Any service member can tell you: a solid pair of boots can make a world of difference when you’re out in the field.
But this doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. Boots have always been integral to the combat experience. From the rudimentary “Jefferson Boot” of the early 1800s, to the lightweight, breathable, resilient boots of today’s soldiers, American military footwear has undergone quite the transformation over the past few centuries.
As American conflicts abroad have evolved, so, too, has the footwear of our men and women on the frontlines. Combat boot design is constantly changing to accommodate difficult, unfamiliar terrains, harsh weather patterns, and a host of other factors.
Let’s take a look at a few of the combat boots of the past and present, and learn more about the benefits (and deficits) of their unique designs.
The “Jefferson Boot” of the 19th Century
A soldier’s feet are key to completing a mission successfully, so they have to have the greatest degree of protection (and comfort) possible. It’s a miracle—and a testament to the resilience of America’s armed forces—that the inferior footwear of the past didn’t doom our chances on the battlefield.
Thought to be the first true combat boot used by the US Army, the “Jefferson Boot” was almost certainly of little comfort to its wearer. First introduced in 1816, these boots were named after President Thomas Jefferson, who wore lace-up shoes of a similar style to his 1801 inauguration. They lacked a specific right or left, and only went as high as the ankle, leaving the shins and the rest of the leg exposed.
Trench Boots of World War One
Jumping ahead a hundred years or so to one of the most intense conflicts that America has ever seen, the United States entered World War I.
US soldiers fighting in Europe soon learned that the trench boot they were wearing—while a marked improvement over shoes of the past in certain respects—had a fatal flaw.
In spite of its sturdy cowhide soles, and other unique features like an iron plate in the heel, the first iteration of the trench boot was not waterproof. This made daily life in mud-filled trenches not just uncomfortable, but unbearable.
As a result of the shoe’s design many soldiers developed immersion foot syndrome, more commonly known at the time as “trench foot”. This occurs when feet are exposed to water for too long and aren’t insulated by socks or proper footwear, which can lead to blisters, skin loss, intense itching, and overwhelming pain.
A new and improved trench boot design arrived in January of 1918—one with increased waterproofing features—but for many servicemen the damage of the inferior trench boot of the past was already done, and could not be reversed.
Combat Boots from the Gulf War of the 1990s to Today
Fast forward to the early 1990s, and the Gulf War was in full swing.
Adapting to the conflict’s desert environment, the American military elected to utilize a new color scheme for their military desert boots so they could blend in better with the surrounding landscape.
They also elected to eliminate the requirement that combat boots be polished, which meant the shoes were much more breathable and comfortable.
Almost 30 years later, the influence of that pivotal moment in combat boot design has largely held. There are several requirements—as outlined in the US Army manual—that combat boots must now meet, including:
- Being a dusty tan or “coyote” color
- Made from genuine cow or cattle-hide leather
- Measuring around eight to ten inches tall
- Equipped with a rubber or polyether polyurethane sole
The American military boot is a constant work in progress—always changing to meet the needs of its soldiers.