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The Opinionated Bastards: a MekHQ BattleTech Mercenaries Campaign

Introduction

Welcome to what I hope will be the start of a long-running Let’s Play: a mercenary campaign, more or less following the Against the Bot campaign rules, using MekHQ and MegaMek to handle the bookkeeping.

That’s a lot to unpack. We’ll start with MegaMek. This is MegaMek:

MegaMek

MegaMek is an open-source implementation of the BattleTech rules, which greatly simplifies playing out battles. It covers just about everything in the BattleTech rulebooks, but it’s also a little on the dense and questionably-documented side, as open source projects are wont to be. (See also: my very own OpenTafl.)

Next up, MekHQ. This is MekHQ:

MekHQ

MegaMek runs battles; MekHQ runs campaigns. It implements some of the many, many variations in BattleTech’s rules for maintenance costs, mercenary contract generation, and so on and so forth.

Finally, Against the Bot. No screenshot here. Against the Bot is simply a set of rules on top of those implemented in MekHQ, concerning the generation of a mercenary company and some of the mechanics of running one left untouched by BattleTech’s rulebooks.

I have a few house rules I plan to layer on top. First, a set of rules I cooked up for pre-existing enemy damage. Especially in the Third Succession War era, it’s hard to come by spares and time for maintenance, but the Against the Bot rules have no provision for setting up the enemy forces to be as battered as yours. The pre-existing damage rules present a mechanism for wearing down the enemy force over the length of a campaign, an important part of warfare.

Second, I have a litany of little tweaks to the Against the Bot rules.

  • I’ll be using the contract payments and maintenance costs from the Campaign Operations rulebook. I won’t be using maintenance rolls or the unofficial percentage-based maintenance costs in MekHQ; Campaign Ops costs neatly fix a lot of the issues with the old type-based maintenance costs.
  • I plan to turn the contract search radius down to about 200 light-years to start. This keeps transport costs limited. That’s important: the default contract radius of 800 light-years covers pretty much the entire Inner Sphere. Contracts 20 or 30 jumps and a year or two away require very favorable transport terms to have any chance of being profitable. Contracts five or ten jumps away can still be feasible to take even with poor transport terms if the other terms are sufficiently favorable.
  • Retirement rolls will be ignored for the first five years. After that, retirement rolls will always have a -2 Target Number modifier.
    • In any given year, every full month of downtime on the mercenary’s home world will add a -1 modifier to the retirement roll Target Number.
  • Mechs associated with the founding members of the company are company property. If/when founding members retire or die, they don’t get to take mechs with them. Pilots hired later on who bring their own mechs must get the same mech or a comparable one on retirement. Further, they may not be reassigned from their personal mech to a worse one.
  • I reserve the right to ignore Big Battles and Special Events; the Against the Bot generator in MekHQ seems not to get them right on some occasions. If they’re reasonable, I’ll play them.
  • Reinforcements.
    • Any or all lances can be deployed on missions where I’m the attacker.
    • Any lance with Defend duty can be deployed on missions where I’m the defender.
    • Any lance with Training duty can be deployed on missions where I’m the defender on 4+ on a D6.
  • If I have a DropShip, I can add mech bays to it at the cost of cargo space. Adding a mech bay costs 120 tons of cargo space and 7.5 million C-bills.

Process and Participation

I, as the company commander, will play roughly a month of game time per week of real time (my time permitting). I’ll be using a customized build of MekHQ which contains some brand-new features; you can download the source from this branch on Github.

You, as the readers (either at my website or at the Bay12 forums) have a few participation options. You can pick a mechwarrior, aerospace pilot, or vehicle crewman to follow, and give me guidance on how that person ought to develop his or her skills (and possibly input on mech refitting, if that happens). Whether or not you do that, you can also vote on the contract to take.

Company Generation

Now we come to the fun part. Given that my blog is the primary venue for this Let’s Play, I’ve decided we will be known as the Opinionated Bastards. We still have a few things to figure out, though. First off, time period.

  • 3025: at the tail end of the Third Succession War, there is very little advanced technology to be found. Mechs are more likely to be held together with spitballs and baling wire, just barely kept running by industrious techs. Classic BattleTech.
  • 3050: the Clan invasion is in full swing. Advanced technology is back on the menu! We may also have to fight the Clans. Classic BattleTech for me—I cut my teeth on MechWarrior 2, back in the day. If you vote for this item, specify whether you want to start on the same side of the Inner Sphere as the Clans, or elsewhere.
  • 3075: the Word of Blake Jihad is the crisis of the day. Modern-ish BattleTech.

Furthermore, we have to pick a flavor of company.

  • Adventurous Merchant: company commander and officers will have worse piloting and gunnery skills, but better mechs. Start with an extra 5 million C-bills. Chance to start with a DropShip. Start with one Logistics administrator only.
  • Mercenary Veteran: company commander and officers will have better piloting skills, but receive no bonus to mech generation rolls. Start with an HR administrator plus administrator of choice. Receive a 10% signing bonus on contracts owing to reputation. Also owing to reputation, it is no longer forbidden to assign mech pilots who bring their own hardware to worse mechs. (They still get to take them back when they leave.)
  • No Special Background: -2 Target Number on all retirement rolls. Start with two administrators, my choice.

Action Items

  • Your votes needed! Give me some preferences for time period and mercenary company type.

Giant OTV/IOTV Weight Chart

I do like playing around with weight accounting, and I do like tinkering. The following charts were pulled from a US Army service manual1 on the Interceptor Body Armor System. They’re remarkably annoying to find online in detail, and details are important. Especially if you want to play with your own configurations. So in the interest of knowledge and thoroughness, the charts are reproduced here. All weights below are in pounds.

First, the Outer Tactical Vest. This is the vest you see in early Operation Iraqi Freedom Photos.

ComponentXSSMLXLXXL3XL4XL
Base vest6.646.957.668.389.519.8410.8111.79
Throat Protector Assy.0.250.250.250.250.250.250.250.25
Yoke and Collar Assy.0.900.951.001.101.201.301.401.50
Groin Protector Assy.0.700.700.700.850.850.850.850.85
DAPS5.505.505.505.505.505.505.505.50
ESAPI Plates (pair)7.609.5010.9012.5014.2014.2014.2014.20
ESBI Plate Carriers (pair)2.802.802.802.802.802.802.802.80
ESBI Plates (pair)5.105.105.105.105.105.105.105.10
Total System Weight29.4931.7533.9136.4839.41>39.8440.9141.99

Next the Improved Outer Tactical Vest, Gen I. This reconfigured the armor a bit and added a quick release system for easier medic access to a wounded soldier, among other features. Note also the addition of some long sizes, and that the Axillary protection system (the A in DAPS) and the carriers for the ESBI side plates are now integrated into the IOTV base vest.

ComponentXSSMMLLLLXLXLLXXL3XL4XL
Base Vest9.019.339.8610.6010.9711.2411.9812.5113.5215.8016.17
Front Yoke/Collar Assy.0.560.560.560.560.560.560.560.560.560.560.56
Rear Yoke/Collar Assy.0.800.830.880.880.910.910.960.961.021.171.17
Groin Protector Assy.0.720.720.720.720.870.870.870.870.870.870.87
Lower Back Protector Assy.0.670.670.670.670.670.670.670.670.670.670.67
Deltoid Protector Assy. (pair)2.002.002.402.402.402.402.902.902.902.902.90
ESAPI Plates (pair)7.609.5010.9010.9012.5012.5014.2014.2014.2014.2014.20
ESBI Plates (pair)5.105.105.105.105.105.105.105.105.105.105.10
Total System Weight25.4628.7131.0931.8333.9834.2537.2437.7738.8441.2741.64

Finally, we come to the Improved Outer Tactical Vest, Gen II. This vest brought a bunch of minor improvements.

ComponentXSSMMLLLLXLXLLXXL3XL4XL
Base Vest9.619.9310.5611.3011.7211.9912.7813.3114.3216.6016.97
Front Yoke/Collar Assy.0.560.560.560.560.560.560.560.560.560.560.56
Rear Yoke/Collar Assy.0.800.830.880.880.910.910.960.961.021.171.17
Groin Protector Assy.0.720.720.720.720.870.870.870.870.870.870.87
Lower Back Protector Assy.0.670.670.670.670.670.670.670.670.670.670.67
Deltoid Protector Assy. (pair)2.002.002.402.402.402.402.902.902.902.902.90
ESAPI Plates (pair)7.609.5010.9010.9012.5012.5014.2014.2014.2014.2014.20
ESBI Plates (pair)5.105.105.105.105.105.105.105.105.105.105.10
Total System Weight27.0629.3131.7932.5334.7335.0038.0438.5739.6442.0742.50

That’s as far as this copy of the manual goes. Probably for the best. That’s more than enough tables for one day.


  1. TM 10-8470-208-24&P 

Ballistic Combat Shirt

Body armor. Don’t go outside the wire without it, right?

The upper thoracic cavity is where the heart and lungs are. That’s what we’re trying to protect. And hard plates like ESAPI do a good job of protecting the front and rear of the upper thoracic cavity. The sides get more difficult, because you have arms. There’s still a lot of important blood vessels, and rather complicated joints in the area above and to the sides of where plates go, regardless of whether you are wearing an armor carrier like the IOTV or a simpler plate carrier rig.

The IOTV comes with a number of accessories to protect the neck, collarbone region, shoulders, and the sides of the upper thoracic cavity. These components are the yoke and collar assembly and the Deltoid protector. These consist of an inner soft armor component, an outer cordura casing, plus attaching hardware. In size L the total weight of these accessories is 3.87 lbs.

We can contrast that with a ballistic combat shirt. This is the usual modern style of combat shirt, with heavier material for the sleeves and upper torso and lighter material for the abdomen, that’s designed for (somewhat) more comfortable wear with body armor. In the BCS, the upper chest and shoulder region contains segmented soft armor panels, providing the same ballistic protection as the aforementioned yoke and collar assembly and the deltoid protector, but the total weight of a size L Ballistic Combat Shirt is only 3.2 lbs. This looks like about half a pound of weight savings, but remember, this includes the combat shirt. A modern-style combat shirt sans armor weighs about 0.9 lbs.1 So, for system weight, we’re looking at more like 1.4ish lbs. of weight savings. Not a lot, but every little bit helps.

Weight savings isn’t the only gain here. We’re removing a lot of bulk from the shoulder area, which is a big win in terms of how much it sucks to wear. Deltoid protectors get caught on things. They make narrow doorways, crawlspaces, and vehicle hatches more annoying to move through. Less bulk means you can move through these areas faster. The bulk also makes weapon manipulation more annoying. In testing, soldiers unanimously praised the new ballistic combat shirts for being less bulky and annoying. The loss of the various straps and buckles to attach all the above components is probably also a big hit.

It’s often very difficult to reduce soldier load by reducing protection for the regular “line” infantry. Special forces guys play by different rules, but the regular grunts are usually stuck with a heavy load. Sometimes it takes some out of the box thinking to be able to make some small gains.


  1. Source here, though they don’t tell me size. Shouldn’t matter much though. “A bit less than a pound is probably a fair approximation for most modern NyCo shirts with this style of cut and a flame-resistant treatment. 

Body Armor Ratings

Body armor toughness comes in a bunch of different flavors. Over here in the US, we have a couple standards. There’s the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) standards, standards used by the US military, plus a bunch of other marketing-speak. Let’s break it down.

First, NIJ:

TypeProtection
Level II9x19mm (124 gr. FMJ @ 1,305 fps), .357 Magnum (158 gr. JSP @ 1,430 fps)
Level IIIA.357 SIG (127 gr FMJ @ 1,470 fps), .44 Magnum (240 gr. SJHP @ 1,430 fps)
Level III6 rounds 7.62x51mm M80 (148 gr. FMJ @ 2,780 fps)
Level IV1 round 7.62x63mm (.30-06) M2 (166 gr. AP @ 2,880 fps)

NIJ ratings are commonly used for armor marketed to law enforcement and civilians. Some notes:

  • All velocities listed above are approximate, and should be understood to be +/- 30 fps.
  • Level II and IIIA are soft armor, and are understood to be reasonably multihit.
  • Level III and IV are hard plate armor.
  • Level IV is required to be able to withstand at least one round of 7.62x51mm M80 FMJ. It is not required to meet Level III multihit standards (6 shots) against M80.
  • You may notice there is no testing required against SCHV rounds (e.g. 5.56x45mm, 5.45x39mm). Level III armors may or may not stop SCHV rounds. Level IV armors are required to stop at least one SCHV round.

This last point leads lots of manufacturers to test against various SCHV (usually 5.56mm in the States) rounds, which is good. Do note that “Level III+” and “Level III++” are not NIJ certifications. Those are marketing nonsense. Read the list of test rounds carefully. Some materials used for Level III plates have problems with M855 steel-core (semi-armor piercing) rounds, and some other materials used in Level III plates have problems with the speed of M153 rounds, especially out of a 20″ barrel. Ideally, your plate will withstand both.

What about military plates? I can only speak for the US plates at present. These plates are made from ceramic materials. The US Military uses its own testing standard, not the NIJ one. SAPI1 plates are designed to resist three hits of “up to” M80 7.62x51mm ball. There’s also ESAPI2, which has a similar multihit standard against M2 .30-06 AP rounds. And then there’s XSAPI. Because somewhere out there, some terrorist has some exotic high power super armor piercing 7.62x54R mm that will punch through ESAPI plates and we need to stop that round too. It’s also multihit. Against something exotic, but I don’t know the test round. Maybe tungsten-cored .30-06?

Anyway, as you’d expect, more protection means more weight:

SizeDimensionsSAPI WeightESAPI weightXSAPI weight (Approx)
XS7.25″ x 11.5″2.8 lbs.3.75 lbs.4.7 lbs.
S8.75″ x 11.75″3.5 lbs.4.6 lbs.5.8 lbs.
M9.5″ x 12.5″4.0 lbs.5.5 lbs.6.9 lbs.
L10.125″ x 13.25″4.6 lbs.6.3 lbs.7.9 lbs.
XL11″ x 14″5.3 lbs.7.2 lbs.9.0 lbs.

Do note that all US Military plates assume they are mounted over the OTV, IOTV, or equivalent military-spec soft armor for them to perform as advertised. To the best I am able to determine, XSAPI plates have never been deployed in combat. They sit in depots because they’re too damn heavy and because the expected threat never materialized. Also, remember the above is per plate. Double it.

That military soft armor is tested to a different standard than the NIJ one. The military is concerned with fragmentation, primarily, so they look at the V50, i.e. the speed at which a given projectile must be going to have a 50% chance of penetration. This number is chosen because it’s a lot easier to work with than V0 from a measurements and statistics perspective. To simulate artillery fragments, the US Army tests with steel projectiles with weights of 2, 4, 16, and 64 grains. Steel doesn’t deform like lead pistol bullets do, so this is sort of a different challenge than regular pistol bullets. The V50 for a 124 grain 9mm NATO round against the current soft armor in the IOTV is about 1,525 fps, which is pretty similar to that of most Level IIIA soft armor panels. On the other hand, the NIJ requires Level IIIA panels to also stop .44 magnum rounds, and the US Military doesn’t.

Next time, we’ll take a more in-depth look at soft body armor systems.


  1. Small Arms Protective Insert 
  2. Enhanced Small Arms Protective Insert 

Parvusimperator Reviews a Remington 870 Police Magnum

I have some local trainer friends who teach a well-regarded shotgun class. I decided to take it to learn some things about how to use a scattergun, which of course meant that I needed a shotgun. My choice was a cop trade-in Remington 870 Police pump-action shotgun. At first, this might seem like a very un-Parvusimperator choice, so let’s review the reasoning.

  1. It was cheap. I picked this thing up for less than half the MSRP of a brand-new 870P. So I’m getting to class on the cheap, which is nice when I’ve burned through my training budget and am saving for a fancy USPSA Open pistol.
  2. It’s quality. The 870P is made with better parts than a regular 870, and this one is old enough to date from back before the “freedom group” axed Remington’s QC department in search of greater profits. So I have a cheap, reliable gun that I won’t have to worry about going wrong mechanically in class.
  3. I like the idea of taking an old, beat up shotgun and making it mine. Sort of like adopting a pet, but for guns.
  4. If I ended up disliking it, I could probably get all my money back selling it, given that I bought the gun used and that it’s a desirable Police model 870.

Upon unboxing, I discovered my shotgun was as expected. Date codes on the barrel told me the shotgun was built in 1995. In the meantime, the synthetic furniture on it had been beaten to hell and back. Someone had gouged “VAULT” in the stock. The ‘brass bead’ sight no longer had any finish resembling brass. The receiver was well-patinaed, and had a good bit of rust.

On the plus side, all of the metal is sound, and the action is very smooth. Running it is a joy, and brings a smile to my face. Also, I have no complaints about the trigger. It’s not something superfancy, but it also has no glaring problems.

I didn’t have a ton of time to get the shotgun ready for class. Clearly, I wouldn’t be able to get it cerakoted or anything, and I was expecting class in the rain. I did have time to make a couple changes in preparation. Did you really think I would not? I added a Magpul SGA-870 stock and a Wilson Combat +2 extension.

I’ve talked about the Magpul stock before. But it bears talking through again. Magpul put a lot of thought into this stock. It’s the best stock out there for shotguns. It’s super comfortable and is easily adjustable for length of pull. I’m not a tall guy, and I don’t have gorilla arms, so I normally get very annoyed at the very long length of pull on factory stocks on shotguns. They’re probably “tradition” or some nonsense.1 Anyway, problem solved, problem staying solved. It also comes with a nice rubber recoil pad. Replacing the old rubber recoil pad is something that should be done on general principle given the age of the shotgun and how much abuse the old stock had gone through. As a bonus, the stock came with some sling attachment points.

Lots of people make magazine tube extensions. I picked the Wilson one because the price was reasonable, the quality is good, and it came with all of the other extras I wanted, namely a new high-visibility follower, a new magazine spring, and a front sling attachment point. The high-visibility follower is very helpful in a class environment for administratively verifying that the weapon is unloaded. Even if I didn’t get the magazine tube extension, I would have wanted to replace the magazine spring because I don’t know the age of it.

On to class! How did the shotgun do? What did I learn about the parts? And what is coming for our rescued shotgun?

My shotgun ran great in class. Several others had shit break on their guns. One guy had the handguard become detached from the loading forks. Another had a screw come loose inside his receiver and jam things up. People switched to backup guns. But my old 870 Police Magnum gave me no trouble at all. Despite being old and unproven (to me), I had a great time with my shotgun, and my small initial investment paid off.

My existing mods were also good choices. My instructor friends are also huge fans of the Magpul stocks. I found that it did everything I asked. I got the length of pull adjusted to suit my preferences, and that helped. The stock even made supporting and firing the gun one-handed reasonable.

I also had no complaints about the extension. More ammo is better. Duh. The spring worked great. No jams. Plus, the high visibility follower was in fact very visible.

What I did find unsatisfactory was the two-point sling. I rigged this up like I would rig up one of my carbines, using a VTAC sling. This wasn’t my best build plan ever. Having a sling mounted in front of the handguard on a pump shotgun ended up being super annoying, because it seemed like it was always getting in the way. Plus, the shotgun always felt askew when it was hanging on the sling. On a carbine, I’d just move the sling adapters, but I can’t do that here. This will take some more thought.

The ‘formerly-brass’ bead sight on the shotgun was a reasonable sighting system. It wasn’t great. For most “indoors” distances, it will work fine if you’re using something with a pattern like non-flite-control buckshot or birdshot. I found that at distances, the lack of a good second reference made headshots with slugs harder to achieve than I would like. I will probably end up getting the shotgun drilled and tapped for a picatinny rail so I can mount a small red dot. Because I freaking love red dots, and I love the target-focused shooting paradigm that they get you into.

While the gun worked great, there are things that need changing. I’ve talked sights, even if those are “wants” more than needs. A bigger priority is the finish. The one on the gun is toast. When I asked gunsmiths in the class about getting the rust off, they told me not to worry about killing the finish, because it’s already crap. Not that 870s are known for their good factory finishes.2 This is going to get redone in…something. I don’t know what yet. Stay tuned.


  1. Ask Fishbreath. 
  2. Seriously, how does Remington’s parkerizing suck so hard? My M1 Garand also has a parkerized finish on its metal parts, and it’s a bit more than twice as old as my 870, and the finish on my M1 is fine. No rust. 

Parvusimperator’s Submachine Gun Roundup

At a recent class I had the great pleasure to fire a number of submachine guns. Yes, with happy switches. Here are my impressions of several models that I got a chance to put a bunch of rounds through.

I would like to thank Washington County Machine Guns for providing the hardware to make this possible. If you’re in or near Southwestern Pennsylvania and would like to shoot some automatic weapons, check them out. They’re awesome!

M1A1
This was an honest-to-goodness World War II vintage Tommy Gun. Freaking awesome. Without the long barrel for NFA rules, it balances reasonably well. It’s heavy, but not unbearably so. Note that I’m not lugging it around Guadalcanal, so I didn’t have much of a chance to complain. On full auto, the weight is the greatest thing ever. The Thompson was very controllable and easy to keep on a 1/3-size IPSC steel target. Sights were simple but effective. Oh, and the magazine release is goofy, but the 1920s were a strange time. Regardless, it was great to have some time with this touchstone. Fist bump for my grandfathers who got to kick the (actual) Nazis out of France with these.

Sten Mk. III
This one is weird. Crude but effective. The machining work isn’t very nicely done, but it’s sturdy. There isn’t really any attention paid to ‘fit and finish,’ but I didn’t feel like I was going to break it either. There’s a nice big reciprocating mass to help you fight recoil. The side-mounted magazine is kinda goofy, and there’s no good place to put your hand. The skeleton stock isn’t very nice to hold either. That said, while it felt weird to shoulder, it was very controllable. No doubt helped by the smaller caliber. And, while lighter than the Thompson, the Sten benefits from a softer shooting round. More death to the mini IPSC steel!

HK MP5-N, suppressed
Oh hell yes. John McClain, here I come! I can see why this gun is so loved among people who use these things for a living. Being the only closed-bolt weapon, single shots were super precise, as were the opening rounds of a full auto volley. This gun had great build quality. It’s heavy enough to help with recoil management, but not so heavy that it’s awkward to manipulate. Controls are generally well thought out, though the ergonomics aren’t quite AR-15 good. Also, the HK Slap is fun to do. Yippie-kai-yay, motherfucker.

Glock 17 Conversion
This is not technically a Glock 18. It is a Glock 17 converted to fire full auto only. And it shoots as fast as the Glock 18 at an awe-inspiring 1,200 rounds per minute. Yes, 1,200. Just like an MG42. And no, it’s no heavier than a normal Glock. This was one of two guns that was a grip check. Gotta get behind it and have proper technique, or this gun will take you for a ride. It also induces maniacal laughter like nothing else. The Full-Auto Glock is much harder to keep on target, but very easy to suppress things with. Or scare people with. Or clear a hallway. Protip: Start with 3-5 rounds in a magazine just so you can get a feel for this thing.

FN P90
I got to try a PDW in the unneutered, as-designed way: spraying lots of little bullets. This thing is small and super controllable. I can understand the concept a little better now. It felt like I was spraying a swarm of bees at the target. Tiny, high-velocity killer bees. Recoil isn’t really a thing given the weapon weight and the energy of the 5.7mm cartridge.

Walther MPK
Another weird one. Looks kinda goofy, had a very cheap feel to it. The sights on the Walther are stupid. Ergonomics were odd. It was still controllable, but it was not very comfortable in the hand. Again, seeing this stamped thing and then comparing it to the MP5 shows how amazingly good HK’s 9mm wondergun was.

FN FAL, SBR
Take a big ol’ Belgian FAL. Cut that barrel down to about eight inches or so. Flip the selector switch to “Rock and Roll”. Question the wisdom of giving the skinniest guy on the range a very cut down battle rifle. Carefully set yourself up behind the gun. And then get knocked around anyway, because I’m new at this. But it’s not like any of the heavy guys had an easier time with this, because easy to control this ain’t. Nothing highlights your technique issues in a hurry like trying to wrestle a bronco with a jetpack. Or shoot a short barreled .308. This thing is a beast. A normal FAL is too, but less weight and more concussion does not make this thing any easier to control. On the other hand, it was super fun to shoot. More giant grins.

In fact, this entire exercise was full of giant grins, cackling, and good times.

The Crossbox Podcast: Episode 22 – Sacred Cows Edition

In this episode, we talk about guns (lots of guns), and how sci-fi designers can’t design them; about Star Wars and space flight games; and about red dots on pistols, and how we can’t design experiments to save our lives.

Further reading

Continue reading

Fishbreath Hefts: ALICE (large) Hellcat Pack Review Part II

The year is 2017. Your correspondent recently purchased and reviewed an ALICE large field pack and frame, plus some modifications, to make a package sometimes known as the ALICE Hellcat1. Or rather, reviewed in part: no review of field gear can be considered complete without some actual field time, and that’s what this article addresses.

If you, like me, do not live under a rock, you may have heard that there was recently (at time of writing) a total solar eclipse. You can be sure I wasn’t going to miss my chance at seeing one, and you can be similarly sure that I wasn’t going to spend the money on a hotel. Some college friends decided a camping trip was in order, and I decided to tag along. The destination: Shawnee National Forest. The plan: unimproved camping near the Garden of the Gods2.

That brings me to the first part of this review: how roomy is the pack? Well, it’s complicated. The ALICE pack is shorter than your average backpacking pack from top to bottom, but wider and deeper. This has its upsides and its downsides. In the bottom of the pack, I could fit things next to my sleeping bag in both directions—both toward the front face of the pack3 and to the sides. I packed my ground cloth in front of my sleeping bag, and used the space to the side for the base of my tent.

On that note, my gear generally is not backpacking gear—although I grew up camping, I mostly grew up camping out of cars. The family two-man tent comes in a bag twenty-seven inches tall, and weighs something like eight or ten pounds4. My sleeping bag is a backpacking model, I suppose, but it’s also a three-season bag, and as such doesn’t pack down as small as a summer model might. In general, I made no particular effort to bring lightweight or compact gear, and overpacked generally for the sake of the experiment5. I ended up with a pack which weighed about thirty-five or forty pounds and filled most of the available volume of the pack. As the packing list in the footnote there suggests, this was not an ultralight or even an efficient trip. Packing as luxuriously as I did, an overnight or weekend trip is plausible. I expect I would have very little trouble packing for a longer stay if I had more appropriate gear—with access to water on-site, compact dehydrated food, and no extra-fancy mess equipment, I suspect I could pack a good week’s worth of summer clothing.

Now that we’ve loaded the pack, we can talk about how it fits and how well it carries weight. As far as fit goes, I don’t know if I could recommend it to someone very much taller than me. As I said in the previous article, I’m USGI-standard height, a hair over 5’9″. The MOLLE straps on my frame can be adjusted to ride lower on it (thereby moving the hip pad nearer to the shoulder straps for a shorter person), but they’re already at the upper limit of their adjustment. On my back, the pack fits perfectly, with the MOLLE hip belt extending from about belly-button height to my hip bones. I had a few taller people give it a try, and it didn’t fit them nearly as well. I suspect there is some further room for adjustment—by lengthening the bottom of the shoulder straps, the pack could be made to ride lower, and likely fit long torsos better—but the primary adjustment, that effected by moving the entire yoke up and down, is only really useful for average-to-short men and short-to-tall women.

We’ve established it fits people my size and smaller well. How does the ALICE Hellcat carry weight, though? As described above, the ALICE pack is short and squat relative to modern backpacking gear. Taller, flatter packs, such as the latter, put the center of gravity higher and closer to your back. Well-packed, they’ll primarily press down on your hips; the shoulder straps are primarily to stabilize the load and keep it close to your body. The load on the shoulders tends to be a downward load. The ALICE pack is a little different. It is, once again, short. Even with a sleeping roll lashed to the top, it only comes up to about the middle of my head. It doesn’t exert a downward force exclusively; rather, it exerts a sort of pivoting torque in addition to downward pressure. It’s as though the waist belt is an axle, and the pack is trying to fall away from your back.

I wouldn’t characterize this as bad, though. It’s just different. The weight on the shoulder straps, is on your upper chest just below the shoulders. The pivoting movement helps to hold the pack onto the hip pad. My forty-pound pack was no less comfortable than I would expect out of a more traditional pack. Some adjustment of the shoulder straps is necessary; there’s a middle ground I had to find between, “Too tight up top, weighing on my shoulders,” and, “Too loose up top, pulling me backwards.” Once I found it, though, I found myself able to carry it neither bent forward nor pulled backward, and as an added bonus, the smaller top-to-bottom height made for easier crouching under obstacles.

As far as hiking goes, we only had to walk a few hundred yards in total with our packs. I can’t speak to the Hellcat’s comfort over the course of a long hike. I have no reason to think it would be significantly worse than it was with my static testing and light hiking. The MOLLE straps are excellently padded and provided good comfort, even when loaded heavily by backpacking standards.

So, we got to the campsite. How is the pack to live with? Again, not bad, if perhaps not up to the same standard as present-day backpacking gear. One of the bigger things to note (again) is that the ALICE rucksack has no bottom access. It’s traditional to pack a sleeping bag at the bottom of the pack: something bulky but not terribly heavy. Many modern packs have a zipper or some other means by which items at the very bottom of the pack may be gotten at without having to unpack everything on top of them. With the Hellcat, you have to pack a little more carefully. Follow the two cardinal rules of packing (rarely accessed things go at the bottom, eavy things go closer to the frame) and you’ll be fine.

All convenience is not lost, though. The ALICE large pack has six exterior pockets, plus one pocket in the top flap. The six pockets come in three different sizes: three small (up top), two medium (on the sides down below), and one large (bottom center). The large pocket fits a mess kit and notebook with room to spare. The medium pockets are roughly three-espresso-cup moka pot-sized. The small pockets are large enough to fit a hard-sided glasses case, or an alcohol burner, pot rack, and folded aluminum foil windbreak. All are easily accessible without opening the pack or even loosening the compression straps. The top flap pocket was originally designated a map pocket and is not rated for heavy items, but it is very roomy. It easily held my maps, flashlight, phone, charger, cables, and earbuds, and could have fit much more.

The lashing points, too, are a wonderful piece of old-time fun. Putting the MOLLE straps onto the ALICE frame yielded a pair of straps used to secure the ALICE shoulder straps to the frame; I borrowed those, ran them through the buckles on my British P37 canteen carrier, and attached it to the outside of my pack. There are a good dozen or so lashing points spread out over the pack. The full Hellcat pack uses some of them to attach the MOLLE sleep system carrier, and potentially uses others to attach the MOLLE sustainment pouches, but even that would leave a number of them open for other gear. The compression straps are also very generous in length, and can readily be used both to hold gear to the top of the pack (I had a fire kit, a sleeping pad, and a spare water bottle up there) and to tie it to the bottom of the pack. If you want more strappage, you can find MOLLE accessory straps on Amazon which should serve just fine for lashing items to the pack.

Speaking of lashing and straps, the pack has exactly zero zippers. All the external pockets close with snaps. The main compartment has a drawstring closure, and the compression straps hold the top flap down on top of it. Despite that lack, I didn’t find opening the pack to be all that inconvenient. A little on the slow side, perhaps, since you generally have to loosen both compression straps, but certainly livable.

Lastly, the ALICE pack is definitively not waterproof, or even water resistant, and doesn’t come with a pack cover or dry bags6. You’ll have to work out your own solution for keeping things dry. For myself, it was lots of ziploc bags, some garbage bags, and one garbage bag big enough to serve as a pack cover. The lack of waterproofing out of the box is freeing, in a sense; it doesn’t lock you into any one solution.

So, the bottom line. Is it worth the buy? Provided it fits you, I say it is. My pack cost $70, including shipping, and if you have a nearby surplus store you can probably find one for a similar price. (That is, the pack and the frame together.) The MOLLE straps and belt came to about $30, again including shipping, and again with the similar caveat about brick-and-mortar storefronts. For the money, you get more pack, and more durable pack, than you might shopping for a traditional backpacking pack on the same budget. That said, I wouldn’t pay much more than $100 for the whole setup unless you’re very into the Hellcat’s modularity7. Once you get to, say, $150, you’re in the range where you can get a used or discounted pack from REI. $200 will buy you a new one. The quality of life there is, admittedly, better, and you have a warranty to go with it.

All told, though, I’m happy with my purchase. For my very occasional backpacking trips, a proper pack makes little financial sense. For a solid discount over even cheap hiking packs, I have something which works very nearly as well. Who can argue with that?


  1. Well, kind of. As I say in the previous article, one of the characteristics of the Hellcat is the MOLLE sleep system carrier attached to the bottom of the ALICE medium pack; I just went for a large pack right off the bat, which yields approximately the same capacity. 
  2. The one in Illinois, obviously, not the one in Colorado. 
  3. That is, the side opposite the straps. 
  4. It’s an excellent tent. It’s been bone-dry inside after taking a full day of rain on the fly. It just isn’t small or light. 
  5. For reference, I brought the following: sleeping bag and pad, tent, large cooking pot, mess kit, dinner for the whole group (three cans of chunk chicken, two boxes of rice and beans), an alcohol-burning stove, pot stand, and foil windbreak, a moka pot for coffee, coffee and stove fuel, a hoodie, cargo pants and cargo shorts, pajama pants, three t-shirts, three pairs each of underwear and socks, my trusty P37 canteen, a separate 20-oz. water bottle, maps, phone charger, sunglasses, various plastic bags to hold things and serve as pack covers, a pad for sitting on, and earbuds. 
  6. At least mine didn’t. It was issued with dry bags, though, and the full kit list did include a pack cover. 
  7. Which is to say, you like the idea of bringing the sleep system carrier and sustainment pouches as necessary, or leaving them behind when you don’t need them. 

Resurrected Weapons: LOSAT/KEM/CKEM

I’m lumping these together because they all operate on the same basic principle, and are really just different sized versions of the same concept. This idea keeps coming up in a bunch of different sizes and a bunch of different guises.

Antitank missiles today use shaped charge(s) to penetrate armor. We might call this a “chemical energy” method of penetrating armor. More technically, we might call it the Munroe Effect. This is really effective, and doesn’t depend on missile speed. However, there are lots of technologies today to counter this method of armor penetration, including reactive armor (both explosive and non-explosive types), spaced armor, various forms of composite armor, and cage armor. And we can mix and match the above to get some really hard to kill vehicles.

That said, the clever observer will note that most tank guns today use some kind of APFSDS round, a kinetic energy penetrator. Heavy alloy dart moving very fast. Present armor technology makes this a lot harder to defeat than a shaped charge. LOSAT (later renamed KEM) and CKEM would try to apply this same warhead type to an antitank missile. Start with a heavy metal warhead, add a big honking solid fuel rocket motor and fulfill your need for speed.

The missiles were a little different. MGM-166 LOSAT/KEM was 2.85 m long, 16.2 cm wide, and weighed 80 kg. It had a top speed of about 1,500 m/s or 5,000 fps. At this speed, it reached its maximum range in under 5 seconds.

CKEM is the newer, Compact version of the concept. It’s also faster because of rocket motor improvements. It was build in the late 90s/early 2000s to fit a roughly TOW-sized footprint. CKEM was a little longer than TOW at 1.5 m, but matched it’s 15.2 cm diameter. Maximum speed was Mach 6 (about 6,700 fps or 2,047 m/s).

This ends up being a great idea for a number of reasons. We’ve already mentioned that it’s a lot harder to protect a vehicle against APFSDS type rounds. In this case, there is no replacement for velocity. You’ll need heavy armor to stop what’s incoming. Further, a lot of the complicated guidance systems can be done away with. Both missiles had minimal guidance, and relied on lead computations in the launcher to account for any target movement. Given the speeds involved, this is more than sufficient. Finally, being a very fast moving, relatively unfragile thing, it’s a lot harder for modern active protection systems to defeat. All big wins.

Downsides? Well, most of the development and system cost is the motor. We need a relatively small engine that can deliver a lot of thrust very quickly and will also remain stable in storage. That’s not really insurmountable, or a terrible cost driver. Especially when compared to the high-end thermal-imaging based fire and forget systems around these days. The other obvious problem, which doesn’t come up in documentation I’ve seen, is minimum ranges. Even a really high impulse motor will take some time to accelerate that missile up to speed, so there’s going to be a dead zone where the missile will not work as advertised. I’d also expect the motor to be bulky.

Bulk, even for the smaller CKEM, is still an issue. It’s certainly not man-portable. But it would make an excellent antitank missile for vehicles. A JLTV, or a Bradley would make a great carrier vehicle for these. We love tanks, and thus we love antitank missiles. Just like the Russians, who have new tanks. As do the Chinese.

Also, I’d love to see these trialed from helicopters and aircraft. The size isn’t terrible, and the speed should help with the fire control problem.

Verdict: Funding approved by the Borgundy War Department Army Ordnance Board