Source: Soldier Systems Daily
There are times when a backpack becomes a trendsetter because it is on the forward edge of a fashion trend, creating a bump for an entire industry of companies chasing the idea of “the perfect pack”. They have cutting-edge styling and advertising campaigns that seem to push the boundaries of art.
Others meet at the intersection of a fitness craze and superb marketing techniques that hook the customer with an idea of quality and durability.
Then there are packs that are the sole survivor of gear purges because—as a veteran acquaintance said—they are like that favorite pair of jeans or broken-in jungle boots that you just can’t throw out.
Merrimack Webster defines the word icon as an emblem or symbol, and the Eagle Industries A-III assault pack has become an icon of the tactical gear Wild West of the late 1980s, when the military began to veer away from designing equipment in-house and started to procure load-carrying solutions tailored to fit a broad range of requirements. Most veterans who have owned an A-III will tell you without hesitation that it falls into the same category as their favorite pair of jeans and jungle boots.
During prior research on the history of the military pack, I uncovered bits and pieces of the story surrounding the A-III, but it was complicated by so much conjecture, third-hand knowledge and “I know a guy” commentary that I did not make mention of the A-III in the article. I knew it would have to wait for another day, when its full story could be told.
I am a history junkie, so when I began the hunt for primary sources, it became difficult to discern the ground truth about a pack which was produced and sold in the hundreds of thousands over its lifetime. I’d come across chatter in tactical gear forums that the A-III was a knockoff of a Gregory design, so I’d spend time down that rabbit hole. Then I would hear whispers about the infancy of Eagle Industries and its relationship with the military, and drop into another rabbit hole for a while.
I caught my first break during a conversation with Kory Brown, product designer at Eagle Industries and owner of the tactical gear outfit Bergspitze Customs. He had worked with the original owner of Eagle Industries, John Carver, and still interacts with some of the staff who were at Eagle when Carver was in charge.
He eventually walked out onto the sewing room floor one day in mid-2019 and spoke with one of the original seamstresses who had worked at the original 4,000 square foot facility in Webster Groves, MO. She told him that the first production model of the A-III was stitched up in November, 1989.
I had my first primary source!
Carver would eventually sell Eagle Industries to ATK/Vista after producing massive quantities of holsters, backpacks, rifle cases and assorted products for military and law enforcement customers during his stewardship of the company. It became the world leader in tactical gear and the industry standard for innovation, durability and functionality. He eventually moved on to other pursuits, opening a new company—Atlas 46—in Fenton, MO. This new venture produces tool storage, tool carriage, tool organization and personal workwear items, while also providing industrial design services. They even produce their own version of the A-III, the A3 Legacy, under the leadership of John’s son, Brian.
The A-III was coming up on its 30th anniversary, but even armed with the date it was first stitched up, I wasn’t ready to write up a story about it. The online debates about the lineage of the A-III remained unresolved and this article missed the original publishing date, because I wanted to know the full story. A few knowledgeable folks in the industry had commented that the A-III actually evolved from a Lowe Alpine Systems design, but they could not remember what the original Lowe pack looked like, or how many modifications were made to make it meet military expectations. And there were still the folks who argued that it evolved from a Gregory pack.
The A-III is significant for being one of the first packs which were mass-produced for military customers without any design input from a military engineer, as was the process from years past. It is in fact a simple design, despite it sparking a revolution in load carriage across every branch of the military at the small unit level.
The key elements of the original are:
— A clamshell opening to the main compartment (approximately 16” x 20” x 7”) which allows it be opened about 3/4 of the way by dual zippers;
— A sturdy top carry handle;
— A 12” x 16” x 2” smaller front compartment which opens halfway down by its own dual zippers;
— Curved and padded shoulder straps;
— Side compression straps;
— Dual, covered openings on the sides of the carry handle which were sized to accommodate radio antennae (and eventually hydration bladder hoses)
A slim, zippered slant pocket at the front measures 12” x 16” and is designed for quick access to maps, notebooks and writing instruments. A long strip of loop velcro runs along the upper edge of the pocket and can be covered with a velcro-backed nametape or luminous tabs. An accompanying square of loop velcro on the face of the pack and several inches above the slant pocket is sized for a flag or similarly-sized patch. The removable waist belt is not often seen on original examples of the pack, unless the user is trying to keep the pack original to full specifications or carries a lot of weight in it on a regular basis.
The back panel on an original is occupied by an elasticized pocket that can hold a frame sheet if the user requires a more rigid shape. It worked with varying degrees of success, depending on the role that the user employed the pack in.
The original A-III was slick inside and out, but future iterations were produced with an internal webbing array to secure a long-range radio or similarly bulky item, along with side pockets and sections of webbing sewn to the outside to allow for canteens, binoculars, first aid kits, and ammunition to be attached by smaller pouches. More recent versions were updated with sections of Pouch Attachment Ladder System webbing, to accommodate Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment pouches.
An oversized version was eventually developed with input from both Army and Marine Corps subject matter experts, resulting in an airborne version that could be rigged to a parachute harness. This capability required the design to meet a set of exacting safety certification standards, resulting in a pack that looks markedly different from the original version.
Kory Brown confirmed that the A-III is not currently available for retail sale at the Eagle website. However, SSD reported on a possible 3-day assault pack prototype at the Eagle booth during this year’s SHOT Show, so hopefully an updated version of the A-III will return to the retail sales lineup in the near future.
The A-III became a hit among the troops because it was available in subdued colors as well as the standard woodland pattern camouflage of the era. It had lashing points at the bottom and its side compression straps allowed for a wide range of accompanying gear to be attached, giving troops a capability to patrol with it for short-duration operations without dragging out a standard-issue pack. It also had a chest strap that was superior to anything on the issued packs of the day, making it at least marginally more comfortable when worn over body armor.
Even I owned an A-III, purchased from a postal exchange at Ft. Story when I was a junior member of the United States Marine Corps Fleet Antiterrorism (there is no hyphen) Security Team Company at Norfolk Naval Air Station in 1993. I eventually sold it some years later, either for beer or gas money and never acquired one again. The simplicity and clean lines of the pack stuck with me though and spurred me to learn the backstory behind this icon.
After almost a year of searching for contacts, nudging Mel Terkla (former lead designer at Kifaru and current owner of PocketUp) to make an introduction on my behalf to Carver, and multiple queries at the Atlas 46 website, I received an email out of the blue that Carver’s assistant would refer my queries to him at his Montana home. She forwarded my questions to John in the hopes that he could recall the A-III’s origins story, something created over 30 years ago.
I crossed my fingers and breathed a sigh of relief, even if ever so slightly.
I now had my second primary source, and what a goldmine of knowledge John Carver turned out to be! He sent me a document which laid out the history as best he could recall, and it filled in many of my gaps of knowledge about the A-III.
Over a series of emails, John laid out how the Eagle A-III came to life and I grew more excited that my search might be coming to an end. While he admitted that his memory has faded in patches, John distilled the information into a clear timeline, mentioning a few of the giants in the tactical gear world and the quiet professionals at the highest tier of American counterterrorism efforts who would use his packs.
John and his mother, Lorene Pyles, began operations in the basement of her St. Louis, Missouri home in 1974, where they produced nylon gear for motorcycle racing, including assorted bags, fanny packs, motocross pants, and a variety of other packs. By 1977, the company was building assault ladder covers for Arnold’s Welding Service (AWS) out of Fayetteville, NC for specialized Tier One military units and SWAT teams.
His memory gets a little less clear here, but as he recalls, Lowe Alpine Systems was a subcontractor to AWS for a pack which AWS in turn sold to satisfy equipment requirements for the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta. I know there are going to be eye-rolls out there, but yes, THAT Delta. Because this branch of the Eagle story no longer influences his connections to military sales, I have no reason to doubt his statements.
As John recalled, Lowe had moved components of its manufacturing to Ireland and could not make their usual pack in the four or five colors that Delta required. They needed to be produced in black, olive drab, khaki and other subtle variants, so as to not resemble a full unit deployment when carried by the operators during parts of a mission. Lowe’s minimum order requirements were just too high for Delta to meet, because the unit only needed small batches.
Enter Bill Arnold at AWS, who contacted John about making modifications to the Lowe pack, in the colors which were required. John did that and the A-III was born. The first packs were made with an AWS logo on it, because Arnold didn’t want customers to take notice that he didn’t have the in-house sewing capability to fill the purchase order contracts. At John’s insistence, the classic Eagle logo eventually found its way onto the pack.
The Eagle A-III started showing up everywhere and Eric Graves (owner of SSD) recalls that in the early 1990s, the black A-IIIs were called “Ninja Bags” by the members of U.S. Joint Special Operations Command who were issued them. Other U.S. Army Special Forces veterans have recounted to me that their teams were outfitted with one or more of the bags per each team member. It eventually made its way into the general purpose forces, post exchanges and base clothing sales stores, ultimately becoming a pack that a slew of other manufacturers emulated, putting their own slant on the design with side pockets and cosmetic changes.
With each email I exchanged with John, I sensed his pride swelling when he mentioned his staff at the original Eagle facility. He was happy to retell the story of an amazing symbol of American entrepreneurship and dedication to customer service. He was remembering the heydays of a good company and good people.
Unfortunately, the discussion sent me back down another rabbit hole because I was left with the core question which I still felt compelled to answer: what inspired the A-III 30 years ago?
Claims by outside observers that Eagle had copied the Lowe pack still nagged at me, so I reached out to Lowe Alpine to see what someone there could say on the matter. I was assisted by an enthusiastic gentleman who informed me that Lowe had fallen on hard times through mismanagement at several points and was purchased by the company he now worked for as a customer service representative. Unfortunately, the last standing Lowe Alpine System employee had left two years prior to our discussion and he might not have even had knowledge of Lowe’s relationship with special operations units from that era.
I ended the email exchange with the Lowe rep feeling a bit defeated and frustrated. I had come so far, discussing the history of the A-III directly with the former owner of Eagle Industries, but was now left standing at the base of a very high wall.
I went back to John Carver with several photos of 1970s and 1980s Lowe designs, but none of them jogged his memory. The bag he had been asked to modify by Bill Arnold looked very much like the first A-IIIs which Eagle eventually produced. None of the product pictures we talked about came close enough.
On a cold and rainy April day in 2020, I used the collaborative capability of an internet chat tool to have a discussion with three giants in the tactical gear world: Darin Talbot of Extreme Gear Labs, Stephen Hilliard of First Spear and Eric Graves of SSD.
They knew that I had been on the hunt for the full story behind the A-III and each had contributed a breadcrumb here and there along my three-year path to enlightenment. They also knew my frustrations and had often witnessed the moment when I hit a dead end in a backpack forum, while trying to elicit details on the pack.
As we chatted, I described my communication with the Lowe rep and Eric began digging into his computer to produce some really old catalogs that are now hosted on vintage outdoor gear websites. He linked in the Lowe catalog from 1988 and flashed an example of a blue pack that was rectangular, but only had a few features similar to the A-III. We looked at it for a moment but decided it was too different to have inspired the Eagle version.
We had a nice chat and I decided to take a nap, feeling a bit tired from once again concentrating so hard on the Lowe angle of my search that seemed like just another dead end. Before I shut down my iPad, I went back to the link Eric had provided and started browsing, intrigued by just how many bright blue packs Lowe used to make back in the day.
I flipped a few pages, pinched the screen and zoomed, then flipped another few pages. There were a lot of boxy packs made in the late 1980s, worn by young backpackers wearing tube socks and really shiny nylon shorts.
I yawned, flipped another page and then froze. It couldn’t be. But there it was, on page 15. Offered in black and gray and coming in at 2,190 cubic inches and a weight of 2 lbs, 14 oz, the unmistakable teardrop shape and slant pocket of the “Adventure III” was staring back at me.
Lowe Adventure III…Eagle A-III. I felt a bit like Indiana Jones and went back to the chat to share my discovery. Everyone agreed that I had found the ancestor to the A-III, and the connection was now indisputable, settling all of the forum debates once and for all.
I emailed a picture off to John Carver immediately and he concurred that I had finally found it.
So what have I learned along the way during this three-year expedition into the history of a pack that became an icon, surviving for over 30 years and continuing to be held in the highest of regard by veterans who own one?
John Carver and his old Eagle team are another example of what I like to call “essential patriots”. They delivered a product that met the customer’s needs and became an example of American manufacturing along the way. Thousands of American warriors went to war with this pack slung over a shoulder, conducted combat missions and used it during their off-duty hours when they were safely back at home.
John closed one of our email conversations by adding a note that every modern soft goods manufacturer should follow:
“Listen to the customer, build what he asks for, build it to last and sell it at a fair price.”
The A-III lives on because an essential patriot listened to his customer.
I want to thank everyone who reads this article and knows that they assisted me along the way, even in what they may have thought was a minor aspect. It would not have been possible without your insight and patience.
Jon Custis is a veteran Marine infantryman who writes on a variety of tactical equipment, training, and leadership topics.