The U.S. military tanker boot is well established and very recognizable among field gear due to its unique design, yet the story of just how this curious combat footwear came into American hands is a bit murky. This sturdy boot has a drilled down purpose and can’t be mistaken for any other footwear. Tanker boots are designed specifically for military unit members working on tanks or other tracked vehicles, or who are around military equipment and machinery with lots of gears. Their utilitarian features are their best benefit, and are also what sets them apart from traditional standard issue military combat footwear. Tanker boots, in their design and architecture, are efficacious for ground troops working in and around moving parts, such as those found on tanks, armored carriers and tracked vehicles.
Speculation abounds as to where these tanker boots were actually first born. Like many military myths, the evolution of the tanker boot is quite a romantic tale. The most-circulated fable goes something like this: During World War I, Gen. George S. Patton (then a captain) used his own cavalier pistol holder straps to fasten tight the boots of a young soldier manning a turret. It was rumored that Patton got the idea from seeing the types of boots worn by French infantrymen who were operating tanks and other tracked vehicles. Patton is reported to have taken great interest, as the cavalry boots his men were issued were not doing very well as double-duty on the tanks. Whether or not the story – or versions of it – holds true, the timeline is correct. During WWI is when those involved in ground combat began seeing this tanker boot being issued.
Regular standard issue combat boots had undergone little design changes back then; they were the same leather upper with laces and metal eyelets that had been used by generations before. They took a beating and stayed with you for the entire mission. But this new tanker boot was something they had never seen before. It was constructed entirely of shiny black leather, without any polycarbonate sections, and fashioned with a purposeful leather strap closure system, which has the strap wrap around the upper part of the boot and buckle near the top. This design served an important function: No laces or loose ends meant the wearer’s foot had less risk of becoming tangled in gears and possibly being pulled into the machinery, losing life and limb.
And seeing that the wearers of these boots would be exposed to harmful chemicals simply as part of their assignment, the all-leather construction became important. It prevents absorption and exposure to caustic elements such as turbo shaft engine oils, fuels, oil, and Flame-Resistant Hydraulic Fluid (FRH) often found when working around tanks and tracked vehicles.
The tanker boot’s design construction also allows greater circulation for the wearer’s feet, as they are often required to sit and remain immobile for long stretches of time. It has been reported more than a few times that during ground combat in the Gulf War that those working armored tanks and tracker vehicles stayed in the same position for up to 100 hours of fighting time. And since those soldiers assigned to work on tanks and tracker vehicles often found themselves in terrific muddy areas, the design of the tanker boot is such that allows the wearer to loosen, don and doff them at will when caked with mud and debris, with greater speed and ease than that of standard issue combat boots.
Even the unique design of the tongue had its own purpose. Double-layered from left and right with excess leather, it was sewn directly into the boot itself about an inch to and inch and a half from the top closure system and made so that the wearer did not have to remove the tongue to get his foot from the boot, meaning if the soldier became stuck in the mud during a full-blown assault and had to get free and mobile quickly, the tanker boot is designed for the foot to come straight out without fumbling around with the tongue. When properly closed and secured with the leather strapping system, the tanker boot became waterproof. When sealed and waxed, wearers can stand in up to 14 inches of water and mud, and the boot will not be compromised. Steel toe guards, steel shanks and steel heel guards provided additional protection for feet that saw plenty of hazards during their tour of duty. Modern designs have added in steel and other metal protective inserts in parts of the tanker boot’s sole. This boot was truly created for an environment where metal and chemical risks are frequent.
Initial makers of the tanker boot were wary of putting in that heavy steel toe guard, afraid that if too much pressure was applied to the front of the boot, the unfortunate wearer would have his toes lopped off by the very thing there to protect them from crush injuries. Yet since the troops that worked on the tanks and tracked vehicles did little of the ground “humping” that the foot soldiers did, it was decided that the issue was of little relevance, and the benefits outweighed any risks. Modern tanker boot designs still feature the steel toe guards.
Tanker boots are made the way they are still so that no single component of this boot can melt or burn if the wearer is exposed to fire. That standard was crucial; if the boots had any flammable parts and came in contact with an ignition source, not only was the risk to the wearer astronomical, but it also made rescuing the injured soldier more treacherous. The soles themselves are designed with deeper, tougher lugs for extra traction and less risk of slippage on tank slopes and other dangerous terrain. Deeper lugs give the wearer longer wear, better grip but less heavy drag for the wearer.
Known for their extreme ruggedness, tanker boots are found not only on U.S. troops but on the feet of German and Israeli armies as well. The new post-Gulf War variant on the tanker boot is one that is not entirely waterproof, in answer to ground combat desert terrain found in Middle Eastern countries. The tanker boot is traditionally black, but that new variant also offers a standard camel and coyote colored version as well. All meet the AR-670-1 governmental compliance (the “Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia,” the U.S. Military’s stringent rules and regulations governing footwear standards, among other things). The rules specify color and material, and also the height of the tanker boot; they usually run between 10 and 12 inches in height and must be in one of the military’s approved patterns/colors. The commander of the specialized units that work on tanks and other tracked vehicles of course has to give the official nod to the soldier, allowing them to be worn on their tour of duty.
The one potential disadvantage of the tanker boot, and its new sibling the desert tanker boot, is ankle support, or lack there of. The leather strap closure system and all-leather design does not allow for an insertion for extra ankle support. This was not a mistake in creation; as form follows function, soldiers assigned to work with tanks, armored vehicles and tracked units did not need the extra ankle support that the ground troops did since they only did a fraction of the trekking as per their assignment. Newer manufactured variations of the tanker boot have different types of internal ankle webbing support systems in them, offering a bit more structure but with the same protection and no additional weight or drag.
As with many military traditions, in addition to the many stories surrounding the first creation of the tanker boot, the military myth on how one actually got a pair of these boots is also out there. It has been said that the wearer was never issued a pair of tanker boots, but rather earned them though either completing their first tank mission, or at the end of their rigorous training to work on tanks and tracked units. Some historians insist that this is the way, but no actual official record of the ceremonial “earning of the boots” can be found.
Whatever the story, and even though the true origin of the tanker boot is unknown, this unique, tough, military footwear is here to stay. Standards governing its design, appearance and use appear in every update of the AR-670-1 (DA PAM), indicating it will be used for deployment. Its efficacy for those assigned to work tanks, armored vehicles and other tracked units has been proven and documented, and circulated by word of mouth as well. No other boot design offers the same protection against grinding gears and machinery teeth, and saves the wearer the risk of caustic chemical exposure while remaining waterproof and flame resistant at the same time. Designed to be purposeful, utilitarian, comfortable and rugged, the tanker boot serves its wearer well; it’s lightweight and long-lasting gear meant to go the distance, no matter where the mission ends up.