50 Shades of Gray: The Evolution of Camo and a Throwback to Solid Colors

By Suzanne Wiley published on in Gear

One might say that a designer larger than us created the art of camouflage. Though fascinating, camouflage is nothing innovative. Animals have been doing it forever. Their innate ability to adapt to their surroundings protects them from untimely death and conceals them from prey in order to snag dinner. We humans have been attempting to emulate this blending and concealing since the beginning of history. The purpose of manmade camo is to break up the human outline, and create less contrast between them and the background.

A successful camo will essentially hide, blend or mask the person wearing it with their environment. We have come along way from the days of wiping mud on our faces and wearing twigs in our hair. We now have digitized transitional camo patterns that work extremely well, to camo fashion such as bright pink camo motif rifles,  to camouflaged prom dresses. You would think military camo would have an equal amount of history. However, the art of camouflage for wartime has a more modern history.

Military long-sleeve shirt in an experimental blocky urban camo gray

A BDU in experimental “urban” camo

Before WWII, most militaries around the world did not use any type of pattern to blend into the environment, instead they wore muted, solid color uniforms in gray or olive drab. Can you imagine how long a sniper would last wearing the uniform of a British Revolutionary War soldier? Those pompous uniforms screamed, “Target!”

However, war was different back then. Opposing sides showed up on the battlefield while generals looked on. Both the Brits and Colonists used this British war tactic because that is what they knew. Rifles did not have much range either. As firearms improved with the ability to shoot farther, to save lives it became necessary for a soldier to conceal himself from being an easy target. During the Civil War, both the North and South wore drab gray and blue uniforms. From then until the early 1980s, the U.S. military chose solid-colored uniforms in a drab, dull color called OD (olive drab) green.

Before Desert Storm, Afghanistan or Iraq, when I thought of a United States soldier, I envisioned a man dressed head to toe in green, with his pants legs shoved inside his tightly laced black combat boots. My father served in the U.S. Army from 1962 to 1964 and that is exactly what he wore.

Things changed, though, in the science of camouflage during WWII.  Because of the long-range view with the advent of airplanes and air warfare, it became essential to mask soldiers and equipment. The French started disguising equipment and locations with bushes, vegetation and masking fabric covers. The United States military asked for patterned camo uniforms called “frog skin” while serving in the South Pacific; however, we continued to use OD fatigues all the way through the Vietnam War. Enlistees wore solid-colored uniforms until 1981 when M81 Woodland camo replaced OD green fatigues. Though the majority of military branches have switched over to digitized camo patterns, the primarily green and brown, tree-like patterned woodland camo has yet to be fully retired.

Adopting a new camo pattern for the United States military is kind of a big deal.  Greens and browns just don’t cut it for the dry, arid environment of the Middle East and a new camo was necessary for soldiers’ safety. Though adopted at the same time as Woodland camo, Desert Battle Dress Uniform or cookie-dough wasn’t a mainstay or standardized until 1990 during the Gulf War.

Abandoning cookie-dough desert camo in the early 2000s, the Army moved to a digitized camo—a mix of tan, gray and green called Universal Camouflage Pattern. Since 2010, U.S. Army soldiers stationed in Afghanistan wear multicam. During the years of conflicts in the Middle East, it has become popular to make accessories in Flat Dark Earth (FDE) and coyote tan to match the tan, sandy-colors of modern U.S. military camo patterns.

Black and white image of British war ship in razzle dazzle camo

Used in WWII, dazzle camo meant to confuse, not conceal.

Camoufleurs constantly work on developing better camouflage techniques—including cloaking devices and many experimental patterns. Remember razzle-dazzle camo? Used in WWI, dazzle camo wasn’t meant to conceal, but confuse. Navies around the world found it was impossible to hide ships in all different types of weather, so the British and U.S. Navy turned to artist Norman Wilkinson who theorized razzle-dazzle camo would make it impossible for the enemy to determine a warship’s size, distance, speed and direction.

As our world changes, so does the landscape of our environment. Militaries and law enforcement agencies around the world have to adapt to these changes. The camo used now can be extremely effective, but what about in 20 years when more of our world has been swallowed by the concrete jungle? Won’t coyote tan stand out like stark white against a metal and asphalt city?

Parade of tanks in black and white blocky urban camo finish

British Chieftain tanks in Berlin painted with “urban camo.”

Urban camo is nothing new. Militaries around the world have experimented with grays, white and black mixtures to try to blend in with the metal, glass and concrete of big cities. For example, British Chieftain tanks stationed in Berlin painted with black, white and gray blocks matched well with the straight edges and horizontal lines of cities.

Manufacturers specializing in military and law enforcement clothing and gear are marketing tactical gear in shades of gray they call SEAL gray, urban gray and urban dark earth.

In the evolution of United States camo patterns, in a side-by-side comparison you can obviously see a move towards eliminating deep greens and browns to more grays, subtle greens and tans. The camo patterns of modern day are supposed to effectively move from environment to environment and still have soldiers remain concealed and blend in. One such solid color has found to be an excellent transitional camo in urban settings. Not too dark and not too light, 5.11 Tactical has developed a shade of gray they call Storm Grey that has proven itself to blend better in urban and naval environments.

Though not the first company to find the right shade of gray, 5.11 believes they got the palette just right for Storm Grey to catch the ambient color and light of an urban setting to provide safety, coverage and blending to law enforcement professionals. Company representatives say they started with urban camo designs from a few years ago that never really took off. Developers experimented with different shades to find what works and what does not.

Picture shows a mannequin dressed for battle wearing 5.11's storm grey uniform

5.11’s Storm Grey provides less contrast in low light than black or navy blue.

Marketed toward law enforcement agencies and special forces, 5.11 says, Storm Grey has proven itself the world over to successfully work in keeping agents concealed. In fact, in low light and artificial lighting situations, gray blends better in an urban environment. Many special forces and SWAT teams use either black or dark blue—both colors actually pop out against a concrete or metal background when it is dark. The subdued gray of 5.11’s Storm Grey provides less contrast and helps break-up the huma outline in shadows and low light. Shades of gray can actually deceive the eye and provide the same types of light reflection we see from buildings, asphalt, concrete and pavement. Sometimes simpler is better.

For 2014, 5.11 is providing a head-to-toe solution for professionals by offering its complete line of field gear from clothing, to weapon accessories, to boots in the new Storm Grey color for both men and women. The company has even teamed with rifle maker, JP Enterprises to make three different rifles finished in Storm Grey.

After the October 3, 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, the United States Marine Corps initiated a new program, Operation Urban Warrior, that focuses on training marines to fight in urban terrain in an increasingly urbanized world. It only makes sense that camo, gear and equipment keep up with our ever changing environment. Will solid colored-camo replace patterns?—I don’t see it happening. As technology gets better, so will our camouflage.

Camo today, when worn outside the military, has become quite the fashion statement, from Realtree and Mossy Oak patterns for everyday wear to car accessories, to Multicam for mall ninjas and German Flecktarn for collectors. Throughout world military history, there are plenty of camo patterns from which to choose from. What is your favorite?

Will you jump on the gray bandwagon? Talk to us in the comment section.

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Comments (15)

  • paul


    universal/acu would work best in an enviroment like modern day mosul or raqqah basically somewhere thats been flatened by bombing where the dust would cover and blend in with the lighter areas on it.
    great for rocky/mountain and bombed out urban areas


  • JOEA78


    I already wear lots of gray. The color gray can be the hue of pretty much any color subdued. When worn in daylight or night it blends in with faded roads, concrete or stone. Was sitting on some boulders one evening as the sun went down, 20ft away and my son lost sight of me so I can vouch for the effectiveness where as black only blends in when there’s complete darkness. When consistently wearing gray or camo remember to keep a reflective armband or something with you when you need to be seen by traffic at night.


  • Matt


    Good article. Interesting comments too. The Storm Gray shade looks very similar to the German WWII combat trooper shade? Is the old German Afrika Corps khaki very similiar to marine coyote? What works, works. The Kryptek looks great. Hope our troops get the opportunity to use soon. ACU never made sense to me and is still garbage. Multicam and marine desert dig are my favs. Most effective where I live is still old school woodland and woodland dig. Marines always get it right. Not surprising. Still like the DCU three color desert which is effective in my area in late fall winter during brown out. I always wonder how many American lives could have been saved if the DOD could have used even the basic blotch patterns that was eventually used in late South Pacific WWII action on helmets for most of our guys, on total uniform in WWII, Korea and Vietnam? God Bless our Vets. My heroes. All of them.


  • What is Kryptek Camo?


    […] For more on camo, read “50 Shades of Gray: The Evolution of Camo and a Throwback to Solid Colors.” […]


  • Eric


    Separate the “camouflage” discussion into three objectives:

    1) Not being obvious
    2) Looking like something else
    3) Not looking like yourself

    Olive drab, gray and khaki are all good solutions for making military uniforms less obvious, but are not really camouflage, just subdued uniforms.

    Snipers in ghillie suits endeavor to look like foliage. While highly effective, it is time-consuming and not very mobile.

    The majority of camouflage uniforms are designed to make the wearer look less like a human, rather than like anything in particular. Blending in perfectly is less important than breaking up the outline of the wearer, because the human eye most easily registers identifiable shapes. If a pattern does not have disparate enough colors to break up outlines, it is really no better than a solid color.


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