With the widespread adoption of MOLLE/PALS in the US and other NATO Militaries after 9/11, it swiftly became the standard method for gear attachment, replacing the venerable slide keeper “ALICE” clips, which had seen service since 1956 and the M-1956 LCE system. It was not too long before MOLLE technology trickled its way down to the civilian market, and a whole host of gear sprang up. The greatest, and perhaps most widespread of these technologies was the “battle belt”: a specialized, go-to First Line system that contains everything a shooter (who customized the system to his or her own scenario) would need for limited, short-term engagement. The battle belt is now manufactured in at least a dozen different variations by a dozen different companies.
Despite the competition, this newness comes at a price. A “budget system” may run you $100-150, but quality, custom-assembled systems can reach upwards of $600. That’s a tall order for a new or infrequent shooter, and certainly no easy prospect for someone on a tight budget (or a short chain). ALICE gear, on the other hand, is (literally) dirt cheap. A similarly-featured ALICE rig, based off of the M-1956 or M-1967 system, could be had for as little as $50. Sounds a little better than $600. Of course, just like anything else “designer”, a 30-year old, hand-me-down system might get a few snickers from the trendy table. But if that $550 is the difference between ammo and looking good, remember that it’s training for survival, not a fashion show. At the same time, there is something to be said for the newer specialized gear. Is it worth it for you? That’s an individual choice, and one which I wish to help guide you on with some information.
Here’s what the difference in price will buy you:
The design of the M-1910 pistol belt changed little from its pre-WW1 adoption, and its retirement 80 years later. As technologies like Davis quick release clips and Fastex buckles came out, they would simply replace the old tech with the newer ond and leave the belt intact. Ultimately, the “meat and potatoes” of the belt changed little through two world wars and the entire Cold War. Stiff canvas and sturdy grommets - nothing to it. As heavy cotton, there is not much you can do to canvas to make it fray or deteriorate except constant contact with water. Many of the pistol belts widely available today have already seen much worse than what it will likely see in your care, and is no worse for wear. But this great strength comes with a great drawback: water. While pistol belts are usually treated to avoid the material soaking up water, it still happens to a limited degree. As this wet material stays against your body, it can cause great discomfort. And, unlike the wide, evenly-distributed pressure of a padded belt, the barebones belt puts all its weight in a narrow band. This can chafe after a while (even when dry), and cause lower back pain with heavier loads. Newer models of the pistol belt are sometimes nylon, which help to alleviate some of the other issues, but weight distribution remains the same.
The average battle belt is the exact opposite. Seemingly designed from the ground up for comfort, the battle belt is made from newer, lightweight, non-absorbent material (Cordura). Several models come with padding, some even with ergonomic shapes. I have less faith for the longevity of nylon than I do for canvas, but a high-denier, quality belt seems to be just as strong. Most belts are outfitted with suspension, but this feature is oftentimes ignored, as battle belts have other features (velcro, etc.) to keep themselves in place.
ALICE gear is aging, that much is obvious. Since ALICE gear effectively ceased being produced, the entire face of warfare has changed. At the same time, your purpose may not specifically be preparing for war.
As it essentially evolved with the pistol belt itself, ALICE gear – that is to say gear designed to utilize metal slide keepers as a means of attachment – has a long history and a huge number of shapes, sizes, manufacturers and uses. Buttpacks, magazine pouches, compass sleeves, canteen covers, suspenders, and a host of other types of pouches are all readily available, all surplus, and much of it US-made and battle-hardened. With that hardening comes age, though, and much of the gear available in ALICE configurations are “old school”: flap-top or snap closure magazine pouches, massive buttpacks, etc. While this may seem like a drawback in the face of slick Kydex gear and matching Flat Dark Earth widgets, it’s good to remind yourself that wars were fought with this technology. Every war, skirmish and peacekeeping mission from Vietnam to the opening shots of Enduring Freedom used ALICE, and used it well. It puts the responsibility of learning how to work around its quirks in the court of you, the trainee.
What modern MOLLE gear lacks in decades of battle-proving (though it’s getting to the end of its first decade of service), it makes up for in technological advancements. Recent advances like HSGI’s TACO and ITW’s FastMag get mags in hand faster than the fastest buckled ALICE pouch ever could. They are designed from scratch, purpose-built to improve efficiency and keep weight down. Beyond magazine equipment, though, there is little that stands out about MOLLE gear over the age-old ALICE stuff. The trade-off here, again, is money. TACOs are $30, FastMags $40. ALICE triple mag pouches? $1.50. Once again, not just “a difference”, but a significant one, at that.
It should be noted that if you say to yourself “I really love this ALICE pouch, but I am using a MOLLE system”, fear not. Tactical Tailor manufactures what they call “MALICE Clips”, which allow you to attach ALICE gear by using a long polymer strap that can be weaved through MOLLE like any other pouch. A fantastic invention for those of us who may want to keep some of our favorite (albeit older) equipment on our fancy rigs.
Customizing one’s gear to suit your specific needs is a tradition as old as the tools of war. You have an intimate knowledge of your strengths and weaknesses, your capabilities and quirks. You are the best designer for your gear.
While ALICE is old tech, this is really where it does not suffer for its age. Pistol belts are just as customizable as their younger counterparts; in fact, it could be said that they are even moreso. While ALICE lacks the rigid hold of MOLLE, it gives you the ability to move things at will, most of the time in under a minute. Try doing that with MOLLE gear! In fact, ALICE would work very well as a rapid-prototyping tool for designing or laying out what you would want a more expensive MOLLE rig to look like. Pouches can be moved from anywhere to anywhere with a few clips, and are (reasonably) secure. ALICE does have a tendency to move around a little under load, but not significantly.
While the ALICE setup would win in the customization within a setup, keep in mind that few options remain for setting up a complete ALICE rig. While some MOLLE gear could be shoehorned into ALICE service, your options become severely limited – MILSURP, mostly – when looking for ALICE gear.
In a perfect world, price would have very little to do with how we train. Unfortunately, most of us live in the real world, and can only train on limited funds. As I have said at multiple points throughout, the trade-off for newer materials, more choices and custom-built gear is money, the difference between the two being fairly staggering to look at. Outlets like eBay and military surplus stores offer ALICE “startup kits” – pistol belt, two mag pouches and Y-harness suspenders – for $15. Yes, $15. Foreign made, junk battle belts start at $30 by themselves, and they are certainly not the kind of gear I would stake my life on. I have been spoiled by my battle belt, but that’s exactly what it is: a luxury to become spoiled with, not the bare necessity for the activity.
Whether this difference of $200-500 is worth it to you depends on a bunch of factors, including how often you shoot, your primary purpose with the equipment, your income, and your wants and needs from your equipment. As I just hinted to, establishing what your wants and needs are may save you from an unnecessarily large purchase, or an unnecessarily inadequate set of gear.
So, did I answer the question of which is right for you? I hope not. I hope I gave you enough information to answer it yourself.
A note, though: If you are active military, the choice is, of course, clear. Drawbacks of any kind in your main equipment is unacceptable, regardless of cost. A very similar situation for competition shooters – the edge that newer, slicker gear might offer may make the difference.
But for those of you who classify yourself as active shooters, recreational shooters, and occasional plinkers, you may want to mull over the information given here and see what you decide.
A final thought: even if you decide to go the MOLLE route, the price involved in replicating your setup or a “get home” or “truck” kit may be prohibitively expensive. If ALICE does not make it for your main kit, perhaps it would function well as a low-cost knock-around rig that can be make to look and function exactly the same as your MOLLE gear, while at the same time costing less than $50 to assemble. In a “get home” scenario, you would be equipped with a rugged and familiar system, while not having to worry about having hundreds of dollars of designer nylon being stolen from your car in the meantime. Food for thought.