An experiment in reducing infantry fighting loads

Before Christmas I was reading this blog post by Thinkdefence on the ‘overburdened infantry soldier’ (which of course I highly recommend reading along with the embedded link to AG Williams’ blog on the same subject).

As I read the post it struck me that the weight infantry carry today could be reduced simply by going back to basics – in other words by going back to carrying just the water, bullets, gas masks and shovels the infantry carried into action back in WW1 and WW2.

So, in my mind the weight problem was in-fact largely a conceptual one – we were just choosing to carry too much stuff.

Thinking there might be an interesting experiment here, I decided to try and test this hypothesis that going back to only carrying the modern equivalent items of a WW1 and WW2 packing list, and not a single particle more, would at a stroke, reduce the infantry burden. And this is what I have done with this blog post.

I found a WW1 packing list in this contemporary document, which helpfully includes the weight of all items, and found an equivalent WW2 packing list here which also includes all the weights of each of the items.

I made some small modifications to both packing lists to reflect some things that wouldn’t have been apparent or known to the authors when they were drafted. For the WW1 list I added a helmet, entrenching tool and gas mask / cape to reflect a mid to later war infantryman. For the WW2 list I added the same items but took the ammunition load from this pamphlet to reflect the carriage of Bren gun ammunition.

I then used AG Williams excellent work found here on contemporary kit weights and drew up two packing lists, one based on the contemporary items equivalent to the WW1 items and the same for the WW2 items. For most cases finding equivalent items was easy: an MTP smock is directly comparable to a Service Dress tunic or a Battledress blouse, same for water-bottles and other obvious items. Some items posed more of a challenge.

The main item posing a challenge was ammunition. The rule I used here was that the WW1 infantryman carried only his own personal ammunition load in the source pamphlet, 150x rnds of .303, whereas the WW2 infantryman carried his own rifle ammunition and also section Bren gun ammunition. Therefore, the WW1 v contemporary infantry comparison has the contemporary infantryman carrying 4x magazines for his own use, whilst the WW2 comparison has the contemporary infantryman carrying 50x rnds of 7.62 link.

Before moving onto the tables a few caveats and limitations. Both the WW1 and WW2 packing lists are to an extent, notional. It’s hard to see how they could have carried less than prescribed and they probably carried more (the WW1 soldier will have in the second half of the war). The lists also don’t reflect section or platoon equipment such as extra mills bombs, rifle grenades, Lewis gun magazines and spades / picks / wire-cutters etc. The contemporary lists don’t include these items either however to help make the comparison fair.

So, it could be argued the exercise isn’t realistic but this is meant as a thought experiment, a heuristic intended to give a broad indication if the same packing list but with modern items would reduce weight. If the contemporary list turned out to be 500 grams lighter than the WW1 packing for example, I wouldn’t argue that meant the contemporary infantryman had a reduced load. I was interested in if there were any big signals.

Findings

And what I found was that if a contemporary soldier packed nothing but the equivalent fighting order items to the WW1 soldier (27.37kg), the contemporary soldier’s weight (28.15kg) was slightly higher than his WW1 counterpart. If the contemporary soldier did the same for the WW2 list (27.5kg), their weight (32.74kg) was significantly higher than their WW2 counterpart in fighting order.

So, I seem to have been a bit wrong – the weight issue isn’t a conceptual issue, at least not in the way I was thinking it was. If infantry could somehow go back to packing only the very basics of bullets, water, shovels and gas masks like their WW1 and WW2 counterparts, this would not reduce the weight carried by the contemporary infantryman in fighting order to below 25Kg.

Indeed, as many of you will have already thought, my packing list for the contemporary infantryman doesn’t include modern basics such as body armour or HMNVGs meaning weight will go up further. Tony Williams’ table shows a patrol weight of 47kgs for the contemporary infantryman.

Discussion

What does this mean? To discuss this, we can go back to Thinkdefence’s analysis of different options found here.

It means firstly that a back to basics approach won’t go far enough even if the modern items carried are stripped back to an unrealistic equivalent of a WW2 load. For it to work, items such as CBRN, ammunition and the actual webbing / daysacks would need to be drastically reduced in weight. So, the strategy of “carrying less stuff” doesn’t appear to be a realistic option in itself – you can’t really carry less than a WW2 infantryman – you hit a floor.

The strategy of “making stuff easier to carry” may have some merit, but this isn’t going to reduce weight on its own.

The “making stuff lighter” strategy is the obvious next port-of-call, but again without reductions in the weight of weaponry, ammunition, body armour and CBRN kit, it is only going to help at the margins. At the moment, the heaviest kit is the most fundamental to the infantry role.

Finally, what about “something else carrying the stuff”? This may be an option for marching order, but what would you offload into your mechanical mule or handcart when you’re carrying the equivalent of a WW2 infantryman’s load?

Conclusion

So, to reduce the weight of fighting order we will have to reduce the weight of rifles, ammunition, body armour and CBRN kit. Even without body armour, the weight remains above 25kg. Anything else is simply meddling and a diversion of effort.

Perhaps not the most earth shattering conclusion, but what I hope my quick and dirty analysis has shown is that weight reduction must be just that; and that whilst changing mind-sets to carry less kit will reduce infantry weight, this will eventually still hit a floor below which weight cannot go unless rifles, ammunition and CBRN kit weighs less than it does now.

I’ve included the tables I have used below. If anyone spots any errors, then let me know and I will change them and see if my conclusions need to change. Fingers crossed for no maths errors!

1916 Modern
Article Metric Article Metric
Boots 1.81 Helmet 1.42
Braces 0.13 Underwear & Socks 0.08
ID discs 0.01 MTP Jacket and Trousers 2.4
Drawers 0.47 Boots 1.09
Jacket w/field dressing 1.13 Knife 0.32
Pocket knife 0.23 FFD etc 0.19
Paybook 0.06 ID discs 0.02
Puttees 0.37 Notebook 0.15
Shirt 0.51 TOTAL CLOTHING 5.67
Socks 0.13 Rifle 4.63
Trousers 0.92 LLM 0.21
Waistcoat 0.65 Bayonet and Scabbard 0.3
Helmet 0.99 Cleaning Kit 0.15
TOTAL CLOTHING 7.41 TOTAL ARMS 5.29
Rifle 4.01 4x magazines 30 rnds 2.44
Bayonet and Scabbard 0.69 TOTAL AMMO 2.44
TOTAL ARMS 4.7 E-Tool 1.34
150 rnds 4.08 TOTAL E-TOOL 1.34
TOTAL AMMO 4.08 Webbing 2.26
E-Tool + Carrier 1.18 Waterbottle + water 1.3
TOTAL E-TOOL 1.18 Day sack 2.63
Webbing, Hvrsck & Waterbottle (unfilled) 3.76 Mess Tins 0.4
Mess tins 0.63 TOTAL WEBBING & WATERBOTTLE 6.59
TOTAL WEBBING & WATERBOTTLE 4.39 1x 24hr ration 2.1
Rations and Water 2.65 TOTAL RATIONS 2.1
TOTAL RATIONS AND WATER 2.65 Respirator and haversack 1.22
Gas mask & haversack* 1.6 Haversack contents 0.44
Groundsheet 1.36 CBRN suit 3.06
TOTAL GAS 2.96 TOTAL CBRN 4.72
TOTAL 27.37 TOTAL 28.15

 

1944 Modern
Article Metric Article Metric
Boots 2.07 Helmet 1.42
Battle Dress 2.38 Underwear & Socks 0.08
Wollen Drawers 0.54 MTP Jacket and Trousers 2.4
Shirt 0.48 Boots 1.09
Socks 0.14 Knife 0.32
Web Anklets 0.14 FFD etc 0.19
Knife 0.15 ID discs 0.02
Braces 0.13 Notebook 0.15
Paybook 0.06 TOTAL CLOTHING 5.67
ID Disc 0.02 Rifle 4.63
Helmet 0.99 LLM 0.21
TOTAL CLOTHING 7.1 Bayonet and Scabbard 0.3
Waistbelt 0.28 Cleaning Kit 0.15
Braces 0.16 TOTAL ARMS 5.29
Pouches 0.62 4x magazines 30 rnds 3.04
Bayonet Frog 0.02 2x grenades 0.83
Waterbottle carrier 0.11 50x rnds 7.62 1.38
Haversack 0.57 TOTAL AMMO 5.25
Straps 0.23 E-Tool 1.34
Entrenching tool carrier 0.22 TOTAL TOOL 1.34
TOTAL ARTICLES OF EQPT 2.21 Webbing 2.26
50 rnds .303 1.42 Waterbottle + water 1.3
2x Bren Magazines 2.44 Mess tins 0.4
1x Grenade 0.59 Thermal Jacket 0.8
Bayonet and Scabbard 0.59 Waterproofs 0.98
TOTAL AMMO 5.04 Day sack 2.63
Mess tin and cover 0.57 TOTAL WEBBING & WATERBOTTLE 8.37
Waterbottle 0.44 1x 24hr ration 2.1
Water 0.85 TOTAL RATIONS 2.1
Iron Ration 1.13 Respirator and haversack 1.22
E Tool 1 Haversack contents 0.44
Cardigan 0.51 CBRN suit 3.06
Groundsheet 1.36 TOTAL CBRN 4.72
TOTAL CARRIED ITEMS 5.86 TOTAL 32.74
Rifle 4.08
TOTAL ARMS 4.08
Gas mask + haversack 1.85
Gas cape 1.36
TOTAL GAS 3.21
TOTAL 27.5

 

 

 

 

 

 

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