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3 Types Of Military Hats And Their Uses

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.

Patrol Cap
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.

army personnel in camo uniforms

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.

Boonie Hats
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.

army soldiers in boonie hats

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.

female soldier with black beret

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.

Today, berets are worn by Airborne, Special Forces and Ranger units with the Army Combat Uniform. Other Army units wear the OCP pattern patrol cap with their ACUs.

Shape Your Beret in Five Easy Steps

Let me start off by saying, I’m not a fan of berets, at least not in the way some of the military uses them. They’re hot, impractical, but if you’ve endured the rigors to earn one, I think they not only look great, but they add a lot of esprit de corps to organizations with unique missions. Certainly if you've busted your ass to earn one (Rangers, Special Forces, to name a few) they are pretty bad ass and hard-earned. But using them as the primary head gear with the Army Service Uniform, for me, not so much.

Army soldier wearing green beret

I didn’t like the decision in 2001 for the Army to make berets the primary head gear, but I saluted smartly, did what I was told and moved out. Years later, I often cringe when I see some berets and how they are being worn. A lot of soldiers get it right and you can tell that effort has been applied to ensure the headgear looks good. There is a certain pride reflected, but then there are others who look like they just walked away from an oven baking baguettes. They look like Rusty atop the Eiffel Tower.

With that in mind, here are some tips to help you form your new beret, no matter what branch you are in.

  1. First off, if your beret comes with a liner, cut that liner out. Not only will it make you hotter as you wear the beret, but it will also interfere with forming the beret. Cut the liner out carefully along the band, ensuring you do not damage the leather band that goes around your head. And of course, ensure you do not cut the beret itself.
  2. Once you’ve gotten your liner off, take a fabric shaver and run it over the inside and outside of the beret. If you don’t have a fabric shaver, buy one, they are a good, affordable investment in your uniform and appearance. If you are old school, take an unused shaving razor (disposable razors are great for this) and shave your beret as carefully as you would your face or legs. You can remove the fuzz with any kind of tape. Keep shaving the beret until very little fuzz is removed.
  3. Now the fun begins. Immerse your beret into water (not hot water as it will shrink it), keeping the flash as dry as you can. Carefully roll the beret and then gently wring it out without turning it too tightly to damage the beret.
  4. The beret will still be pretty wet, but put it on your head and adjust the fit. This is likely a good time to adjust the cords that stick out of the back of the beret. How the beret is shaped will be up to you, but most people like the flash to be very pronounced, and the beret is pulled to the right side forming what is almost a 90-degree angle with the fabric. You will pull on the fabric until it stretches to where you want it. The beret should touch your right ear or extend below the top of the ear. If you don’t have a mannequin head to use, keep your beret on your head for a while. Watch a movie or your favorite sport and remove it carefully once it starts to dry and form.
  5. Some individuals like to trim or modify the cardboard in front of the beret. I’ve never done that, but if you really want your beret to look highspeed, low drag, you might consider it. It is important to ensure the cardboard in the beret’s front is over your left eye. Once the beret is formed and dry, now you can trim your headband cords. Some folks just remove them altogether (that’s what I did) while others tie a square knot and then trim the cords tightly into the headband.

    On average, it can take a few days to get a “wearable” beret, but really, it takes a few weeks and even months to get them worn and broken in the way you want them. You may need to perform this process several times before you get it just right.

soldiers wearing red berets

Steve Alvarez is the author of Selling War A Critical Look at the Military's PR Machine published by Potomac Books.