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Better boondockers

Officials testing replacements for steel toe

Mar. 22, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Sailors on the attack submarine Jimmy Carter are testing a lighter-weight, composite toe cap, left, in their boots.
Sailors on the attack submarine Jimmy Carter are testing a lighter-weight, composite toe cap, left, in their boots. (John F. Williams/Navy)
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Steel-toe boots may soon be a thing of the past.

Navy experts are testing new materials in hopes of replacing the steel toe cap with a lightweight but durable resin that would lighten your boondockers, the fleet footwear many sailors hate. Boots with the new toe caps could be up to 20 percent lighter.

The protective steel toe is not only too heavy, but it’s also a thermal conductor, which can turn boots into iceboxes when sailors stand watch on cold metal decks, or into ovens in places like the Middle East.

Over the next six months, about 400 fleet sailors will test new toe caps, but Navy officials also are weighing other changes to the mid-height boots.

The TechSolutions office at the Office of Naval Research sounded the alarm about the steel-toe boots and launched what is called a “prototype development stage.”

Two companies have answered that call.

Belleville Boot Co. has designed a boot that replaces the steel toe with a compression-molded fiberglass resin that weighs 67 grams, 17 grams less than the steel toe. The company has been exploring this technology for four years, said Glen Becker, its chief sales officer.

While pointing out improvements to weight and comfort, Becker was also quick to highlight safety issues. Steel can bend into the foot when hit at the right angle and force — not a common occurrence, he said, but it has happened. Composites, on the other hand, tend to shatter in a spider-web pattern, like after a rock hits a windshield.

This means that wearers of boots with composite toes could suffer a “crush injury” if the force of the impact is high enough, but wouldn’t be at risk of losing toes, which could happen if a steel toe bends.

The Air Force last year selected Belleville’s composite and has received more than 10,000 boots to date.

The other option is an injection-molded thermoplastic toe cap expected to be even lighter — if it works. That material is being developed as a toe cap by bootmaker Wellco, whose officials did not return calls seeking comment by March 14.

The thermoplastic is a new technology, and its ability to meet industry impact and compression standards remains to be seen compared with the fiberglass resin in the Belleville boot, which has more than 15 years of use in footwear.

'Much more comfortable'

The Navy will evaluate both replacements over the next six months, said James Martin, footwear project manager at the Navy Clothing and Texture Research Facility in Natick, Mass.

“Most of the questions will relate to fit, form and function,” Martin said in a Feb. 21 phone interview. “We want to make sure the fit is not altered by the toe cap. Did their foot feel warmer or cooler? Did the boot feel lighter or heavier? We want to make sure these at least meet the same standards as the current steel toe, and find out where performance enhancements may lie.”

Tom Gallagher, TechSolutions’ program manager, said he wants a robust wear test in which sailors are “kicking stairs and knee-knockers as they would in their typical day-to-day operational duties.”

Sailors aboard the attack submarine Jimmy Carter were the first to be outfitted. They are in the shipyard, but will be underway long before the six-month evaluation is complete, which provides evaluators the best of both worlds.

The submarine had 53 people slated to receive the new toe caps, but the message had not been conveyed the way evaluators had hoped. Gallagher opened the evaluation to any interested sailor, and 113 responded, nearly the entire crew. Sailors let Gallagher know the boots were “significantly lighter” and “much more comfortable” soon after they laced up.

The next stop is 7th Fleet. Gallagher has his eye on ships like the aircraft carrier George Washington, some amphibious vessels and the amphibious command ship Blue Ridge. Selected sailors were set to get their boots earlier this month.

Third Fleet will be supplied later, but the date is to be determined because those sailors most likely will get the Wellco toe cap and delivery is dependent on development, Gallagher said.

“At this point, the earliest that the evaluation will be completed is August, but is likely to go longer because Wellco is under development,” Martin said. “At that point, the test data will be analyzed and recommendations would likely be made within a couple of months.”

If production is recommended, there will be an open contract for which various manufacturers compete.

The lighter toe caps could lead to further improvements to the boondocker, which would be a welcome change for many sailors such as Logistics Specialist 1st Class Brad Harper, who recently returned from a lengthy float aboard the cruiser Monterey.

“I despise the boots we have,” he said. “I personally had to go to a podiatrist just to have insoles made. In all my years of wearing Wolverines, Rocky and various other companies, I have never had to do that.”

His fix: “Don’t test out another one-size-fits-all. Just give out the instruction: All leather, no mesh, safety toe, 8-inch-plus height, non-zipper black boot, and allow us to buy what is most comfortable.”

Both Belleville and Wellco have plenty of experience adapting and improving military boots. In fact, they split a contract in October 2011 for the tens of thousands of boots issued to troops in Afghanistan.

Any effort to improve the boot will be led by the TechSolutions office, which is a rapid prototyping shop and is the only program at ONR that takes feedback directly from sailors and Marines. ■

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