The wheel is one of man’s oldest inventions, with wheelbarrows and hand carts almost as old. Simply put, they enable a person to transport loads over a greater distance, and with less energy expenditure than without.
There are many variations in design, one-person, two-person, front wheel, central wheel, push, or pull, and single or double wheel.
Each has a specific use case, a single-wheel one-person push barrow, for example, allows heavy loads to be moved short distances, and is highly manoeuvrable in the tight spaces often found on a building site.
Military hand carts also have a long history, with numerous examples of use in most major conflicts.
Before WWII, the British Army tested a number of concepts.
In 1934, Brigadier General (retired) F. L. Festing designed and built a number of prototype tracked carriers, the 6×4 foot load bed was hinged to accommodate different-sized loads. Remarkably for its time, it made use of continuous rubber tracks and could carry in excess of 700kg up a 30-degree slope.
It never entered service and little is known of it beyond that.
British Army Airborne Hand Cart
Over 16,000 were made by SS Cars Ltd (Jaguar) during WWII, and although not entirely limited to airborne units, they would be mostly used by them, especially in mortar platoons.
These could be fitted with rope toggles for additional personnel to pull or support lowering, and the two-man handle and pneumatic tyres afforded good mobility.
Other models included the airborne trolley was mostly used for clearing landing zones of containers, and for carrying medical supplies.
A larger steel mesh design was also used.
US Army Utility Hand Cart
These were issued to all branches of the US Army during WWII, widely manufactured in both steel and aluminium, with a number of variations and adaptions.
This was of a similar design to the airborne hand cart, two-man handle, ropes, and simple unsprung pneumatic wheels. Where this design differed was the range of accessories that could be used to expand utility, it was a much more developed concept.
A simple towing attachment allowed it to be moved quickly with a Jeep, cable drum support rollers for signals units, and even tripod fittings that enabled it to be used as a machine gun carrier.
By using a range of clamps, brackets, bags, covers and other accessories, the US Army had a very flexible and adaptable system.
It was also very easy to disassemble and transport.
Wehrmacht Infanteriekarren (If. 8)
Also similar to the designs above, the If.8 was widely used by German forces.
The If.8 had a useful feature that allowed them to be towed in tandem, by horses or vehicles, or even dogs!
It also featured a simple suspension and was used in the Panzerzerstörer units whose focus was anti-tank operations using the R-Panzerbüchsen 54 (Panzerschreck) rocket, each company had a number of If.8 trailers equipped with brackets to enable 8 rockets to be carried and easily offloaded.
Post-war, the use of infantry hand carts faded away, although a couple of notable examples are worth mentioning.
Egyptian forces used hand carts to great effect during Operation Badr, crossing the Suez
The British Army examined a number of hand cart concepts post-war, drawing on a vast amount of operational experience.
One of the designs could also be fitted with flotation bags.
Obviously not a smoker!
There was also a powered version
Another development was a powered stretcher.
Another Look at the Concept
Despite their widespread use in previous conflicts, in more recent times, they seem to have fallen out of favour. As infantry-carried weights are not showing any signs of reducing, it is also a subject I have written about a few times, this being the most recent example.
This news piece about Afghanistan from 2006 illustrates the problem where trolleys might have been helpful, members of the US 10th Mountain Division hauling water bottles with stretchers and a ‘bucket brigade’.
Oh for want of a wheel!
For most operational environments now, small ATVs and quad bikes with trailers seem to be the norm.
A recent Tweet caught my attention, focussed on working in the urban environment and the brilliant innovation and experimentation being carried out by the British Army.
Not only for medical reasons but also the challenges of resupply in the close confines often found in urban environments where a quad could not access
I must thank Will and James for these tweets and their online engagement certainly had some really interesting conversations, am very lucky to be tagged in.
The question at the core of this is a simple one, is it worth revisiting the concept of a hand cart for infantry and other forces, especially in an urban environment?
My view is yes, I think they still have much to offer, no surprise there then.
But if we accept there is value, what are the options, how do test them out, how do we find space in a crowded budget to bring them into service, and how do we sustain them in service?
A few thoughts on the options…
Walking Trailers and Hiking Carts
The total carrying capacity is in excess of 70kg
The Hawk Crawler is another example, this time in a more traditional pull-behind configuration
The most obvious solution is to use what was trialled in the tweets above. Although rather specialised, litter/stretcher wheel kits are available from a number of manufacturers such as Ferno, Flamor and Cascade Rescue, and have the benefit of rugged simplicity.
They are compact, lightweight and can be used for both casualties and general stores, some have a single wheel, others two.
And different wheel options are also available.
All of these do remain relatively expensive.
Over in the USA, there is a very large market for hunting carts, there are volumes that drive down costs.
This one, for example, costs the princely sum of $89
It also folds
Another more expensive model ($199) also folds but has a more robust construction and better wheels.
At the cheaper end of the market is the humble angling trolley, used by tens of thousands of people worldwide. Because of their ubiquity, they have the benefit of high production volumes to keep costs down, the example below from Angling Direct is a couple of hundred Pounds.
And can be folded.
These would be of no use for a casualty/stretcher, and would be only operable by one person, thus limited payload, but likely easy to use, attach various sewn bags and equipment straps.
Did I mention they were cheap?
If we look at who moves things around an urban environment by hand, it is obvious that street sweepers and posties might have the answers, the descendant of the ‘Barrow Boys‘
At about a thousand Pounds, these orderly carts are built to last, although the bins might not be best suited to defence stores, they would at least be waterproof though.
Now I will be the first to admit these are somewhat lacking in street cred, but one thing they are is tough.
They are designed for high-duty cycles and fairly careless handling, in an urban environment
Have we really improved on those WWII designs?
Maybe we could simply contract with any of the numerous small engineering companies in the UK to just build one of those?
Utilise modern materials like honeycomb aluminium panels and ‘off the shelf’ run-flat bicycle tyres, but none of those older designs has all that much room for improvement.
Powered wheelbarrows would be useful, especially if they had a common battery with those power tools.
There are a couple of manufacturers of dedicated military equipment.
The first is Wild Goose from Marom Dolphin in Israel
This device is available in two or four-wheel options with load capacities of up to 140kg.
From Hendrick Motorsports in the USA, the STEED (Silent Tactical Energy Enhanced Dismount)
It comes folded
And can be used by one or two people
STEED has a payload of up to 227kg and a range of between 24 and 48km on a single battery.
Another option, although not quite similar, is the MTT-154
I don’t expect any of these will be cheap.
This brings me to my final option, DIY.
We could experiment until a design has been proven, then allow local units to build from either kit of parts of basic materials like Unistrut, box section and bicycle or beach wheels.
Must admit I quite like this option, the design could be held on an electronic battle box, and constant iteration will keep things improving.
It keeps things cheap, disposable and doable without a massive project, units will tend to have attached handy folks from the REME or RE.
Unistrut, plastic tubs and similar materials will also have all sorts of benefits and uses, held in unit stores.
Take a 200-litre Hogbox like that below
These have all sorts of utility outside of the hand cart world, you can even secure them to standard pallets and move them as a unit load.
They cost about a hundred quid
Then build a Unistrut frame or if you have some box section and a friendly welder, weld the frame and handle.
Attach the wheels, job done.
Probably no more than a couple of hundred pounds
I do think there is a lot of benefit in these simple solutions to enduring problems, and unsurprisingly, many of them old fellas also faced the same problems.
If I had to choose, it would be the DIY route.
Cheap, easy to create at the point of need, no expensive contracts or support arrangements, and not time-consuming procurement and specification activities, just local purchase and build.
Anyway, have seen the future, see you in the comments.