When choosing a new or used rig, the metal hardware used in the 3-ring assembly and for harness adjustments matters a lot. Inattention to this detail can make or break a good used gear deal. If you’re getting new gear, some of those great sales and discount deals might be due to hardware choice.
It’s all in the shine. Aside from a decade-or-so foray into nickel-plated hardware—a trip down the wrong road for the most part, since nickel plating chips—the choices are between cadmium-plated metal, which has a dull finish, or shiny stainless steel. Stainless steel makes a better choice across the board but of course costs more.
Manufacturing defects notwithstanding, all the hardware on your parachute system will take any load skydiving can deliver. But over time—and not much time in some locations—cadmium plating wears off, especially where the harness straps rub against it or where one metal part contacts another. Humidity mixed with industrial pollution can accelerate the degradation.
The worn plating leaves the steel underneath subject to rust. Unplated steel that is exposed to saltwater (e.g., from swooping on a beach) can rust and ruin a harness overnight. Any rust on a harness is a no-go, and both the rusted hardware and any webbing it contacted must be replaced. In some cases, the rig is done for good.
More and more skydivers are signing on to black-plated stainless steel, initially designed for stealth. It’s still a little new to say how it will weather skydiving stresses over time, but manufacturers offer a caveat that the black coating may flake or chip. Since it’s stainless steel underneath, rust should prove to be a non-issue. The only concern might then be premature wear from the harness abrading against a rough surface.
Stainless hardware did present some challenges for a time. Hardware that slipped when loaded became an issue. So along with the use of the new, smoother metal came new designs. The conventional floating-bar hardware works better with some harness and webbing combinations than others. Some rig manufacturers have addressed this problem with an additional layer of webbing. One hardware manufacturer offers a clunky looking spring-loaded design that keeps the floating bar tightly in position. On the two-piece paddle types of hardware that originated in France, it took a few tries for some manufacturers to dial in the configuration and tolerances. But on the whole, stainless-steel hardware has proven to be worth the extra expense—several hundred dollars per system in most cases—both in new and pre-owned equipment. It can greatly extend the useful life of a harness and container system (not to mention keeping dangerous metals from absorbing into our sweaty, acidic skin). If our little cottage industry had started out large enough to afford its own stainless-steel castings from the beginning, it’s likely we’d have never used cadmium-plated hardware at all. Now we don’t have to.
Kevin Gibson | D-6943 and FAA Master Rigger
Rahlmo’s Rigging in Orange, Virginia