June 24, 2021
By Sean McCarthy
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Alexander Hamilton, the 4th of July, and the free practice of one’s Second Amendment rights are all things that are about as American as the topic of this article: M81 Woodland camo. Many of us bought it as kids from the surplus store then wore it threadbare from playing paintball in the woods. It’s been used in more action movies than Arnold, and is arguably the most recognizable camouflage pattern in existence. Best of all, it has a fascinating history.
M81 was America’s first foray into the development of a general pattern intended for use by any and all troops. The United States, while typically being at the forefront of military technology development took some time to realize the benefits of mass adoption of camouflage. During World War II, some Marine raider units in the Pacific were equipped with a pattern known as “Frogskin.” US development and deployment did not progress until our involvement in Vietnam. During the early days of our involvement, our presence in-country was limited to Special Forces acting in an advisory role. The unique role played by these advisors meant they were to be neither seen nor heard. The small deployment numbers, mixed with the thick brush seen in the southeast Asian jungle made the advisors perfect test subjects for several newly developed camouflage patterns.
One of these fielded patterns was known as ERDL, an acronym that stands for U.S Army Engineer Research and Development Laboratory, the group that developed the ERDL pattern. Similar to the academic approach of camo development in Germany during World War Two, the US got together its best and brightest to create an effective pattern.
As the forefather to M81 Woodland, ERDL was almost identical; the colors were incredibly similar albeit a bit more flushed, and the shapes that comprised the pattern were smaller than what they would eventually be. When military researchers at the US Army Natick Soldier Center began designing an updated pattern towards the end of the 1970s, they looked at the successes of ERDL while taking into account new battlefield technologies such as digital optics like night vision.
Technologies such as night vision had never been a hurdle researchers had to overcome when developing camouflage, and they discovered that increasing the size of the shapes within the pattern improved concealment when viewed both by the naked eye and various optics. The smaller shapes that comprise ERDL, while effective at concealment to the naked eye, stood out and looked unnatural in dense brush when viewed through night vision.
The research led to M81 woodland's approval, and America’s first steps towards mass implementation of a camouflage pattern.
Beginning in 1981, the US Army officially adopted M81 Woodland as the camouflage pattern to be printed on the new Battle Dress Uniforms (BDU) soon to be donned by troops. According to an Army summary of the 1981 fiscal year, the goal was a more regimented and standard uniform. From this point forward, gone were the days of OD green Tropical Combat uniforms; and a new era of brown, green and black was ushered in.
Initial release saw M81 printed on field uniforms and hats, but a trip to any military surplus store will prove that it was printed on so much more. You can find magazine pouches, chemical protection suits, and helmet covers that all utilize the pattern.
It was seen in any number of minor conflicts the United States found itself involved in from the 1983 invasion of Grenada, to the 1989 invasion of Panama. As U.S. military involvement transitioned to desert and arid climates, the need for a camouflage effective in the "woodlands" quickly waned.
It wasn't until 2008 that Woodland camo was officially retired per orders by Lieutenant General Michael Rochelle, then Army Deputy Chief of Staff of Personnel. In that time, M1 Woodland camo had been replicated by numerous other countries, another testament to its effectiveness.
Interestingly, the Iraq invasion in 2003 saw the Pentagon unprepared to equip all troops with desert-tone fatigues, resulting in some units entering Iraq wearing M81. A scene in the HBO series “Generation Kill'', which focuses on a group of Recon Marines in Iraq, portrays an incident in which the Marines discover that their chemical protection suits are M81 variants and not desert-toned, leading one of the Marines to question if the brass knows they are fighting in a desert. This is but one example of many (and one from a fantastic series) proving that M81 was incredibly prolific within the US Military during its lifespan, which has led to its prominence in media and US culture.
The influence of M81 is still seen in subsequent camouflage patterns developed for our armed forces. Pictured below is a fellow Rock Island employee, and personal friend Joe Smith, wearing woodland MARPAT during his time spent serving in the Marines. One of several succeeding designs, the woodland MARPAT color scheme is nearly identical to M81, but its design is drastically different.
Released in 2002 (and patented by The USMC) MARPAT is a highly effective pattern that appears in both a woodland palate and desert palate. The woodland variety, though different in geometry from M81, still shows its M81 ancestry in the colors used. In addition to Joe's MARPAT fatigues, it should be noted that he is wearing what appears to be a plate carrier printed in none other than M81. Considering this photo is post-2002, the old saying "if it isn't broken, don't fix it" is truer than ever.
The Woodland pattern appears in more non-military applications than perhaps any other type of camouflage. Pictured below is former Governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura wearing M81 as Blain in one of the author’s favorite movies, Predator. Pictured to the right is Liam Gallagher from the popular British rock band Oasis wearing a civilian jacket printed in M81 Woodland.
These are two of a seemingly endless number of examples of M81 Woodland appearing in pop culture. It is difficult to think of another camouflage pattern that has transcended the battlefield in a way that M81 has. It became a fixture of American culture as much as it was a fixture of our armed forces during its tenure as our standard pattern.
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