Hats, covers, lids; whatever you want to call them, head gear has been a part of military uniforms in the American military since the Continental Army was formed. Over the years the headwear of U.S. military personnel has changed considerably. From the cocked and round hat of the 1700 and 1800s, to today’s patrol cap, boonie hat and berets, they all are a part of the U.S. military lineage.
Because hats vary with each service branch, this post will focus on the three types of military hats that can be worn with the Army Combat Uniform. While the hats worn in other branches of service, like the Air Force, are similar to the types of military hats worn in the Army, some of the information in this blog post could be applicable to other branches.
The patrol cap is one of those types of military hats that is easy to wear. Easy to don and with a brim to protect a person from the sun, it's easy to like. According to a U.S. Army historical survey, the patrol cap, once known as the M-1951 field cap, made its appearance in 1943.
The cap had a slightly longer visor with rows of reinforced stitching. When the temps got frigid, the cap had a flannel-lined fold-down flap that covered the ears and the back of the head. As the cap was developed, some officers considered the M-1951 to be too sloppy to present a proper military image. To make their soldiers look sharper, some commanders mandated the use of cardboard to be worn in the cap to keep it straight and crisp.
In 1953, professional appearance became a priority within the Army ranks and the Army’s Chief of Staff Gen. Matthew B. Ridgeway issued a policy directing troops to improve their soldierly image. Commercially manufactured stiffened and blocked models of these types of military hats were sold through the post exchanges and these types of military hats were standard issue throughout the 1950s. They were known as the “Ridgeway Cap.”
In 1958, the Army established a headgear study group to find a replacement for the Ridgeway Cap. As any soldier who has served during peacetime knows, without a war to train for, priorities in garrison tend to shift and a greater emphasis was placed on appearances and military bearing.
A new cap design was released in 1962. These types of military hats were known as “Cap, Field, Hot Weather.” What made the hat a hot weather item is that it lacked cold weather earflaps.
These new types of military hats were baseball style caps in olive green shade 106. Constructed of polyester and rayon blend, they had soft visors and rounded crowns, constructed of six triangular segments meeting at the top. These types of military hats also had a ventilation eyelet in each segment.
Initially, soldiers hated the cap, according to the Army historical survey. The polyester and rayon proved to be too hot in tropical climates, and soldiers did not like the look of the high front panel. After considerable pushback from troops in the field, a newer version of these types of military hats started getting issued at the end of the Vietnam era.
These types of military hats continued in use until they were replaced in 1985 when the M-1951 field cap, now referred to as a patrol cap, was reintroduced as part of the Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) in woodland and desert camouflage patterns. These types of military hats were also issued as part of the Army Combat Uniform in universal digital camouflage pattern.
Today, the Army Combat Uniform in occupational camouflage pattern (OCP) requires the wear of the patrol cap unless otherwise directed by higher-level commanders.
These types of military hats with their broad brims were introduced in Vietnam. Since their introduction, they are a fan favorite amongst soldiers because of their comfort and ease of wear.
Boonies were used as a substitute for the patrol cap in Vietnam, but high-ranking commanders did not like their crumpled, unkept appearance. These types of military hats did not give off the proper military image many officers expected of their troops.
Nonetheless, function prevailed over form, in the case of these types of military hats scoring a victory for the rank and file. Variations of the boonie hat were introduced over the years to accompany the Desert Camouflage Uniform (known unofficially as the “chocolate chip” desert uniforms). These were used during the 1990s during Desert Shield/Storm.
As the Army entered the Global War on Terrorism, desert camouflage uniforms changed and so did the boonie hats along with them. The Army said goodbye to the BDU and as the Army entered its digital Army Combat Uniform phase, boonie hats also were adjusted to match the futuristic, and often maligned, digital ACUs.
What has changed along with caps and uniforms since the 1950s is that senior leaders have recognized that when the force speaks, they should be heard and the boonie hat has remained a part of any deploying soldier’s packing list. In the arid, desert climates which American forces have fought in for the past several decades, the boonie has provided a cool, comfortable headgear for military personnel downrange. Soldiers and leaders love them alike, so they are likely to be around for a long time.
Where did the name “boonie” hat come from? There are various war stories depending on the veteran that you ask, but even military historians are stumped.
In 2001, on the Army’s birthday, the black beret was authorized for wear with the Army’s utility uniforms including the BDU, maternity BDU, aviation BDU, desert BDU, hospital duty uniform, food service uniform, flight uniform, combat vehicle crewman uniform and cold weather uniform, as well as the service uniforms (class A and B uniforms).
The move by then Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army’s chief of staff, sparked considerable controversy especially because Army Rangers had been wearing black berets since the Vietnam War. It was their distinctive headgear. With Shinseki’s well-intentioned, but unwelcomed directive, every soldier would wear the black beret not just with their service uniforms, but also in utility uniforms.
Soldiers instantly hated the beret. These types of military hats have to be shaved, cut, and formed over the course of many weeks, months and sometimes years. They don’t breathe at all, so personnel assigned in hot weather climates are normally uncomfortable when they wear the beret.
Not to mention, while they were introduced to help give the U.S. Army a more professional look, it actually ended up making many soldiers look less than professional because the soldiers did not know how to properly form and wear the berets. Many soldiers ended up looking like pastry chefs.
When the Army Combat Uniform was introduced, the beret was the mandatory headgear for those in garrison. If they deployed, the boonie or patrol cap were the options, but the beret remained.