Conflict is on America’s streets in 2020, and “tactical apparel” has become a lifestyle industry serving militarized law-enforcement agents and the freelance gunmen who emulate them. Less than two weeks before Election Day, orders are rolling in.
Since last year, online purchases have driven a 20-fold jump in sales of goods like the $220 CM-6M gas mask — resistant to bean-bag rounds — for Mira Safety of Austin, Texas.
“It doesn’t matter who gets elected,” founder Roman Zrazhevskiy said of his new customers. “They think that no matter who wins, Biden or Trump, there are going to be people who are upset about the result.”
Not long ago — perhaps a generation — dressing like you’re going to war was for the veteran who never quite made it back from Vietnam or the angry young men who obsessed over gas masks and combat boots at the military surplus store. (Every American town seemed to have one, and only one.)
A shift became apparent with this spring’s Black Lives Matter protests and bitterly resented pandemic lockdowns. Now the gear is everywhere, from camouflage-clad antifa supporters to right-wing extremists who appeared at Michigan’s capitol even after men were arrested in a plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
In some suburban and rural settings, it’s become everyday wear. A retail chain called 5.11 Tactical, which traces its roots to a friend of President Donald Trump’s adult sons, is even trying to turn the survivalist look into a fashionable national brand. It’s racking up annual sales of almost $400 million with stores in places including Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the U.S. Army’s Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. Across the country, gun and ammunition sales have surged as well.
“It’s evidence of what many people have been expressing concern about for the last six months — the stress associated with the pandemic, a frustration or anger about various government mitigation efforts and a belief that those efforts are infringing on their individual liberties,” said Elizabeth Neumann, a former assistant secretary for threat prevention at the Department of Homeland Security.
Tactical gear speaks “to a form of militaristic patriotism, a way for them to find their identities,” said Neumann, who resigned this year over what she described as the Trump administration’s failure to address domestic threats.
Half the orders at Gladiator Solutions come from civilians, a big change from years when law enforcement was the major customer, said Matt Materazo, founder of the Danville, California, company.
“We’ve seen a big uptick coming out of New York, New Jersey, Illinois — not just those states but Chicago, Manhattan, Queens and San Francisco,” he said. “We never did business with folks from San Francisco.”
His biggest seller is a $220 body-armor plate meant to withstand bullets fired from an AK-47.
Before the pandemic, 5.11 Tactical, based in Irvine, California, was opening two stores a month, drawing customers for “Always Be Ready” events akin to cooking demonstrations at Williams Sonoma. Amid racks of military-style boots, pants and vests, the classes taught self defense, trauma care and “everyday/concealed carry.”
Unexpectedly high consumer sales maintained growth during lockdowns, according to Compass Diversified Holdings Inc., a Westport, Connecticut-based company that owns 5.11 Tactical among a portfolio that also includes Ergobaby infant carriers.
Same-store sales including e-commerce rose 10.5% in the second quarter after 7.5% growth in the first quarter, Chief Operating Officer Pat Maciariello told analysts on a conference call in July.
The “increased preparedness mindset” is one reason 5.11 Tactical is potentially “transformational,” Maciariello said.
More evidence of a maturing industry: Buyers connect in online forums to discuss the best gear, compare prices and complain when companies rip them off. Megan Squire, a professor at North Carolina’s Elon University, has monitored extremist-group members who lay ballistic vests flat and post pictures, like so-called unboxing videos popular on YouTube. In one post, she said, an enthusiast mocked another user for buying armor that didn’t adequately cover his vital organs.
The 500,000-member U.S. Concealed Carry Association, which says it is “dedicated to helping responsibly armed Americans prepare for the before, during, and after of a self-defense incident,” has seen membership explode. The group is signing up members four times faster than a year ago, said Tim Schmidt, the president. For his part, he recommends against buying ballistic vests.
“You’re preparing yourself for a situation you shouldn’t be in,” Schmidt said. “There’s no reason to actively insert yourself into a violent situation.”
Tactical-gear companies are benefiting from a rush of citizens joining armed groups, some tied to anti-government or White supremacist factions.
“We’ve seen a large increase since April — it’s only getting bigger,” said Josh Ellis, owner of MyMilitia.com, which allows users to find groups near them. The fastest-growing, four-month-old Angry Viking, has signed up 1,500 members and has “thousands” waiting to join, according to leader Dylan Stevens, a 41-year-old from Houston who was a personal trainer until Covid-19 hit.
In September, when social-justice protesters converged on the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Stevens wore a black bulletproof vest, slung a semi-automatic rifle across his chest and joined others from his group. He said he’s told members that at the polls Nov. 3, they should wear civilian clothes and report suspicious activity to the police — unless an innocent person is getting attacked; then they’re allowed to “engage.”
MyMilitia.com is full of posts from newcomers seeking advice, with lengthy forums dissecting the pros and cons of tactical gear. “PREP FOR WAR THIS NOVEMBER,” one poster says, linking to DamascusGear, which sells body armor.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, has featured in the advertising of various brands. A gun enthusiast raising what he called an “Army for Trump” to watch polls, Trump Jr. drew criticism for appearing in July promotions for a Utah rifle maker owned by a member of The Order, a polygamist sect deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. (Trump Jr. later said, “I barely even know them.”)
Trump Jr. and his brother, Eric, have hunted and fished at the Montana lodge of the former owner of 5.11 Tactical, Dan Costa. An entrepreneur from Modesto, California, Costa owned the company when it went from selling a single pant worn by FBI trainees to becoming the first national “tactical apparel” brand. Costa sold a majority stake in 2007.
His new company, First Tactical, which merged with a Florida maker of body armor, Point Blank Enterprises, expects sales of more than $20 million this year, up from $9 million last year.
“It’s wear and tear,” Costa said. “The police are busy right now.”
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