Home Vintage Scuba Vintage Scuba: The Horse Collar (Mae West) Vest

Vintage Scuba: The Horse Collar (Mae West) Vest


Let’s take a few minutes to talk about buoyancy compensators (BCs). They’re a big part – a very important part – of scuba diving today, and they have made diving so easy: when I started diving, there was nothing like this. BCs are fantastic instruments that are reliable, allow you to go up, down, stay neutral, are comfortable and designed to hold your tank, they come with weight-integrated systems and they’re good looking. But they didn’t look like that at first. Let me explain.

By Alec Peirce

When I first started diving in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, there was nothing available. That’s not exactly true: some divers advocated wearing a vest like a life vest. The very earliest ones were ex-US Navy or Air Force life vests that wrapped around your neck and came down with a couple of straps. They were called the Mae West vest, and some of you older divers who know who Mae West was will smile. If you don’t, then Google her and you’ll understand why we call it that: she was a famous actress in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

This is one of the earliest examples of the Mae West vest or a light vest that could be called a BC – though we didn’t know about buoyancy compensation at the time. This was made by a scuba diving company: Healthways was a big company at the time and one of the biggest ever. This is similar to the Navy or Air Force vest – a Mae West or horse collar vest – we’d pick up at the war surplus store. Like those, you’d put it over your head and wrap it around your tummy and up through your crotch, so it’s nice and tied to your body. You could use this as a life vest and you couldn’t really add buoyancy to it – very difficult. The only way to add air was to use this tiny tube; it was more used on the surface if you were very tired at the end of a dive or had a long swim ahead of you. You could inflate the vest and it would hold you on the surface and let you get to shore safely.

Vests in the early days – for a long time, in fact, up until the ‘80s – had another feature that was a carry over from the Air Force/Navy vest. They had a CO2 cartridge, and in an emergency, you pulled on this and it blew the vest up instantly but only on the surface: if you did this underwater, one of two things would happen: if you were shallow, it would blow up and yank you to the surface quickly; if you were very deep, 60 feet or more, nothing happened because the pressure in the water was greater than the cartridge.

Whew, that’s cold! The gas is expanding. As you see, this was a life vest. It’s not used anymore even though it seemed like a great idea. First of all, these mechanisms were very unreliable and constantly failed to fire; constantly froze up and corroded. Even worse than that, this vest is full of carbon dioxide. At one time this was a stable of scuba diving. Pretty neat, huh?

Now you’ve seen an old horse collar/Mae West vest fired and filled with CO2 cartridge. As these became more popular, they became more developed and sophisticated with pockets and more useful tools. Divers were realizing the vest was a good idea, so companies added more features.


Join Alec as he goes from vests to BCs in the next installment of his Vintage Scuba series.