It's safe to say that we're spoiled for choice when it comes to the gear we carry with us into the great outdoors. Whether you're in the market for a new pocket knife or a thirty-foot camper to tow behind your truck, there's no shortage of options available to you, each claiming their own "extreme" superlatives to make sure you know just how rugged they are. Of course, there's one phrase you may see pop up more than many others when it comes to toughness: "military grade."
The idea behind claiming your product is "military grade" is simple: the consuming public tends to think of the military as a pretty tough bunch, so if you tell me a product has met some military standard for toughness, it stands to reason that the product itself must be pretty damn tough, right?
The military actually employs thousands of people to maintain and repair "military grade" equipment.
(Photo By: Master Sgt. Benari Poulten 80th Training Command Public Affairs)
The phrase "military grade" can be used on packaging and on promotional materials without going through any particular special toughness-testing. In fact, even when sticking closely to the intent behind the phrase, which would mean making the product meet the testing criteria set forth in the U.S. military's MIL-STD-810 process, there's still so much leeway in the language of the order that military grade could really mean just about anything at all.
The testing procedures set forth in the military standard are really more of a list of testing guidelines meant to ensure manufacturers use controlled settings and basic standards for reliability, and importantly, uniformity. The onus is on the manufacturer, not any military testing body, to meet the criteria set forth within that standard (or not) and then they can apply the words "military grade" to their packaging and marketing materials. In other words, all a company really has to do is decide to say their products are "military grade" and poof--a new tacti-tool is born.
It's as simple as that. No gauntlet of Marines trying to smash it, no Airmen dropping it from the edge of space, and no Navy SEALs putting it through its paces under a sheet of ice near the Russian shore. The only real reason that pocket knife you just bought said "military grade" on the box is that the company's marketing team knew plastering the phrase on stuff helps it sell.
Believe it or not, this is not how Marines test new gear.
(Official U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Lucian Friel)
For those of us that have spent some time in uniform, that really shouldn't come as a surprise. There's never any shortage of jokes about the gear we're issued coming from "the lowest bidder" for a reason: the gear we're issued often really did come from the lowest bidder. Meeting the military standard (in mass production terms) usually means that a manufacturer was able to meet the minimum stated requirements at the lowest unit price. To be fair, those minimum requirements often do include concerns about durability, but balanced against the fiscal constraints of ordering for the force. When you're budgeting to outfit 180,000 Marines with a piece of kit, keeping costs down is just as important in a staff meeting as getting a functional bit of gear.
But most products sold as "military grade" never even need to worry about those practical considerations, because the Defense Department isn't in the business of issuing iPhone cases and flashlight key chains to everyone in a uniform. When these products advertise "military grade," all they really mean is that they used some loosely established criteria to conduct their own product tests.
Of course, that's not to say that products touting their "military grade" toughness are worthless--plenty of products with that meaningless label have proven themselves in the kits of millions of users, but the point is, the label itself means almost nothing at all.