Army Stetsons: For The fearless American Badass

The Cavalry Stetson Hat
Robert Duvall as LTC Kilgore in Apocolypse Now -
Nearly every Cav trooper remembers the scene in “Apocalypse Now”
when Robert Duvall prepared for his assault in his Stetson.
The fearless American badass. Cav, Hooah.

In 1865, with $100 in his pocket, John B. Stetson rented a small room, bought the tools he needed and $10 worth of fur, and the John B. Stetson Hat Company was born. more

The most distinctive uniform item worn by air cavalrymen in Vietnam was the Cav hat. This tradition is believed to have been originated in early 1964 by LTC John B. Stockton (Commander of 3/17 Cavalry) at Fort Benning,Georgia. The hat was adopted in an effort to increase esprit de corps in the new air cavalry squadron and was meant to emulate the look of the 1876 pattern campaign hat worn by cavalry troopers long ago. Once units deployed to Vietnam , the custom slowly spread to other air cavalry units, and by the cessation of hostilities, virtually all air cav (and some ground cav) units had adopted the Cav hat.

Robert Duvall in Apocolypse Now -

The Cav Hat was a private purchase item that cost a wallet-stretching $29 in 1972. It was most often supplied by the Stetson Hat Company. Because Stetson supplied most of the hats, the name “Stetson” became interchangeable with Cav hat. Other companies, such as Charlie Horse were also used. Several Asian suppliers provided “knock off” copies, but the quality of workmanship was greatly inferior to that of the Stetson.

While unit commanders did not mandate the wearing of the hats, there was considerable peer pressure to conform, and most troopers quickly added the Cav hat to their wardrobes. Just as World War 11 paratroopers were fond of their jump suits, wearing them long after issue had ceased, so too did the Cav hat instill fierce pride and loyalty in the units where it was worn. Most air cavalry veterans interviewed by the author proudly cherish their Cav hats today.

Because the hats were delivered from the manufacturer in the U.S. there was an understandably long turnaround time between ordering and delivery. In some units, members were killed in action or MEDEVACed to the United States before the arrival of their hats. Thus, current unit members sometimes accepted hats meant for departed comrades.

Stetsons were constructed of a high grade fur felt with an interior leather sweatband and a silk hat ribbon around the base of the crown. The manufacturer provided a black leather chin strap, which also held the hat cord in place. The type of hat cord worn varied according to rank, as follows: general officers, all gold braid; officers, gold and black intertwined braid; warrant officers, silver and black intertwined braid; enlisted men, yellow wool or nylon.

The cord was a copy of the acorn-ended 1899 pattern, worn on the 1885 pattern campaign hat. Members of B-2/17 Cav further garnished their Cav hats with the addition of a beaded “Indian” hat band and feather, D-3/5 Cav appears to be the only unit that wore gray Cav hats. When D-3/5 Cav exchanged designations with C-3/17 Cav in 1971, C-3/17 carried on the Light Horse tradition of gray Cav hats.

On the Cav hat, most officers and warrant officers wore some combination of officer rank insignia and crossed cavalry sabers. There were instances in which several troops of different squadrons wore the distinctive red and white background trimming-commonly referred to as a jump wing oval-on the front of the cav hat. This oval was authorized for 1/17 Cav, a non-air cavalry squadron of the 82nd Airborne Division, located at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

The Cav hat was remarkably durable and was easily cleaned of dirt and lint by buffing with a shoe brush. In several units, a “wetting down” ceremony was conducted, during which the newbies were accepted as members of the troop. Before they could wear their hats, however, they were required to “chug-a-lug” a hatful of cold beer. There are several instances in which air cavalrymen, after being shot down, raced back into their burning aircraft to save their precious Cav hats.

©Winged Sabers


2-17 Cavalry leading the brigade run after OIF I
Bullet Hole in aircraft Vietnam


Photos courtesy of 2-17 Cavalry and VHPA

While not a Cavalry history, here is the history of the STETSON HAT itself from the Stetson website!



Civil War Slouch hat Civil War stetson hc_m044r_slouch_hat_civil-war_officers_cs
CIVIL WAR ERA OFFICER’S SLOUCH HAT US Officers Slouch Hat, Cavalry Trim CS Officers Slouch Hat, Untrimmed

The U.S. Officer’s Slouch Hat was authorized for all officers by regulation. This same hat was used by Confederate officers in both Black and Grey.


Hat Cords – The Stetsons worn by many Cavalry soldiers all include a colored band just above the brim referred to as a cord, braid, hobble, wrap, or acorn. Click Here to visit the Hat Cord Page

yellow cavalry hat cord


Many units have specific requirements regarding the wear of the Stetson (Spurs also!). Some are memorandums and some are created as an addition to the Army Regulation 670-1 – Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia.
Here is an example:

    1. Stetson: The Stetson will be black in color. Only rank and regimental or ordinary cavalry brass will adorn the Stetson. The braid will be worn around the base of the Stetson. Troopers will wear the appropriate braid color. Braid ends or acorns will be to the front of the Stetson and no more than an acorn length over the brim.

a. Field Grade Officer: Solid Gold
b. Company Grade Officer: Gold and Black
c. Warrant Officer (Senior CW4,CW5): Solid Silver
d. Warrant Officer – WO1,CW2,CW3 : Silver and Black
e. Non-Commissioned Officer: Yellow

2. The nape strap will be threaded through the appropriate eyelets in the brim of the Stetson so that strap goes around the back and the buckle is fastened and centered on the wearers head.

3. The sides of the crown shall not be pushed in or otherwise modified. The brim will be flat with a slight droop at the front.

4. The Stetson will be worn on the head with the brim parallel to the ground.

5. Occasions for wearing the Stetson: Squadron dining-ins/outs, formal events in dress blues, gatherings of spur holders, professional gatherings such as AAAA and any other event or function as designated by Squadron/Battalion CDR.


Breaking in a Stetson

The tradition of “Breaking in a Stetson” has various forms. Inductees into a Cavalry unit can obtain a Stetson from several different ways – you can purchase one, receive it as a gift, or even have one sponsored by members of your unit. However, you are not authorized to wear it at a unit function until it is properly “broken in”. The breaking in ceremony is similar to an initiation or rite of passage, so to speak, and builds Esprit de Corps among Cav Troopers. In the days of the mounted cavalry, many hats were made with waterproof liners, not only to keep the rain off, but also to carry water. When a horse and rider would come to a steep riverbed, the Cav Trooper, knowing that his horse always comes first, would use his Stetson to scoop water for his horse to drink.

Cav soldiers have incorporated this practice into the ‘breaking in” tradition. The new inductee holds the hat upside down, and the senior spur holders pour a mix of different alcohols into the hat.

To conduct this event properly, the senior Stetson wearers and spur holders have a couple of responsibilities: First, set the ground rules. Your new Troopers will be drinking this mix, so keep it somewhat clean. Try to refrain from throwing raw eggs, chewing tobacco, spit, or cigar ashes into it. At least try. Next, when pouring in alcohol, it should represent the Cavalry in some way. For example, “In honor of Garryowen’s tremendous sacrifices in the frozen hell that was Korea, against the massed and savage red hordes that died on regimental blades, we add that potent and devious extract known as Soju” or “The Persian Gulf War taught us that with the addition of our tanks, our Bradleys, and our aircraft, we had worthy replacements for our old cavalry steeds. To salute the war, we add sand, and for our new dedicated workhorses, we add their lifeblood, JP-8.” (substituted with grain alcohol).

Similar to many of the cav traditions, how your unit breaks in your Stetson is up to them. Some require it to be a formal occasion (i.e. dining out or dining in), but many make the “breaking in” an informal portion of the unit’s Hail and Farewell. The “hail and bail” as it is sometimes referred to, gives the chain of command an opportunity to officially greet (and introduce) the incoming soldiers and their families to the unit, as well as recognize Troopers who are departing due to PCS, ETS, or retirement. A “breaking in” can also be conducted at an informal event or location such as a unit party. The latter is sometimes a better idea, as this event can sometimes get messy.


Air Cavalry KiowaPilots breaking in the Stetson-

“When they grabbed the Stetson, the wife immediately jumped up and followed them around to make sure that there wasn’t TOO much crap dumped into it…

I can specifically remember… Tequila, Rum, Beer, Soda, Vodka, Gin and Tonic, Salad, Sour Cream, Cigar butts, and I think there was even a dinner roll or two…Anyway…

I think there were 6 or 7 of us… we all had to drink that shit out of our Stetsons… it was leaking through the felt and was the nastiest shit I’ve ever tasted…But it was broken in correctly!!”

Here is a link to a great Cavalry forum page with a ton of photos of Cav headgear!