Beginners Guide To Tactical Gear
Primary Arms Staff8/10/2020 10:57 amwww.primaryarms.com
When professionals choose their equipment, they pursue every advantage that gear can offer.
With the latest technologies, gunfighters are safer, smarter, and faster than ever before. Whether you’re a soldier, a police officer, or an American gun-owner, your gear is a toolset. Every pouch, pocket, and armor plate will define your effectiveness in combat, and even basic equipment can make the difference between triumph and tragedy.
If you’re new to the subject of tactical gear, this guide is the perfect starting point. We cover all the most important equipment, ranging from basic essentials to professional-grade night vision. We also provide some cost estimates, so you can find gear that matches your available budget.
Separating Fact from Fiction
Before we look at specific gear, we need to look at two common barriers to entry: social stigma and militarization.
Though most Americans are comfortable with firearms, few have experience with body armor or tactical equipment. As a result, gear can draw significant reactions depending on who you’re talking to. Some might view it as a sign of paranoia or ‘prepper’ behavior. At the same time, some might see it as extremism.
In reality, both of these perceptions are flawed. If you are willing to purchase a firearm for self-defense, you’re recognizing that human behavior is innately dangerous. The purpose of tactical gear is to help defend you from these dangerous behaviors, offering you superior protection and responsiveness in times of crisis.
In many ways, arguments against gear are the same as arguments against the AR15: they’re both based primarily on appearances. Gun-owners know that a military aesthetic should not discredit protective equipment—especially when it’s responsible for saving countless lives.
Ultimately, tactical gear represents a wide spectrum of readiness and severity. As we walk through this guide, you’ll find that a lot of gear is great for camping and outdoor activities, so don’t feel like every piece of kit has to come in Multicam.
Level 1: Universal Gear:
‘Universal Gear’ includes general-purpose equipment that can be used for any shooting sports or outdoor activities. Most of these items are relatively affordable too, so if you are looking for the basics, consider these items to be your ‘must-haves.’
For most gun-owners, this is one of the most important pieces of gear you can buy.
If you want to do any kind of tactical or competitive shooting, you’ll need a thick belt, a holster, and some magazine pouches to carry your ammunition. A ‘battle belt’ should be the first piece of gear that any gun-owner buys, and even basic belts can offer a lot of mileage.
Traditional leather gun belts and rigger belts are the simplest choice, but they don’t have much modularity for mounting pouches or accessories.
‘Blast Belts’ or padded belts offer plenty of PALS webbing for accessory attachment, but these belts are heavier and won’t actually hold up your pants.
The latest and greatest belts are a 2-piece setup. These belts are composed of both an inner belt and outer belt. The inner belt threads through your belt loops and provides rigidity with waistband support, while the outer belt connects with Velcro and offers PALS webbing for accessory mounting.
Most tactical belts will cost between $50-$200, depending on feature set and load rating. Many professional groups use load-bearing belts with retention lanyards to keep them tethered in a moving vehicle. These belts are more rugged, so they cost a bit more.
As for your holster and pouches, most high-quality tactical holsters cost between $60 and $180, while most pouches range between $20 and $50 each. For brands, we recommend Safariland, ANR Design, and Blackhawk (T-Series/Omnivore) for the latest holsters, while HSGI, Blue Force Gear, and Esstac make exceptional ammo pouches.
Goretex Boots/Rugged Shoes
Every outdoorsman’s best friend.
If you’re wearing heavy gear or carrying a rucksack, any slip can cause serious injury to your ankles. Tennis shoes might be comfortable, but they don’t protect you as much as a quality Goretex boot or hiking shoe.
A lot of you may already have a good set of boots in the closet. After all, many ‘tactical boots’ on the market are overpriced versions of traditional hiking boots. SOCOM operators are known to wear Merrells, Lowas, and Salomons in the field, and you can find them at most sporting goods stores.
No matter what you might get, just be sure to try them on first. Every boot fits differently, and every brand will cater to a different style. You might also consider an insole if you have arch problems. After a few hours of standing around, you’ll be happy you did.
We’ve repeatedly declared our love of shooting gloves, and this guide will be no exception.
Gloves are an important part of any range kit, protecting your hands from heat and scrapes while improving grip through sweat and rain.
One important factor: gloves are generally considered disposable, much like socks. Due to the amount of motion and wear, no glove can last forever. High quality leather gloves will last longer due to superior stitching, but even a $100 pair can fail after one unlucky spill—especially with high-dexterity gloves with thin fabrics.
Overall, we recommend you find a glove that fits your hand and budget—then stick with it. Gloved movements feel very different than bare hands, so it might take a bit of practice in acclimating to weapons handling. If you stick with one set of gloves, you won’t have to retrain much on a new pair.
Hearing and Eye Protection
You should already have a basic set of hearing and eye protection for range trips.
‘Tactical’ hearing protection usually refers to electronic earmuffs with integrated microphones for communications. If you aren’t experienced with radio, any set of electronic hearing protection should be sufficient. Basic electronic hearing protection ranges from $60-$200, while comms-compatible units cost between $400 and $600. You’ll find that this kind of price jump is common for specialized products that require a high-degree of knowledge and experience for use, since most buyers are coming from professional groups with accommodating budgets.
Moving to eye protection, ‘tactical’ eyewear is an ever-evolving subject. In the past, ‘tactical’ eyewear meant goggles. Goggles offer great protection against wind, dust, and smoke, which is ideal for use in vehicles or deserts, but this extra protection comes at the cost of bulk and reduced peripheral vision. Nowadays, most professionals prefer ballistics glasses instead, keeping their goggles packed away for special situations.
For both goggles and glasses, military-grade eyewear is distinguished by high-quality removable lenses, which protect against shrapnel and fragmentation. These lenses will be more resistant to water, fogging, and scratching, but the ‘tactical’ description is doing a disservice. Any sportsman should appreciate these features—especially hunters who need clear view of their target. Expect to pay $50-$100 dollars for pro-grade eye protection.
Wet-Weather Jacket Shell
In other words: a good, breathable rain jacket. Bonus points for flat colors like black, olive, brown, or tan.
Hardshell jackets are critical in protecting you against inclement conditions like wind and rain. This benefit is amplified if you’re wearing body armor or other nylon gear, which can chafe against wet skin.
Though few people think of a basic rain jacket as tactical equipment, you have to approach gear with an open mind. Arcteryx, Patagonia, and Triple Aught Design make great military-oriented jackets, but as we saw with boots, not every piece of kit has to have the word ‘tactical’ stamped on it. Sometimes the best solutions are also the simplest.
Backpack or Ruck
No matter where you go in life, a high-quality backpack is worth the expense.
‘Tactical’ backpacks are distinguished with materials, colors, and MOLLE/PALS compatibility. These bags maximize durability and capacity while minimizing weight and snag. If you are looking for quality and value, Vertx and Grey Ghost Gear both makes excellent packs at a very appealing price point, floating between $100 and $200.
As for rucks, expect to pay a little bit more for sustainment. Rucks distribute a heavy weight across the user’s chest and hips, requiring complex materials with more adjustment points. While a traditional ALICE ruck can suffice, modern rucks are lighter and more comfortable.
Hydration is important for any demanding physical activity. If you’re doing sprints with 30-40lbs of heat-insulating armor and equipment, you’ll find it especially important.
Hydration can be as simple as a Nalgene bottle or as streamlined as a hydration bladder. Bladders are the more efficient option, since they weigh less and feature a sealable hose for quick, convenient drinking. Most outdoorsy and ‘tactical’ backpacks already have built-in hydration sleeves to support a bladder, so if you have a compatible pack, you’re set for success.
If you don’t want that investment, any Nalgene bottle can act as a basic canteen. No reason to be overtly ‘tacticool’ about a water bottle.
Level 2: Medical, Navigation, and Communications
Moving beyond the basics, we have skill-oriented gear that require training for effective use. Medical gear, navigation tools, and communications systems are invaluable in a combat setting, but they’ll be dead weight if you don’t know how to properly use them.
Medical Trauma Kit
A medical kit and first aid training are more likely to save a life than anything else in this article—firearms included.
First Aid is one of the most important survival skills you can learn, and you’ll find it useful both inside and outside of tactical applications. We wanted to place medical kits in the mandatory category, but combat medicine requires intensive training. If you overestimate your abilities, you might make an injury significantly worse by addressing it incorrectly.
For a tactical trauma kit, common items include trauma dressing, compressed gauze, hemostatic bandages, a twin pack of chest seals, an NPA (Nasopharyngeal Airway), medical tape, shears, nitrile gloves, a sharpie, and tourniquets. These are all critical items that can mean the difference between fatality and full-recovery, so don’t skip any of these items.
Gunshots mean blood loss, so tourniquets are especially important. CAT Tourniquets aren’t the most affordable tourniquet on the market, but they’ve repeatedly shown their effectiveness overseas, so we recommend them over most alternatives. If you want a convenient way to purchase all of the aforementioned supplies, a NAR SIRK Kit includes everything on our list and more for $100-$130.
As for kits themselves, we highly recommend tear-away pouches like Blue Force Gear’s Trauma Kit Now. Tear-away medical pouches operate with two parts: the carrier and the storage pouch. By pulling on a tab, you can free the carrier from the pouch, giving instant access to your supplies, which you can lay out in front of you. Most tear-away medical pouches cost $80-$120.
If you are more experienced in tactical medicine, your medical kit might also include a decompression needle. Used correctly, a decomp needle will alleviate tension in the pneumothorax, preventing lung collapse. Used incorrectly, a decomp needle can perforate a vital organ. This serves as an important reminder: TACTICAL MEDICINE REQUIRES TRAINING. If you have a medical kit for firearms-related injuries, you need to back it up with experience and instruction, or you could make a wound worse and end up being responsible for it.
Navigation tools are great for any backwoods activity. Whether you’re hiking, camping, kayaking, or just going for a walk in the woods, navigational guides will help you stay in-control of your own excursion.
Traditionally land navigation meant maps, markers, protractors, compasses, and pace counters, but electronic GPS systems like the Garmin Foretrex are certainly more convenient. Nowadays, even your phone can help with land-nav, especially when paired with topographical software and a mounting system like the Juggernaut IMPCT.
However, if your electronics fail, or batteries run low, always be prepared with a back-up plan at the ready.
Radio Setup with Communications Headset
Radio communications are a complex science, and without proper certifications, you can get in serious legal trouble by transmitting over the wrong frequencies.
That said, radios are invaluable in an emergency where cellphone service might be spotty or unreliable. For outdoorsmen, radio equipment can even be life-saving, especially if you’re hiking deep into the wilderness, where first responders can’t easily track you down.
Basic hobbyist radios like the Baofeng UV5R cost as little as $20-$30, but don’t expect stellar reliability or performance. If you want a professional-grade radio setup, be prepared to drop a few hundred at the least. Again, we highly recommend you pursue training and certification before purchasing a radio, as radio waves are heavily regulated by the FCC.
Level 3: Personal Protection Equipment (PPE)
Personal protective equipment represents a step-up in investment: body armor, combat clothing, helmets, and gas masks. This equipment is not cheap, but it’s an important part of self-protection. Body armor can keep you in the fight, even after taking hits that would be otherwise disabling or lethal.
Soft Armor/Armor Plates/Chest Rigs
This subject is one of the most expansive topics in the firearms world. Body armor draws from the latest materials science and engineering, so the technology is constantly evolving. In this blog, we’ll only be able to cover the basics, but you can expect a full article sometime in the near future.
In essence, most immediately fatal gunshot wounds hit the central nervous system or vital organs. Good body armor protects these weak points without compromising on mobility, so you can stay in a fight through otherwise debilitating hits. Needless to say, body armor provides a tremendous advantage in combat, and countless soldiers and police owe their lives to the technology.
Body armor is organized by protection levels, which are defined by the National Institute of Justice’s testing standards. Level IIA is the weakest and only protects against standard pistol threats like 9mm and .45 ACP. Level II protects against pistol threats and some magnum threats, such as .357 Magnum. Level IIIA adds .44 magnum and high velocity pistol ammunition, which is why it’s the current standard for soft armor vests. For rifle protection, you’ll need rifle plates, which start at Level III. Level III covers a wide variety of common rifle cartridges, but depending on the materials, it may fail to stop high-velocity threats or penetrator rounds like M855. In response, manufacturers usually offer the non-standard ‘III+’, which usually denotes additional protection against common threats like M855. Finally, Level IV armor is the heaviest and protects against armor-penetrating rounds like black-tip M2AP. When shopping for armor, you’ll always find a constant tradeoff between weight, protection, and price.
If you want basic protection from the most common threats, a Level IIIA soft armor vest will protect against pistols and shot pellets, and you can conceal it under layers of clothing. A good-quality vest will cost you between $400-$700, but if you wear it regularly, the premium materials and craftsmanship will make a noticeable difference in comfort.
For rifle threats, you will need rifle plates and a plate carrier. Plates also come in many difference sizes to match your body, but the military standard is SAPI sizing. SAPI sizes are NOT the same as your shirt size. SAPI plates are sized to protect your organs—not the body around them. For information on plate sizing, please refer to the military’s plate sizing guidelines.
You can purchase basic ceramic rifle plates for $200 to $400 each, but they will be on the heavy side. If you want the best rifle armor, the Hesco U210, Velocity Systems API-BZ, and AT Armor STOP-BZ plates have incredible protection and comfort, but they cost about $1000 per plate. In the end, no matter which plate you buy, make sure that they are certified by the NIJ. If they are not certified, you are trusting your life to the promises of the manufacturer alone.
Along with plates, you’ll also need a plate carrier. Plate carriers hold your armor along with additional magazine pouches, medical equipment, and communications gear. Plate carriers come in a wide variety of prices and designs, but we generally recommend looking at brands with reputations for quality and military issuance. Names like Crye Precision, First Spear, LBT, Tyr Tactical, Velocity Systems, and Spiritus Systems stand out as the flagships of the gear world, but there are many other great brands on the market. Each plate carrier design will have its own weight, durability, and feature set, so consider all your needs before making a purchase. Plate carriers cost anywhere between $200 and $600, depending on the materials, technology, and sizing.
If you don’t have armor but still want the load carriage of a plate carrier, a chest rig might be your best bet. Chest rigs are a lightweight alternative that can carry your mags, tools, water, and radio when armor is unnecessary. As with carriers, different chest rigs will offer different features, but the best chest rigs will be somewhat modular, allowing you to customize and build on the system to fit your needs.
As we said earlier, we’ll have a full blog discussing all the basics of body armor in the future, including further details on protection levels and materials.
Combat pants are a surprisingly comfortable addition to most gun-owners’ wardrobe, offering built-in protection against spills and scrapes. They might not win awards in haute couture, but if you’re dropping to kneeling or prone, your joints will be thanking you.
Most combat pants are made of a ripstop material, which is durable enough to take the abuse of a combat situation without splitting seams or falling apart. The most popular combat pants come from Crye Precision with their G3, G4, LE01, and AC Combat Pants. These expertly-designed trousers are exceptionally durable, incorporating integrated knee pads with stretch material for added comfort and mobility.
If you’re looking for a combat-capable pant for everyday wear, KÜHL, and Arcteryx make incognito options that both stylish and practical. Many of these pants appear professional enough to wear in an office setting, so keep that in mind if you live a white-collar lifestyle.
Ballistic Helmets and Bump Helmets
Helmets are usually one of the last pieces of gear that someone will buy. Top-quality helmets are expensive, costing up to $1200, but that price translates to weight, protection, and comfort for the user. If you can’t afford the latest and greatest high-cut from Opscore or Team Wendy, surplus MICH and ACH helmets are readily available and have a proven track record with the military. Alternatively, you might consider a helmet from Gentex or Ceradyne, which bring some of the latest technologies into a more affordable price range.
Functionally, a ballistic helmet serves two major roles: ballistic protection and night vision support.
With regards to ballistic protection, most helmets can stop direct pistol and shotgun threats, though the latter may still cause serious concussion. Helmets also protect you from shrapnel, fragmentation, and blunt trauma, which are all potentially debilitating.
Helmets also play an important role in supporting night vision equipment. Most night vision devices attach directly to a shroud at the front of the helmet, so most professionals will own either a ballistic or bump helmet. Bump helmets do not protect against ballistic threats, but they’re lighter and more affordable with considerable blunt trauma resistance. If you are uncertain of the value in a ballistic helmet but still want NV mounting capability, bump helmets are the perfect middle ground.
In some circumstances, you might need a gas mask or respirator.
Military gas masks are resistant to chemical, biological, and nuclear threats when paired with the appropriate filter. 40mm filters are the NATO standard and come in many different protection levels. By choosing the right filter, you’ll have a longer runtime with superior breathability, so don’t throw all your money into expensive CBRN filters if you only need protection from tear gas.
Avon, 3M, and Mestel Security are the leading names in the industry, with Avon’s FM53 and FM54 leading at the cutting-edge of new-production gas masks. If new-production models are outside your budget, you can find affordable MSA Millennium and M40 gas masks from most Military Surplus shops. These masks have seen many years of service with our military and have proven their longevity, making them a worthwhile addition to your toolkit.
If you’re interested in CBRN gear beyond gas masks, we highly recommend you research all the protocols necessary for decontamination. A gas mask is easy enough to justify with chemical fumes, viruses, and contaminants, but true nuclear or biological threats require extensive decontamination supplies for meaningful protection.
Level 4: Night Vision and Thermal Imaging
With prices ranging from $1,500 to over $40,000, night vision and thermal imaging devices are only common among professionals and the most dedicated enthusiasts. For the price of a pick-up truck, you get the ability to see in near perfect darkness with breathtaking clarity.
Is it worth it?
If your budget allows it… then absolutely yes.
Night Vision Devices
Night vision is the most complex subject covered in this blog, so we won’t dive too deep on the technical aspects. Instead, we’ll just highlight some of the most common considerations when purchasing night vision: intensifier tube quality and housing style.
Intensifier tubes are the heart and soul of a night vision device. The intensifier tube contains all the technology which allows the unit to collect and magnify light to usable levels. As a result, intensifier tubes are one of the most expensive components in night vision devices, and the best tubes can cost thousands of dollars. Currently, L3 is the leading supplier of America’s intensifier tubes, and their best units are ‘unfilmed’ white-phosphor, which provide an ultra-clear grey/blue image. White phosphor is becoming the new standard for both military and police groups, but traditional ‘filmed’ green-phosphor tubes are far more economical with admirable performance.
Along with intensifier tubes, every night vision device has an electronic housing and optics. Housings come in multiple styles, but the most common designs are monoculars and binoculars.
Monoculars are the most cost-effective approach to night vision, since you only need one image intensifier tube. PVS14s have seen service with the US military for many years, so their effectiveness in combat is undeniable. There are also weapon-mounted monoculars like the PVS-30, which are used in conjunction with a marksman’s magnified optic during night operations.
A basic PVS14 with a filmed green-phosphor tube will cost at least $1,500 on its own, and the necessary mounting equipment will quickly bring that price up to $2,000 at least. In upgrading to an unfilmed white-phosphor tube, the average price will reach well-over $3,000.
As expensive as that sounds, binoculars are far more costly. The technology built into dual-tube units demands a steeper investment, and your intensifier tubes must be close enough in spec to not cause significant issues. Even the most affordable dual-tube setups will command nearly $6,000, while unfilmed white-phosphor units can run well beyond $10,000.
Now, you may be wondering, “What tactical advantage could possibly be worth the down payment on a home?”
The answer: borderline impunity in the right environment. NODs aren’t just another force multiplier. NODs are a ticket to the 8 hours a day when the sun doesn’t shine. With a high-quality night vision setup, you can effortlessly maneuver through near total darkness. No other technology can offer you that kind of advantage.
To the average hobbyist, night vision may seem frivolous. It’s up to you whether the perks outweigh the price, but rest assured, once you look through a set of unfilmed white-phosphor binoculars, you’ll understand why so many gun-owners are starting to invest in the technology.
Night Vision Accessories
As if NODs weren’t expensive enough on their own, there are many other mandatory accessories, including mounting hardware, IR illuminators, and marking strobes.
To attach a night vision device to a helmet, you’ll need mounting hardware from Wilcox or Norotos. Both brands offer their own proprietary mounting interface, though Wilcox is the more popular of the two. In mounting a PVS-14 to a helmet, you’ll need a J-Arm, a mount (such as the L4 G24), and a compatible mounting shroud. Combined, these three items can cost well over $600.
You’ll also want an IR illuminator and laser to mount on your carbine. Night vision is powerful, but without any ambient light, you’ll struggle to discern targets at a distance. For this reason, you use an IR illuminator to project infrared light, which is invisible to the naked eye. Unfortunately, civilian customers are limited in their options since military models are regulated for their high output. Still, you can always use a Steiner DBAL D2 or BE Meyers MAWL-C1+ to make up for the power loss. These two units stand out some of the best civilian illuminators on the market. The DBAL D2 costs around $1,200-$1,400, while the MAWL costs up to $2,800.
Finally, if you’re out in the dark with friends, you’ll want IR strobes and markers. These devices are placed on the body and flash in IR light, broadcasting your location to others with night vision. Devices like the Hel-Star 6 can also flash in visible light for rescue operations.
Thermal imagers represent a diverse array of products, which includes scopes, cameras, monoculars, and clip-on devices. FLIR is the most recognizable name in the thermal business, and many hunters use FLIR devices to cull feral hogs in the dead of night.
Thermal imaging devices are popular in the tactical market as well. Police use thermal imagers to track suspects moving through dense woodland, and military groups bring hand-held thermal monoculars to scout out potential ambush positions.
For a FLIR unit, prices range from $1,000-$3,000. Top of the line L3 imagers will run up to $10,000, limiting their appeal to mostly professional groups.
We’ve covered a lot of subjects in this blog, and many of them will be revisited for deeper dives in the near future. Until then, we hope that this guide has piqued your interest in tactical gear. Not everyone has the budget or desire to outfit themselves with full kit, but some of these items have an appeal that extends far outside gunfighting. Even night vision has ulterior uses with stargazing and astronomy.
Naturally, gear is associated with prepping, which draws plenty of stigma for paranoia. If that worries you, remember that there’s only one person responsible for your personal safety: you. From all we’ve seen in the world, the only certainty is that human nature makes conflict inevitable, so only a fool could find shame in preparedness.
That said, if you do have questions about gear, feel free to reach out to us on social media. We’ll be happy to discuss any of the subjects covered in this blog and provide product recommendations that fit well with your needs.