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Carrying the Load

One manufacturer's SOF experience

 

 

In some cases, U.S. Special Operations Command’s (USSOCOM) industry partners work hard to identify and explore their niche within the special operations requirements community. Other times, that niche just seems to find them. One example of the latter instance involves Mystery Ranch, the current manufacturer of a range of pack products used by special operations elements in the United States and several partner nations.

“I was in my office at a company called Dana Design, where I was one of the two owners, and the designer, in 1989,” recalled Dana Gleason, principal/designer at Mystery Ranch. “One day I got a phone call kicked up to me from customer service. When I picked up the phone, there was no ‘Hello.’ There was no ‘Hi, my name is.’ All there was was someone practically shouting, ‘How do I keep that paint on?’ Obviously I had to respond to this in some way. So after a moment, I just said, ‘You’re painting my babies???!!!’ And we started talking.”

At the time, the pack was only produced in a bright red color, because high visibility was a desired trait in mountaineering. Moreover, the company had just changed the waterproof coating on those packs, transitioning from an older waterproofing product to a Teflon coating.

Gleason learned that the caller was from SEAL Team Two and working with unit elements in Alaska on mountain warfare techniques.

“They had used military pack stuff, thrown it away, and then went for the best civilian backpack they could get,” Gleason explained. “We did a thing for high mountain in Alaska or the Himalayas at Dana Design called the Astralplane, which was a play on words, since our most popular pack at the time was called the Terraplane.”

At the time, the pack was only produced in a bright red color, because high visibility was a desired trait in mountaineering. Moreover, the company had just changed the waterproof coating on those packs, transitioning from an older waterproofing product to a Teflon coating.

“We were one of the first people to start working with DuPont on using Teflon as a water repellant for nylon materials,” Gleason said. “The trouble was that the SEALs had first gotten half a dozen packs from a shop called Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking up in Anchorage. They had spray painted them to get the red off and it worked great. They then got more packs. But the new ones had the Teflon on it, and the spray paint would just peel up and fall off. And hence the phone call.”

Gleason said that over the course of a 45-minute phone call, he was convinced that the SEALs might possibly buy 25 packs if he could change the color and add a few design features.

“So on the phone, I said that we would build you a special version in black, which was a tactical color at that time, and a little heavier material, with features like inside zippers. And one of the reasons I bought into it was because I came up with a halfway clever name for it: the Overkill pack. And over the course of the next decade, we sold over a thousand of them, mainly to SEALs but to other folk as well. Basically, it was simple: This guy seemed like a hardcore user. We like the people who use our gear the hardest. And it just came around to ‘let’s build what they need.’ That was our starting point,” he said.

Gleason’s second story didn’t have the same congenial feel.

“Around 1995, about the time SOCOM first stood up as a joint operation, I got another phone call at Dana Design,” he said. “This time it was an Air Force major who said, ‘You know, you’ve got one of the favorite packs within what’s become SOCOM, and we need to get a pack that can be issued to everybody. And the pack needs to last for at least five years because of all our budget cutbacks.”

He said that the major’s emphasis on five-year durability had been translated to what he termed “minor changes” in the pack design, beginning with a request that the entire pack be lined with a type of vinyl used in truck tarps.

Mystery-Ranch-SEAL-pack

A Navy SEAL wearing a Mystery Ranch pack. U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Petty Officer Scott Williams

“And I say, ‘Truck tarps, huh? Well, that would certainly be kind of durable, I guess,” he said. “But most truck tarp material is 21 ounces per square yard. And the material we’re already making packs out of that is quite durable – and in most cases will last those five years – is 11 ounces a square yard. And he says, ‘Well, no. We need the really toughest thing we can get. And I’ve got a few other things.’ He had apparently used the pack and found the straps on the side a little short, maybe? So he wanted all of the straps to be 2 meters long. Yes, I’m holding my arms out wide – that long. And then, ‘Oh, and we also want to build a chair into the back of the pack.’ It turns out it was kind of something like we had helped develop called Crazy Greek Chair that was done by another company – a friend of mine. And I was adding up the weights for all these things in my head, and go, ‘This is going to be so crazy heavy that no one’s going to want to use it.’ And he responds, ‘These are tough guys. They’ll carry the load.’”

Gleason said he thought about the design mandates over the weekend, and when the major called again on Monday, he responded, “Sir, I’m sorry, but I don’t feel that we have the pack for you.”

“And he was very upset,” he added. “But he was dead set on his answer for durability. You know, build it so that it’s so heavy you can’t lift it. And I regretfully – because he also told me I would never sell packs to the military again if I turned this down – said, ‘I just don’t think we have the right thing for you,’ and withdrew from the project.”

He noted that the packs, which were built by another company, ended up with an empty weight of 23 pounds for the pack and assault pack, adding, “They bought a thousand of them for $900 apiece. But I don’t think more than a couple of hundred were ever issued. I’m quite proud of the fact that I declined to participate in that particular thing.”

Although he had been told that he would never sell packs to the military again, Gleason said, “The SEALs just kept on ordering my Overkill packs. They didn’t care what they were being told to buy, nor did a whole lot of other people. So we kept on building it.”

Dana Design was subsequently sold to a corporation that, Gleason said, wanted to stop producing packs in Montana and move production overseas. Coupled with other factors, the process led to Gleason’s establishment of Mystery Ranch and the start of production for a modified pack design around 2002.

He said that a key to the company’s learning process was consistently asking, “What are you doing with this?”

“We had done some improvements [to the Overkill pack] that are still contained within the packs I build now that made them adjustable for a really personal fit,” he said. “And so I talked to [the customer] and hit them with, ‘OK, we’ll build two versions: same bag on both but one version with the classic Dana Design frame that you guys loved, and one with my new stuff and some modifications making it much more adjustable. They took them out in the snow – this was in February – and basically told me after about 20 minutes, ‘Give us the new stuff.’”

Gleason said that they built “close to a thousand” of the new pack designs, which were called the BDSB, which stood for Big D’s Special Blend.

“And we went on from there, starting to do more work for more different units,” he added. “And along the way, we had some interesting adventures with some people down in the Dam Neck area [home of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group].”

He said that company developments during this period included the creation of the NICE pack frame, explaining that the acronym came from “Nylinear Individual Carrying Equipment, which stood for the way we actually put together the stiffeners in the frame – using nylon and linear carbon fiber pieces. Besides, I have never shied away from making up words.”

“Actually, it was called NICE Alice,” he added, “because we built it so that it was the same overall size as an Alice frame and anything that used an Alice frame could work with this. That and the fact that my firstborn daughter’s name was Alice.”

Gleason said that the company has learned a great deal along the way by listening to their customers. “We are really good at putting a load on the human body. We’ve been doing it for the best climbers and skiers in the world for 20 years. But this was dealing with people with an entirely different set of problems – not that we truly realized that at the beginning. For a while, up through about 2005-2006, people in the military were going to the outdoor industry to get a better answer. And yeah, we did the packs we were doing with darker colors and camouflage, but really there were still a lot of drawbacks to how the load was laid out. How you would carry the load on the Appalachian Trail is absolutely different than how you need to carry the load when you need to maintain situational awareness, or when you need to be able to get stuff out of that pack fast while you are under fire.”

Additionally, he observed that things designed to be carried on a human body were not always designed to be carried on a human body wearing body armor. And perhaps most significant was the realization that the designs had to be simple to use.

“I’m very proud of what we’re able to do for the people who are out there. And it’s given our lives within the Ranch far more meaning than when we were simply building sporting goods.”

“In the civilian outdoor world, a pack is a primary item and people will fool with them, and tease them, and adjust them like crazy,” he said. “But if you’re an operator, you are putting most of your mind share into your weapon or your communications. If you have to fool around with a pack to make it work well, I think the traditional phrase is, ‘It sucks,’ as opposed to fooling around with it. So we realized that a pack has to work well when poorly fitted and used indifferently. And if it’s tweaked at all, if any attention is paid to fitting it, it will work even better.”

He continued, “But here’s the thing. We may not be in the comfort business. But we are in the business of getting onto the target able to operate. And we reduce injuries. We reduce fatigue. Don’t tell anybody that it ends up being more comfortable, too. But we let you be more effective.”

He said that a key to the company’s learning process was consistently asking, “What are you doing with this?

“That’s how we started learning about body armor. That’s where we started getting into building gear to work with comm gear. That’s where we started getting into looking at how people do medicine and many other things. Nowadays, we do many specialized packs in addition to having competed on two different generations of the SPEAR pack projects for SOCOM – and having won entirely this time around. We do all three packs – assault, patrol, and recce  – that they list as issue, although there are many other packs out there as well.

“We listen to our users and we talk with them,” he said. “We’re very proud for what we get to do with the British SOF community. They’re a great and challenging group. We’ve also done quite a bit with CANSOF and Australia.”

Gleason concluded, “I’m very proud of what we’re able to do for the people who are out there. And it’s given our lives within the Ranch far more meaning than when we were simply building sporting goods.”

This article was first published in the Special Operations Outlook 2018-2019 Edition publication.

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Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...