Tag Archives: commentary

Engineering Tradeoff Q&A: Puma and Bradley

I finally worked out answers to a few things that puzzled me for a while, and figured it might be fun to post here in a sort of Q&A format. This follows our articles looking at loadouts for the Bradley and Puma IFVs. Having read those articles, you might be wondering the following:

  • How does the Bradley manage to carry so much ammo?
  • The Puma IFV has an unmanned turret, so no turret basket, and it’s pretty large. So why does the Puma only have space for six dismounts?

The space under the turret on the Puma, where we would expect a basket to be on a manned turret, is actually a bunch of storage bins. It takes up about the same amount of space that two more shock-resistant seats would. So that’s where the space goes.

That begs more questions. Why do we need those bins? The Puma requires storage bins under the turret because the Puma’s sponsons contain fuel and various systems. They can’t be used for storage. On the smaller Bradley, the sponsons are empty and open to the cabin. So the space behind the bench seats can be loaded up with tons of stuff for both the vehicle and the dismounts. Check out this picture to see what I mean:

M2A2 storage space

Happily, this picture shows the space being used with things you are probably familiar with, like a cooler and a bunch of 2-liter bottles. In combat conditions, we’d expect this to be full 25 mm ammo boxes and TOW missiles for the Bradley, plus food and ammo for the crew and dismounts. If you give up that storage space, you have to put the stuff somewhere else. And you can’t easily relocate stuff for the dismounts outside of the crew compartment. Hence, storage lockers. Note also in the above picture the floor panels at the bottom left. These can be lifted up to access yet more storage space. This space is normally used to fit 25mm ammo. We can also see some storage space under the bench seat. Convenient, but not the best when dealing with antitank mines.

The Puma uses the in-cabin storage lockers for stuff for the dismounts, and it has a bunch of external compartments to hold the 30mm ammo. The Puma was designed with protection and survivability first. The Germans went to a lot of trouble to put in decoupled running gear to minimize the number of penetrations into the hull for the suspension, since penetrations mean weak points for mines. This meant that the sponsons had to hold more suspension gear. Plus, the Puma’s designers tried to isolate the passengers and crew from the fuel and ammo.

The Bradley was designed in an earlier time when survivability was not as paramount, and its designers put firepower first to counter the expected hordes of Soviet light armor. If the Bradleys could take those out, American tanks would be free to concentrate their fire on enemy tanks. Or so the theory went. While possessing a bit of a glass jaw, the Bradley proved to be an excellent vehicle killer in Desert Storm, and was a good fire support vehicle in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Handicapping the FFG(X) Contenders

Big Navy announced the finalists for the FFG(X) program a few days ago. Let’s have a look.

In the interest of spicing things up a bit, I’ve assigned some moneyline odds to each competitor.

FFG(X): buying 2012’s frigate in 2020

The Navy ended up a little behind the eight ball after its insistence on buying the all-but-useless Littoral Combat Ship, which we’ve trashed on several occasions1. Rather than build a frigate as the Perry class was running out of lifespan, they built a weird fast corvette with no striking power and found themselves paying $700 million a pop for effectively useless ships.

FFG(X) is a stopgap measure to take care of the actual business of naval combat while the LCS contractors get their collective acts together, in which the Navy will spend $20 billion to buy twenty actual, effective combat ships.

LCS variants: Less Crappy Ships

The two contractors for the LCS have each assembled a bid using their LCS as a base for a real fighting ship. Both have unrefueled ranges of less than 4,500 nautical miles.

Austal Frigate: -300

Austal’s entry is based off of their trimaran Independence-class, a design I like aesthetically and for a few practical reasons (that giant flight deck among them). The Austal Frigate cuts a few feet off of the flight deck to add a stern platform to hold twin- or quad-pack Harpoon launchers (or other SSM launchers), as well as a towed sonar. Earlier Austal Frigate proposals put the VLS in the superstructure, on either side of the main mast, but someone must have realized what a terrible idea that was in practice; in the final proposal, one VLS 8-pack is forward of the superstructure, and one is at the aft end of the flight deck.

I was going to gripe about how 16 VLS cells seemed a little light, but it appears that’s the fit most of these frigates have, sadly. At least the ESSM can be quad-packed; 32 ESSM and 8 fancy Standard Missiles is an acceptable combat load, I guess.

Freedom Frigate: -400

The Freedom Frigate is the LockMart-brand LCS frigate, with very little to differentiate it from the Austal Frigate beyond its more conventional design. Same armament: 16 Mk. 41 VLS cells and a gun. Similar aviation capacity, although it has a smaller hangar. (Both only ship one MH-60 in normal circumstances, though.) I think the basic Freedom-class has less to recommend it than the basic Independence-class, which is why I give them a lesser chance here.

Not-invented-here options

Various European navies have interesting frigate choices. Two of them made it to the final round.

FREMM: -1000

As much as I like the FREMM, I don’t think it’s a very likely choice for the US Navy. The VLS system is wrong, and I have no idea how easy it is to plug a Mk. 41 system into the Sylver A43 hole in the FREMMs.

Too, it also depends on the FREMM version. The French FREMM is well-kitted for anti-air and anti-surface-unit warfare, with 32 VLS cells in all, Exocet launchers, and even support for land-attack missiles in the larger 16 VLS cells. It only has one helicopter, and only the anti-submarine versions carry a towed sonar.

The Italian FREMM has a faster cruise speed, a faster top speed, two helicopters, an improved radar, two guns, and (in the anti-submarine fit) anti-submarine missiles, but it has fewer cruise missiles and is only fit with 16 Sylver A43 VLS cells.

Both have long range, north of 6,000 nautical miles. Both are expensive, between 600 and 700 million euro per unit.

Keeping in mind the various incompatibilities which would have to be addressed, and the fact that the ship is built by ‘Fincantieri Marine Group’ no matter how much they claim they’re from Wisconsin, I think the FREMM is one of the less likely options.

F100: -450

The F100/Álvaro de Bazán class of Spanish frigates came as a bit of a surprise to me; I hadn’t heard much about them, but clearly I should have been paying closer attention.

The F100 is an Aegis frigate. Yes, you heard me right; besides the related Fridtjof Nansen class, they’re the only frigate-size ships to carry the Aegis setup. Fittingly, the Spaniards did not skimp on missiles. The F100 carries a full 48 cells of Mk. 41 VLS, for a standard combat load of 64 ESSMs and 32 SM-2s.

Its anti-ship capability is a bit more suspect, at only eight Harpoons, but those are in deck launchers and easily retrofit should the Navy come up with an actual decent sea attack missile.

It carries decent anti-submarine weapons and a torpedo decoy, along with a single helicopter, but does presently lack a towed array, a missing feature which could come back to haunt General Dynamics. I don’t know if it would be an easy retrofit, but it’s certainly something the Navy would want addressed.

Beyond that, though, the F100 strikes me as the blindingly obvious choice from the final competitors. There’s zero reason to complain about its anti-air fit, and its anti-ship fit is no worse than most of the other competitors. (Eight Harpoons seems to be enough for the Navy.) A helicopter is more important for modern anti-submarine warfare than a towed array, and one presumes that the F100 could probably ship one if it comes to that, given that a variable depth sonar and a towed array are on the requirements list and General Dynamics still entered the F100. It has 4,500 nautical miles of range, and doesn’t cost any more than the other options on the list.

Why do I not make it the favorite among the options, then? Because the Navy has already plowed a ton of money into the LCS, so they aren’t canceling it, and if they buy a non-LCS-based frigate, then they have to pay both to buy the new frigate and eventually turn the LCS into one. I expect political concerns to hamper the European designs, despite the fact that both the F100 and the FREMM are objectively better in every useful dimension than either LCS or LCS frigate conversion.

The Coast Guard rides again

But wait! There’s a dark horse contender.

Legend-class/National Security Cutter: -2500

While the Legend-class cutters are the right size, have superb range (it’s reduced to 8,000 nautical miles for the bid), and, as Coast Guard cutters, have tons of internal room for weapons and whatnot, selecting a cutter as a base for a frigate design would require the Navy not only to admit the Coast Guard exists, but also to admit that the Coast Guard built a better ship than they did. Not going to happen.

Program canceled or delayed beyond the point of usefulness: +250

I’m not a pessimist by nature, but this really does seem like the most likely outcome to me.

  1. It’s one of our favorite punching bags. If we’re missing a segment for the podcast, I’ve been known to say, “Have we beaten up on the LCS lately?” 

The 2017 Many Words Press Audience Report

It’s that time of year again, which is to say, it’s no longer the previous year, that time when I like to dig into site statistics and come up with some interesting insights for you, the reader.

Total Visitors and Views

Since Google Analytics wasn’t running for the full year (I believe I turned it on again in February), these numbers come straight from the built-in WordPress stats system. It more or less lines up with Google’s numbers for the part of the year where they overlap, so I believe them to be accurate. (Or, at the very least, wrong in the same way all the stats in this article will be.)


In 2017, traffic to the Soapbox doubled compared to 2016; the other two sites held steady.

The Soapbox

As usual, the Soapbox takes the clear victory for both visitors and views.

Popular Posts


The most popular few posts of 2017 were published in 2016 or earlier. Parvusimperator’s Battle Royale review of the P320, the PPQ, and the VP9 has been enduringly popular for us, mainly because it got great search engine play. In fact, in 2017, Battle Royale accounted for about 6,600 views at the Soapbox, between a quarter and a third of the views for the year. We tried to catch lightning in a bottle a second time with an M9/P320 comparison, but that ground was too heavily trod for us to make anything of it. We do have some plans for a future post in the same genre, but I won’t spoil them.

The second and third most popular posts also belong to parvusimperator: the Resurrected Weapons entry for 50mm Supershot and his Colt 6920 review.

Posted This Year

More interesting, I think, is the list of most popular posts published in 2017. After all, that’s most likely the year you started reading in, going by our growth from 2016 to 2017.

  1. Movie and Firearms Review: John Wick Chapter 2
    This sort of post is our bread and butter: a fresh take on a niche subject.

  2. The EDC X9 Is Stupid
    Clickbaity, but effective.

  3. Fishbreath Flies: DCS AJS 37 Viggen Review
    I made it into the top ten! I was a little surprised.

  4. How-To: Two USB Mics, One Computer, JACK, and Audacity
    One of a very few guides on how to connect two USB microphones to one computer, this guide was the forerunner to a more detailed how-to I posted earlier this year. Hopefully that one appears on this list next year.

  5. S&W M&P 2.0
    An article from our SHOT 2017 coverage. We’ve had very little of that this year, which may handicap us somewhat. We were also handicapped last year by not actually being present at SHOT. On our list for 2018 is to continue to develop our supply of firearms-related content so that we can get parvusimperator a 2019 SHOT Show press badge.

  6. Glock Trigger Pull Mods
    Parvusimperator’s roundup of things to do to make your Glock less terrible in the trigger did deservedly well.

  7. New VP Pistols from HK
    We aren’t ordinarily a news site, focusing more on the opinion and commentary side of things, but we sometimes make exceptions for news of particular interest to us. Parvusimperator’s a big fan of the VP line, and I confess they have their charms, so we ran with it.

  8. Fishbreath Plays: Starsector 0.8 Kind-Of-Review
    I always try to write up big Starsector updates, because when it hits 1.0, it’s going to be one of the very best space sandboxes of the decade. People seem to like hearing about it.

  9. Wilson Combat’s New EDC X9
    I’m very proud of this one, and of parvusimperator’s work on it. We scooped the major firearms blogs by twelve hours.

  10. Hudson H9 Range Report
    Another SHOT show post, parvusimperator picked up the impressions off of some of his shooting forum buddies.

Traffic Acquisition

The Soapbox, like most websites, gets the overwhelming majority of its traffic from Google searches. 81% of our sessions come from Google. The next 13% are direct traffic.

The other 6% are spread across the lesser search engines, social links, and forum posts. We get the very occasional hit from some hnefatafl websites.


97% of the Soapbox’s users are male. The 25-34 demographic is the most popular, although our prime age range is 25-44. (After that, 45-54 comes next, followed by 18-24, then 55+.)

64% of Soapbox sessions in 2017 came from Americans. The UK, Canada, and Australia come in in places two through four, and Romania sits in fifth. (Romania slipped behind Australia very late in the year; we saw a few binges from Australia in the stats late in the year.)


Curiously, the Soapbox sees more mobile (that is, phone and tablet) views than views from desktops, by about a 60-40 ratio. 55% of our mobile visitors are Apple users; the rest are on Android devices.

Chrome, however, is more popular than Safari, which suggests that a strong majority of desktop users use Chrome. (Sadly, my favored Firefox represents only 7% of our hits.)

Many Words Main

The fiction arm of Many Words Press is dramatically less popular, but it’s my pet project, so I’m going to talk about it in a little depth.

Popular Posts

As expected from a site with ongoing content, the front page is the most popular part of the site by a large margin, followed by the Archives page and the e-books-for-sale page.

Traffic Acquisition

In contrast to the Soapbox, only 5% of the visitors to Many Words Main came from Google searches. Direct traffic was the most common method of arrival, and referrals from various sources came next.

For all the effort I’ve put in getting listed on various web fiction aggregators, we see very little traffic from them.


Unfortunately, Many Words Main has no information on demographics; Google can’t tease out information which can’t be linked back to one or several users.

The location information is also less exciting: the US and Canada make up the top 65% of views. China, a bit unusual, comes in at 6%. Every other location on the planet is below 3%.


Fascinatingly, despite being more e-book-like, Many Words Main is viewed 75-25 on desktops. Apple devices also make up a mere 40% of the mobile views.

Other Sites

Not much to mention here, besides that the most popular Softworks product is our Out of the Park Baseball schedule generator. Even though it’s imperfect—highly so—it’s the only product of its nature with any recent updates, and therefore pretty frequently downloaded.

That’s all I have. Thanks for reading this post, and for your views in 2017. We have big plans for the future, and we’re glad you’re along for the ride.

USASOC’s URG-I for the M4

Thanks to SHOT Show and the good folks at Brownells, we can see what the US Army’s Special Operations Command is doing to improve their M4s. Let’s take a look. First, the product page.

Now, there are a bunch of things to note here. The upper receiver is unchanged. Still has that forward assist and that dust cover. The 14.5″ barrel is made by Daniel Defense, who have some excellent cold hammer forges for such things. The barrel has some unspecified improvements to work better with M855A1 ammunition, which has an exposed, hardened steel tip. I would expect these changes to be to the geometry of the feed ramp in the barrel extension, but I can’t confirm this yet. And I don’t know if there are other changes. The rest of the barrel is pretty boring. 1:7 twist rate, that government profile,1 and a midlength gas system. The midlength gas system is a noticeable difference, being somewhat longer than the standard carbine length. A midlength gas system is somewhat softer recoiling, and probably leads to improved reliability when using a suppressor (which increases the gas pressure in the system). Note that they did not specify the medium-weight “Socom” profile barrel. Overkill for expected uses? Not proven? Weight Conscious? I’m honestly not sure.

The handguard is Geissele’s Mk 16, and is 13″ long and free floated. It has a picatinny rail at the top and Mlok slots all around2. This is a big improvement over the usual plastic handguard or the KAC RAS system, which has picatinny rails and isn’t free floated. Plus a longer rail means more room for one’s hand as well as accessories. The older handguards had room for lights and lasers or your hand, but not both. Geissele handguards are very nice, and have a well-designed attachment system.

The full length handguard means the standard triangular front sight block has to go. It’s been replaced by the Geissele Super Gas Block, which is low profile, and held in place by two setscrews and a taper pin. I like pinned gasblocks. They’re sturdier. Good choice here.

Geissele also makes the charging handle. It’s bigger, sturdier, and better suited to just grabbing or pulling at one side, like lots of modern guys do. It’s a fine choice.

The other difference in play is the muzzle device. The Brownells version (for civvies) has the Surefire S3F, which is a three-pronged flash hider that also serves as an adapter for the quick-detach mechanism used in Surefire’s silencers. The military is probably getting the S4F (with four prongs). I don’t know why the difference there. It’s still a suppressor adapter, and remember, Surefire’s silencers won the SOCOM testing.

Overall, I’d say it’s a pretty solid set of improvements, and results in a gun better than the previous PIP proposal. I would like to see more if it were up to me, namely a better barrel profile and some bolt carrier group improvements. Both Lewis Machine and Tool and Knights Armament have some available improvements there, and I’d like to see some evaluations. Especially if suppressors are going to be used a lot.

Will I buy one? No. I don’t have much use for factory uppers these days. Building my own isn’t hard, and then I get to make all of the parts choices, and get things suited for me and my uses. And I don’t do clone builds. But it’s a solid upper if you’re in the market for one.

Finally, let’s do a quick weight comparison with the upper for a standard M4. The lower is separate, and needs no changing provided it has the safe/semi-/full-auto trigger group. Some of these weights are approximate because of what is and isn’t available on the market yet, but I wouldn’t expect them to change too much. I’ll update these as I get better numbers.

PartM4Weight (lbs)URG-IWeight (lbs)
Barrel14.5″ gov’t.1.614.5 gov’t.1.6
Upper receiverA30.6A30.6
Handguarddouble shield0.72Geissele Mk 14 (13″)0.75
Gas BlockFSB0.33Geissele sgb0.1
Gas Tubecarbine0.04midlength0.05
Muzzle DeviceA2 Birdcage0.14SF3P0.24
Charging Handlestandard0.08geissele sch0.09

Notes: Upper receiver weight includes the dust cover and forward assist. Listed handguard weights include all mounting hardware. The Mk. 14 only has Mlok slots at 3:00, 6:00, and 9:00.

Not bad. Despite the stupid government profile barrel, a little weight was trimmed. At least according to my back of the envelope calculations. Even coming in at about the same point is a win. More capability without a lot more weight.

  1. Which I hate. A lot. It’s profoundly stupid, but that’s probably why it’s called the “government” profile. I guess we can’t expect them to fix everything at once. 
  2. “All around” being 1:30, 3:00, 4:30, 6:00, 7:30, 9:00, and 10:30. Also, Mlok is lighter than picatinny rails, woo. And some study found it tougher than the rival keymod. 

On Glock Safeties

A few weeks ago, Fishbreath and I were looking at another striker-fired pistol1 being found to be not drop safe. Fishbreath commented that he’d really like to see these barrel-up-at-30-degrees drop tests done to the Glock 43 and the M&P Shield. I promptly obliged him with a video. Glocks have three safeties designed to work together to prevent firing when dropped at any angle. Let’s take a look at how they work. An understanding of the trigger mechanism and the safeties it employs is also useful when attempting to modify that trigger system.
Continue reading

SIG P365

The market for small single stack (and staggered-single stack) pistols for concealed carry is huge. In my eyes, they’ve neatly usurped the old S&W J-Frame in the small concealment weapon space. Perfect for NPEs and the backup gun role. For my money, I’d much prefer striker fired triggers to heavy double action revolver triggers. Plus, the sights on the Glock 43 and M&P Shield are easily interchanged. Sights on most J-Frames aren’t. And what comes on the gun are atrocious.

So it makes sense that SIG would try to get in on this market. Using the same sort of striker-fired action as in their P320, they’ve come out with the P365. It’s sized in between the Glock 43 and the M&P Shield, as seen below

Glock 43, P365, M&P Shield
From left to right: Glock 43, P365, M&P Shield.

What makes the P365 special is the capacity. Where the Glock 43 holds six rounds with the standard, nonextended basepad, and the Shield holds seven rounds with the standard, nonextended basepad, the P365 holds ten rounds with the standard, nonextended basepad. It’s still thin and small, so it will still conceal very well. But more bullets. More bullets is better. Otherwise, ergos are very much a slimmed down P320. I’d expect the trigger to be like the P320 as well, so short and heavy and doing its best to resemble the single action trigger of something like a P226 or P229. Eminently shootable to be sure, and way better than the trigger on a J-Frame.

This idea sounds like a winner. And it probably will be. I have my reservations, at least as of when this goes to press. First, I don’t like to buy first generation anything for firearms. I am not a beta tester. I am not a member of anyone’s QC department. And I don’t do that work for free. So I’ll wait a little, just to make sure the bugs are gone. And that goes double for anything that says SIG on the side. Between the P320 drop-safety recall and their history of QC problems with their traditional P22X guns since setting up the plant in Exeter, they get an even longer wait. I do not like the current management either.

All that said, I would like this gun to work well, because I’d love a small backup gun with more bullets.

On the Glock 19X

Glock has released their MHS entrant to the civilian market: the Glock 19X.

It’s got all the Gen 5 improvements: no finger grooves, an improved trigger, and ambidextrous slide stop, plus the texture and replaceable backstraps from the Gen 4 models. By all accounts, the Gen 5 models are awesome. I’m most excited about the improved trigger. It’s better than previous factory models and very competitive with the aftermarket options.

Of course, there are Gen 5 options available for the Glock 19, the Glock 17, Glock 34 MOS, and Glock 26 out there already. The Glock 19X is different. It pairs the full-size frame of a Glock 17 with the compact slide and barrel of a Glock 19.

Glock made this design to fit the “box” of the MHS size specifications. It will probably do well on the civilian market, as short-slide, full-size grip 1911s, snubnosed K-Frames, and subcompact pistols with grip-extending magazines are very popular.

I’m not a fan of the 19X from a concealment perspective, because the height is more annoying to conceal than the length. If I’m going to carry a full-size grip, I might as well get the sight radius of a full-size gun. Plus, those tend to recoil a little softer. I’d be a little more interested in a Glock 19 frame with a Glock 17 slide and barrel for concealment, but that’s just me.

However, if you wanted to build an Open Glock, the Glock 19X is a great base gun. It just needs an MOS model or some milling for an optic. The shorter slide means that if you opt for a smaller compensator like the KKM or Black Rifle units, your pistol will fit in a Glock 34 holster. So you’ll be able to find a holster quickly and cheaply. With a bigger compensator like the SJC, you’ll still have a shorter overall pistol to help transitions, plus a lighter slide that improves recoil characteristics.

You also get the longer, Glock 17 grip. This is nice partially because I prefer the grip on the Glock 17. Your mileage may vary. What doesn’t vary are the magwell options. There are a wide variety of large, competition magwells available for the Glock 17 size frame. Small differences make these not viable for Glock 19s. Bigger magwells are more forgiving than small ones. Plus, there are a wide variety of materials (and therefore weights) available.

There you have it. A concept with plenty of admirers, albeit for different reasons. It’s good to see more options.


The M1 Tank Test Bed (TTB) was a late-80s prototype to test unmanned turret design concepts and compare them to a modern, manned-turret design: the then-state-of-the-art M1A1. The TTB was not necessarily intended to be what the next MBT would look like, but it was intended to shake out some design concepts and see if they were worth considering in the future. So let’s take a look.

m1 ttb

Some of you may notice a resemblance to the T-14. Both use similar unmanned turret design concepts. Such designs have been kicked around since the 1950s by many different groups of tank designers, and all for similar reasons of being able to reduce protected volume (and hence reduce design weight for a given standard of protection). The M1A1 weighs about 57 tonnes. The TTB, with a similar protective standard and the same 120mm gun (and a similar ammunition capacity) was reckoned to weigh about 15% less, for an approximate TTB weight of 48.45 tonnes. Interestingly, this is very close to the published weight for the T-14.

TTB also, of course, reduced crew to three men and put in an autoloader for ammunition handling. The design was intended to improve crew safety by completely isolating the crew from the ammunition. The autoloader itself was a large carousel, holding all ammunition below the turret ring. Let’s look at some pictures.

ttb autoloader

It’s sort of like the autoloader on the T-80, though NATO 120mm ammunition is one-piece, and is therefore a little more annoying to design an autoloader for. The autoloader built for the TTB held 44 rounds and this could be expanded to 48 or even 60 rounds with minor design changes. All of the ammo was stored in a ready configuration because the crew would be unable to move ammunition from a reserve magazine to the autoloader’s ready magazine (as on the Leclerc for example). The TTB autoloader was extensively tested, and could manage a rate of fire of one round every 12 seconds. Spent case bases or misfired rounds were ejected out a small hatch the back. The autoloader could be supplied through the rear hatch, and also had an unloading mode where it could slowly present rounds for removal. The autoloader weighed about 1,400 lbs. empty.

Some might question the vulnerability of such a design. However, statistically the vast majority of tank hits occur to the turret. Tanks like the T-72, for example, ran into trouble because of the ignition of their unprotected reserve ammunition stowage in the turret, not hits that set off ammunition in their autoloaders. And again, complete isolation from the ammunition should keep the crew relatively safe.

The TTB program was dialed back with the end of the cold war and was finally cancelled in the mid 90s. The autoloader design was used in the M1128 Mobile Gun System version of the Stryker.

As for the TTB prototype, it’s at the National Armor and Cavalry Museum at Fort Benning, and has recently been restored and repainted.

(Snarky) Confessions of a Recovering Tactical Timmy

I’ve gone to a bunch of “defensive”/”tactical” training classes1. And I’ve enjoyed them, and I have a lot of good friends who teach such things. That said, I’ve noticed a few quirks, and there are a few little things that annoy me. Maybe this is just me becoming more of a “gamer”. Whatever. I don’t care. Since I’m snarky, I’m going to point some of them out here.

  1. “It’s not a stage!”
    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.