A History and Advisory About Tactical Clothing

Today you can’t walk into most gun shops or head to the shooting range without seeing most everyone decked out in tactical clothing. However, while much of it has a paramilitary look, a lot of the clothing simply isn’t up to the standards of actual military-grade equipment. The civilian versions, which for all practical intents and purposes is what this nonmilitary clothing is, often lacks the quality and durability of its military counterparts.

Some of this attire falls into the paramilitary category, meant for law enforcement, first responders and other similar groups. Generally, tactical clothing is just stuff that looks like what today’s warfighters are outfitted with, but without the all-important military specifications. In fact, in the summer of 2019, the U.S. Air Force updated its Air Force Instruction (36-2903) “Dress and Personal Appearance of Air Force Personnel” to provide guidance to airmen on how to wear the new Operational Camouflage Pattern (OCP) uniform, but also instructed those airmen to purchase them only at Army & Air Force Exchange Service stores.

One reason is that the federal regulation requires uniforms, equipment and other military items be made in the United States, by U.S. manufacturers and that the items comply with military specifications. In today’s world, where all too much is made in sweatshops in the Far East, it can be hard to know if something looks like, or truly is, military-grade attire.

From Battle Dress to Cargo Pants

The concept of tactical clothing is actually fairly new. For centuries, militaries would often march into battle with the same uniforms that were worn on the parade ground. It was only in the latter half of the 19th century that military planners even saw the need for summer uniforms – those that were lighter than the heavy wool coats that armies had worn for generations.

“Good tactical clothing will have external pockets suitable for a knife and other EDC items. Perhaps more important are double-ply seat and knees to provide abrasion protection and, in some cases, the ability to accept kneepads.”

Comfort was generally not on the minds of military leaders, but it should be remembered that until the end of the Little Ice Age in the 19th century, the cold was probably more of an issue than being too hot. As European armies headed to distant shores to build colonial empires, and the U.S. military helped extend the nation’s frontier westward, the need for more comfortable uniforms was finally understood.

New York Army National Guardsmen participate in tactical training at the New York Police Department training facility and range at Rodman’s Neck, New York, Jan. 9, 2016. These Guardsmen wear the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP), which was retired by the U.S. Army in 2019. However, as noted in this photo, it is good in semi-urban areas and is widely available and relatively cheap. New York Army National Guard photo

But even in the First World War (1914-1918) the U.S. military still headed to France with a thick wool uniform. In many cases this remained the same uniform that soldiers wore on parade and on the battlefield. It was a generation later that the British Army, which had been among the first military powers to outfit its soldiers in uniforms in khaki in the colonies while maintaining scarlet uniforms at home for parade (see Khaki. The Original Camouflage sidebar), also adopted battle dress. That was to be the first true tactical attire.

The New York Police Department’s SWAT and other tactical teams have been on high alert often since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. These officers are wearing tactical uniforms specifically designed for use by law enforcement. It generally pales in quality and functionality when compared with military uniforms. NYPD photo/public domain
This 1970s-era photo of the Houston Police Department SWAT Team shows early paramilitary tactical clothing. Houston PD photo/public domain

The British battle dress or Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) was introduced in 1937 and remained in use until the 1960s. It was worn mostly, but not exclusively, in temperate climates. It was said by observers over the years that if the German Army looked ready for parade, the British Army looked ready for sport! The wool battle dress did not have the look of past “pomp-and-circumstance” uniforms and resembled work clothing. The trousers notably featured a large map pocket on the front near the left knee, while there was a pocket for a field dressing near the right front pocket. The post-war Pattern 1949 trousers moved the map pocket to the side, and this pattern of BDUs was soon used by various NATO powers in the early years of the Cold War.

“The concept of tactical clothing is actually fairly new. For centuries, militaries would often march into battle with the same uniforms that were worn on the parade ground.”

During the Second World War, the U. S. military also adopted similar trousers and jackets – originally for paratroopers as part of the M-1942 uniforms – that provided space for extra ammunition, radios and other gear. With the adoption of the M-1943 uniform, pockets were added to the jacket. In subsequent conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, U.S. soldiers suddenly had pockets all over the uniform. This eventually led to the ubiquitous fashion of cargo pants, shorts and shirts – something fashionistas have lauded and loathed for the past several decades. Cargo pants have remained part of the U.S. military uniform, which inspired the birth of tactical clothing.

British soldiers marching into Syracuse, Sicily, during WWII wearing the cotton summer-weight P37 battle dress. Note the loose-fitting pants and sleeves that could be easily rolled up, features common in modern tactical clothing. British Army photo/Imperial War Museum
In Burma, the British Army used the Pattern 1944 Jungle Green battle dress, which featured even larger trouser pockets, multiple blouse pockets and a looser-fitting collar. Compared to the heavy wool uniform the British Army wore just 60 years earlier, this clothing was far more comfortable. This type of uniform would influence all subsequent tactical attire. British Army photo/Imperial War Museum

The clothing is popular because the pants are ruggedly stitched and generally made from hard-wear fabric – however, the more fashionable cargo pants only look rugged. For years, the only way to get pants with the cargo pockets was to buy military surplus. Following the end of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, there was a glut of surplus military clothing, but similar clothing was imported from Germany and the Netherlands, and these became popular for wear by sport shooters and outdoorsmen, including fishermen and hunters. The large pocket flaps ensured the contents would be secure and unlikely to fall out.

A period U.S. Army photo shows soldiers wearing combat fatigues in Vietnam along with the iconic jungle boots. This uniform followed the British patterns with large pockets on the trousers and blouse. U.S. Army photo

In the 1990s, cargo pants and shorts evolved from something one would buy at a surplus store to actual mainstream men’s (and women’s) fashion. However, the fashion-centric – notably Tim Gunn of Project Runway fame – suggested the clothing was more practical than elegant. But with all respect to someone more likely to wear a tuxedo than tactical clothing, that is exactly the point!

Real Tactical Versus Fashion Tactical

There are certainly differences between the cargo pants with a designer’s name on the ass and those that are truly deemed tactical. The most notable is that one type might be good for a BBQ or a day at the beach, while another is the sort worn by EMTs, law enforcement and sportsmen.

Combat gear has to withstand adverse conditions while providing room for carrying ammunition, EDC items and more.

Here is an important distinction that preppers need to consider. What looks like tactical clothing and what really isn’t? There are now several brands of “tactical” apparel that are marketed to rock/mountain climbers, hikers and hunters.

Military uniforms have changed over the centuries. Durability, camouflage and ease of movement have replaced overly elaborate dress on the parade ground and on the battlefield.
Fashion-focused cargo pants have large outside pockets but lack the durability of military-grade clothing.

These typically come in solid colors and are made of lightweight materials, which can include 65% polyester and 35% cotton ripstop. They might even feature belt loops that are tall enough to support a large belt that can handle the weight of a sidearm and other equipment. Good tactical clothing has external pockets suitable for a knife and other EDC items. Perhaps more important are double-ply seat and knees to provide abrasion protection and, in some case, the ability to accept kneepads.

The evolution of Cold War U.S. Army battle dress uniforms (BDUs) can be seen in this photo. Also apparent is how these uniforms influenced our modern tactical attire. Author’s collection
An extreme example of tactical clothing is this bomb disposal uniform. This is probably not something most preppers need, unless you think you’ll be taking care of some bombs or unexploded ordnance! Photo: Peter Suciu, SHOT Show
The Desert Battle Dress Uniform was used by the U.S. Army from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s and saw use during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. The six-color camouflage desert pattern was developed based on conditions in the deserts of the southwestern United States but proved inadequate for use in Iraq and Kuwait. It was colloquially known as the chocolate chip pattern due to its clusters of black and white spots that were meant to mimic the appearance of pebbles and shadows. This type of uniform can be readily found for sale online and at surplus stores, ideal for a prepper in the American Southwest. Photo: Illinois Military Museum, Peter Suciu

Yet, the truth is that even among the big commercial “tactical” brands, a lot of the clothing is still little better than what one might pick up at the local shopping mall. One irony is that a lot of the more fashionable cargo pants can be pricier than military surplus, but the same is true of some of today’s tactical brands. In other words, price shouldn’t determine whether the clothing is rugged and can withstand months or even years of wear.

“Today you can’t walk into most gun shops or head to the shooting range without seeing most everyone decked out in “tactical” clothing.”

The United States military wasn’t the only one to adopt tactical camouflage clothing. Here is a French “Lizard Pattern” camo tunic used in the 1970s. Clothing such as this can be readily found at Army/Navy Surplus stores for far less money than modern newly made tactical clothing, although, as with most European surplus, larger sizes may be difficult to find. Author’s collection

When rough times come, you’ll be far better off with actual MIL-SPEC attire than something that looks good during a night on the town. For these reasons, it pays to check if the clothing is made to military or similar standards, and noting where and by whom it was made can also be important. The internet can help you identify approved government contractors, for example. Clothing made in streetwear factories or in third-world sweatshops probably won’t be up to the standards of even EMT and local SWAT teams, let alone the military.

A current-issue Operational Camouflage Pattern jacket. While this type of clothing isn’t widely available as surplus yet, it can be found, and like most military surplus, it is actually quite affordable. Author’s collection

For the same reasons, it is best to avoid mass market clothing marketed to enthusiasts such as rock climbers and hikers. This stuff may look good when worn by attractive models or retail store mannequins, but it is really part of today’s fast fashion trends. Despite the retail hype, this clothing is about being fashionable rather than rugged. And while it’s better than going naked, clothing for enthusiasts is barely a step up from high fashion cargo shorts.

This Special Ops Tactical Soft Shell Jacket has both “Special Ops” and “Tactical” in its name, and it is available in multiple colors and camo patterns – but is it really tactical-tough? It also costs over $100! Manufacturer’s photo

While possibly being useful in Gray Man situations, another consideration is that a lot of commercial tactical clothing isn’t really all that good at providing concealment. Most militaries don’t utilize solid colors for good reason – it makes terrible camouflage in natural environments.

Military-spec clothing will provide more utility and better wear than items sold to outdoors enthusiasts. When shopping for rugged clothing, don’t use price as your main guide.

The good news is that thanks to fast fashion’s fixation on tactical clothing, it won’t remain in vogue for long. And as the U.S. military recently adopted a new Operational Camouflage Pattern (OCP) to replace the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP), it means there could be a lot of UCP on the market cheap. It might not be best for actually camouflaging the prepper in times to come, but it will provide comfortable and durable clothing that actually lives up to the tactical moniker.

United States Military Standard

Just about every piece of military equipment used by the U.S. military falls under a defense standard, often called military standard or MIL-STD or MIL-SPEC. It is used to help achieve standardization objectives by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), and it was created to achieve interoperability, ensure that products meet certain requirements and are compatible with logistical systems.

Standards have been important throughout U.S. military history, but it became even more crucial during the Second World War when American screws, bolts and nuts didn’t fit with British equipment and were not close to being interchangeable. In the Cold War, NATO sought to create standards across the various armies, and this most notably included weapons that used the same caliber ammunition.

Beyond setting standards for coloration, design and sizing the specifications used by the U.S. military also apply to equipment, such as shock ratings for helmets or protective eyewear. The MIL-STD calls for items to be made of specific materials and assembled according to specified methods. An example is MIL-S-82258 for rubber swim fins, which requires that these are made of gum rubber.

When looking for military-style clothing, gear or equipment, check to see if it has a MIL-STD or MIL-SPEC indicated on an attached label, which will ensure it is up to true U.S. military standards and not a cheap knockoff. Today, thanks to the internet, it’s fairly easy to confirm that the manufacturer on the label is indeed a government contractor.

Khaki. The Original Camouflage

While camouflage patterns have evolved over many decades, the earliest form of camouflage clothing actually came from India. The word “khaki” comes from the Persian word for “dust,” and it was the Corps of Guides, which was formed in British-controlled India in 1846 for service in the North West frontier (modern day Pakistan), who first wore uniforms that could better blend into the surroundings.

It was adopted by other British-Indian regiments during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and by the latter years of the 19th century khaki was almost universally employed by the major world powers as part of summer or tropical uniforms. As with other military attire, khaki evolved into comfortable casual attire in the United States notably as loose-fitting trousers and light jackets. Today few even know of its military origins from the subcontinent.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the June, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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