Shoe: Nike Special Field Boot 8” (British Khaki/Desert)
Release: March 2009
Price: $150, from Nike.com
In 2005, Nike’s Innovation Kitchen received a mandate unlike any other: design the next generation of tactical boot. Paying homage to Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman’s service with the 10th Mountain Division during WWII, the Nike SFB (“Special Field Boot”) was developed with the needs of both armed forces and first-responders alike. Category-first features included the Natural Motion Cushioning unit (similar to Nike’s Footscape outsole) and a puncture-resistant forefoot shield made of lightweight thermoplastic. The resulting shoe was lightweight, quick-drying, comfortable, and flexible – the opposite of the heavy Rothco/Belleville boots it was designed to replace.
Four years after development began, the first-generation SFB was released in March 2009. Initial reaction was positive but subdued. Due to its genre-first feature set, the initial SFB model didn’t comply with the Army’s AR-670-1 uniform regulations, which were last updated in 2005. This meant that any soldier reporting for duty in Nike combat boots was considered ill-dressed, and therefore unfit to serve.
That's not to say the boots weren’t up to snuff – in fact, initial reviews were generally favorable. It just meant that the SFB would have to prove itself against traditional, heavy-weight combat boots. And prove it did: despite the regulations, Nike SFB’s became popular with service personnel across other branches of service, even becoming the choice of Army soldiers deployed overseas. Finally, after years of strong sales and widespread adaptation, Nike released an AR-670-1 compliant SFB in September 2014 to rave reviews.
In many ways, the SFB resembles a cross between a performance running shoe and a standard-issue military boot. To quote Nike Innovation Manager Tobie Hatfield: “Throughout the evolution of [the SFB], it… became very clear that America’s elite military operators and first responders share similarities with the world’s top tier athletes.” Both require uncompromising performance, reliable gear, and no expense spared in development. Their lives quite literally depend on it.
Nike’s Special Field Boot is the only sneaker I own that I’m profiled for wearing. There’s no hi-viz Swoosh, the Natural Motion sole is a “trained observer” thing, and oh yeah, it is genetically a combat boot. Not some fetishized “Ramones”-style black leather zip “combat boot” – but the sort of boot you’d wear because your 9-5 includes kicking doors and pointing firearms.
Fashion may be danger, but its relationship with true peril is always a somewhat defanged intrigue (studded leather, camo prints) rather than a full-on embrace. Breaking that code doesn’t make you more fashionable in the eyes of the public, either; if anything, it makes you someone who shouldn’t also be carrying a backpack.
That being said: I love my SFB’s. Since these are the most utilitarian shoes I own, we’ll start with functionality. I bought my Gen 1 SFB’s in August 2015, and wore them any time Michigan weather got too awful to consider anything else. The water-resistant suede lower and nylon upper do a superb job keeping out the elements – paired with wool socks, you’d have to be submerged before you felt any moisture on your skin. In addition, the Natural Motion outsole does a surprisingly good job on slick ground. My Bean Boots (designed for cold mud in the swamps of Maine) lose winter traction faster than my SFB’s, a testament to the work of Hatfield and his team. And as for performance under stress, I’ve both run and hiked miles in these shoes: I wore SFB’s on my Mt Washington ascent this past May and found them agile, yet durable. I would have preferred my purpose-built Vasque light hikers (especially on the descent – that thermoplastic shield does a number on your toes going down), but for shoes that I bought as a fashion piece, Nike’s SFB performed well. From day one, my SFB’s have trucked through mud, rain, snow, and sleet like they were designed for it. Which makes sense, since they were.
This being Nike, there’s also an aesthetic component to that performance that’s likely why you chose the Swoosh over competitors. There’s a reason everyone from Kanye West to Shia LaBeouf rocks these boots: the SFB is no slouch for looks. Athletic, muscular, purpose-built, futuristic, and oddly intriguing, Nike’s combat boot is an odd mix of traits that just seems to work. With the right wardrobe to support them, the SFB will sing.
In my opinion, the Nike SFB is the Mercedes-AMG G-Class of sneakers: you’re never quite sure where the styling ends and the function begins. And even if you could draw a line, the numbers don’t lie – it’s not like any utility was compromised just to make a handsome product. So why not just enjoy the result? The badass, good-looking, high-performance result?
Aesthetics of function aside, the Nike SFB is not exactly a versatile shoe for every day wear. I find myself wearing it exclusively with long pants, and even then only with tapered jeans or sweats – finer-gauge chino fabric just doesn’t seem ruff enough for combat boots, no matter how stylish they are. Then, there’s that whole “profiling” bit from earlier. I’m not terribly concerned about wearing my SFB’s in the informal company of peers, but if I have office hours or even a group meeting, I choose another shoe. Call me crazy, but I’d rather avoid explaining my love for Shia LaBeouf to someone who now believes I’ve been radicalized.
Does that prevent me from wearing them at all? Of course not. But for a shoe designed to perform in any environment, there are some very real limits imparted by everyday life. Compared to shoes like the Greats Royale or the Vans Sk8-Hi, it’s hard for me to recommend the SFB as a “wear all week” casual staple. But if you have the right wardrobe to support them and skin thick enough to absorb a few side-eyes, you can’t go wrong with this sneaker-boot hybrid. Nike’s SFB is a solid addition to any shoe rotation.