“Issued gear works perfectly…for someone” is probably the most accurate sentence I’ve heard regarding so-called “military-grade” equipment. When it comes to the topic of body armor, expecting the myriad body shapes of service members to fit into a singular design of plate carrier regardless of age, gender, and body composition is simply foolish. More foolish is to make this design have zero stretch or give, to accommodate movement or body expansion, and to have a very complex triple cummerbund system including side buckle straps, an elastic internal cummerbund (that’s always got worn out elastic), and a semi-rigid external cummerbund secured by Velcro. I don’t know what went on at KDH when they designed the U.S. Marine Corps plate carrier, but I know that in the year 2021, there are vastly better options on the commercial market. For most Marines, however, they’re restricted to a rigid fit, even with the new Vertical Protective Apparel Gen III Plate Carrier which only certain units are currently fielding.
As a POG reservist, my issued equipment consists of the older KDH, but thankfully BDS Tactical is on the case with their Skelton Cummerbund kit. The Skelton Cummerbund kit is a drop-in retrofit, made by BDS Tactical of Oceanside, CA, and retails for $135 or $114.75 with a military discount. Having personally visited their production facility in July 2021, I can attest to the fact that they are made of U.S. materials in the U.S., and the owner is making products from the perspective of a prior Recon Marine, influenced by what current Marines are experiencing. For the lucky Marines in Victor units, they even make an improvement kit for the current Gen III flak, and I’m about to tell you why even if you think you’ve got the latest thing, this is the right choice for you.
I’m going to give my usual disclaimer that I’m not sponsored by BDS Tactical, have no affiliation to them, and that I privately purchased this product myself. However, I’m going to add the disclaimer that this is not a product endorsement on behalf of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or the United States Marine Corps in any regard and that the views and opinions in this article are solely mine, and are not representative of the above-mentioned groups. To further accentuate this, I have avoided wearing any sort of rank, unit, or branch identifier in these photos.
BDS packages their mail-order products in a way that really drives home the whole “made in a small shop in Oceanside” feel. The packaging is extremely simple, sometimes literally “just the box it was mailed in” or in other cases, a simple plastic bag with no labels. This particular example was the former. It’s no frills.
Inside the packaging, there’s a couple cards detailing other BDS products, a pair of stickers, and the cummerbund itself, along with all required components. One thing missing, especially given the target demographic, is a set of instructions, or at least a link to an instructional video on how to put it together. I was able to figure it out, but this isn’t my first rodeo when it comes to putting the cummerbund back on a KDH USMC Plate Carrier. Overall, the simple packaging is likely a cost-saving measure, and doesn’t detract from my buying experience for something that I’m purchasing for military use, but if attractive packaging is something you expect, be prepared.
The cummerbund itself consists of four parts, which are the left and right cummerbund and the left and right Velcro adapters. As suggested by the name, the cummerbund is skeletonized, rather than being semi-rigid like the stock option, effectively reducing your cummerbund to a series of MOLLE columns, and if your unit doesn’t require you to wear side plates, you’ve basically got open airflow on either side, which is a big plus. When I emailed Mike Bornfriend, CEO of BDS Tactical, he described the Skelton cummerbund as being made of “solution-dyed mil spec 17337 non IR reflective webbing,” which means that unlike the Mystery Ranch pack that I recently reviewed, this will camouflage effectively even under night vision. What it also means is that the color is perfectly matched to the coyote brown color that’s used for issued USMC nylon gear so that the Skelton cummerbund doesn’t look like an obvious aftermarket addition.
I purchased this cummerbund in USMC coyote brown, but the company offers it in crye precision multicam and multicam black (for you hypebeasts) as well as ranger green. At the front of the cummerbund are National Molding TacTik buckles, which each have a small rip cord on them that terminate in a plastic bead for extra grip. At the rear, the cummerbund has plastic loops to attach the cummerbund to the three cloth eyelets normally used in the diffkit ripcord system. Just ahead of these buckles are adjustment straps with a generous amount of adjustment room, which means that this system will work for all but the smallest Marines.
Between the adjustment straps and the cummerbund are small sections of reinforced bungee material that allow you to tighten the carrier down to be snug on your body while also allowing for literal breathing room and preventing the common issue with the older KDH carriers, where the worn-out cummerbund Velcro will burst if you tighten your flak down and then go into the prone or even breathe in too strongly. Finally, as mentioned above, in the coyote brown option, they offer a traditional webbing version that is compatible with the KDH that I have, as well as the Gen III option that uses laser-cut MOLLE and features a rear Velcro adapter, for those with the new VPA carrier or most coyote brown plate carriers on the market.
The TacTik buckles at the front are the new way of attaching the cummerbund to the front platebag of your flak, rather than having to lift up the front flap and Velcro the left and right cummerbund on every time, which provides several advantages over the default attachment system. The first advantage is that quickly releasing the cummerbund so that you can easily escape your PPE in a survival environment is now non-destructive, whereas with the stock ripcord system, it’s a common prank to go up to someone who’s not paying attention, yank their ripcord, and leave them to take the next 10 to 20 minutes of their life figuring out how to reassemble it, usually with the help of some tools and a lot of profanity. Now, with the buckles, you simply yank the two pull cords down and the cummerbund is disengaged, and all you have to do to re-attach the buckles, and you’re good as new. Speaking of, the second major advantage is that you get the exact same lockup with your cummerbund every time, once you’ve adjusted them in the rear, because the other half of the buckles feature Velcro panels that fit onto the area where the cummerbund Velcro would ordinarily go, which also allows you to put the adapters in, close the front flap tightly, and then forget about it until it’s time to turn your flak into CIF. The final advantage is for those who have the Gen III flak, which does away with the old rear ripcord system and features QD buckles in front. Those buckles are much less durable than the TacTik buckles, and feature an attachment system that is (in my opinion) more finicky than the straightforward wedge option that the TacTik buckles feature.
How we tested the BDS Tactical Skelton Cummerbund upgrade kit
The first step to installing the BDS Skelton cummerbund is to remove the three included cummerbund methods, or whichever combination thereof that your flak was issued with. Find the ripcord handle, and pull it until the ripcord is completely free of the flak. Remove the external and internal cummerbunds, and if your unit SOP requires side plates, separate those from the external cummerbund, since you’ll need them later. Then, remove the buckle straps from the bottom of the platebags, and remove the front buckles as well before storing all of that stuff somewhere safe so that you don’t get destroyed at CIF turn-in. For Gen III users, the process is much simpler, since that variant simply uses Velcro, front and back, and is compatible with both the inner and outer vests, depending on your preference and unit SOP.
To actually install the new cummerbund, take the front buckle adapters, open up the front Velcro flap of the plate carrier, and install them so that only the hinge of the buckle is protruding from either side of the front flap. To install the cummerbund itself, open up the rear of the plate carrier to expose the three fabric loops. Place the plastic buckles over the loops, and pull them through to protrude through the buckles. If your unit requires you to retain the ripcord, which mine does, insert the ripcord through the loops, and then route the ripcord to a place where it can attach to Velcro. This presents one of the first issues that I have with the cummerbund, as there’s nowhere on the sides of the cummerbund to attach the ripcord, so unless you attach your side plates on the inside of the cummerbund and use the loop Velcro strips to hold the ripcord handle there, you’ll have to hook the ripcord into the Velcro in the back of the carrier, effectively making it impossible to reach with all your equipment on. This also means that it’s difficult to run the cummerbund slick-sided. If your unit doesn’t require you to retain the ripcord, put the ripcord with the rest of the gear you’re not using, and simply use 550 cord or a slim zip-tie to secure the cummerbund in back, since the front buckles make the ripcord obsolete anyway.
Once the cummerbund is fully installed, adjusting it is a breeze. I tightened it slightly smaller than normal, so that I have to slightly stretch the cummerbund to fasten it. The bungees provide all the extra room that I need for breathing or movement, while also keeping my flak snug to my body. Once I had the cummerbund to its desired size, I taped down the adjustment straps in the back to ensure that they don’t poke out from the sides or get caught on anything. This bungee feature alone makes the Skelton cummerbund a massive improvement, as it prevents my flak from moving independently from my body while running or jumping, prevents it from riding up while sitting down, and doesn’t restrict my breathing at all. This does wonders to reduce chafing on my shoulders and torso, and helps prevent bloody nipples as well.
In addition to testing the comfort of the Skelton cummerbund any time that I had to wear my flak in a field or tactical environment, I also took it to the range to test how it affected my comfort while shooting from various positions, and how it wore while walking through the woods in a heat index of 115 degrees Fahrenheit. The bungee portion at the rear allowed my flak to move with my body as I changed positions from kneeling, to standing, bending over, stepping over obstacles, etc. The tighter fit meant that I could easily run with it without any sort of body sway, and that I had maximum mobility in every position. Additionally, it meant that I could easily get my flak off in a hurry, and put it back on, which as mentioned above, makes the stock ripcord completely obsolete.
What we like about the BDS Tactical Skelton Cummerbund upgrade kit
This is really the magic bullet for the USMC flak, taking a plate carrier that works for only some people and making it a carrier that works for almost anyone. It simultaneously solves the issue of the stock cummerbund being overly complex and finicky, the issue of a lot of older plate carriers having worn-out cummerbund Velcro, the issue of the stock plate carrier not having any sort of elasticity to allow for body motion, the issue of the stock ripcord diffkit being destructive and requiring a complicated reassembly, and the issue of having to re-do the Velcro every time you take it off and put it on. When you consider all this functionality, it’s hard to not see the appeal. Even for Victor units who get the VPA Gen III flak, this provides better airflow, better fit, and a sturdier buckle.
What we don’t like about the BDS Tactical Skelton Cummerbund upgrade kit
Some of the downsides that testing revealed were that the plastic knobs on the buckle ripcords make an audible “clack” sound when you’re in motion, which can get annoying. This is easily solved with some tape or shrink-wrap, but it’s something to consider, especially as a noise discipline factor.
Another issue is the fact that the Gen II version of the cummerbund requires that you use the ripcord attachment system in the back, but there’s no place to really put the ripcord unless you feel like stuffing the whole handle into the rear flap of the carrier. Finally, and this really isn’t an issue with the carrier in question, but more the clientele: It requires Marines to spend money on something that they’ll likely only use in the field.
If you’re part of a unit that requires that you wear side plates, the process is going to be a little bit wonky to install them, so I’ll guide you through that. You’re basically going to have to install the side plate bags with the inside facing out, using the MOLLE webbing straps. If you’re wearing hard plates, you’ll then have to open the platebags and put the side ESAPIs in “behind” the soft armor inserts, because the hard plate needs to be on the opposite side of the soft armor from your body to work properly, being an “In Conjunction With” plate. For the Gen III, which has side platebags meant to be used in this way, proceed as normal.
FAQs about the BDS Tactical Skelton Cummerbund upgrade kit
More questions? Here’s Task & Purpose’s additional brief.
Q: How much does the BDS Tactical Skelton Cummerbund upgrade kit cost?
A: This kit retails for $135, or $114.75 with a military discount.
Q: What’s the importance of the fabric being solution-dyed and not reflecting IR light?
A: The importance of the fabric being solution-dyed to not reflect IR light is that without that treatment, under night vision, near-infrared light (the light immediately below the visible spectrum) will reflect back and make your equipment glow, rather than blending in with your background like the other natural features.
Q: What’s the importance of having a ripcord diffkit?
A: On December 9th, 1999, a CH-46 Sea Knight went down over the ocean with members of 1st Recon aboard. All but one Marine drowned, due to the fact that their cumbersome CQBE-AV armor was extremely difficult to remove under duress. This was rectified with the introduction of the Full-Spectrum Battle Equipment Amphibious Assault Vest, or FSBE (pronounced fizzbee), which featured a ripcord similar to the one on the KDH to allow Marines easy escape, should they fall overboard. With the VPA Gen III carrier and this retrofit kit, the ripcord is replaced with the quick-release front buckles, which serve the same purpose without causing the vest to literally fall apart.
Q: I’m in the Army. Is there a retrofit for the God-awful IOTV?
A: First off, why are you still here? I literally said in the title “Marines only,” but sure, Marines are the ones who can’t read. There’s no retrofit kit (yet) from BDS Tactical, but Arbor Arms makes a kit for the IOTV that allows you to use their Flex cummerbund, but it’s still really wonky because of the fact that the IOTV uses buckles in the front.
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Matt Sampson is an 0861 in the Marine Forces Reserve and a Virginia native. In his past life, he worked in tactical gear retail and is an avid firearms enthusiast. The farthest the Marine Corps has sent him from home is Oklahoma.
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