When I was in South America a few decades ago, I noticed how the men there had no problem using a satchel and it made me a little jealous. I think I grew up with too much echoing around in my head. These days, I’m glad to see that satchels and messenger bags have found their way to American streets because, let’s be honest, it’s nice to have a book or a tablet along sometimes, not to mention all of our other EDC items.
When I sat down to decide what kind of satchel I’d like to carry, my mind shot straight to the bag that defined a rugged man’s satchel, that iconic canvas military bag with a sturdy leather strap, the bag that caught everyone’s eye when it showed up on the big screen back in 1981: the Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark bag:
You wanted one too the minute you saw it. And the whip. But let’s stick to the bag for now. In this article, I show how I made my leather-strapped satchel from a vintage military gas mask bag. I also include instructions for making a cotton-strapped bag for those who want to keep the bag as authentic as possible.
What Vintage Army Bag To Use?
If you want to replicate the Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark bag exactly, you need to find a WWII-era British gas mask bag called the “MkVII” (“Mark Seven”) and replace the cotton strap with leather. These bags still show up on eBay and military suplus shelves, but they tend to cost a chunk of change, especially if they’re in good condition. And we no doubt have Raiders of the Lost Ark to thank for that.
Personally, I never had it as my goal to reproduce his bag exactly. I definitely wanted the vintage military look, but I also wanted an American bag with a good, clean form factor.
I stumbled across a site that sells US M9A1 gas mask bags re-purposed into shoulder bags. I took to the size and the look right off the bat. And nobody … NOBODY … would mistake this thing for a purse. Better yet, the M9A1 bag is easy to find and reasonably cheap. I knew I’d found the bag I wanted to use.
A quick search on eBay turned up a good supply of M9A1 gas mask bags, so I bought one in unused condition then started rounding up the rest of the supplies and planning the execution while I waited for the mail truck to arrive.
My Finished Vintage Army Messenger Bag
Let’s cut to the finish line then backtrack to see how I got here. This is my version of an Indiana Jones-style vintage army messenger bag:
I replaced the M9A1 gas mask bag’s cotton straps with a lightly-distressed leather strap. Instead of a metal buckle to adjust the length, I opted for pre-punched holes and aluminum Chicago bolts — a very clean but masculine look.
The gas mask bag fits a magazine snugly. It’s the perfect size for a 10″ tablet, a book, maybe a pair of compact binoculars, and sundry EDC items. An inside pocket, originally designed to hold a can of anti-fog spray, makes the perfect place for keys, glasses, or other small items:
Gathering the Parts for the M9A1 Satchel
The first step is to acquire an M9A1 gas mask bag. Make sure it’s stamped “Field Protective Mask M9A1” on the side! Before you buy one, you may want to read “More about the M9A1/M11 Gas Mask Bag” below. It has some important tips for making sure you get the right bag (yes, there is a “wrong” bag; avoid it).
Where Do I Buy the Gas Mask Bag? Your local military surplus store may have some. The M9A1 gas mask bag is pretty common, since the M9 gas mask had wide military and even civilian use. If you can’t find one locally, eBay’s your friend. I found two in brand-new condition — still nice and stiff — for $10 each. You should be able to find an unissued (i.e. “new”) bag in the $10-15 range. Don’t pay much more than that.
Want a Cotton Strap? Now you have a decision to make. Do you want to stick with the cotton straps that come on the bag, or do you want to go with a leather strap? If you’re sticking with the cotton straps, you’ll need a sewing machine with a sturdy needle (adequate for denim or canvas), some heavy cotton thread, the elevator/carriage bolt listed below, and nothing more.
Want a Leather Strap? If you want to go with the Indiana-Jones motif and use a leather strap, you’ll need to get a few more supplies:
- One 3/8″ elevator bolt, length unimportant (you just need about 3/8″ of shaft above the square section). A carriage bolt will work too; just make sure that the square section will fit through the metal water drainage eye in the side of the bag.
- Four 1/4″ Chicago screws (in aluminum, black, brass, silver, or whatever configuration you’d like.
- A leather hole punch in the same diameter as the shaft of the Chicago screws (normally 3/16″; 1/4″ if you don’t want to pound the screws through the holes).
- A leather strap. Figure out the lowest point on your side you’d possibly want the top of the bag to hit, measure the distance to the top of your shoulder, double it, then add at least a foot. That’s the length to buy. Mine was 5 feet long, about 1 1/4″ wide, and just shy of 1/8″ thick (8-9 oz leather) — a nice weight. eBay can be your friend here; search for “belt blank”. I paid $10 for mine.
Constructing the Military Gas Mask Bag
Once you’ve got the parts together, assembling your vintage, military messenger bag/satchel won’t take long at all.
Remove the Straps
You’ll notice that the bag has a lot of straps in odd places. That’s because the original M9A1 bag was meant to be worn vertically, with one strap over the shoulder and the other around the waist (see “More about the M9A1/M11 Gas Mask Bag” below).
We need to cut those straps off as close to the seam as possible without compromising the seam (but read on before you start cutting):
A NOTE ABOUT D-RINGS: On the front of the bag you’ll see three components stitched together: a strap, a lower D-ring, and an upper D-ring. The only piece you have to remove is the strap. I left the lower D-ring as a clip-on point but harvested the upper D-ring so I could use it for mounting the main strap (we’ll get to that in a minute). I wanted to use one of the original D-rings for that purpose so it would match the others.
But you may want to leave both D-ring straps on the front; this creates two tie-down points for things like rain jackets. HOWEVER, if you leave both D-rings intact, you’ll need to buy another D-ring for attaching the main strap to the side.
Create a Mount Point for the Strap
On one side of your army satchel, you’ll attach the strap to the M9A1’s original D-ring. But there’s no mount point on the other side. Luckily, the M9A1 bag came with a metal drain hole in exactly the right position. Let’s put it into service.
In my method, we stick a 3/8″ elevator bolt (or carriage bolt) through that hole then poke a D-ring through the shaft of the bolt:
This method has three advantages: 1) it’s pretty easy, 2) the bolt can spin freely, so it’s easy to untwist the strap on our vintage military messenger bag, and 3) the rough aesthetics are fantastic. Of course, you could also harvest a D-ring strap from the front of the gas mask bag and sew it onto the side, if that’s your preference.
But continuing with the elevator bolt method, cut the shaft down to about 3/8″ of thread (exact length doesn’t matter as long as it will accommodate a hole for the D-ring; a Dremel with a metal cut-off wheel works great, but a hack-saw can work too). Round off the end of the bolt with a file or a grinder, then drill a hole straight through the shaft, making sure the hole is big enough to fit your D-ring:
The bolt should slide perfectly through the metal drain hole. If the square portion of the shaft doesn’t fit in the hole, grind it down. Finally, open the D-ring and feed it through the hole in the shaft, as shown above.
Strap Option 1: Use the Original Cotton Straps
If you want to keep your army messenger bag authentic, re-purpose the two straps you removed and make them into a shoulder strap. It’s easily done. Just stitch the cut ends of the straps together. You’ll want to use something like a webbing stitch (a rectangle and an “X” through the middle):
Use good, heavy cotton thread. You’ll need a heavy-duty needle that can handle denim or canvas.
Once you’ve joined the straps, clip them to your D-rings. And you’re done.
Strap Option 2: Make a Leather Strap
Making a leather strap is as easy as punching a few holes. I punched a pair of holes every four inches:
This configuration allows 2″ adjustment steps and has a great look. If your Chicago screws tend to work loose, throw a little bit of thread lock on the threads.
Your Vintage, Indiana-Jones-Style Satchel is Ready!
That’s it! You’ve now got an Indiana-Jones-style, vintage army satchel with a clean, rugged look and great versatility. The snap-top closure pulls open with one hand, but better yet, it will snap closed with one hand too thanks to an excellent snap design which puts the snaps on floating straps. Get a couple of fingers under the snap and pinch the lid closed with your thumb. You’ll start appreciating this closure system within the first thirty seconds.
Now all that’s left to do is load it up, head out into the open, and start fielding compliments from discerning folks.
More about the M9A1/M11 Gas Mask Bag
According to the Gas Mask and Respirator Wiki, the M9 and M9A1 gas masks came into service for the Korean War and remained in service well into the Vietnam War. The carrier bag, technically called the M11, usually gets called by the same name as the gas mask itself, since that’s the number stamped on its side: M9A1.
That gives you an idea of the era the bag hails from.
The bag itself is a side-opener, not a top-opener. It has two straps, one designed to loop over the opposite shoulder and one around the waist:
This configuration allows the soldier to quickly pull the bag open with one hand.
Now a very important point: There are two bag variants. You need to make sure you get the right one!
Wrong Bag: The bag stamped “M9” on the side has a roll-flap with sturdy snaps mounted directly on the side of the bag. It might have model number “C15R1” stamped on the lip of the opening. This bag would be painful to open and close all day:
Right Bag: The improved version has “M9A1” stamped on the side (and possibly “M11” stamped on the lip of the opening). This better version features a fold-over opening and snaps that sit on free-floating strips of webbing. This modification makes it much, much easier to open and close the bag:
Size & Left/Right Hand: It’s worth noting that the M9 gas mask came in different sizes, so the bag will be stamped with S, M, or L for the mask size that came in the bag. The mask size, however, doesn’t seem to affect the bag size. So don’t expect an “L” bag to be significantly bigger than an “S” bag. Additionally, the bag came in both left-side-carry (“L”) and right-side-carry (“R”) versions. In this case, the bags do open opposite directions. So a medium-sized, left-side-carry bag will be stamped “ML” on the side:
Gas Masks: Collector’s Guide for Identifying Common American Military Gas Masks by Ron Ruble