For as long as people have been people, military life has influenced civilian life, and vice-versa. In modern times, we see this with firearms. AR-style firearms have become popular with civilians because they’re modular, while US Special Forces snipers have adopted the civilian 6.5 Creedmoor round because of its superior long-range accuracy.
The same goes for fashion. Soldiers return from war or retire from active duty, and they’ve become used to dressing a certain way. Not only that, but many business and political leaders come from the military. As military trends evolve, shaped by the needs of modern warfare, so does military fashion, and so do the broader fashion trends in society.
Pants are part and parcel of this phenomenon. So, what are tactical pants? Simply put, they’re pants that resemble the pants used in the military. To find out what that means today, we’ll need to take deeper dive into the history of combat pants. Then, we’ll understand why modern tactical pants are designed the way they are.
A Brief History of Military Tactical Pants
Those of you familiar with the Bible may remember the term “gird up your loins for battle.” This wasn’t just a metaphor — it’s what people had to do when they went into war without pants. In the ancient Middle East, people didn’t wear pants. They wore a long loose shirt called a tunic, which came down to just below the knee. Since a tunic could trip you up in a fight, warriors would wrap their tunic under their crotch, then tie it around their waist. This kept their tunics from tripping them up, while also providing minimal protection for their nether regions.
The Romans protected their legs with greaves, which are pieces of plate armor that protect the shins, but they didn’t wear any pants. Like people in the ancient Middle East, they wore a tunic, with long mail that hung down to provide some protection to their groin. With the fall of the Roman Empire, trousers soon became the norm throughout Europe and the Middle East. However, this had a limited effect on warfare. Some soldiers wore greaves over their pants, while others did not.
In the Middle Ages, we started to see the first items of clothing that could be called “tactical pants” in any meaningful sense. Knights began to wear thick padding under their armor for added protection. In the legs, this padding was sewn into the outside of stockings, which were worn along with a codpiece to protect the groin. With the widespread use of firearms, heavy armor fell out of favor, and soldiers started wearing ordinary trousers again. These were everyday, lightweight pants, designed for comfort and mobility more than for protection. But that changed starting in the early 20th century. By that time, pockets had been used in clothing for about 400 years, and cargo pockets were starting to make their appearance. This allowed soldiers to use their pants not just as clothing, but for carrying gear. Modern tactical pants had been born.
The Beginning of Modern Tactical Pants
The first modern tactical pants made their appearance during World War II. These were different from ordinary civilian pants in two respects. First, they had a loose cut throughout the leg, which allowed for plenty of freedom of movement. Second, there were cargo pockets on the thighs for carrying a snack, gloves, maps, and other commonly-used gear. Another advancement during World War II was the development of synthetic fabric. No longer were military trousers being made of cotton and wool. Now, they were being woven from durable, water-resistant synthetics like polyester and nylon.
Late in the war, some German Waffen SS divisions started wearing what they called a “disruptive uniform,” or camouflage. The US Army experimented with the camouflage of their own during this time, but their experiments led to confusion in the field. Camouflaged American soldiers looked too similar to camouflaged German soldiers, so the new uniforms never saw widespread use. After World War II, most major militaries adopted camouflage patterns, although there were some holdouts. The Canadian Army, for instance, didn’t adopt camouflage until the 1990s.
That said, US and British tactical pants dominated the surplus market for years, and they shared a few characteristics. First, they had deep cargo pockets, with more pockets in more locations as time went on. Next, they had reinforced knees, for better durability. Finally, they adopted drawstring ankles, which kept dirt, debris, and snow from getting into your boots. These features were more or less universal. However, by the 1990s, there were still major differences between the tactical pants of the American and British armies. Mostly, this came down to the design of the pockets and the closure system.
American BDU pockets had covered buttons, which kept them from snagging or hindering your movement. These pockets also provided a cleaner appearance, but the buttons could be tough to manage while wearing gloves. British CS95 pants used the large, exposed buttons favored by Canadian designers. These buttons were easy to manage in the field, even if you were wearing gloves. However, they had a tendency to snag when you least expected.
One flaw shared by both American and British tactical pants was a lack of knee protection. Yes, the knees were reinforced for durability, but a double-thick layer of fabric still isn’t much protection. To compensate, soldiers started using external knee pads. However, these pads were uncomfortable and could slide around freely. They were so impractical that many soldiers let them hang around their ankles when they weren’t using them. A better knee design was sorely required.
But with the end of the Cold War, countries were cutting their military budgets. The last thing any military was interested in doing was spending a lot of money designing a better pair of pants. Unfortunately, the beginning of the 21st century brought a new generation of conflict, and armies once again decided to modernize their kit.
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
In the early 2000s, the US military launched a pair of related programs called the Objective Force and Future Combat System initiatives. These programs were aimed at completely revolutionizing the US military for the 21st century. As part of this endeavor, the Objective Force Warrior Program was launched to rethink how soldiers are armed and equipped in the field. Soldier equipment in particular was contracted out to three companies: Crye Precision, Juggernaut Defense, and Artisent.
Crye Precision drew up a number of prototypes for new uniforms, combat armor, helmets, and load-bearing gear. None of these prototypes were actually implemented. However, Crye Precision made a number of recommendations, and those recommendations had real-world results. The most well-known of these results is the MultiCam camouflage pattern. This has fully replaced the old BDU camo pattern and is already seeing use in other countries. Other major changes include innovations in the US soldier’s armor chassis, as well as the modern infantry helmet design.
Last, new combat uniforms were designed. These included advanced moisture-wicking fabric and better built-in knee protection. Crye Precision was able to market and sell these new uniforms, and their offerings quickly caught on in US Special Forces. The most famous part of their new uniform were the Combat Pants. Crye Precision’s Combat Pants have been imitated throughout the industry. Some militaries even use their own domestically-produced — and unlicensed — versions.
But Crye Precision doesn’t have a monopoly on the tactical pants market, and new developments continue to be made. A number of manufacturers have made their own changes and improvements. As soldiers and law enforcement gain real-world experience and give feedback, these manufacturers are able to continually improve their designs. The result is a whole new generation of tactical pants.
Tactical Pants or Combat Pants?
Nowadays, there are now two broad categories of “military-style” pants.: tactical pants and combat pants. Combat pants are closely related to the Crye Precision design and are primarily used by militaries. Tactical pants are a wider category that’s more frequently used by civilians and law enforcement. For one thing, tactical pants are generally designed to maximize the amount of gear you can carry. This means more pockets, which means there aren’t typically any stretch panels. So you get somewhat less range of movement in exchange for increased capacity. To support this capacity, you’ll generally find beefed-up belt loops, along with heavy-duty zippers and velcro.
Modern tactical pants have pockets for knee inserts, which allows you to add additional padding. Further reinforcement can often be found on the knees, in the form of a nylon webbing or Cordura fabric. This makes modern tactical pants even more durable than old-school BDUs, whether or not you’re using knee inserts. Combat pants, on the other hand, have started to integrate their own built-in knee pads. You’ll find an inner padded layer and an outer hard shell. This serves to protect your knees during falls, bumps, and can even protect you from sharp objects. It’s not bulletproof, but it lets you crawl and kneel freely.
In addition, combat pants use stretch panels on areas where more flex is required. This means they don’t have to be quite as loose as older tactical pants, and can even offer superior mobility. These panels limit the amount of space available for pockets. However, for actual combat use, there’s a limit to how much gear you want in your pockets to begin with.
So, What are Tactical Pants?
Now that we know where tactical pants come from, it’s time to understand what makes them unique. So, what makes tactical pants tactical? There are three main factors: durability, versatility, and practicality. Let’s take a quick look at each of those factors.
Tactical Pants are Durable
Durability is the most important feature of any pair of tactical pants. Simply put, you expect your pants to stand up to a lot of abuse. You want to crawl in them, kneel in them, and climb in them. You also want them to be able to deal with tough conditions. Dirt, water, and even UV light can cause material to break down over time. If you buy a cheap pair of pants, they might work just fine for casual wear. But put them to the test, and they’ll soon fail you. One key element of durability is how well reinforced your pants are. If you’re running, jumping, or dropping to your knees, you don’t have time to readjust your trousers. This means the knees and crotch have to be able to withstand stress. Look for double and triple-reinforced fabric with strong stitching. Advanced fabrics like NyCo and PolyCo are also a major plus, as is any material that uses Ripstop weaving.
Tactical Pants are Versatile
Tactical pants also need to be able to handle a wide range of scenarios. For instance, suppose you’re riding shotgun in a vehicle. A pair of pants with most of the storage on the right isn’t going to work; if you need to access anything in a hurry, the door will get in the way. As a result, good tactical pants should allow you to carry gear on your front, back, or sides as needed. The objective isn’t to fill every pocket; it’s to have the gear you need where you need it, when you need it. That said, versatility is about more than just carrying all your gear. Pants should also provide protection from the elements. Look for pants that are water-resistant, and have moisture-wicking qualities. A moisture-wicking liner makes a huge difference in very hot or very cold weather. Fire resistance is also a plus, depending on what you expect to run into. Camouflage or a dull color is also helpful if concealment is a concern.
Tactical Pants are Practical
Tactical pants are designed to be practical, so you can do your job. While they can look pretty sharp, they’re not a fashion statement. This means you should be looking for plenty of pockets, freedom of movement, and a fit that’s comfortable to wear in the field. We’ve already talked about pocket placement, but we should also say a word about their construction. Some people prefer American-style buttons, while others prefer British-style buttons. Either way, the pockets should stay closed when you want them to. The last thing you need in a tactical situation is to have your gear randomly flying out of your pocket.
Other Features to Look For
Durability, versatility, and practicality are the main things you should look for. However, there are other features you may want depending on your needs. For instance, some cargo pockets have an expanding design, and some allow access from multiple sides. You can also find zipper and velcro closures for easier access. One thing you don’t want to do is go cheap. As we already discussed, you can produce a nice-looking pair of “tactical” pants for just a few dollars, but they won’t stand up to any serious abuse. Stick with pants from a reliable manufacturer. Even if they cost four or five times as much, they’ll pay for themselves over time.
A few generations ago, our grandfathers went to war wearing what we would call basic cargo pants. Now, an everyday security guard can own the world’s toughest tactical pants. Look for a pair of pants that’s durable, versatile, and practical, and look for one that’s well-suited for your job. As long as you have your eye on the right features, you won’t be disappointed.
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