What Are Jackboots?

C. K. Lanz

Jackboots are tall, over-the-knee, black or brown leather boots with wide toes and chunky heels that are divided into cavalry and hobnailed varieties. These boots were originally made with waxed jack leather coated with pitch or tar for waterproofing. Popular in 17th and 18th century Europe, jackboots were later adopted as part of the military uniform of several nations through the 20th century. Jackboots were eventually replaced by Hessian boots that are distinguished by their tassel decoration. Jackboots are most strongly associated with Germany’s Nazi regime and can be worn as a symbol of authoritarian power.

Jackboots were popular in 17th and 18th century Europe.
Jackboots were popular in 17th and 18th century Europe.

These boots first became popular in the late 17th century, when European nobility started to wear them over their dress shoes while riding and hunting. Originally, jackboots were designed to fit over regular shoes so that the wearer could venture outdoors, get dirty, and simply remove the outer boots upon coming inside. Any valuables could be stored in small pockets in the boot lining.

Jackboots were popular among marching infantry soldiers.
Jackboots were popular among marching infantry soldiers.

Jackboots were first made with a hard type of leather that was coated with tar or pitch for waterproofing. Given that it was stiff, these knee-high boots had to be cut away behind the knee to allow the wearer to be able to bend his or her legs. This stiffness also required the use of a boot jack to remove the boots, which may have helped coin the term jackboot.

Several European nations later adopted the jackboot as part of their military uniforms. This style was part of military dress in France, Germany, and England, among other countries, through the 20th century. Once adopted by the military, the boots were typically modified, depending on the needs of a particular type of soldier. Over time, to meet the needs of military fighters, the calvary and hobnailed boot varieties were developed.

The calvary jackboot is tall and winged at the knee. This design was particularly useful for calvary on horseback because the boot could be lined with chainmail or other strong protective material. This modification helped protect the rider’s legs from injury, from swords and other melee weapons.

The hobnailed variety is more suitable for the marching infantry soldier. Slightly shorter than the calvary variety, this type is made more durable with soles reinforced by hobnails. This boot was popular with the German army in the 20th century, although it was replaced by a type of ankle boot when leather supplies decreased during World War II.

Military use of the jackboot declined after World War II, although it is still part of the Russian soldier’s dress. The decline of this style gave rise to other, similar types of military boot, such as the Hessian boot, which is decorated with a tassel. The Hessian was itself replaced by the Wellington, often worn with spurs.

The jackboot is strongly associated with the Nazi regime in Germany and with authoritarianism in general. This is partly the result of the wide circulation of images of German soldiers goosestepping in jackboots and making a distinct sound on concrete or other hard surfaces. Neo-Nazi followers also often wear jackboots, giving rise to the pejorative term jack-booted thug.

Jackboots were common with the German army in the 20th century.
Jackboots were common with the German army in the 20th century.

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