So you’ve got your first modular vest, chest rig, belt, or plate carrier. Maybe you already have some pouches you want to rig up, but you’re not sure what to put where, or whether you need a few more pouches before you’re game-ready. There are two pieces of good news, though. One, you’re not getting shot at for real, and so you have time to experiment with different configurations to find what you like, and two, setting up MOLLE gear isn’t as intimidating as it looks. There are a few basics to keep in mind, and different types of gear benefit from different load strategies, but the best way to get started is to take a general configuration and adjust it to fit your needs!
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MOLLE Loadout Basics
The first question you need to answer when you’re putting together a loadout for airsoft purposes is what your priorities are in terms of ammunition, gear, and tools. Since most airsoft games aren’t highly strenuous, weight isn’t as much of a concern as it would be for someone who expected to spend all day in combat gear but lowering the number of pounds you’re carrying should still be a priority. Likewise, the less bulk you’re carrying on your person, the easier it is to move and shoot.
Figuring out your ammunition load is the first step. In terms of a place to start, I find that I can get through a half-hour game pretty easily with five 120 round magazines, four on the plate carrier, and one in the rifle. If you shoot more or less sparingly than I do, you’ll have to adjust your own load accordingly; it’s primarily a matter of playstyle and personal choice.
While it’s not ammunition per se, having an extra battery for any AEG you’re using is also a good move. Many standard batteries fit nicely into a magazine pouch, and the ones that don’t can be stored in a general-purpose utility pouch.
Having a toolkit with you on the field might be the last thing on your mind, but in some cases, it can come in handy. Don’t carry anything too heavy, just what you need to fix any immediate malfunctions in your gear! This can include the proper sized Allen keys for your gun, miniature screwdrivers, and any other tools you need to perform minor maintenance. If you’re playing on a field that allows it, it might also be worthwhile to have some “combat engineering” gear on your person. I’ve used gardening shears to help clear a hole for sniping through dense brush, and a small trowel might be handy to help conceal airsoft mines (if you have permission to use them, of course).
Regardless of what kind of airsoft game you’re playing, it’s a good idea to have some basic gear on your vest besides just ammunition. Things like a dead rag and barrel cover are good to keep on you at all times and can be easily stored on your vest or inside a MOLLE utility pouch. While it’s not what most people would consider “other gear”, a sidearm is a useful piece of kit to have, whether you plan to use it for MED engagements, silent eliminations, or just as a backup to your primary.
There are too many types of holsters out there to recommend just one configuration, but regardless of what type you like to use, there’s almost certainly some way to mount it effectively to your MOLLE gear. Having midgame access to water is also a good idea for games lasting much longer than twenty minutes, particularly in dry weather (this means both summer AND winter). Packing a small canteen is one way to do this, but a more convenient way is attaching a Camelbak-style hydration bladder to your gear. The US military has been officially issuing hydration packs for nearly ten years (and soldiers have been buying them with their own funds for longer) and it’s fairly easy to find cheap surplus bladders and carriers that attach to MOLLE webbing. Just be careful to clean a used bladder out thoroughly along with its hose; mold likes to grow inside.
For long games, a first aid kit becomes a little more important, especially when the field is a ways away from medical care. Airsoft isn’t a particularly dangerous sport, but it’s good to at least have some bandages, gauze, antibiotic, and the like.
Setting Up Different Types of Gear
Setting up a Battle Belt
Battle belts are a pretty simple concept- generally, they are composed of two parts, an inner and outer belt. The inner is often a simple rigger’s belt and provides most of the tensile strength, while the outer is padded and has sufficient MOLLE webbing to attach pouches to. One of the advantages of the battle belt is that it offers great placement for sidearms. If you’re right-handed, consider a holster near 3 o’clock with pistol magazines around 9 o’clock. 3 or 4 rifle magazine pouches can be attached between the 9 and 3 o’clock positions, and if you want to use a dump pouch to drop your magazines, the 8 o’clock position works well. First aid kits, radio pouches, and utility pouches can fill the rest of the space. Consider flipping all of the above if you’re a lefty.
One quick caution- be extremely careful with the gear you attach to the 6 o’clock position on the belt. When falling backward it’s possible that whatever’s back there might impact your spine, and if it’s too rigid it could cause some serious damage. My recommendation? If it’s a long game, that’s a great place for a general-purpose pouch filled with snacks. If it’s a short game, leave it empty.
Setting up an FLC-style MOLLE Vest
One of the first pieces of MOLLE gear to get much popularity among military forces (including the United States and the United Kingdom) was the MOLLE mesh vest. In the US, the Fighting Load Carrier, or FLC, was manufactured as part of the larger MOLLE system. Due to its design, it’s an easy-to-don load carriage system, quick to throw over the shoulders and zip up.
Besides its ease of use, the FLC vest has a ton of MOLLE retail- nearly full coverage of the chest, plus a belt-like section that wraps around the body at the navel level. However, due to the way the vest is constructed, gear higher on the vest has a tendency to flop around a bit. In general, I find that the higher a pouch is on your chest, the harder it is to access. Keep essential stuff, like mag pouches, on the bottom MOLLE row in front. Since the FLC is somewhat supported by the user’s hips, keeping the weight low improves comfort and agility.
Less important equipment, map pouches, and the like can be mounted higher on the chest. While there’s space on the user’s side for some pouches, I try to avoid using this to provide a slightly better range of arm motion, though I’ll admit a canteen pouch makes a nice “shelf” to keep your rifle arm from getting tired. Put things that are small, heavy, and nonvital on your backside, and abide by the same advice as a belt- keep hard objects away from your spine.
Setting up a Full-Size Plate Carrier
Full-size plate carriers like the Interceptor Body Armor (AKA the US military’s OTV) are generally similar in carriage capacity to an FLC-style vest. Beyond just MOLLE retail, usually, they include space for an armor plate in front and back, as well as soft armor or hard armor inserts covering the sides. They’ll be a little bulkier, a little more secure, and consequently, a little harder to take on and off, but they follow similar rules to a vest in that it’s important to try to keep weight on the lower parts of the carrier, and that adding pouches to the side area is going to make arm movement more constrained.
One of the key advantages a plate carrier offers, besides actually carrying armor, is that the backside is useful MOLLE space too. This opens the door to carrying small packs or hydration carriers. This isn’t just a useful feature from a storage perspective, this also helps balance out weight placed on the front side.
Setting up a Compact Plate Carrier
A compact plate carrier like the Crye Jumpable Plate Carrier or JPC (sized to cover your lungs and heart and carry a 10×12″ plate) isn’t much different from a chest rig in terms of front real estate, though most offer at least two rows of MOLLE space instead of just one wide horizontal row. Occasionally they have cummerbunds that have some space for pouches on the side, but as usual, I’d recommend against filling these unless you really need the space. Just like a full-size plate carrier, the back is open space well-suited for storage or hydration. One interesting new release in this segment is Grey Ghost Gear’s SMC (“Shoot-Move-Communicate”) plate carrier that, instead of a single MOLLE rear panel, offers zip-on, zip-off panels that can be quickly swapped for different mission requirements.
Setting up a Chest Rig
In general, I find that the higher a pouch is on your chest, the harder it is to access. Minimal MOLLE chest rigs offer lightweight, conveniently placed storage, but they’re not quite as speedy as pouches mounted on your beltline or stomach. If it’s your only storage space, rifle magazine pouches are probably your best use of MOLLE real estate. If you’re running it in conjunction with a belt, put rifle mags there and consider moving less essential gear (like radios, map pouches, or sidearms) to the chest rig.
Assorted Tips and Tricks
Zip Ties Fix Everything
Whenever you have something you want to attach to your gear but can’t figure out how, zip ties are usually the answer. If you have a non-MOLLE pouch you can almost certainly find a way to attach it to a MOLLE interface with a suitable application of zip ties. Additionally, if you have a zip tie you want to keep from getting any tighter (maybe you use it as a loop to tuck your dead rag in) dab just a little epoxy or JB Weld into the ratchet mechanism.
DIY Armor Plates
If you’ve got a plate carrier without any plates in it, it’s going to be loose and will do a pretty poor job of keeping your load secured. That doesn’t mean you need to go out and spend a few hundred dollars on NIJ-approved Level IIIA armor plates; you can buy inexpensive ABS plates from most airsoft retailers. Even better, three or four layers of corrugated cardboard can be cut to shape and glued together for a strong, nearly free solution. Make sure you glue the pieces so the corrugation alternates directions between the layers and wrap the finished edges in packing tape so the plate slides in easily and doesn’t abrade the plate carrier. Alternatively, most open-cell packing foams can be cut to fit a plate carrier. Compared to cardboard, they’re much more flexible and compressible, although a little harder to find in a large enough size.
Carrying Loose Ammunition
If you’re playing in an all-day scenario game or you use a light support weapon like an M249, it’s probably a good idea to carry some of your ammunition as loose BBs in canisters. Most appropriately-sized containers can be carried in canteen pouches or failing that, P90 magazine pouches. While it may seem a little clumsy, you can carry a lot more total ammunition this way. My advice is to glue felt or other soft fabric to the inside of the container, to minimize the “maraca effect” of a bunch of shaking BBs.
MOLLE Vest Setup Final Thoughts
Hopefully, this all leaves you with a better idea of where to start with your combat load! I cannot reiterate enough, regardless of how well you think your gear is set up, as soon as you get to a game you’ll think of ways to adjust and improve your loadout. Thankfully, by making some wise choices on what kinds of equipment you need to carry and how to build an initial setup, you can continue to take advantage of MOLLE’s modular nature to build something that fits you.