The Real Truth About ‘Military Grade’ Products

What’s that, Rambo? That’s right. Time to bust out the hardware and blow them baddies to kingdom come. Not just any old hardware, but the “military grade” stuff. You know, because this is… the military. And we only use the best, hoorah! And wait… how did them civies get their hands on our grade?

To be honest, this might be what some people envision when they hear the term “military grade.” If it’s a material or product manufactured for the military, then it’s “military grade,” right?  Or there’s some sort of universal standard of quality, and because military equals awesome, then “military grade” is the best, right?

Wrong, folks. We’ve been duped — all of us.

A quick Google search reveals a host of “military grade” products that are mere seconds away from draining your bank account: flashlights, watches, jackets, night vision goggles (for real), filament for 3D-printed objects, grommets and o-rings, cell phone cases, even entire trucks like the Ford-150 pickup (check out the Ford website ad). There are whole companies, like Custom Materials, Inc, for instance, whose homepage depicts an entire business built around the “military grade” appellation. 

But what does “military grade” actually mean? First off, it does not mean Army, Navy, Air Force, etc., equipment procured via contracts awarded by the US Department of Defense, searchable on the DoD contracts website. It doesn’t mean “high quality,” either. In fact, “military grade” is a nonsense marketing term similar to “all-natural” food. And what do either mean? Conned customers.

A marketing term meaning the lowest possible standard for mass-production

As MEL Magazine states, “military grade” is nothing more than a buzz-phrase designed to dupe or disguise a target market into buying a product. And, if the term keeps showing up on “gear” that’s “high tech,” cut with pictures of rough, rugged dudes climbing mountains or muscularly steering trucks, or donning things like night vision goggles while wearing cargo fatigues, then it’s pretty obvious who’s being targeted by such campaigns. Real soldiers, though? By all accounts they laugh at the sound of such terminology.

As Military Families Magazine tells us, the history of “military grade” products can be traced to an actual set of equipment guidelines laid out by the US military, dubbed MIL-STD-810. This is not a list of concrete testing criteria, but rather an informal set of objectives that you can download in full on Quick Search if you’re curious. Metrics are updated all the time, which may account for how loosey-goosey the definition is, but include, as Secure Systems and Technologies outlines, things like shock absorption, ability to withstand air pressure at different altitudes, resistance to humidity-based damage, and many others. 

So, if the military actually does use any products that conform to these measures, and have to buy, like, 3 million helmets? They’re gonna go cheap. In other words, “military grade.” In reality, then, what does “military grade” mean? It’s shorthand for the lowest acceptable quality possible for mass production.

A multi-industry ploy of profiteering from consumers

Remember the DoD contracts website mentioned earlier? Like any other customers, the branches of the US military want to get the best goods for the lowest price. So yes, manufacturing companies who underbid the competition typically get awarded contracts. (Check out 2016’s inspired-by-real-life War Dogs, starring Jonah Hill, to get an idea how this might work.) Civilians aren’t using these exact products, no, but the use of terminology — “military grade” — is ironically exactly the same: the minimum bar possible, relative to each market. The only difference? A real soldier isn’t going army crawl her way through an IED-laden field with an “Amazing Military Grade Super Tough Smart Watch for Men (Black)” like the kind listed on Amazon (that’s the actual name of the product, by the way). 

Case in point about quality: the military hires thousands of people to fix equipment every year. As this Reddit thread outlines, the Marine repairman’s quote is: “Hammer to fit, paint to match.” In fact, the patchy quality of military goods is so well known that contractors themselves have, for years, fought this “right to repair,” as outlined by The American Prospecthoping to earn more money by offering to repair equipment themselves.

Other examples of duplicitous marketing meant to prey on uninformed consumers include tactical (50 percent markup), pro (cheapest tier possible), gaming or e-sports (maybe some extra lights), genuine or authentic (again, lowest quality possible), and, yes, all-natural (minimally processed, but not inherently healthy).

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