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The Fascinating History of American Military Boots

There can be no question but that of all the protective coverings which the foot soldier wears, his shoes are by far the most important. — Edward L. Munson

Heritage style footwear has seen a resurgence over the last decade or so. 

Today we use these relics of an all but forgotten era for grocery store runs and Instagram posts. The heritage-style boots of today got their start in a time when the men and women wearing them depended on these boots to protect in the harshest conditions imaginable. 

I know it sounds like hyperbole, but these soldiers protecting your feet from the elements was truly a matter of life or death.

So strap on your Tanker boots or jump into your Corcorans and read on as I guide you through the fascinating history of American military boots.

U.S. Military Boots in the Civil War

During the 19th century, much of the military were not issued standard boots, and were left to procure their own footwear from whatever was available at the time. 

It wasn’t until the War of 1812 that the government began issuing boots to soldiers as part of their uniforms. The War Department ordered as many pairs of leather ankle boots as possible and provided them to the soldiers that would be in most need.

The boots that were ordered were made to be symmetrical, with straight lasts that would mold to the wearer’s foot as you broke them in. As you can imagine, if you’ve ever had to break in a pair of boots made from a last that was even slightly different from your own foot, this would have been incredibly uncomfortable and cause a myriad of blisters and other foot related issues.

These boots are often referred to as a Brogan boot and were typically handsewn from calfskin or rough out leather and looked like a chukka style you would see today, with 3-6 eyelets and a mid ankle height.

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Encyclopedia Virginia

It was around this time, in 1837, that construction methods began to change as well. 

To reduce cost and construction time, handsewn boots were replaced with a new construction method using small wooden or metal pegs to attach the upper to the soles

The pegged boots were inferior in build quality and were greatly disliked by soldiers. It’s here that we see a difference in boots made available to Union and Confederate soldiers during the US Civil War.

Union vs Confederate Boots

The federal government preferred to use the original handsewn method and only resorted to using pegged construction when necessary. Union armies had access to better materials and were able to use this to their advantage while outfitting their soldiers. 

The price for the pegged boots dropped to around $1.25, with the cost of handsewn calvary boots coming in at around triple the cost.

Meanwhile, most boots worn by Confederate soldiers were of inferior quality and were pegged or riveted. 

There are reports of some manufactures taking advantage of the war contracts and providing low quality boots with subpar leather and shaved down pegs that would wear out and need replacing even quicker.  

The Munson Last

In 1912 Edward L. Munson published a book entitled The Soldier’s Foot and the Military Shoe, wherein he shares his research which “extended over four years and included the critical study of the feet of some two thousand soldiers, and the fitting of many thousand shoes” the goal of which was to supply practical information “in order to produce the best foot conditions and marching capacity among American troops”. 

This study was the most extensive to date and led to the creation of the Munson last. 

This last can still be found in footwear produced today by Red Wing Boots on their Munson Ranger, John Lofgren’s M-43 Service boots, and many others who reproduce war era footwear. 

The last was created a wide toe box that would contour the foot and not put any pressure on the toes. The new last included the addition of a stout leather shank which would help relieve the weight of the soldier and his pack off the foot-arch and “upon the outer and stronger part of the foot where it belongs”. 

Not only did Munson consider proper physiology but also the materials used and efficiency of construction. The last was designed to minimize useless dead space, since that would require extra material adding weight and unnecessary use of precious material.

The book’s philosophy is as relevant today as it was revolutionary in the early 1900’s. Boots should fit the foot, not the other way around. Fashion and style are often valued over fit and comfort—and feet suffer as a result. Munson goes on to say in his book, “The lasts are devised by persons grossly ignorant of, and quite indifferent to, the structure of the human foot, and its physiological requirements as to coverings.”

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The Soldier’s Foot and the Military Shoe

U.S. Army Boots in World War I

Trench Boots

The Great War marked a new kind of warfare and with it a need for new boot design and functionality. 

The boots originally given to soldiers at the beginning of the war could not stand up to the conditions of war in wet, muddy trenches. 

The Russet Marching Shoes, given their name from the use of russet leather, were handsome and easy to polish, but didn’t provide protection from the elements or the days and weeks spent in the mud and water.

Due to the prolonged exposure to the wet, soldiers began to suffer from a condition that became known as Trench Foot.

Captain F.G. Mcloughnane, a field surgeon, blamed Trench foot on the footwear used at the time, stating “In regard to boots a vicious circle develops. The wet leather shrinks and presses on the feet, thereby setting up traumatic inflammation and swelling, which in turn increases the pressure from the boots. I think that in most cases ill-fitting and too-tight boots are direct predisposing causes, though they are aggravated and brought into play by constant cold and wet.”

To help prevent Trench Foot, soldiers began wearing multiple pairs of woolen socks to keep their feet warm and dry. The soldiers would even order their boots up to two sizes larger than their feet to fit the extra layers of wool. This became so prevalent that the Army stopped producing smaller sizes and widths to accommodate the orders.

The army eventually determined that a new boot was required—one made from thicker leather with better waterproofing, traction, and durability. Originally approved by General John Pershing, the Trench boot or Pershing boot was made of tanned cowhide turned rough side out, and several rows of hobnails (metal or wood nails) on the outsole for traction.

The original 1917 Trench boots, which included weather proofed upper and outsole leather was a vast improvement from the Russet boots, but still did not stand up to the elements. The 1918 Pershing boots however, included a triple stitched back stay that would not tear, and improved leather for waterproofing. 

Despite the improvement in boot design and quality the Army still had procedures in place for the soldiers to check their fellow’s feet to inspect for sores and blisters. In total US forces estimate that 2000 soldiers’ lives were lost as a result of trench foot, and countless others lost appendages.

The Pershing Trench boots had three full leather soles that were sewn, screwed, and nailed together with clinch nails for additional strengthening. Additional waterproofing was done with ‘dubbing’, which was a process by which the soldiers would apply a mixture of 2 parts beef tallow (animal fat) and neats foot oil, which is oil rendered from the shin bones and feet of cattle. 

Dubbing or Dubbin is now available commercially with some variations substituting animal products for beeswax, almond oil and other natural products.

U.S. Army Boots in World War II

The scale, breadth and environmental challenges of World War II meant that the US forces had to provide uniforms and footwear for a variety of fighting conditions. The introduction of mechanized forces, Paratroopers and warm weather conditions were a catalyst for development.

U.S. Army Center of Military History Image
U.S. Army Center of Military History

The Garrison Shoe, which would not look out of place among today’s heritage boots, was standard issue at the beginning of the US campaign into World War I. 

Before the war it was used as both a garrison and field boot, but it was quickly determined that it wouldn’t hold up to the rigors of full-time deployment. 

As Shelby Stanton describes in his book US Army Uniforms of World War II, the Quartermaster corps developed the Type 1 light service shoe that was introduced in the 1940 wore out “with such alarming rapidity” that a replacement was soon developed using composition soles. 

The Type 1 was “obviously a product of an economy of surplus”, and production was soon shut down as the restrictions on rubber and other raw materials increased.

The material and quality control issues only became more egregious in the years to come. Lack of quality materials led to footwear that sounds eerily reminiscent of many modern boots with wood core heels, cork filler, thinner insoles, zinc-coated nails and the much maligned (in today’s boot world), strip gumming. 

By the middle of 1942, the army was “forced to reappraise the wisdom of such manufacturing shortcuts”, and the M-43 was born.

“M-43” The Iconic Service Boot

On February 1st 1943, General Marshal gave the order to replace the existing light service shoe with a new design that had been developed alongside the Desert Training Center and the Quartermaster Corps. 

The new design feature roughout leather upper which could absorb dubbing for waterproofing and a rubber sole and heel, all made on the Munson last. The development of reclaimed and synthetic rubber soles used in the M-43 wore much longer than leather soles and saved 30 million pounds of leather per year as stated in the The Quartermaster review in 1945.

The new boot could also be made in a 10-inch version with a leather or canvas lined cuff and buckle that eliminate the need for combat soldiers to wear additional leggings. The soldiers had previously complained about the leggings to the point that they would stop wearing them and suffer ankle injuries or various foot afflictions.

Despite the improvement in boot design and quality, however, they did not sufficiently eliminate trench foot. The seams and leather were not 100% waterproof, and if dubbing was used to the effect that it would not allow water in, it would also not allow boots to dry quickly and would cause soldiers feet to suffer.

Moccasin-like shoepacs were later introduced as a cold weather fighting companion. Like a duck-boot of today, they feature a rubber moccasin like bottom with leather attached. While waterproofing was superior to any footwear to this point, they suffered in durability and wore out quickly. 

The rubber also didn’t allow for any breathability and the soldiers’ feet would sweat while marching, only to have it sweat freeze once they were stationary, leading to frostbite.

John Lofgren Bootmaker includes the M-43 in their lineup today. A boot they call “a modern-day piece de resistance”, it is available in a number of leathers but their version with roughout natural Horween Chromexcel is the closest to what would have been worn in the war—right down to the Munson Last.

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U.S. Army Uniforms of World War II

In a 1945 edition of the Quartermaster Review, Robert Patterson stated that standard issue GI service shoe (presumably the M-43), and the higher combat boots accounted for 80% of all Army shoes. He goes on to mention that they had thirty different types of footwear to meet varying requirements around the globe, with more than 20 types that “require leather in substantial quantities.” 

In efforts to reduce the amount of leather needed to make new pairs, soldiers were trained to repair footwear in the field.

These mobile units would move with divisions into active combat zones for immediate repair needs. Base operations in various countries would utilize American civilian cobblers and natives to repair footwear. 

In Italy and the Marianas for example, American corporals, along with local cobblers would repair 4,000 and 10,000 shoes respectively each month, saving an estimated 30,000 square feet of leather.

If the footwear was deemed unsuitable for combat use, they would be repurposed for civilian use in friendly and liberated countries. An estimated 4 million pairs were given to friendly nations, while tens of thousands were distributed by the Red Cross to prisoners of war held by the US around the world.

Paratrooper Boots

Paratrooper boots were one of the few styles that were designed for a specific task. While most of the boots commissioned by the Army had dozens of manufacturers, paratrooper boots were almost entirely built by Corcoran Shoes. Paratroopers became synonymous with Corcoran, who still sell the Paratrooper boots to this day.

Originally introduced in 1941 the Corcoran Paratrooper boots were 10 inches tall, fully laced and made of polished grain side out russet brown leather with a toe cap. The boot had rubber half soles and rubber heels, specially beveled to prevent catching on the airplane doors when jumping out.

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The boots had 12 eyelets and came with brown cotton laces that were often replaced by parachute cord by jumpers. The army estimated that 30% of all jumpers would be injured when landing, and the paratrooper boots were designed to specifically address foot and ankle injuries.

When the M-43 began to be produced in increasing numbers, the Army replaced the Corcoran with the 10-inch version of the combat boots. 

The paratroopers were unhappy with the change, as they believed the parachute and its cords would catch on the buckles. Corcoran boots became a hot commodity and jumpers would hang on to theirs until the boots fell apart. 

Tanker Boots

It’s said that while serving in World War I that General George S. Patton Jr. was inspired to develop a new boot based on the footwear worn by French Tank operators. 

In 1937, Patton joined forces with H.E. Ketzler, of Denher boots to create the tanker boots. According to The Dehner Company’s website, the boots were “made for Patton’s Tank Corp, [since] he wanted something easy and fast to get on, yet still giving firm ankle support”. The boots substituted a traditional lacing system with leather straps and metal buckles to keep the boots tight.

Boots with laces could potentially get caught in the inner workings of the tank, causing injury to the operator. Tanker boots are generally made from entirely leather construction, which is more resistant to harmful chemicals, including flame-resistant hydraulic fluid, fuel, oils etc, and would not melt or burn as result of contact with chemicals or flames.

Tanker boots have seen a comeback in the last few years in heritage fashion, with Nick’s Handmade boots releasing the TankerPro, a version of their Builder Pro and a Heritage collaboration with Carl Murawski which included a Cat’s Paw half sole. 

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U.S. Army Boots in Vietnam

Jungle boots, which began their lives at the tail end of World War II in the Pacific Theater, went through some fundamental updates from 1945 until just before Desert Storm in the late 80’s. 

The design was relatively simple: Commando (Vibram) outsole, leather and canvas upper, and holes near the sole to allow for drainage.

At the beginning of the War in Vietnam, soldiers were outfitted with deadstock leftover from the end of WWII, but they quickly deteriorated and needed to be replaced. 

For five years, the army tested and manufactured several iterations before landing on the final version. The first few versions used a Direct Molded Sole developed by contractor Wellco Enterprises and used a Vibram outsole pattern. The uppers were made from Black leather with a mildew resistant “OG107’ green canvas.

By 1967, the Vibram pattern had been replaced with the Panama Sole, which was designed not to get caked with mud, and a thin metal plate to protect the soldiers from Punji sticks. 

These sticks were bamboo spikes which were sharpened, heated, and sometimes laced with poison or fecal matter (to kill or cause infection). They were then placed in a hole and hidden so that unsuspecting soldiers would step on them. The uppers were similar to previous versions but added a nylon ankle reinforcement band.

U.S. Army Boots in Operation Desert Storm

When war broke out in 1990 in Kuwait, it had been nearly half a century since the US armed forces had put troops in the desert. 

It determined that the black leather and canvas boots of the Jungles were not well suited to desert conditions. 

General Norman Schwarzkopf (aka “Stormin’ Norman”)  tasked US manufactures, including Wellco Enterprises and McRae industries, with a list of specifications which included “tan fabric, padded collar, leather ankle reinforcement, 10 speed-lace eyelets for easy tying and untying and a Panama-sole tread pattern…designed to easily shed debris.”

Despite the war only lasting days, the government had ordered 1.4 million pairs to be made in 105 sizes to equip any man or woman in the service. 

Like the Hummer, the desert boot soon took on a life of its own in American culture and agreements were made to make the boots available to the public.

U.S. Military Boots Today

Today, updated versions of the Schwarzkopf boots are still in use around the world. The Army Combat Boot, as it’s now called, comes in both warm weather and temperate weather versions. 

The Army Combat boots of today are lightweight with modern materials designed for comfort, breathability, stability and first and foremost, safety for the wearer.

The Army still issues the boots, but soldiers are authorized to wear commercial boots with similar designs if they are 8 to 10 inches and meet the current AR 670-1 standards: tan or Coyote Brown rough side out cattlehide leather with a plain tow and tan rubber outsoles. Temperate versions often feature additional waterproofing membranes like Gore-tex, while the warm weather boots will have holes near the instep for drainage.

Commercial versions are available to the public by many of the same military contractors, and several well-known retailers including Oakley, Danner and Nick’s Handmade Boots.

Conclusion

Many of the styles that we enjoy today were born out of necessity—keeping the men and women of the Armed Forces safe while they were serving. 

If any of the styles caught your eye, era-authentic reproductions are available to try, as well as many updated versions from your favorite brands including Oak Street Bootmaker (Trench Boots), John Lofren Bootmakers (M-43) and Nicks Handmade Boots (Tanker Boots).

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