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The History of Camouflage | Sportsman's Guide

Discover the Origins and History of Camouflage. From military use to hunting gear, learn about its evolution and development of camouflage over time.

March 10, 2023
The History of Camouflage | Sportsman's Guide

"All warfare is based on deception."

This idea was by no means new when Sun Tzu laid it out so eloquently in his momentous work, The Art of War, over 2,000 years ago. But it does serve to mark the point in history where deception was first documented as the cornerstone of military tactics that it still is today.

Of course, its meaning has changed over time. The original quote  or at the very least, its closest English translation reads: All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

There's nothing in this quote that addresses personal concealment, and while most of us today take for granted that soldiers wear camo, it wasn't until thousands of years later that we fully embraced blending into the surrounding terrain as a basic tactic.

Sure, you could find the odd example of the ancient guerrilla force attaching foliage to their outfit, or of outbuildings being disguised with the same, but it wasn't until the early 1900s that the major militaries of the world began to examine its full potential.

FT-17 Tank

A French FT-17 tank in painted camo.

WWI Early Camo

After a crushing defeat at the hands of the Germans in 1915, the French Army re-considered their use of garish white gloves and red pants. The limited range of historic weaponry meant military uniforms could be brightly colored and intricate whether as a show of status or to demoralize the enemy. For the first time, the use of long-range weapons necessitated concealment in the field, and the newly commissioned Section de Camouflage was tasked with creating stealthier options for military dress.

Their efforts produced the first hand-painted camo uniforms, worn by snipers and reconnaissance units operating on the front lines. Vehicles and positions needed concealment, too, and soon, vehicles were painted in contrasting colors to break up their outline.

WWII & Beyond the Evolution of Concealment

In the time between WWI and WWII, every major military had developed their own unique camouflage. The U.S. had their M1942 Frog Skin camo. Germany had their Splittermuster and Leibermuster. The Soviets had their Amoeba pattern.

By the end of WWII, the various camo patterns could be easily printed onto fabriic, hastening the proliferation of camouflage to individual troops.

Allied WWII

Allied soldier in WWII.

Still, though, camo was often left up to the soldier, as was the case with Tigerstripe camo used by American and South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War. It was never an official U.S.-issue item, and had to be made by local tailors, resulting in many different variations.

By the end of the Vietnam War, Tigerstripe has been supplanted by ERDL pattern. Gone were the days of soldiers inventing their own camo. ERDL, as its name suggests, was created by the Army's Engineer Research & Development Laboratories.

The artists and designers who were responsible for early patterns gave way to psychologists and scientists, who created increasingly complex patterns based on hard data.

In 1981, the iconic U.S. Woodland camo  an enlarged version of ERDL was issued, and remained in service until its replacement in 2006.


Founder Jim Crumley in the original Trebark.

Camo's Modern Age

For military purposes, it might be more appropriate to call it Camo's Digital Age. Around the turn of the millennium, the U.S. Military began testing out MARPAT short for Marine Pattern. Unlike the old Tigerstripe and Woodland patterns, MARPAT uses smaller swatches of color (that's the digital look) to provide concealment over a wide range of distances.

While digital camo isn't ALL that's out there (the U.S. Army will begin issuing a version of the decidedly non-digital MultiCam called Scorpion W2 in just a few years), it does represent the futurization of camo. Quite a long ways away from the days of soldiers coloring their own gear, isn't it?

Beyond Life in the Military

It didn't take hunters and outdoorsmen long to figure out that camo could keep you hidden in a variety of terrains.

In the early 70s, an avid hunter by the name of Jim Crumley determined that the third generation of the slowly-evolving Tigerstripe camo just didn't work in the woods that he hunted. He set out to make his own suit. His efforts would lead to the creation of TreBark, a mixture of gray, brown and black with distinctive tree-bark markings.

Little did he know that his camo would spark a revolution. It was a hit, and the market for sportsman's camo was born.

The Camo Boom

Today, the camo landscape is dominated by two names: Mossy Oak® and Realtree®. Both were started in the mid 80s with the goal of providing sportsmen with dedicated camo not re-treads of military patterns. And both played a part in what we affectionately call the Camo Boom.

Realtree® was founded by Bill Jordan in 1986. It started with him sketching and coloring the bark of an old oak tree. Bill believed that by layering the images of twigs and leaves over the bark, he could create a 3D effect that would blend perfectly in a wide range of terrains.

Spartan Realtree

Original Realtree on the cover of the Spartan Catalog in 1987.

Bill scrapped and clawed his way into his first opportunitythe SHOT Show in Las Vegas, NV. Though he could barely afford the booth, he managed to strike a few deals with some of the biggest names in the outdoor game. The rest is history.

Fast-forward 25 years, and Realtree is one of the two major players in camo. Of course, they don't design camo by hand anymore. Today's patterns are created with the aid of digital cameras and photorealistic printing. From their flagship Realtree AP® pattern that works just about anywhere hunters need to hide to their specialized blaze orange and snow camos, Realtree has every conceivable situation covered.

Original Realtree

Bill Jordan and Dale Earnhardt in the original Realtree pattern.

Mossy Oak®, in an interesting bit of serendipity, was also founded in 1986 by Toxey Haas (stay tuned for an interview with the man himself). Mossy Oak's first patterns Bottomland®, Greenleaf®, original Treestand®, Full Foliage® and Fall Foliage® used natural elements, and proved to be a hit in the outdoor community.

Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 4.35.54 PM

The original Mossy Oak Bottomland pattern.

But it was Mossy Oak's next achievement that made history.

Toxey and his staff came to realize that the most common element in nature wasn't dirt, or tree bark, or foliageit was shadow. And with that, the legendary Mossy Oak Break-Up®  now featuring realistic shading was born.

As printing and manufacturing methods improved, so did Mossy Oak's already-impressive stable of patterns. They redesigned Break-Up and Shadow Grass with 3D imaging, creating New Break-Up and New Shadow Grass.

Since then, they've been rolling out new camo patters for every conceivable hunting situation imaginable, culminating in this years's release of the outstanding Mossy Oak Break-Up® COUNTRY™, which promises to provide fuse you with the terrain like never before, ANYWHERE in the country.

From handpainted blobs on a soldier's helmet to digital-perfect imaging on high-tech fabric, there's no doubt about itcamouflage has exploded in a big way. And it hasn't shown any signs of slowing.

More Camo Week Content

  • Camo Buffs? Can you name these famous Military Camo Patterns? Take our Quiz!
  • Are you a Realtree Authori-TREE? Take our fun Quiz!
  • Check out our EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with Mossy Oak founder Toxey Haas!
  • Did you know Bill Jordan's first ideas for Realtree Camouflage were born from sketches in his parent's front yard? Read about the genesis of Realtree's wildly popular patterns!
  • Here are five awesome Camo Weddings we bet you wish you thought of!
  • Not sure of what pattern works best for your type of hunting? Check out our Mossy Oak & Realtree Camo Buyer's Guide!
  • Check out these 10 MUST SEE Camo Cars!

Visit the Sportsman's Guide for a great selection of Mossy Oak and Realtree Camo.

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