U.S. Army M1956 Load Carrying Equipment (LCE)

The M1956 LCE system was the first significant change and improvement of U.S. Army web gear since WWII – and also the first really user-friendly modular web gear. 

The image above is taken from the official “care and use” instructions from 1966, a copy of which can be found here: http://www.hardscrabblefarm.com/vn/m56-gear.html

The M1956 system continued the approach of the M1910 pattern web gear of incorporating a canvas pistol belt and H-type suspenders. It differed from previous set-ups, however, by relying on a single type of belt for soldiers armed with all weapons – based on the WWII pistol belt design.  It also introduced slide clip fasteners to attach the equipment pouches to the belt – these clips would later also be used on the ALICE system.  Holding equipment close to the belt reduced the bouncing effect of the M1910 wire-hangar attached equipment and allowed pouches to be mounted in places where there were no eyelets (such as the suspenders).

The M1956 Load-Bearing Equipment was originally adopted for use exclusively by the United States Army; however, during the Vietnam War it came into use across all the US Armed Forces.  The system then remained in general issue and service until being replaced by the All-purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment (ALICE) in 1974.  But although the ALICE system was supposed to replace all of the M56 gear, some pieces of M56 gear would still be found in use as late as the early 1990s.  The parts of the M56 set-up that were especially favoured were the Field Pack (or “Butt Pack”), as there was no ALICE replacement, and the H-shaped suspenders which are more comfortable and stable than the ALICE version. 

The primary shortfall of the M56 system was that it’s made of cotton canvas material – which makes it less durable, more water and odor absorbent, and heavier than nylon equipment.  Also, because if its propensity for absorbing moisture and mildew, the webbing was found to be susceptible to jungle rot – and having your web gear fall apart on you out in the boonies is not something you want to risk.

The other big weakness of both the M56 and ALICE systems was the slide-clip fasteners used to secure pouches to the pistol belt.  Although these were certainly better than the M1910 wire-hangars, they had the unfortunate habit of sometimes coming undone in use, which meant losing a pouch and/or needing to frequently refasten them.  They could also become very uncomfortable over prolonged periods of use – even causing abrasion wounds.  For these reasons, a trick we learned from the “old -timers” was to replace the clips with lengths of 550-cord and 100-mile-an-hour tape.

Despite the short-comings inherent in the materials used in its construction – and the clunkiness of some of the clips used – the M56 pattern webgear posessed a much superior suspender/shoulder harness design (commonly referred to as an “H-harness”) than its ALICE replacement, and this made it a much sought after alternative will in to the 1980’s.  

Its also interesting to note that the first product Blackhawk introduced back in 198x was a modernised and enhanced version of the M56 – because serviceable original examples were getting very few and far between.

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery…

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