The father of modern camouflage was Abbot Handerson Thayer, an artist with an almost obsessive interest in animal colorations. He was the first to propose that zebra and leopards and other animals didn’t just happen to have stripes and spots, but that their coloration had a purpose. Thayer and another artist, George de Forest Brush, got together at the beginning of the Spanish-American War and proposed painting ships to better blend in with the sea.
The idea didn’t ‘catch’ in time to save any seamen in the Spanish-American War, but it did spread quickly. By the start of WWI, most countries in the Western world were experimenting with camouflage in one form or another. The French had the first official camouflaged unit (which is why the word ‘camouflage’ is French in appearance) in 1915.
As wars broke out in a variety of different environments and as technology improved, the US military has produced a variety of different camouflages to keep up.
US, ARVN, Australian and New Zealand all used Tiger Stripe during Vietnam
When the Vietnam War went guerilla, US military officers soon realized that their olive green fatigues wouldn’t cut it for sneaking around the jungle. The pattern they ultimately chose for close range combat resembled vertical tiger stripes on an olive green background. Tiger Stripe Camouflage was never an official US issued item, yet various Vietnamese tailors produced clothing under contract.
M81 Woodland Camouflage is still used today by military and law enforcement
Devised in 1967 but not implemented until 1981, this is the pattern most people associate with the word ‘camouflage’. Two variations — the mostly-green ‘lowlands’ pattern and the mostly-brown ‘highlands’ pattern — kept our troops out of enemy scopes for nearly two decades. US Woodland begins with a khaki background, but features large brown, medium-sized green, and small black patches designed to resemble branches & leaves in a densely wooded area.
Desert Camouflage Uniform (DCU), often called the coffee stain camouflage
Operation Desert Shield revealed another large gap in the US camouflage department — there was nothing even vaguely approaching an appropriate camouflage for the Iraqi desert, which can vary in color from sand-colored to pink to light blue depending on the mineral content. The response was a 3-color pattern of large beige and taupe areas with thin brown streaks between.
Desert Battle Dress Uniform (DBDU), often called Chocolate-Chip Camouflage
UCP & MARPAT are available in woodland and desert patterns
The Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP), and it’s close cousin, the Marine Patterns (MARPAT), are the latest development in camo tech. Digitized and pixellated patches of remarkably small size interlaced with one another in a way that creates the impression of ‘nature-colored static’ from any reasonable distance. The MARPAT uniforms come in a variety of different shadings for environments ranging from arctic to desert to jungle.
There is significant controversy surrounding the adoption of UCP, primarily because the (single) shading — sage green, tan, and grey — doesn’t involve any black, which has been proven to be important to the ability of camouflage to disrupt the eye’s ability to follow an outline. This leads many experts to believe that the UCP is distinctly inferior to the MARPATs, and it will likely be replaced in the near future.
Until then, our military will continue to study the process of vision and recognition intensely, and work out the best possible ways to keep our soldiers from being detected while out in the field of battle.
James writes for 5.11 Tactical, creators of superior tactical clothing, uniforms, outerwear, footwear, eyewear, duty knives, flashlights, holsters, tactical gear, and more. Follow James on twitter @JimmyDaugherty