The Eternal Paranoia of Tactical Gear

Weeks after the coronavirus lockdowns started last year, right-wing protesters carrying massive assault rifles began showing up to statehouses demanding that the government reopen. As much larger rallies against racial injustice broke out, right-wingers again showed up, ready to guard Confederate statues, Buffalo Wild Wings, gaudy McMansions, and wildfires, again with assault rifles. And then again on January 6, the MAGA faithful staged an insurrection inside the Capitol and state houses around the country. 

Many of the almost always white and male amateur guardsmen in attendance at these events wore a de facto uniform—tactical vests and body armor, tactical cargo pants, and, often, an assault rifle strapped on—as they did their best operator cosplay. It’s impossible to know exactly what most of them were wearing, but it’s likely that many had on pieces from 5.11, one of the largest and most prominent tactical gear brands. In at least one case, one of the attendees was definitely wearing 5.11: After he killed two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin following the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota, Twitter users dug up a picture of the shooter, Kyle Rittenhouse, holding an assault rifle and grinning in a 5.11 t-shirt. 

The North Face and Columbia took technical outdoor clothing to the masses; 5.11 is attempting to do the same for tactical clothing, including products designed to help people pull out their concealed handguns with ease. The company started by focusing on pocket-laden pants, but has expanded into boots, shorts, and shirts, as well as all sorts of other clothes, along with bags, accessories, and body armor. It offers almost anything a police officer or member of the military—or someone who simply fetishizes them—could want. Its “Active Shooter Bag,” which the company bills as “a quick, convenient, and modular carryall sized for two AR magazines,” for instance, is a product that “keeps you locked and loaded in any situation.” 

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The outfitter relies heavily on selling its products directly to the military as well as law enforcement, EMS, and other first responders. In a 2019 Securities and Exchange Commission’s filing, 5.11’s parent company, Compass Diversified Holdings, estimated that these sales made up 57% of its total sales. A small portion of its sales—roughly 1%—comes from federal government contracts. Consumer purchases make up the rest.

Rifle through 5.11’s catalogs or inspect its online ads and you’ll find middle-aged, mostly white men pulling out guns in a variety of situations. Sometimes they’re in uniform and sometimes they just look like unremarkable dads whipping out their concealed carry weapons, which is probably the point. Buy 5.11, the subtext reads, and you’ll be the hero when shit inevitably hits the fan, as per the brand motto “ALWAYS BE READY.” 

What started as a small-time pant company in Northern California has become the most ubiquitous outfitter not just for police and members of the military, but for an entire culture that desperately wants to look like them. 

Despite its commitment to a sleek, police aesthetic, 5.11 was actually founded by Royal Robbins, a crunchy, environmentalist climber who hung out with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and Douglas Thompson, the founder of The North Face. (The name 5.11 isn’t actually a cool tactical code, but a level of climbing difficulty on the Yosemite Decimal System.) In 1999, Robbins sold 51% of the company to Dan Costa, who eventually retooled it into what it is now before eventually selling it to Compass Diversified Holdings in 2016 for $400 million.

In Costa’s own telling, the company evolved from an outdoor pant company founded by a laid-back climber into a hyper-suspicious tactical gear company because it listened to its customers. In the early days of the company, Costa started listening to one customer in particular. According to him, one of the company’s employees was married to an FBI agent who found 5.11’s tactical pants extremely useful. After hearing this, Costa paid particularly close attention to the FBI’s needs and wants, which helped make 5.11 popular at the FBI National Academy. Costa kept listening to his law enforcement customers, eventually turning the company primarily into a military and law enforcement outfitter.

“[5.11] had one customer who was law enforcement, but they weren’t really paying attention to the business,” Costa explained in a 2011 video in which he described the process of taking over the reigns of the company from Robbins. “So I went to see the customer, and this customer happened to be the FBI. They told us they were looking for more products, but no one was listening to them. So I said, ‘Whatever you need, I promise, I’ll make it for you.’” 

While the direction that Costa took 5.11 was pivotal in pioneering a tactical industry that would eventually follow in his company’s footsteps, with brands like Crye, TrueSpec, and Blackhawk along with tactical divisions of popular outdoor sport and companies like Under Armour and Arc’Teryx getting in on the action, he didn’t create tactical culture out of whole cloth. 

Aimmee Huff, an Oregon State College of Business marketing professor who has researched consumer gun culture, told VICE News that the militarized aesthetics of tactical and gun culture in the U.S. go back as far as when troops were coming home from Vietnam. 

“The NRA’s publication, American Rifleman, has been running militarized gun ads for 100 years,” she said. Now though, Huff thinks it’s “morphing into a different beast that’s bigger and more politically oriented” as the industry grows in size and its customers show up more visibly at protests in militias across the country. Numbers vary for the size of the tactical wear market, but most estimates put it in the billions—a tremendous increase from when Costa bought the company from Robbins—and analysts project it to keep growing through 2025.

What’s kept it growing is, largely, the paranoia captured in the “ALWAYS BE READY” motto.

A former 5.11 graphic designer told VICE News as much while explaining the ethos of the brand. “Being prepared isn’t just cosplay,” he said. “It’s this cultural shift to thinking that the world is going to end at any moment and you have to be prepared at any time.”

“You see things like the explosion in Lebanon and think ‘I have to be ready for anything,’” said the designer, who asked not to be named out of concern for professional repercussions. “Wearing Dockers and a button-down shirt doesn’t make sense anymore. Are my shoes ready to run in any situation? Can my pants carry everything I need? Can I access everything in my pockets while sitting in my car? 5.11 has been instrumental in creating that mindset in people.” 

The designer was reluctant to speak about 5.11’s political perspectives, but recalled a product shoot in which some 5.11 employees got stressed about the all-black tactical ensembles looking too Antifa-like.

5.11’s former chief marketing officer, Dave Larson, said that the brand didn’t have a formal political ideology; he, did, however, recall the company’s former CEO from 2010 until 2018, Tom Davin, describing himself “as right-wing as can be.” (Davin did not respond to emailed questions; however, his Instagram features pictures of him with prominent Republican politicians, and he appears to have donated between $500 to $4,500 to Republican campaigns this past fall, according to Federal Election Commission filings.) Larson said that he felt like Davin and others weren’t pressing him to include images of guns in the company’s marketing, and that he didn’t want to, either. During his eight-month tenure at 5.11 in 2018, he explained, 5.11 was “trying to deemphasize the hawkish elements of the brand.” It’s unclear, though, on what level this happened.

5.11 started doing a video series in 2019 teaching the brand’s fans “Deadly Skills,” like how to build a “tactical nightstand,” how to use a pen for self-defense, or how to get into (literal) fighting shape with an exercise regimen called the “violent nomad workout.” 

One of the standout videos of the series educates 5.11 fans on what they should carry on their person daily to make sure that they’re prepared for anything, which in tactical parlance is called “everyday carry.” The video’s host, retired Navy SEAL and online tactical influencer Clint Emerson, starts off by listing some initial, quotidian items alongside more intense ones: cash and a credit card along with a handgun, an extra magazine, and a fixed-blade knife. (“Some of the more technical things that you could carry would be a razor blade, or a handcuff key,” he explains, to help you “escape when a good day goes bad.”) In a supplemental “100 Deadly Skills” video on “How to Escape Duct Tape,” Emerson explains that the best place to keep said everyday razor blade is taped to the sole of your shoe. 

Up until recently, this sort of branding looked more like the stuff of fantasy than anything that ramified out into in the real world. Right-wing protesters have, though, started looking eerily similar to the gun-wielding models in 5.11 ads. These people have long been mocked in some quarters of the online military tactical community for being more into looking cool and tactical—or “tacticool”—than actually being prepared for anything. After the Rittenhouse shooting though, they’ve been praised by high-profile conservatives like Tucker Carlson and Sheriff David A. Clarke.

On the night that Rittenhouse killed two protesters, the Washington Post interviewed a member of one of the armed, roving vigilante militia groups in Kenosha that night, who told the paper that “if the cops aren’t going to stop [protestors] from throwing pipe bombs” (there was no evidence of pipe bombs) “on innocent civilians, somebody has to.” The armed vigilante thought that the gun he was holding elevated him above being a civilian. He thought that it elevated him to being a “sheepdog,” a concept popularized by veteran, law enforcement trainer and author David Grossman. 

In his book On Combat, Grossman breaks down the metaphor: “Most of the people in our society are sheep,” he writes, but “then there are the wolves,” who “feed on the sheep without mercy.” Above all though, there are sheepdogs: “a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.”

Even 5.11 fans who don’t want to hurt people often still want access to the sheepdog club. “Law enforcement and military. Those are pillars in society I hold high regard for,” said Chris Press, a moderator of a 5.11 enthusiast group on Facebook. “To see those guys with all their gear. It just looks respectable.”

Press, who is Canadian, said that he works in private security and would have been in law enforcement or the military if it weren’t for medical conditions he didn’t specify. The tactical look gives him a way into that, with clothes that are also helpful for his job. Press told me that he disagrees with right-wing vigilantes showing up at protests and that he personally doesn’t own a gun and doesn’t have a strong desire to, even though he’s not opposed to gun ownership and has conservative political beliefs.

Not every tactical gear fan is like Press, though. The ethos embedded in 5.11’s advertising informs the mentality that leads to people showing up to wildfires in Oregon with assault rifles and setting up military-style checkpoints to look for Antifa arsonists on the basis of false rumors. The Guardian found one user in an Oregon Facebook group who praised his neighbors for setting up checkpoints and being the town sheepdogs. “Residents are guarding at the bottom of Louden on their own with the blessing of police,” they wrote. “Police said to do what you must. I thank these residents for being our watchdog.”

People who claimed to be going to Capitol Hill to do sedition in January showed a similar mindset, posting on a pro-Trump forum as though they were literally going to war to protect the country. They wrote things like “Today I had the very difficult conversations with my children, that daddy might not come home from D.C,” and “[My husband’s] not happy, and he’s going with me, but I told him that if I say go and leave me behind, that he must do it. No questions asked. I look forward to standing with you on the front lines.” 

This way of thinking is more or less in line with Rittenhouse’s. “Our job is to protect this business,” Rittenhouse told a Daily Caller interviewer the night he fired his gun, “and part of my job is to also help people. If there’s somebody hurt, I’m running into harm’s way. That’s why I have my rifle, because I need to protect myself, obviously.” Rittenhouse had no training and only ended up killing people—in self-defense, he’s argued in court while arguing he’s not guilty of murder—instead of helping them. He was proudly wearing a 5.11 shirt while holding an assault rifle in his profile picture on Tik-Tok. (The account appears to have since been deleted.)

5.11 declined to comment on Rittenhouse wearing its shirt and declined to answer most of VICE News’ questions directly, but did say in emailed statement that it “is an apparel and gear lifestyle brand that primarily serves public safety professionals such as first responders, law enforcement, fire, emergency services, and military personnel,” and acknowledged that it “produces off-duty gear with similar utility and functionality that many of these professionals like to have in their daily lives as well.

It’s tempting to dismiss how much influence advertising has on people. Most people are at least a little compromised by the brand identities of clothing, cars, furniture, bands, sports teams, internet influencers, or something similar. It affects all to varying degrees, but in the aggregate it can reify and even encourage certain types of behavior, said Huff, the marketing professor.

“Advertising is a rhetorical device,” she said. “In the case of 5.11, it serves as a communicative device around preparedness, readiness—being mission ready. Advertising really propels those meanings forward.”

Huff, who has studied gun culture and firearms advertising, said that she thinks 5.11’s and tactical clothing branding broadly legitimizes wearing tactical gear and gives aesthetic guidance to the brand’s fans.

The messaging seems to be getting across.

Years after pivoting to tactical wear, 5.11 is still popular with the American national security apparatus in Greater Washington, and not just with people training for combat.  “You’ve got the fucking people in government office buildings in the suburbs of D.C. who dress like they’re going to invade Iraq,” said one Department of Defense employee who asked to remain anonymous because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly to the press, speaking of their colleagues. “They’re carrying a cup of chili in one hand and dressing like they’re an Army Ranger.”

“The people who are actually using these clothes for their intended purpose are the ones killing terrorists,” the staffer said. “They want people to think they’re a part of that subset. Their jobs are maybe tangentially connected, but they’re different. They have no training, [just] computer science degrees and [they] sit behind desks.”  

When I talked to Emerson, the online tactical influencer, last summer, he denigrated the kinds of people who wear excessive tactical gear with no combat training. “It’s really about appearance versus capability,” he said. “Sure, someone looks intimidating, but does he know what he’s doing? Probably not. Guys like me tend to be like, ‘Whatever man,’ when we see that.”

For all of Emerson’s brashness in videos, over the phone, he’s a calm, self-aware guy who is probably more in on the joke than he lets on. When asked about Molly Young’s New York Times review lampooning one of his books, he demurred a little and said that “she put as much tongue in cheek into the review as I did throughout the book.”  He said that in his day to day life, he makes an effort to keep a low profile, and while he wears 5.11, picks items that don’t show off being tactical. “I don’t wear their pants with all of the visible pockets and that militaristic look,” he says. “For me, I’d rather just blend in.”

When asked if he actually keeps a razor blade taped to the bottom of his shoes every day, Emerson chuckled and paused for a second. “When I was in the Navy, operating alone, having forms of escape embedded was just a good idea,” he said. “Now, for the average person … I always say if you think you’re going into an area with higher odds, you should do these things. But even if you’re not, you never know.” 

To Emerson, that’s kind of the whole point of it. “If it’s not affecting anyone else, I don’t see any negativity in it,” he told me, of his perspective on routinely being prepared for the absolute worst. It gets profoundly tragic, though, when the night ends with two dead protestors in Wisconsin and five in Washington, or an when innocent mixed-race family trying to camp are accosted by an angry mob who think they’re taking down Antifa, or if you’re a black man going on a jog in your neighborhood that ends up being the last one of your life. At that point, the sheepdogs look a lot like wolves. Either way, they’re still buying 5.11 tactical pants.

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