Let’s face it, a lot has changed since the days when wearing a pair of surplus BDUs and T-shirt with a Soldier of Fortune logo emblazoned on it marked you as one of “the people of the gun.”
It used to be that for customers who wanted clothing and gear that performed at the range like it did in the field — where the construction, design and materials of a particular loadout sometimes meant the difference between life and death — they had to browse through dusty piles of used military gear or special order from obscure outlets. Often that meant for either a dice roll when it came to quality, or prices that were just too far outside the means of the everyday shooter.
But during the years of conflict since 9/11, the market for tactical clothing has exploded, with companies boosting their lines, others starting from scratch and big names in what used to be exclusive to the extremes of the outdoor sports world leveraging their technical and material science expertise to the needs of the performance shooter. At this point, who hasn’t seen at least a dozen gunners at the range sporting the classic 5.11 Tactical pant? And maybe more amazingly, who would have bet that elite special operations troops look to companies like Patagonia and Arc’teryx for their low-profile deployment gear?
The trend in the development of tactical clothing and gear that’s still appropriate for civilian wear in a normal urban environment was a boon for the consumer and the retailer — there were now more choices, better prices and more availability. Gone are the days of rummaging through dusty bins of years-old cammies.
And as 2016 hits its stride, the tactical gear market has made another dramatic shift — one that tracks very closely to changes in the way people think about their personal safety and to the evolving look and shape of who’s at the range these days and how they’re shooting.
The next time you’re at the range or running through your stages at a shooting competition, look around you and check out the faces behind the glasses and ear muffs.
An increasing number of them are going to be wearing makeup and sporting pearls.
According to data from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the number of women getting into guns is up nearly 20 percent over the last decade. And this isn’t just a girlfriend or a wife going to the range to make her man feel better about that pricey AR purchase. These are women who are getting into it, who are becoming “people of the gun” and want gear and clothing that not only functions for them, but will also help them look the part without dressing like the Terminator.
Over 30 percent of female gun owners in the U.S. told the NSSF in its groundbreaking survey last year that they’d buy more tactical and shooting gear if it were designed specifically for women, and about half of those women gun owners said it was difficult finding shooting apparel that fits.
“Women who tend to be more active in shooting activities also tend to express their dissatisfaction with the availability of apparel and guns designed specifically for women,” the NSSF said. “As women become more active and serious about hunting and shooting activities, they are more likely to seek out guns and apparel that enhance performance and enjoyment of these activities.”
Companies like 5.11 heard that message loud and clear and have endeavored to go big into the women’s tactical market this year. No item demonstrates this more than 5.11’s new Raven Range tight and capri — or what the folks at the company like to call “tactical yoga pants.”
“It’s really been a focus of ours to have highly functional, flattering clothing for women that’s not just ‘shrink it and pink it’ like everyone else has been doing,” said 5.11’s Lyndsey Grove. “We’ve had a great reaction to these pants.”
The Raven line has a flattering cut that adheres to the female form without being too revealing and incorporates a slightly heavier waistband and belt loops to accommodate a tactical belt and holster. The pants are made of Ponte de Roma fabric that gives a more durable, flattering look that’s appropriate for more than just an hour on a yoga mat.
But 5.11 went further and rolled out a line of women’s tactical apparel that’s perfect for grabbing groceries or plinking steel. The new Spitfire shooting shirt is designed specifically for female trainers and competitive shooters who need storage, ventilation and flexibility to run a dynamic stage, but with a feminine fit and finish that doesn’t force her to ditch the range duds before dropping the kids off at school.
And for women who like shorts instead of tights, the 5.11 Shockwave short with its slim profile and tactical accoutrements is a perfect fit.
“Obviously, in a lot of southern states in the summer it can be ridiculously hot and humid so we wanted to offer a short option as well,” Grove said.
Members Of The Tribe
But the trend in tactical clothing and accessories goes beyond just offering more items for the growing demographics of new shooters. In a sense, the shooting sports have become more of a lifestyle statement than ever before.
And as the political debate around gun rights becomes ever more strident, “people of the gun” are increasingly banding together to make it known they support shooting and the right to bear arms, but without being too “in your face” about it. A few years ago that meant wearing a 5.11 pants and a Blackhawk! shirt with lots of pockets and epaulets and shouldering a backpack with lots of MOLLE webbing in coyote tan.
Now new shooters don’t want to be so obvious, but they still want the form and function of tactical apparel with a design element that lets others know you’re a member of the gun tribe.
One of the most popular manufacturers in hardcore shooting and tactical gear is Vertx. Well known for their bags, packs and pouches, Vertx has developed a line of clothing that takes modern styling and gives it a tactical twist. The company’s new Delta Stretch Pants recognize that younger shooters aren’t interested in the baggy “comfort fit” of the tactical pants of yore, but instead want a slimmer profile that delivers enough stretch to get to the lower box of a VTAC barrier.
“This has come as a response to the folks who want something from the outdoor sports side of things yet has the versatility that you’ll find in most of our clothing,” said Vertx’s Tom Cistola. “And it’s a little slimmer fit than what you’re normally going to see in our tactical pants.”
Built out of 98 percent cotton tricotine with a 2 percent spandex stretch, the Delta Pants feature discreet interior pocket credential flaps, a concealed vertical zipper pocket, knife notches in the front pockets and a leather-trimmed tool pocket on both legs. There are articulated knees and a gusseted crotch for a full range of motion and the Delta pant comes in four “everyday” wear colors that’ll look just as good in the bay as at the bar.
Another company that’s seen the light on the new tactical lifestyle is Propper.
No, we’re not talking boxy BDUs and M85 field coats (though the company still makes those), the uniform maker is taking a sharp turn into the new shooter market with items designed for enthusiasts who want to live the shooting life on and off the range.
From items like the V2 Hoodie made from jersey fleece and featuring a slim, athletic fit perfect for shooting drills or layering, to a full line of women’s tactical shirts, shorts and pants, Propper offers gear that looks the part, fits the bill and won’t break the bank.
And not to be outdone, 5.11 stepped in with some casual clothing to keep cool at the range and look cool in the ‘ville. It’s new men’s Apex pant that has about every kind of pocket imaginable but you wouldn’t know it from the outside — we’re talking AR-15 mag pockets, cell phone stashes and even a hidden waistband pocket for a handcuff key or zip tie. 5.11 says the Apex was designed at the request of a top U.S. special operations force. Wonder who that was (Geronimo anyone)?
Competitive 3 Gunners will love 5.11’s new men’s Vaporlite short and women shooters will love the Zig Zag V-neck shirt.
Style is all fine and good, but when you look at the numbers, the largest proportion of new shooters getting into the market say they’re doing it out of concern for self defense. Studies show concealed carry license applications are soaring as a larger percentage of American’s are carrying their irons every day. What that means for tactical gear manufacturers is that they’ve got to build items that carry a lethal purpose, but don’t look the part.
A lot of bag designers have been working to crack that nut, building off-body carry options for folks who don’t want to look like they just stepped off a C-17 transport plane in Baghdad. Elite Survival Systems has a full line of traditional “tactical” packs and pouches but they recently released a couple of more discreet options for folks who want utility without being conspicuous.
Sure, the new Covert Operations rifle backpack from Elite Survival Systems is a major nod toward being tactical without looking tactical — in fact, it’s meant to look exactly the opposite of tactical — but the company noticed a need for off-body carry options that goes beyond a trip to the store or a night on the town.
The new Marathon gun pack is specifically designed for men and women who want protection when they’re working out. The small waist pack features a soft neoprene gun pocket that fits compact, or subcompact handguns and pulls open quickly with an easy grip tab. The Marathon also comes with two low-profile water bottles and has a small opening for music device headphones.
The Elite Survival Systems Marathon pack doesn’t scream “there’s a gun in here!” and has colored accents that are appealing to a wide range of customers. It also features two patches of light reflective material for day and night use.
Vertx went all in this year with two new bags that meet the new appeal in practical firearm carry with a subtly tactical flair. Its new Delivery Rifle Messenger Bag has the same profile you’d see slung over the shoulder of some hipster zooming through Manhattan on a fixie. But within its tough Cordura shell, the size large Messenger Bag can accommodate two full-sized, 16-inch barreled rifles (the smaller version fits two 11.5-inch SBRs), has plenty of hook and loop inside for Vertx’s Tactigami accessory pouches and features a handle that rapidly pulls the bag around and unzips the rifle compartment when the world goes loud.
For the tactical lifestyler who digs a bit on the old-school side of things, Vertx has just released its version of the concealed carry garment bag. Made with heavy-duty black Cordura nylon, the Garment Bag has all the typical construction of the fold-up suit carrier, but with the addition of an outer pocket that holds an SBR. The Garment Bag has a similar quick-pull zipper for rapid rifle deployment and exterior pockets that fit magazines and accessory pouches.
“This is intended more for our professional customers — you can look good with this in a suit and tie,” said Vertx’s Tom Cistola. “And even for folks who aren’t necessarily going to carry an M4 in it, it’s just a really nice garment bag that happens to have a concealed carry option.”
As part of its push to help women who need to integrate tactical functionality into their shooting lifestyle, 5.11 has just launched a new line of ladies bags that could hold their own at any coffee shop in SoHo.
The Sarah Satchel and Lucy Tote are stylish handbags that blend into any urban environment, yet provide female carriers with an option for full-sized handguns and more. Constructed of a textured nylon in tasteful colors and trimmed with faux leather, the Lucy Tote and Sarah Satchel feature magnetic closure pistol pockets that work with 5.11’s TacTec holsters, interior organization pockets and even a hidden sleeve pocket for passports, badges or flex cuffs.
From the looks of them, the new line of women’s bags from 5.11 offer a useful balance of fast style and supreme function, and are right in line with the industry’s shift toward good looks with built-in utility.
Form Meets Function
While it’s clear from all the new firearms, accessory and clothing companies in the market these days that the tactical revolution is far from over, the newest members of the “people of the gun” have spoken and manufacturers are listening. In its 2014 survey, the NSSF found that the majority of women who owned guns wouldn’t buy any in pink, saying instead they wanted arms that look like they “mean business.” Thankfully now, clothing manufacturers in the space are trying to attract a wide range of customers with smart designs, good functionality and with a shooting lifestyle look all their own.
Likewise, all new gun owners and customers getting into the tactical side of tribe bring with them the tastes of previous recreation — whether it’s hiking, mountain biking or skiing — and they’re demanding the same fit and form that delivers the utility they need on the range or in the field.