The Birth of Pattern 83
The Cold War was not cold for South Africa. While most of Europe was playing an elaborate game of ‘who-has-the-most-nukes’, the South African Defense Force (SADF) was hard at work fighting the counter insurgency battles of the future. In the process, they developed and refined much of the tactics, weapons, and equipment used today.
In the 1960s and 1970s South Africans were involved in three major counterinsurgency wars in Sub Saharan Africa: The Congo Crisis (‘60-65), the Rhodesian Bush War (‘64-79), and the Border War (‘66-90).
Throughout the early years of these conflicts, the SADF (and various South African mercenary groups) relied on domestically produced Pattern 61/64 and Pattern 70 load bearing systems. Descended from the British Pattern 58, this family of web gear is broadly similar to the US ALICE system—and they all worked well with the FN FAL (R1).
Despite incremental improvement, heavy use of the Pattern 61/64/70 family revealed inadequacies. They were bulky, uncomfortable, and—despite some limited modularity—only designed for one kind of fight. As the operational tempo and intensity picked up in mid to late 70s there was a clear need for something better.
After the SADF began adoption of the 5.56x45 chambered Galil (R4), the writing was on the wall. South Africa needed a comfortable, lightweight, and simple to use LBE system that could keep up with communists using Kalashnikovs and ‘Chicom’ chest rigs.
To address this need, the Pattern 83 system (Pat 83) was designed in partnership with the South African outdoors industry. The system consists of three components: a “chest webbing” (chest rig), “battle jacket” (load bearing harness with assault pack), and “grootsak” (large backpack with detachable external frame.) Together they can be used and combined to suit any mission from parachute drops, to motorized operations, to sustained weeks-long patrols.
Why is Pattern 83 highly regarded?
The entire Pattern 83 system is an exercise in simplicity and versatility, the type of innovation borne out of practical field experience and pitched firefights. Every pocket, flap and strip of webbing has a clear, simple purpose. And both the chest rig and the battle jacket popularized ergonomic innovations and concepts we all take for granted today. In that respect P83 was way ahead of its time.
But clarity of purpose was only half of P83s strength. The system’s creators also leveraged several brand new materials and technologies.
1. 1000D polyurethane coated Cordura Nylon is a staple in modern tactical equipment. However in the 1980s dyed Cordura fabric was a brand new technology - pioneered in 1977. At the time P83 was introduced most of the world was still using legacy polyester fabrics.
2. The rust proof and shock proof plastic 'fastex' style buckles used on the chest rig were also brand new tech, invented by ITW Nexus in 1977 and produced from 1979 onwards.
3. Finally, there is evidence of SADF experimenting with Velcro closures for magazine pockets as early as 1978-79 in transitional prototypes. While Velcro technology was by no means new at the time, this type of military application was new. So while the rest of the world struggled with snaps, the SADF enjoyed fast, easy-to-access pouches on their gear years before anyone else did. (This was likely aided by the expiration of Velcro's patent in 1978 which ushered in a wave of affordable, generic hook-and-loop products.)
Materials aside, the chest rig was excellent at its job. During motorized patrols it was worn by itself, allowing soldiers to carry enough ammunition and equipment to vigorously react to close contact without excess bulk or weight. On long foot patrols, the chest rig was worn with the larger ‘grootsak’ backpack. Mounted on a quick release, the large rucksack could be dumped at a moments notice, allowing soldiers to quickly enter the fight with 6 + 1 magazines and virtually no excess baggage.
Early P83 chest rigs had the added benefit of backwards compatibility with FN FAL (R1) magazines—accomplished through magazine ejector straps located in each cell of the rig. (We’ve retained this feature in our new production rigs as it enables cross compatibility with all shorter magazines from 5.56 STANGs to 7.62 SCAR17 mags.)
Once introduced, the Pattern 83 system racked up decades of combat experience in later years of the Border War. To this day, it's still used in nearly every corner of Africa.
Our Experience with Pattern 83
For many years, Pattern 83 items have been a staple in our store. We have deep connections in South Africa and well over 6 years of successful imports behind us. But the Cold War is now 30 years ended and those limitless stockpiles of equipment are drying up.
In the late 90s production of Pattern 83 slowed and then gradually stopped post apartheid. Over the next 15 odd years it was gradually phased out of service, with large state auctions occurring in the early 2010s. Finally in 2015, the system as a whole was formally discontinued.
For years we explored the idea of new production in Africa, but it was a losing battle. Everyone is long gone, and the few remaining companies are in shambles due to infrastructure and supply chain collapse in South Africa. For many, COVID related disruptions were the final straw.
We still plan on importing small pockets of original pieces, but with dwindling supply and skyrocketing costs it’s clear the glory days are over.
Making it New
Our goal from the start was to make a genuine, high quality reproduction that was truly fit for purpose. To do this we realized we needed to bring Pattern 83 production home to the US.
Using our library of original samples, SADF source materials, and South African contacts we reverse engineered the Pattern 83 chest rig from the bottom up. We matched everything from the sewing patterns to the materials and worked diligently to ensure the quality was there.
Today we’re proud to be working with an experienced military manufacturer, and using high quality Berry compliant materials. It’s the way something like this should be done.
When we started setting up this run, we decided to produce Ranger Green and Coyote Brown chest rigs. This was a small departure from the original design, but we wanted to keep this project relatively simple by using as many stock materials as possible.
After all, we wanted to make something that people would use and enjoy in the 2020s. And from that perspective Ranger Green and Coyote definitely fit the bill.
But as we pressed on we kept hearing the same question from Pattern 83 fanatics: "What about Nutria?" After dozens of similar inquiries, we started asking around and quickly realized almost everyone preferred Nutria Brown to Coyote. And It's no wonder, Nutria is an integral part of what makes Pattern 83 so Iconic.
On the face of it, a custom dyed 1000D Cordura seemed relatively impossible with our previous goals in mind. After all we had a tight quality standard to meet. Any fabric used in the rig had to be NIR compliant and manufactured entirely in the USA to make it berry compliant. Usually that means massive orders in the hundreds of thousands of yards of fabric.
After a lot of back and forth we managed to find a supplier and met their minimums. And to us, that seems like the best possible outcome. A Ranger Green rig for the modernists, and a classic Nutria Repro that's as authentic as we can make it.