June 20, 2023
Anyone coming up pre-GWOT, especially on the sworn side of things was intimately familiar with the original "tactical pant," the Royal Robbins 5.11 pant. The granddaddy of all tactical pants started as a technical climbing pant named after the Yosemite decimal system. The Yosemite decimal system is a scale of numbers where 5.10 represents the most difficult climb. That would make 5.11 technically impossible, but still sometimes doable, so that’s the name that Royal Robbins (yes, he is a real person) settled on for his climbing pant.
The Early Years of 5.11
Popularized by the FBI, 5.11 pants had roomy pockets, a comfortable fit, and were incredibly durable. I know people that still have and occasionally wear 5.11 pants that are over 25 years old. However, as noted before, the industry is harsh, and nothing lasts forever. Soon after spinning the 5.11 brand into its own company, new challenges in the form of upstart boutique tactical apparel companies started to take advantage of the burgeoning social media platforms, framing the “OG” 5.11 tuxedo as it had come to be known, as the clothing choice of the last generation. Down but not out, 5.11 went to the drawing board and started applying lessons learned. The off-duty and CCW-friendly Covert Casual series was one of the first waves of purpose-built low-profile tactical clothing to hit and while it wasn't perfect, it was a great step that allowed 5.11 to learn some valuable lessons while not undercutting its core business of comfortable and utilitarian range wear, which was also benefiting from design and material upgrades. 5.11 also went into the bag and pack design business, creating some iconic lines of accessories, like the RUSH series of packs and bags.
5.11 Goes Brick-and-Mortar
I recently attended the opening of 5.11’s 100th store in Oxnard, CA and it got me thinking about the long relationship I’ve had with the brand and how It’s evolved along with me on my journey as a Police Officer and a writer. Because no matter what I or 5.11 has accomplished in the past, it’s not as important as what we’re accomplishing now. Let's talk a little bit about what they're accomplishing now, starting with the brick-and-mortar stores. Even though we're in the age of internet shopping, the 5.11 stores have been part of an almost insurgent-like movement of building an actual physical tactical community. The stores offer training for a myriad of topics like self-defense, medical, hiking, and even Overlanding. These diversified topics not only allow 5.11 to spread the gospel about their products, but they also allow new blood into our ecosystem. When folks start getting comfortable reaching out to members of the tactical community, it lets them integrate into it. I have met three people that went from not knowing a damn thing about concealed carry to finally obtaining their CCW license because of the training and relationships they were exposed to at the 5.11 store in my town. The importance of having a local home base for grass-roots movements cannot be overstated. These stores can be the starting point for some great things for our community, especially because they’re not as intimidating a starting point as a gun shop or a shooting range. The 2A community needs to be thinking about the long game, and the 5.11 stores should be an integral part of that.
Another clever integration that 5.11 has cultivated that will pay big dividends to their bottom line, as well as the 2A community, is the relationships with media, especially video games. While some people in the 2A community might turn their nose at video games, the fact of the matter is that they are as influential to the next generation of shooters as movies and television were to the Baby Boomers and even the Gen Xers. I'm certainly not going to judge someone that wants an FN P90 because of Call of Duty when I've coveted a Smith & Wesson 1917 since 1981 because of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The digital community might not be tangible to some, but for others, it's the only community they have access to. The 2A battles in the courtroom are important, but let’s not forget the public relations battle that will drive people to the ballot box.
5.11 Product Evolution
We've talked about the 5.11 brand evolution; now, let's talk about some product evolution. For years, I wore the original 5.11 pant, that in Navy Blue, which would turn purple after about six months of wash and wear. I'm happy to say that both 5.11 and I have evolved past that awkward stage in our relationship. Their flagship range pant is the Apex, and as far as I'm concerned, it is at the top of the pile of affordable, purpose-driven range apparel. The pant ditches the saggy, baggy, and loose fit of the OG pant and replaces it with a much more streamlined, athletic fit. The material is a mechanical stretch canvas that wears like legacy materials but allows much freer movement without inches of extra material. The pockets are much flatter due to the internal bellows that keep the wearers' loose ammo, magazines, keys, or jellybeans much closer to the leg, which in turn keeps the cargo from slapping the leg during movement drills. The athleticism of the design is also apparent in the articulated knees and the gusseted crotch. It's details like these that shows that 5.11 understands the nature of modern firearms training, where movement is much more integrated than it was when I started my tactical journey over 30 years ago.
Another product line that 5.11 has continued to evolve for the benefit of its consumers is footwear. I've had issues with 5.11 footwear in the past, as I've had a decidedly mixed experience with earlier iterations of their footwear. Those days are behind us, and I'm a firm fan of this new generation of 5.11 footwear. For the sake of brevity, I'm going to mention two of their offerings targeting two different missions. Their A/T series of duty and tactical boots have been bombproof and comfortable for me over the last three years. I started with a pair of polishable A/T 8-inch side zipper boots that I wore through some long days working the riots of 2020. My feet were a mess, multiple broken bones, broken ankles, ligament damage, and intermittent plantar fasciitis. The A/T series has been a godsend, providing a combination of support, comfort, and nimbleness for my beat-up dogs. My current boot is the 5.11 A/T mid, which is even more athletic; it's almost like wearing a sneaker with additional support. Will these boots last 10 years and go through multiple re-soles? No, but at the price point, I consider it an every 2-year purchase for a boot that I wear every working day. Well worth the money.
The other shoe that I've come to appreciate is the Norris sneaker. The Norris line borrows styling cues liberally from the Sothern California skate scene but combines it with additional rigidity, support, and a Vibram sole. I found these shoes especially useful when I worked undercover, which required an occasional foot pursuit while dressed in "soft" clothing. My experience with them was so good that I've continued wearing them on my off-duty days. Just a note, they require a bit of break-in, so don't expect to put them on and go like you would with a pair of regular sneakers. Put a little time into them for ultimate down-the-line comfort.
5.11 has successfully stood the test of time by continually adapting to its customers' needs. If you haven't looked lately, you should. It's not your father's 5.11.
Enjoy articles like this?
Subscribe to the magazine.
Get access to everything Guns & Ammo has to offer.
Subscribe to the Magazine