As the temperature begins to drop and the leaves begin to change, it's once again time to break out my favorite jacket. Last week I was in shooting in Brooklyn and the weather was less than cooperative. Think cold and rainy. Fortunately for me I'd thought ahead and packed my trusty M-65 - not only a classic piece of military gear but a real piece of American history. I absolutely love this jacket. When it comes to long days running around with a camera, spare batteries and a boatload of memory cards in less than ideal weather it's an essential piece of gear.
First, some history. As the name suggests, the M-65 (also known as M-1965 and M65 Field Jacket), came online in 1965 as the standard military issue jacket for American servicemen. It replaced the M-1951 jacket (which was itself a much improved replacement for the M-1943, standard issue throughout the latter part of WWII.) All of these jackets shared a common design goal - survive the toughest conditions our guys might experience and keep them warm and toasty while doing it. That kind of sh*t really flips my switch. I love tough, functional, well-made gear. Apparently so do badasses everywhere because in the post-Vietnam era, the M-65 was frequently seen on TV and in the movies - they were typically worn by off balance veterans like DeNiro's character Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER, AL Pacino in SERPICO or Sylvester Stallone in RAMBO.
Let's face it, photography and military stuff go hand in hand. Both professions involve going to shitty parts of the world and relying heavily on the gear you can carry on your back. Often, booze and/or black coffee is heavily involved in both professions and photographers, like military types, tend to get shot at/beat up/arrested/tear gassed etc. Another startling similarity between both types is that they perpetually walk the line between being totally poor and destitute or just mildly broke. If you fall into this category of photographer then you're probably a lot like me, which means when you spend your hard-earned cash you need to spend it wisely on things that will withstand the rigors of a hard-ass job with a piss-poor paycheck. With that in mind, before I break down the M-65 for you, I'd like to be clear about one thing; this review will focus on the genuine, military M-65, NOT a M-65 styled jacket that you can pick up at Express. As far as I'm concerned the knock offs can't hold a candle to the real thing so get real or go home. Now lets kick some knowledge.
The first thing that you'll notice about the M-65 is that is looks sharp as all get out. The cotton fabric is thick and heavy, almost like new denim (but firmer) or canvas (but softer.) This makes the M-65 hold it's shape very well. In other words, it won't puff out in every direction and make you look like a fat ass. What's more, the collar stands up with ease and stays where you put it. The lines are clean and the silhouette is slim. The shoulders sport epaulettes (which I think are rad as hell) and they broaden your shoulders so you look more macho. Additionally, the interior of the jacket boasts a hidden drawstring at the waist so you can cinch it down to fit a narrower frame. It serves no other purpose than to make you look good and I think that's awesome. I have considered swapping out my drawstring with 550 Paracord to give me some emergency cordage but I haven't gotten around to it yet.
Let's talk about pockets. The M-65 sports 4 VERY large pockets - two breast pockets and two hip pockets. When you need to use them, you'll immediately appreciate how MASSIVE they actually are. Each one can hold tons of small kit, from notebooks to batteries to whatever you can imagine. I've even stuffed a spare lens into one. In most instances the M-65's onboard storage capability is so good that you can leave your man-bag at home. When I fly, I use the pockets to hold everything I'm carrying and simply run my M-65 through the scanner rather than empty all my pockets. This is a huge time-saver at busy airports like LGA or ATL.
Hood. Another outstanding feature of the M-65 is its hood. While not terribly thick, it will easily shield your ears and head from blistering wind and icy rain (as long as you treat it with Scotch Guard or some other waterproofing spray). What's more, the hood easily tucks away when not in use in the collar of the jacket. Unlike many other jackets, the hood does NOT roll up into the collar, it goes into an interior pocket down the surface of your back, flattening out while adding another layer to the inside of your jacket. This avoids the problem of 'poofy collars' that lesser jackets suffer from.
Detachable Liner. The M-65 is versatile. You can wear it in a light chill or a full on freeze blast. You've got the power. Thanks to a series of buttons placed throughout the interior you can drop in an optional jacket liner for an additional layer of warmth. If you don't need it, just take it out. It literally takes all of five seconds to add or remove.
(PRO TIP: The cotton material initially will be fairly water-resistant upon purchase of a new jacket. Since its cotton, it will not retain this water resistance indefinitely - this is the ONLY flaw I've found with the M-65. Pick up a can of Scotch Guard and treat your jacket once or twice a year to keep it running like a top. Don't forget to treat the hood!)
Zippers. The M-65 zippers on both the collar (for concealable hood) and the front closure are VERY heavy-duty. They're simply massive and heavy - designed to be easily manipulated by gloved hands. Occasionally the zippers on vintage jackets may have difficulty zipping smoothly - (PRO TIP: Rub a candle up and down the teeth of a stubborn zipper. The wax will lubricate the teeth and remedy the problem.) The front zipper is hidden behind a wind flap which does a great job of blocking gusts of chilled air that might otherwise get through if you're in a windy area, traveling by bike or motorcycle.
This is the best part. Since the M-65 has been around for half a century you can find them everywhere - usually pretty cheap. My girlfriend found mine at a thrift store near where we live for about $10. Your mileage may vary but some factors to consider are the condition of a used jacket and whether or not it comes with a liner. Expect to spend anywhere from $10 on an older, used jacket to $65-$75 for a new one. Make sure you choose a genuine military jacket from ROTHCO or ALPHA Industries - avoid knock offs. I buy most of my stuff through Amazon but it's important to try one on to get the proper fit as the sizing can run all over the map. If you don't know what size you are, just head down to your nearest Army Navy store and ask to see an M-65 - they'll hook you up. If you want the genuine article, you can go after vintage jackets - M-65's that were actually issued. Like cars, if you go back a few years they'll be pretty cheap but after that point they become 'vintage' and the price goes up. You'll see them range anywhere from $85 for something about 25 years old to north of $150 for Vietnam-era jackets.
Here's a link to scoop up your very own M-65 on Amazon. If you use this link, I'll get a few bucks thrown my way, so use it! I'll buy you coffee if we ever meet face to face. Really, I will!
There are thousands of cool jackets to choose from and they'll all do a decent job of keeping you warm and dry but the M-65 does it in a style that says "Hey, I'm an anti-hipster. I like classic stuff that's made to last. I'm mentally unstable or a heavy drinker - or both!" What's more, the M-65 will make people think twice about hustling you on the subway while you traverse the urban landscape in search of the perfect photo. Wearing it will make you look equally at home ordering an americano at your favorite cafe, fist fighting a meathead in a seedy bar or passed out drunk at home/in a bar/on the sidewalk after a long night of trying to figure out where it all went wrong/planning your next move/busting crooked cops/joining the resistance movement/avoiding your ex-wife's attorney/one night stand's angry husband. When you take into consideration price, style, quality and feel - the M-65 is a first-rate piece of hardware for the discerning high-speed, low-drag photographer. I HIGHLY recommend you pick one up.