The MOLLE System: What is it? How Does it Work?

Even if you haven’t heard the acronym MOLLE before, chances are you’ve seen it at most airsoft games, or in photos of pretty much anything tactical: rows of horizontal nylon webbing sewn onto pretty much any free surface, from body armor to backpacks, and used to attach all kinds of gear and pouches. For someone who’s new to the concept, it may seem like it could be complicated or confusing to use. That said, it’s actually a pretty simple, forgiving system for setting up a personalized, custom combat load. It can be pretty useful in a few other contexts too!

What Is MOLLE?

Initially, MOLLE, short for Modular Lightweight Load-Carrying Equipment, was a set of tactical gear components developed by the United States Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center back in 1997. The system included three main components: a chest rig, hydration carrier, and rucksack. It also incorporated a number of supplementary pouches for ammunition, radios, and other similar items. All of these pouches could be attached to the main components using a system of woven nylon straps.

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That system of straps, which Natick referred to as the Pouch Attachment Ladder System, or PALS, was the element that made MOLLE especially useful. In effect, PALS attachment surfaces are formed out of regularly-spaced horizontal rows of nylon webbing, tacked into the article of gear at regular intervals. The pouches to be attached have similar rows of webbing, but also have an integrated strap that can be woven between the rows of webbing. To properly join the two parts together, the strap must alternate between surface rows and pouch rows, much like one would weave a basket. To finish the joint, the strap has a brass snap on the end that snaps back onto the pouch, holding the pouch tightly to the surface. Once everything’s successfully attached together, it should stay in place regardless of what you throw at it!

Why is MOLLE an improvement over past systems?

Previous systems for attaching gear pouches (like ALICE) were at least somewhat modular but suffered from a number of different issues. They often incorporated steel clips, which are heavy and prone to rust, didn’t hold pouches securely in all directions, and only offered limited options for individual customization. MOLLE/PALS, on the other hand, gets almost all its strength from the weaving, requiring only a little metal in the form of brass securing snaps (which are lightweight and don’t rust). A 2×2 PALS joint holds up to several hundred pounds in any direction and prevents pouches from twisting or hanging loosely. What’s more, with a large surface (like a plate carrier) covered in PALS attachment straps, a pouch can be attached at any point horizontally or vertically, unlike a belt system that constrains pouches to a specific height on the body.

Why do people say MOLLE and not PALS?

If MOLLE only refers to the specific system developed in 1997, why are so many people talking about it today? Over the years, it’s become a generic term (like “Kleenex”) for any tactical gear that uses Natick’s PALS attachment surfaces to connect modular tactical gear components together. While it’s technically correct to call it PALS gear instead, truth be told, it’s a lot more fun to say MOLLE (pronounced “Molly”) than it is to say, PALS. Disclaimer: if you want to go up to someone from MARSOC and correct them on technicalities, I’m not liable.

What is MOLLE used for?

MOLLE/PALS is a lot like duct tape- any time two things need to be stuck together semi-permanently, it’s a pretty good fit for the job. The obvious choices for attachment surfaces are things like chest rigs, plate carriers, and combat belts, all of which would traditionally have magazine pouches or other gear storage. Beyond that, though, there are quite a few unconventional carriers out there. Many backpacks now have PALS webbing for some exterior storage space. (I sewed some webbing onto my backpacking gear to add a radio pouch, and it held up pretty well during some tough trails in the Rockies). Some manufacturers even make PALS surfaces that can be hung on car seats, providing extra gear storage during mounted operations.

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MOLLE/PALS gear is also so associated with military gear at this point that there are a number of joke products that incorporate intentionally useless PALS webbing. If you need a “tactical” barbecue apron or Christmas stocking, they’re definitely out there.

What are some options for MOLLE accessories?

That’s not even getting into the myriad variety of pouches, holsters, and other stuff that can attach to PALS webbing. There are magazine pouches available for pretty much any rifle or pistol magazine, even the odd ones like P90 mags. Different manufacturers make different types of mag pouches. Originally, the majority had velcro or snap closures similar to the pouches used with the ALICE system. However, newer retention systems keep magazines secure with an elastic cord, or just friction from a grippy internal coding. (Personal recommendation- surplus USMC “Speed Reload” M4/M16 magazine pouches are excellent options and are available very cheaply in Coyote Brown)Holsters are also an option, both vertical for use on belts and horizontal for chest carry. Several manufacturers have also designed semi-proprietary mounts that allow Kydex holsters to be attached to PALS surfaces in any orientation. There are also a couple of systems that allow a rifle to be hung from a PALS surface. Much like a sling, this can keep weight off the arms when not in use; handy for checkpoint guards and police, or airsofters in the safe zone.There are certainly plenty of miscellaneous MOLLE/PALS components as well. Most manufacturers sell things like admin panels, which typically offer space for pens, folded paper/maps, and other small items. Velcro surfaces for patches are widely available, as are “general purpose” pouches and first aid kit storage.

      Why should you use MOLLE in airsoft?

      The advantages of MOLLE/PALS gear are fairly clear compared to non-modular options or less flexible alternatives like ALICE. The biggest one is that pouches can be easily and quickly swapped out. If you have a rifle with 5.56mm style magazines and another with 7.62mm magazines, you don’t have to buy two separate chest rigs, just two sets of magazine pouches. The reverse is true also; if you’ve got a plate carrier setup and want to try a battle belt, you can use the pouches you’ve already got on the belt. You have the option to move pouches to the locations that are ergonomically best for you, and you can also pick and choose how much storage you need for each game, in order to keep your load light.However, there are certainly some drawbacks to be aware of before you invest in a MOLLE setup. For one, an integrated chest rig is generally cheaper than a MOLLE/PALS plate carrier of similar quality, especially once you’ve gotten the pouches to go with it. Additionally, although surplus gear generally offers the best performance per dollar, there’s a relatively moderate supply of MOLLE/PALS surplus on the market due to the newness of the system. If you’re in the US, the majority of that surplus will also be in the US Army’s Universal Camouflage Pattern, generally considered a poor camouflage.

      What are some MOLLE alternatives?

      As with any technology, one system won’t fit the needs of a hundred percent of users. Despite the dominance of MOLLE/PALS, there are a few alternative products out there that have their own advantages.

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      MALICE Clip

      One of the most prominent is the “MALICE clip”, made by Tactical Tailor and also used by related company Grey Ghost Gear. It’s not an alternative to MOLLE/PALS, but rather a complement to it; MALICE gear substitutes the usual nylon webbing strap for a polymer clip, allowing for some interesting alternative attachment methods. This includes attaching MOLLE gear to ALICE belts and vice versa. It adds a little weight over standard MOLLE/PALS, but the real disadvantage is that the clips require a tool (a knife or screwdriver) to open.

      Hexgrid

      An unusual modification to the base MOLLE/PALS system is 5.11 Tactical’s “Hexgrid”. Instead of horizontal rows, the Hexgrid system forms the attachment interface out of laser-cut Hypalon fabric with a hexagonal arrangement. While pouches have a little more play than in a pure MOLLE/PALS system, they can also be mounted at a 45-degree angle. I’m personally not a huge fan (vertical pouches work well for me) but I’m sure there’s a niche out there.

      6-9 and 6-12

      First Spear’s “6-9” and “6-12” systems are another approach to modifying standard PALS equipment, this time with an eye towards reducing weight. Instead of using nylon webbing, the entire attachment surface is a laser-cut Hypalon. A decent weight saving comes from the use of small “tabs” to attach pouches, rather than using stiffened nylon straps. While the weight reduction is similar between 6-12 and 6-9, 6-9 offers backward compatibility with MOLLE/PALS gear. I’ve tried out 6-9 and was impressed, but the weight reduction didn’t seem significant enough to justify the substantial cost.

      Non-Standard Spacing

      Lastly, there are a number of companies that make intentionally non-standard or “out-of-spec” MOLLE/PALS gear. One notable case is Grey Ghost Gear’s UGF battle belt, which has PALS rows set closer together than normal in order to “pinch” the webbing and form a more rigid connection between belt and pouch.

      Conclusion

      Compared to an off-the-shelf chest rig, building a full MOLLE/PALS kit may seem pretty intimidating, particularly from a cost standpoint; not only do you need the base plate carrier, chest rig, or battle belt, you also need to buy all the pouches you’ll use. Fortunately, it’s the sort of thing that can develop over time by buying one or two pouches at a time! Once you’ve put together a setup you’re happy with, the modularity of the system is pretty valuable, and you’ll be able to scale your kit up or down to tackle most airsoft events. As with all things, the best way to learn is by going hands-on and experimenting!