Today I am starting a multi-part series reviewing a variety of outer shell jackets that are on the market, but somehow fell under the radar. I chose nine different models based on the needs of the modern day professional. Over the next few weeks I’ll be doing in-depth reviews on each one of these. Whether you are a prepper, armed professional or just an outdoorsman, I think you’ll find these shells to be worth your while. Since I’ve tested these jackets in various climates and weather conditions I had to use them in combination with several insulating layers. So, as a bonus I will say a few words on that subject as well. To get us started though let’s start with an overview of the jackets and my test parameters.
Where I come from, Russia, one develops an intimate relationship with his clothing, especially outerwear. Everyone had summer, winter and demi-saison clothes. A heavy winter coat was a must of everyone’s wardrobe. The clothing that you wore had to perform several functions and had to possess several qualities: Insulation, Isolation, Fashion and Practicality. The latter two often competed for supremacy. An exceptionally functional coat might be out of date and out right butt-ugly while on the flip side the most beautiful coat would be so impractical that one would have to sacrifice their ability to function as a normal human being. While the fashion and practicality were playing a tug of war, the two former qualities were never compromised. No matter what you went for, style or function, your coat had to isolate you from the weather and insulate you from the cold.
I always flare up when some idiot on TV gives ‘expert’ advice telling everyone to put on more layers. The proper all-weather clothing system should only have two layers the shell and insulation with insulation being the variable (fleece, PrimaLoft®, 3M Thinsulate™, Softie® or dawn). One thing to remember is the insulation is only worth anything if it is protected from the elements. That is where the outer shell comes in. It has to be the most important and irreplaceable piece of clothing one should possess. As it is truly a universal coat for just about any season or weather condition. The inner, insulating layer can be changed or completely removed depending on temperature, but the tough weatherproof shell shall remain to guard one’s body from the elements.
Some of my test subjects are very familiar to me. I have used this Russian made ‘Gorka’ suit for years. Photo by Richard King.
I set out to find jackets or coats that would fit my life style. Something I can count on to be there in the hour of need. Something tough enough for me rely on and yet versatile to be used as a regular, everyday coat. After some extensive research, I picked a couple of manufacturers I’ve worked with before along with several companies new to me. I wanted to review both hard and soft shells. Why review both? Mainly because both fabrics have their advantages and both found use with the Armed Forces and Law Enforcement around the world.
This is what selected to be my test subjects:
From ATS Elite (Formerly Woolrich® Tactical Elite) I chose their Elite Waterproof Breathable Parka and Elite Soft Shell Jacket, from Blackhawk!® I picked out the Shell Jack-Layer System 3 and from Wild Things Gear I’ve sourced their Hard Shell Jacket – SO 1.0 and Soft Shell Jacket– SO 1.0. The new comers were represented by Vertx with their Solid Smock Jacket and Vertx Integrity Waterproof Shell and 5.11, Inc. with their Valiant Duty Jacket. So that my evaluation is based on my practical personal experience I decided to also include the Soviet designed mountain uniform that had been issued to the Soviet and Russian Special Purpose troops since 1928, the infamous ‘Gorka’ jacket. The only reason why I wanted to include the Gorka is I use it during all of my cold weather courses and despite its ancient design and fabric technology, if you can even call it that, it holds up much better than even the most recent issue US Military Cold Weather Gear.
As I collected all of my test subjects, I wanted to truly test them as a functional shell jacket for everyday use as well as duty wear when called upon. So my test parameters include:
Design and Appearance – Though obviously I wanted a functioning field jacket that can be used for a variety of tough tasks, but at the same time I didn’t want to stick out looking militaristic or an out-right Ogre. Basically, the jacket has to be suitable to be worn in the field as well as to the movies.
Wearability and Comfort – I wanted a coat that would be easy to put on and take off and would not restrict any of my movement. It had to interact well with some of the equipment that I would use in the woods, the field or at the range.
Breathable Functionality – The outer shell in my opinion is the most important piece of clothing for an operator. Its ability to interact with backpacks, chest rigs, body armor and holstered sidearm is a must. But what is the most important is for it to have features that render it functional and to be able to substitute for field gear to assist with a load out. I am talking about number, size, design, location and accessibility of pockets.
Overall Quality – Obviously, looking for a tough ‘second skin’ tough outer shell, one needs to look for the best quality he can afford. I would want my jacket to be made with truly water repellant, water resistant or proof, breathable and/or wind proof fabric. The proper strong and sealed stitching is a must for the outer shell for an active person. A quality thread must be used in construction of the jacket to withstand constant stress and shall not rot away within a few years. Special attention must be paid to a jacket’s zippers, hooks and loops or Velcro® enclosures and any other accessories because they are responsible for the wearability, comfort, isolation and insulation.
Ease of Cleaning – Early models of mountain climbing shells came with specific cleaning instructions. Since then fabric technology has had a quantum leap in development. Now a modern jacket has to be machine washable and still retain its water resistance capabilities. Also, I would like to be able to just brush the dirt off my jacket before I stuff into a washing machine. The key feature is to be able to easily maintain your shell jacket without it looking terrible.
Durability – As the most important layer of your clothing system, your shell should protect you from the elements for a while. You want it to last and retain its features, functionally and capabilities.
Modularity – As I have mentioned before the shell jacket should be a part of one’s overall clothing system. Its ability to function in combination with other pieces of clothing is essential as weather changes.
I guess I should point out that this series of articles was two years in the making. Through the course of two years, I tested these coats in a variety of climates and weather conditions. I did not want it to be a quick review of a new jacket off the shelf. I wore every one of these shells for work for two fall seasons, two winters and two springs. I have taken them on my various travels throughout the US and abroad. I now am not just familiar with my test subjects, but I know how they work. Stay tuned as I cover each jacket in detail!