A gear review of the original disrupter upland hunting strap vest the Wing Works
One thing hunters have in common is that we love our gear. And why not? It follows us into the field right along with our dogs and our passion for the outdoors. Maybe it’s a special knife handed down for generations that you use to process game the way your uncle taught you; perhaps it’s a simple lanyard and whistle that you have used to call every bird dog you have ever owned. For many of us, it is our bird vest to which we attach nostalgic value. A good vest carries everything we need to enjoy a day afield and, if successful, it holds our quarry close to our back so we can feel the warmth of a productive hunt and anticipate the meals to come. It is a piece of equipment that is with us through every moment in our upland shooting life.
Is There Such Thing as a Lifetime Vest?
I often hear the term “lifetime vest” thrown around, as if there existed one perfect garment that you could see yourself wearing for the rest of your outdoor life until one of you eventually wears out. Not me; my eyes wander too much to own a lifetime vest. Too many new gimmicks and features catch my attention to ever consider spending the rest of my hunting life with a single, weathered piece of Cordura or faded, waxed canvas. It is much more exciting to fall in love every October with the latest vest making the rounds and showing it off to your friends while testing it in the field, only to move on to the next one as soon as a new catalog shows up in the mail. That is the gear junkie in me; I am rarely satisfied with the same old, same old. However, I did have a long-term, on-and-off again relationship with one vest: the Wing Works strap vest. Every time I would grow dissatisfied and try something new, I would soon realize that the latest and greatest vest was lacking so I would come back to my tried and true. I still remember the first time I ever saw one. It was different from the other strap vests of its era. It stood out immediately and made a huge splash in the market, forever changing the upland bird vest game.
How to Disrupt with Innovation and Ingenuity
Hunters don’t accept gear that doesn’t live up to its promises. We tend to feel strongly about malfunctions or things that don’t work as they should because it wastes our money and can ruin our precious time in the field. Some of us may only get a week or two each year to spend chasing wild birds; God help the maker of bad gear that ruins one of those highly anticipated hunts! Word travels like wildfire in the hunting community that “so-and-so’s this-or-that” did them wrong or didn’t live up to expectations.
On the other hand, it usually takes a little longer for good gear to be celebrated because if it’s doing its job, you aren’t thinking about it. You only think about shoes when they hurt your feet, you only think about rain gear when it leaks, and you only think about bird vests when they get in the way or when a limit of roosters feels like you are packing out an elk hindquarter. For something to really take hold and be embraced by the upland community, it must be different enough to gain attention without turning off those challenged by something new—no small feat in a sport steeped in tradition like upland hunting. Wing Works was that product. It changed everything in its niche and perfected the ordinary.
The Notable Features of the Wing Works Vest
The first time I saw a Wing Works vest was on an upland hunting online forum. What initially jumped out at me were those bizarrely deep, rectangular shell pockets that rode on the sides of your hips. I had never seen any design like them, though it’s a feature that other manufacturers were quick to emulate. It seems that people either love or hate those deep pockets at their sides. Though I initially doubted their function, I quickly fell into the “love” category. I enjoy taking pictures of my dogs on point, so I need to be able to shove my camera or phone down into a pocket and not worry about it falling out. In fact, in ten years of wearing a Wing Works vest, I have never had something fall out of one of those voluminous pockets. From shells to my cell phone, they are deep enough to drop something in with the absolute minimum amount of attention and have maximum confidence that it will be there the next time I reach for it.
The placement of the pockets is such that you can take a high step over a downed log or hike up a steep incline without bumping your legs and potentially emptying out a pocket. This is something so practical that I would no longer consider wearing any vest where the pockets sit left and right of your belt buckle. Some users complained that those deep pockets had a tendency to collect debris, so Wing Works created a “Grouse Pocket” that turns your shell pocket into a vault that even the smallest bit of upland detritus would have trouble invading.
Another feature of the pocket I really liked in the original vest was a built-in slot that fit my Tritronics g3 e-collar transmitter so perfectly that it almost became part of the vest (though that particular transmitter has long been discontinued). Newer versions of the Wing Works vest have updated slots large enough to accommodate a Garmin GPS transmitter or even bear spray. These pockets pull double duty during training season by being large enough to hold extra Nalgene-sized water bottles for hot summer training days. They are also the perfect size to slide in a homing pigeon to transport in the field to be planted.
The designated water bottle holders that ride between the game bag and shell pockets do their job with perfect simplicity. They held the proprietary Wing Works 32oz water bottle securely, released it easily, and accepted them back with no fumbling. It’s a smart setup and Wing Works perfected it first.
The game bag is very roomy and almost structured, making for easy loading while wearing it. There is plenty of space for birds, a camera, and a water bladder as well as a large, zippered storage pouch to keep your snacks and first aid kit. The structure of the game bag and hip pockets gives the vest a large footprint around your body, something that many grouse hunters have expressed concern about while slipping around trees in pursuit of the wily limb chicken. I can say from firsthand experience hunting ruffed grouse in the rainforest jungles of western Washington that my Wing Works vest was never a hindrance when clawing through alders and negotiating blowdowns.
The foundation of the whole system is the waist belt. It was one of the very first, if not the very first, load-bearing waist belt on a bird hunting vest. When worn correctly with the strap across your navel, the padded belt will ride at the top of your hips (known as the iliac crest) and allow you to comfortably carry the weight of the vest’s contents. If you hear someone complain about how uncomfortable a strap vest with a load-bearing belt is, pay attention to how they are wearing it before deciding for yourself. If that strap isn’t going across their navel, they are wearing it wrong.
Finally, the adjustable shoulder yoke comes in different sizes to accommodate different sized people; couple that with several different sized waist belts and the Wing Works vest could accommodate just about anyone. The creators of the Wing Works vest were smart enough to realize that putting padded shoulder straps on a strap vest is superfluous; all they do is interfere with your gun mount. They made the shoulder straps low profile while still maintaining a respectable amount of adjustability.
Areas for Improvement on the Wing Works Vest
One downside to the Wing Works game bag is that the more you fill it with water bottles, a camera, and dog gear, the farther the weight moves away from your back, causing it to pull more on the shoulder straps. Taken to an extreme, this can become quite uncomfortable if overloaded.
On the very back of the game bag is the iconic leather circle that instantly identifies a Wing Works vest in the field. It holds a single Cordura lash to hold your jacket when you need to shed layers. I have to say that there is some room for improvement here. I have had garments come loose from the lashing so I quit using it entirely. It’s possible that operator error was at play, but I think a double lash or bungee system would be a better option.
Final Thoughts on the Wing Works Vest
The Wing Works vest is a heavy-duty system for sure; there is nothing ultralight about it. The pockets, water bottles, and padded belt can make it feel like you are wearing a saddle at times, but if you are looking for that “ride or die” piece of equipment, Wings Works might be the one for you.
After ten years of hard use—hunting everything from sharpies, sage grouse, and huns on the prairie to ruffed and sooty grouse in the Pacific Northwest to pheasants and quail in the creek bottoms—I can report, aside from the dirt, sweat, and blood stains, that my Wing Works looked the same as the day it arrived in the mail. At a price point of $260, I only paid $26 a year to own my vest and who knows how many years it has left? I feel Wing Works represents tremendous value for the money in an age where disposable hunting gear that only lasts a season or two dominates the market.
The only reason I parted with my vest was to upgrade to their latest version, but I found Wing Works was having supply issues. That might be the biggest drawback to Wing Works: they seem to be out of stock more often than they are in stock and buying a new setup can be a challenge. As of the writing of this review, they are currently closed for vest orders with no hints as to when they will be taking them again. I reached out to Wing Works several weeks before writing this review to ask about their supply and when they might be restocking; they have not yet replied to my queries. It’s good the one I had was so bulletproof because I am not confident in timely repairs or replacements in the middle of hunting season since reaching Wing Works’ headquarters has been hit or miss. I have heard reports of great customer service from others, so your experience may vary.
Despite availability issues, Wing Works has a tremendous fan base of uplanders who love their lifetime vest. While there are many newer, flashier vests hitting the scene, many of them have taken no small amount of inspiration from Wing Works. They did it first, they did it right, and I hope they continue to make innovative vests to keep up with the competition; if not, the current renaissance of upland bird vests could leave them in the dust.
Michael R Thompson is an independent artist and custom knife maker living in the Bitterroot valley of Montana with his setters and labs.