Review – M83/SAAV – The South African Assault Vest

A review of one of the oldest pieces of kit in my collection – the venerable M83, popularised by Viper and MFH as the South African Assault Vest, was extremely popular in the days before the explosion of molle plate carrier vests which offered endless customisation options for the tacticool airsofter. But does it still hold up? The Viper and MFH versions are still very easy to source for around £40 and as a bonus, are available in nearly any camo pattern to suit your loadout.

I’ve only worn this vest a few times in all my years of airsofting, but as needs change, I decided to give it another go. It’s rarely used thses days, and apart from shop photos, there aren’t a lot of reference pictures or reviews out there, especially from an airsofters point of view, though I’d bet there are plenty of older airsofters out there that have had one at one point or another. However, it shouldn’t be consigned to the scrapheap just yet, because it does a lot of things that the more modern kit doesn’t; the obsession with direct action and CQB kit continues to grow but is only suited to a particular style of play. This vest, I think, caters for everything outside of the CQB arena.

Firstly, the M83 vest goes by many, many names. Most commonly the SAAV, or South African Assault Vest, it also goes by the Commando RSA (Republic of South Africa) Vest, SADF (South African Defence Force) Vest or SADF Battle Jacket. So, it’s clearly of South African origin, but in the early days of the Afghanistan conflict, found favour among the British SAS and Australian SASR who were conducting long range patrols in the mountains looking for Bin Laden, and that’s kind of the angle I’m looking at for my next AEG loadout. Not to find Bin Laden of course, but for longer games at bigger sites, where there’s a lot of terrain to navigate and a need for a more flexible kit, and the capacity to carry food and water as well as any spares or mission specific kit. The South Africans developed it initially in the early 80’s after the Rhodesian conflict, designed to equip troops conducting multi-day patrols behind enemy lines, where they needed to comfortably carry a lot of kit through the bush, in hot weather. To that end, the mesh inside keeps everything nice and breathable, and it’s quite an open design so you don’t sweat sandwiched between two big foam plates. The pouches are all lined with a waterproof PVC layer too, which is ideal for the UK weather. This is my SAAV, I’ve added the carabiners to the left shoulder.

I’ve tried photographing mine from all angles to show the layout, but without a proper photography studio it’s hard to show the vest clearly. So I’m using some off Amazon instead…

This vest is big. It has a lot of pouches and a lot of capacity, although without a molle system, you can’t change them around. But then, they are well thought out pouches and there’s certainly no way you’re going to be short on space for anything. I’ve even seen examples online where instead of military or airsoft use, people are fitting entire camping kits into the array of pouches instead. However, before you start thinking “oh, that’s far too big and bulky for what I need”, it actually isn’t. The brilliance of the design is that it spreads the capacity all around your body, rather than having everything stacked on the front like a chest rig, or all on the belt like a webbing set. And it still manages to keep your stomach clear for crawling, although you can obviously adjust this if you want. Nothing ever seems to get in the way, and there’s nothing loose flapping around anywhere either. The big side utility pouches sit nicely just above your hips, out of the way of your arms but not then pulling your trousers down from the belt, and don’t stick out at the back which is one of those places you normally catch pouches on branches. It’s a very tidy setup. And that’s another thing I like, the all-in-one design that saves 20 mins of getting everything clipped into place – you just sling it on in seconds, and then two buckles across the front hold it securely to your body. I’ve done games using a chest rig, seperate hydration bladder, belt order and drop leg, and going to the toilet needs ten minutes of gearing down first, and then the annoyance of getting it all back on and correctly adjusted again. It’s as quick and easy as putting a jacket on and off, which makes the back more easily accessible if you need to quickly grab something than having a back panel on a plate carrier (I know the back is usually for your buddy to access, but if all your buddies are dead, or you got lost, then you need to haul that plate carrier off).

The front of the rig gives you as much capacity as two chest rigs. The mag pouches are all doubles, with dividers to add retention, and like everything on this rig are closed top, to add protection for your valuables. It’s a whopping 12 mag capacity in total, so you can spray and pray all day if that’s your thing, or use some of them for more important stuff like a radio, bigger grenades, 100g chocolate bars etc. The large side utility pouches are closed with straps, so are less accessible in a hurry but will take large items such as water bottles, first aid kits, your entire cook kit, spare clothing, or a tarp. It’s these two that really transform the potential uses of the SAAV, from just a magazine holder into something you could take a camp kit in too if you needed it. The original vest design was for 2x2l water bottles, to give you an idea of the space in there. Additionally, there are two velcro flaps on the tops of the side utility pouches which open up a hole, to use as a dump pouch.

dumptastic

Another good sized utility pouch on the front adds to that capacity, and there’s a hidden map compartment behind it, and there are two small grenade sized pouches which I’ve managed to fit small thermobaric grenades into, or a bag with a few hundred extra bb’s in. Additionally on the front, there are two handy velcro straps to help keep all your comms wiring or hydration tubes out of your face. A bit less visible, but worth a mention if you like your admin, are pen holder pouches on the two highest mag pouches.

Plenty going on on the front. Now, to the back…

The big feature here is a low profile back compartment, zipped and split into two sections. Overall, there’s about 20L of capacity, not that I can find any information other than external measurements (32cm x 16cm x 9cm for the top and 17cm x 16cm x 9cm for the bottom). The top compartment again has a velcro opening flap at the top for access, or hydration tubes. It’s yet more storage for your kit without adding a big, bulky backpack – this doesn’t stick out far at all. Of more interest though, if you want to get creative, are the 4 attachment loops, which you can pass some straps through to attach more pouches (could hang through the top molle loops) or a sleeping mat, or a tent. Additionally, you have extra straps at the base of the vest, underneath the lower compartment b), which again will take a mat or jacket, or whatever else you need. AND THEN there are six extra loops either side of the back compartment (d in the image) to attach slim items like walking poles, rope, a whip aerial etc. The carrying options on this vest are endless. OK, the fixed pouches mean you can’t have things where you may be used to them, but you adapt to what you have and where you have it (it’s actually probably a good thing, meaning you’re not changing setup weekly and having to adjust to a different layout all the time).

So, not being one of these fame-hungry Instagram “influencers” that review stuff before they’ve even taken the tags off it, how does it actually fare after use? Well, apart from the busted zips (which happened after I’d filled it with bottles of rum and vodka to take to a house party, so not ordinary use), it’s fine. It was extremely comfortable to wear, a view echoed by sniper buddy Aiden after I made him try it on. It’s very well balanced, and as I said earlier, doesn’t add any bulk where you don’t want it. In fact the only gripe I can think to have with it is the velcro closure on the mag pouches, which might hamper the recon game a little but I guess if you’re going through ammo, it’s because you’re in a firefight and already spotted anyway, so that probably doesn’t make a difference in that situation.

Would I run it as part of a sniper loadout too? Actually, yes I would. Because it doesn’t get in the way like a chest rig, and is more accessible and comfortable than a belt rig. Perhaps not for short, one hour skirmish games. But bigger events, it’s an ideal all-in-one solution without having to add extras like drop legs, belts, back or side panels etc. Which also means you can have a more permanent setup with it, i.e. wiring comms into it, maybe modifying a couple of pouches – the Australians have done some cool mods if you look it up on Google. It almost feels like I’ve come full circle, starting with a SAAV and going through so many chest rigs, plate carriers, belts, drop legs, backpacks and other assault vests inbetween before coming back to this. If you’re scared of BB’s and need some sort of “armour protection” from the nasty plastic, this isn’t for you. Otherwise, I really can’t think of a reason not to own one.

Want one? Here’s a link to Military1st

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