored fit
- Full outer vest area usage for any S.T.R.I.K.E./MOLLE pouch configurations
- Lined with cool and comfortable soft 3-d mesh to move air around your body
- Armor – holds soft level IIIA as well as Level IV ballistic armor plates (up to 11×14) in internal adjustable pockets
- Side plates: custom side plate pouch system holds plates up to 6×8
- Accessories: accommodates level 3 collar, groin, and shoulder yokes
- Heavy Duty Drag Handle
My testing has shown every one of those items to be true (I don’t take any promotional information for granted). The one qualifier I have to put out here: I haven’t tried to attach the Level 3 collar, groin or shoulder yokes. I have no reason to believe they aren’t easy to attach based on previous experience with BlackHawk’s armor systems.
So, I’m pretty happy with mine. I know a few other guys who, after seeing it, are planning on picking up their own. If your team is in the market for new vests / equipment carriers, at least check them out. More info can be had online at BlackHawk’s webpage for Armor Carriers.
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