The military combat boot is a type of versatile footwear worn around the world. From women’s fashion on the runway to the battlefield and tactical application, this boot had its first humble beginnings hundreds of years ago. And just like humans, the combat boot has evolved through generations of change and adaptation. Arguably one of the most important pieces of equipment or gear anyone in a combat situation may possess, the combat boot has come a long way from its humble beginnings. After researching with the approach of a devout scholar, we are proud to present our taking on the Evolution of the Modern Military Army Boot.
While the distinct shape and design of the modern combat boot first took shape in the 1900’s, many early civilizations had their own variations.
The Romans became one of the first civilizations to regularly use footwear. Leather sandals or thongs were most commonly worn by the middle and upper class. Caligae, while similar in appearance to modern day sandals, were boots worn by Roman legionary soldiers and auxiliary for battles and marches. They were made from vegetable tanned cow or ox hide, with an open design made for comfort and ventilation. The adjustable nature of the straps led to fewer blisters and foot related injuries. The hobnails in the leather soles provided good traction for uneven ground, and hobnailing was practiced until the 20th century.
Between the 1500’s and 1600’s the cavalry of the Persian military wore specialized combat boots with an elevated heel. It is assumed that the heel of the boot made it easier to ride horseback, as the foot was less likely to slip through the stirrup. The Shah, or king, Abbas I, had an open diplomatic policy with Europe, and it is suspected that these early combat boots led to the fashion trend of men wearing high heeled shoes in Europe.
There are several other instances throughout history of great warriors and fearsome tribes or clans wearing a primitive form of boot. Vikings often made their own from leather, which they custom tailored to their own feet through sewing. Many Ancient Greeks, like the Spartans, wore foot coverings in extreme cold weather situations. These boots were very similar to the Roman Caligae.
Several important military traditions were given birth during the historic break from England. The U.S. was still young, and the military was minute compared to England’s oppressive command. Smaller militias lent aid to the cause from all across the original colonies.
Most militias had their own distinct colors and apparel, alluding to the different military divisions we know today. The typical dress worn would be; a hunting shirt, breeches, leggings, wool jacket, hat, and whatever footwear was available.
Since raw materials were expensive, and taxes high, many soldiers, and even civilians, were forced to improvise with their footwear. In the colder colonies, where shoes were necessary to fight against frostbite and hypothermia, ground troops used whatever materials they had on hand. Scraps of cloth or raw animal hide were popular choices, but on occasion blankets tied to the feet would prove better than going barefoot into battle.
Cavalry, ranking officers, and those that could afford them typically wore Hessian boots. Hessian boots originated in Germany, and were knee high with a short heel, tailored for riding on horseback. The boots typically had tassels on the front, and were later cut lower in the back to help with maneuverability white still offering protection for the knee. The boots were styled for a close fit and worn with knee high breeches. Due to the tightness of this boot, a boot hook was often necessary to properly put the boots on, which proved a lengthy process.
War of 1812
Standardized boots were hard to come by during the 19th century, and much of the military still wore whatever shoes they were able to afford. Military dress became more standardized, and the typical red, white, and blue colors of the overcoat were predominantly worn.
Infantry units wore calf high riding boots in a style similar to the Hessian Boot. Trooper boots that went up past the thigh offered the most protection, but were expensive and impractical for ground units on long marches.
The beginning of government issued boots came about in the War of 1812. The War Department ordered as many pairs of ankle high boots that were available to the at the time, and outfitted the soldiers that would need them the most. The boots were typically sewn on straight lasts, a type of shoe mold that made each shoe completely symmetrical. Until they were properly broken in the boots proved uncomfortable, often leaving blisters. Sometimes called Brogan boots, they were usually made of calfskin or patent leather.
American Civil War
In 1837 a pegging machine was invented, which made for the faster production of cheap boots and booties. The pegs, usually small pieces of wood or metal, were used to hold the shape of the boot, which deteriorated much faster than the hand-sewn method. By the time the Civil War came, the government preferred the original design. The price for pegged boots decreased to just over $1.25, while hand sewn Cavalry boots were often purchased at three times that price.
The idea of soles became more popular during this time, and most were hand sewn. The Hessian boots was replaced by a Wellington style M1851 Artillery Driver’s boot, which were outfitted to cavalry and artillery drivers. The heel was slightly shorter than the Hessian boot, and the toe was more squared. In an effort to improve durability, brass tacks were inserted in the sole.
Union soldiers had access to better quality materials, while their Confederate counterparts suffered with boots of sub-par quality. The soldiers fighting for the North were first issued hand-sewn boots, and pegged boots only as a last resort. Most boots worn by the Confederate Army were pegged, nailed, or riveted, and fashioned in a style similar to that of the British Military at the time. Some of the greedier manufacturers used poor materials in an effort to take advantage of the civil turmoil. Rumors of cardboard being used circulated, and some even sharpened the pegs or brass tacks in the soles to make them wear out more quickly.
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With the evolution of explosives and artillery like grenades and machine guns, trench-style warfare became more common during the early and mid-1900’s. Given the wet, cold, and unsanitary nature of the trenches, military gear and equipment, boots in particular, had to hold up against extreme conditions.
The modern combat boot we know today began to take shape in WWI. Most boots made in the early 1900’s had a distinct left and right, as opposed to previous versions with each shoe being virtually interchangeable.
In the early years of WWI, the Russet Marching shoe was the most widely accepted boot worn in the military. It was highly polishable and made of machine-sewn calfskin. The inner lining was made from feathers. While this boot proved far more advanced than previous issue boots, it did not hold up well on French terrain. A later version, modeled with specifications from France and Belgium, was made from vegetable retanned cow hide, and featured both a full and half-sole. Rows of hobnails and iron plates were affixed to the heel of every boot. The heel and sole were attached with screws, nails, and stitching, and despite their superior construction, still did not hold up against the rough conditions.
In 1917 the Trench Boot was born, offering vast improvements from the Russet Marching Shoe. While it offered better protection against the wet conditions, it was not waterproof, which lead to various diseases like trench foot.
The look and styling was similar to the marching shoe, but the insole was composed of new materials like; canvas, cork, and cement. Due to the rigid nature of the soles, the boots were highly uncomfortable until broken in and the natural movement of the foot caused excessive damage. The Trench Boot offered little in the way of insulation, and many soldiers complained of cold feet. It became common practice to wear multiple pairs of socks, and order boots a few sizes above what one would normally wear. Several different variations were produced in an attempt to fix the early issues of waterproofing.
A year later, the 1918 Trench Boot, or “Perishing Boot” was released, offering improvements over earlier versions. Better quality materials, such as heavier leather and stronger canvas were used in an attempt to improve the longevity of use. The boot’s soles were attached in a similar fashion with screws and nails, but held three soles in total, as opposed to the previous issue’s one and a half. The metals used in hobnailing conducted the cold, and the thicker sole helped eliminate that problem. Iron toe cleats were added to the toe of each boot, offering extra protection, but making the boots bulkier.
During WWII, the first set of official government issued combat boots came about. They were titled Boots, Combat Service, and nicknamed “Double Buckle Boots.” While previous military boots like the Trench Boots only had laces, these boots went back to the older buckle style. These boots were made from synthesized rubber and other recycled materials, and had a leather fold-over cuff with two buckles.
With only a single sole, they proved uncomfortable, but much easier to move around in than the Trench Boot.
In times of shortage, some units, particularly Rangers, were issued Paratrooper Jump boots, which were quite distinct from all other boots at the time. While the combat service boots were made of leather and olive drab canvas, the paratrooper boots were a solid leather with no buckles.
Previous issue boots with minimal variation were used during the Korean War, but did not last in Vietnam. Vastly different climates and temperatures rapidly deteriorated the soles and integrity of the Combat Service Boot, which was eventually replaced by the Jungle Boot.
The general idea behind Jungle Boots first came about in Panama and the latter part of WWII for Soldiers serving in the Pacific. While these boots consisted mainly of rubber and nylon, they did not hold up well. The government issued boot was typically the traditional all leather combat boot, or the Jungle Boot. The U.S. Department of War tasked the company Wellco with solving the troops various issues with moisture, insects, and sand. Wellco created and sold a prototype which held up better than their previous counterparts. The boot was composed of a black leather sole and canvas upper with an attached tongue, which helped to keep out insects and debris. It built upon earlier generations by using rubber and a canvas with a cotton blend, but added in the durability of leather. Water drains were added to help keep the feet dry and prevent bacteria from growing.
After in-combat testing and feedback, the Jungle Boot was adapted to better suit the Soldiers’ needs. The canvas blend was replaced with a nylon canvas that dried faster. Steel plates were affixed to the soles of the boot, to protect the feet against punji stakes used to pierce the foot. Additional nylon webbing reinforced the boots’ uppers, increasing the durability. While these boots did not last as long as all leather combat boots, they did offer a vast improvement over the earlier versions. Soldiers were known to carry multiple sets of boots, and often wore their jungle boots only when absolutely necessary.
Materials were scarce throughout the 20th century wars, and soldiers wore through their issued uniforms and boots frequently. Several accounts tell of scavenging from dead soldiers of rival nations for boots, coats, and other gear.
The War on Terror
Advances in weaponry led to the need for protective body armor, and the pockets located on the front of the Woodland Camo BDU could not be accessed when such gear was worn. The design overhaul featured accessible pockets and new digital patterns and color schemes of MARPAT and ACU. The change in standard issue garments led to the development of new and improved combat ready footgear.
Access to better materials, like Gore-Tex, a lightweight, waterproof fabric increased comfort with compromising quality. The material allows for good ventilation without trapping perspiration. Safety toes can also be used depending on MOS, in either steel toe or composite plastics.
The Vietnam Era jungle boot heavily influenced the design of the Desert Combat Boot. Various combinations of rubber, nylon, and leather had proved to be the building blocks for the development of boots in today’s armed forces. The idea of ventilation in the jungle boot was transferred to all current combat issued boots.
In the early 2000’s, the Army released two version of their Combat Boot. While both versions were similar, each had its own proprietary features tailored to the expected conditions and terrain.
Both the Temperate and the Hot Weather Desert Combat Boot are equipped with tan colored, rough-out cowhide leather, and nylon uppers. Approved variations have slip and shock resistant rubber for the soles. The temperate weather boot is better equipped for slightly colder climates, with a layer of insulation meant to protect the foot and keep it warm. The hot weather boots are more lightweight and breathable. Desert boots are either waterproof or water resistant, depending on the manufacturer.
The USMC switched over to Rugged All Terrain, or RAT boots, which has similarities to the Desert Combat Boots, with several notable differences. As the name implies, RAT boots were made to be used on a variety of tough terrain. Temperate versions can be used in snow, ice, and mountain conditions, while hot weather variations are better for jungle and desert regions.
The grooved sole design provides better traction, and impregnated leather heel and toe caps provide better protection overall for the foot. Regulation states that the EGA emblem must be clearly visible on the outer heel of each boot.
A/N: Please feel free to point out any historical inaccuracies
1. Caliga, Carole Raddato and Marcus Cyron, Wiki Commons, Photo taken at Landes Museum, Mainz
2. Hessian Boots, Pride and Predjudice Wikispaces
3. Double Buckle Boots, TMaull @ flickr.com
4. 1960’s black combat boots, HAF932 on Wiki Commons
5. No credit needed, Bates boot
6. No credit needed, demilitarized Bates boot
Worldwar1.com, Jim Bond
Encyclopedia of U.S. Army Insignia and Uniforms, William K Emerson
Shemaghscarf.com, Belleville Combat Boots, Bob A. Fisher
Bbcnews.com, Persian History, William Kremer