The Ultimate Guide to BDUs and ACUs (Battle Dress Uniform vs Army Combat Uniform)​

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BDU vs ACU

So you’re tired of showing up to the field in that ratty old hoodie. Tired of its dark navy getting you spotted at outdoor fields. Maybe it was your good hoodie until it saw airsoft combat. Let’s not even talk about the jeans you shredded with those sweet tactical slides. You need something with more durability, something literally designed for combat. So you find yourself in the market for a BDU set. But, like most things with airsoft, there are so many choices! Let us help you make the decision between the two most common choices, the BDU and the ACU with the Ultimate Guide to BDUs explained. 

Table of Contents

How Camouflage was Started. Brief History of BDUs

Here’s a brief look at camouflage and BDUs origins explained by the USA TODAY Network.

1898:

During the Spanish-American War, the blue coats of U.S. troops fighting in Cuba were visible targets to snipers. Troops smeared mud on their uniforms to be less conspicuous.

1902:

The U.S. Army changed its summer uniform to the brown khaki worn by British troops in India. The Army also adopted camouflage color for its winter service uniform– a dull, greenish-brown color designed as “olive-drab.” The blue uniform is kept for “dress” occasions

World War I era:
Sample WWI Helmet with painted camo. BDUs back then didnt exist.

With the emergence of machines guns, trench warfare and aerial photography, major armies worked on developing low-visibility uniforms. The U.S. Army formed a camouflage unit made up of camofleurs — people who were artists and designers in their civilian lives.

World War II era:
This is the frog skin pattern found on WWII bdus sparingly

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers experimented with camouflage uniforms in 1940. In 1943, U.S. Marines in the Solomon Islands wear reversible beach/jungle coveralls with green-and-brown “frog” patterns.

The Marine Corps soon adopted a two-piece uniform made of the same camouflage material. It also used the frog pattern on helmet covers, ponchos and shelters. In 1944, U.S. troops — especially airborne pathfinder units landing in Normandy — camouflaged their uniforms by painting splotches and stripes on their jumpsuits. By the end of the war, camouflage combat suits lost favor; the brown side washed out and looked pink, and the two weights of material in the reversible uniform made it hot.

1950s:

Camouflage uniforms in a leaf-and-twig pattern introduced but were not widely worn and soon dropped. The camouflage helmet and shelters issued in the 1950’s survived, though.

1960s:
Solid olive-green bdu camo

There was no new official camouflage uniform for fighting in Vietnam. The camouflage Battle Dress Uniform (BDU), with a four-color pattern developed by the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Laboratory (ERDL) in 1948, saw limited use in the Army, which preferred the solid olive-green “boonie suit.”

Other unofficial patterns used in Vietnam included black horizontal stripes over a dark-and-light-green background, adopted from the Vietnamese tigerstripe pattern (itself based on French patterns from 1953), or commercial “duck hunter” patterns.

By 1965, Navy SEALs, Green Berets and other Special Forces acquired “Tigerstripe” which became the thing to wear, on- and off-duty. Non-Tigerstripe camouflage was introduced in 1967, when the American ERDL developed an early woodland-style leaf pattern.

1970s:
M81 woodland camo BDUs pattern

Research into camouflage patterns continued. In the late 1970s, the large four-color pattern of black, brown, green and khaki, called M81 woodland, became the new standard U.S. camouflage. Designed during the Cold War, woodland made soldiers less visible in a European environment. It was authorized for wear by all branches of the military.

1980s:
Woodland bdus camo

BDUs were born. The woodland camouflage pattern was officially introduced in 1981 with the new Battle Dress Uniform (BDU). American troops wear woodland camouflage during the Grenada invasion in 1983. Meanwhile, the U.S. issues a six-color, desert-shaded uniform (dubbed “chocolate chip”), which is later associated with Norma Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War.

Gulf War era:
GulfWar BDUs

Desert camouflage was essential in the early 1990’s with the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War. The six-color “chocolate chip” cammie — with its dark brown and gray hues, black specks and tightly mottled pattern — became associated with the war. In 1992, it was replaced with a three-color desert pattern of tan, brown and light khaki green — and a more subdued pattern. A nighttime desert pattern, with little black squares and checks of white and black, was used on jackets. It was designed to interfere with night-vision devices.

Iraq and Afghanistan Wars:
ucp bdus

In 2004, the Army adopted a three-color Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP), which was worn in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. It is a computer-generated mix of green, tan and gray that helps soldiers blend into woodland, desert and urban environments.

What's next:

The Army plans to phase out UCP and replace it with Operational Camouflage Pattern, with a color palette of muted green, light beige and dark brown. The pattern’s use will extend beyond Afghanistan to all combatant commands.

Types of BDUs in Service Today

Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform (MARPAT)
marpat bdus

The MCCUU is intended for wear in the field or for working parties, but has become the typical working uniform for all deployed and most garrison U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy sailors. Initially the variety worn depended on the environment and season: Deployed Marines wore whichever color is more appropriate to the climate and terrain, Marines in garrison wore the woodland MCCUU in winter months, and the desert MCCUU in summer months. However, the Marine Corps announced on December 8, 2016 that the desert pattern would no longer be worn in garrison. Instead, the woodland MCCUU will be worn year-round, with the sleeves rolled up during the summer and down during the winter.

Until recently, the sleeves of the blouse were normally worn rolled up while in garrison during summer months. However, the Uniform Board announced that as of October 24, 2011, this will no longer be allowed. This decision was later reversed when Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos announced on February 25, 2014, that the Marine Corps will return to its former standard of rolling up the sleeves while in garrison during summer months, effective March 9, 2014.

Unlike the previous BDUs, the MCCUU was designed to be used with body armor, which previously restricted access to front pockets. To further distinguish the uniform, upon close examination, the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor can be found within the pattern. Its use as a combat uniform has led to some strict regulations for wear in garrison: the MCCUU may not be worn off base, although it may be worn when commuting to and from duty in a private vehicle. Dismounting for incidental stops en route off of a military installation is no longer permissible excepting legitimate emergencies only.

Navy Working Uniform
NWU BDUs

In August 2016 the U.S. Navy announced that it will be eliminating the NWU Type I in favor of the Type III which completely replaced it on 1 October 2019 for wear as the standard working uniform for all Navy personnel ashore. Type III NWUs began being sold across the U.S. and issued to new U.S. Navy recruits and officer candidates from October 2017 onward, with production of the NWU Type I being ended. The Type II will remain restricted to wear by Naval Special Warfare sailors in arid desert environments.

The New York Naval Militia mirrored the Navy’s policy of phasing out the NWU Type I in favor of the NWU Type III.The Ohio Naval Militia automatically follows the regulations set forth by the Department of the Navy and will phase into the new uniform on the same timescale as the Navy.

In 2018, the eight-point cover used with the Type III NWU began featuring the Anchor, Constitution and Eagle (ACE) logo in place of where the rank or rate insignia would normally be worn, similar to the how the eight-point covers on the U.S. Marine Corps’ MCCUUs are worn. In October 2019, the ACE logo completely replaced rank insignia on the NWU Type III’s eight-point cover.

Operational Camouflage Pattern (ACU)
ACU bdus

The Army Combat Uniform patterned in OCP first became available to U.S. Army soldiers on 1 July 2015 at 20 locations in the contiguous United States and in South Korea, with first-day sales exceeding $1.4 million. More installations began sales later in 2015, although soldiers deploying on real-world missions will receive uniforms and equipment printed in OCP. The T-shirt and belt in the new Coyote 498 color are available, though soldiers are allowed to continue to wear their current T-shirt, belt, and boots in Tan 499 until October 2019, when the new pattern becomes mandatory. Body armor, packs, and pouches in previous UCP and MultiCam patterns will be worn until they can be altered with OCP.

On 14 May 2018, the U.S. Air Force announced that all airmen will transition from the Airman Battle Uniform to the OCP uniform. All Airmen will be allowed to wear OCP uniforms beginning 1 October 2018. Recruits in basic training, and cadets in Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps, and Officer Training School will start being issued OCPs on 1 October 2019. All Airmen will be required to own OCP uniforms by 1 April 2021.

The U.S. Space Force has also adopted the OCP uniform, but with navy blue thread for ranks and tapes. 

Operational Dress Uniform
ODU BDUs

In 2015, the ODU uniform was adopted as the daily work uniform of the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, replacing the Battle Dress Uniform.

In August 2016, the United States Navy announced it was eliminating the Navy Working Uniform Type I in favor of the Type III as its standard working uniform ashore. The Type I has earlier been found to not be suitable for shipboard use and the Navy began developing a standard uniform for sea duty. The ODU has been viewed as one potential model.

In September 2017, Coast Guard Uniform Board 47 announced several changes to the ODU. Notably, the Coast Guard insignia would no longer be embroidered on the trouser pocket flaps and that “U.S. COAST GUARD” would no longer be stenciled on the left breast of the T-shirt. Additionally, wear of the boonie hat was more widely permitted.

Airman Battle Uniform
abu bdus

The Airman Battle Uniform is similar to the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP) in color, with the inclusion of slate blue, but is otherwise nearly identical to the BDU cut. The ABU is to be worn with sage green combat boots. The ABU does have essential NIR (near-infra red) qualities, and the sleeves are authorized to be rolled up.

Overview of the Airman Battle Uniform is as follows:

  • Headwear
    • Patrol cap.
    • Boonie cover is available for the ABU for use in deployed locations.
    • Organizational ballcaps are authorized for RED HORSE and Combat Arms Training and Maintenance personnel.
    • Berets are authorized for Special Warfare, Security Forces, and Combat Aviation Advisers.
    • Sage-green or black watch cap for cold climate environments with outerwear.
  • Sand T-shirt
  • Blouse
    • All insignia, including occupational badges (aeronautical wings, occupational badges, etc.), are embroidered in midnight-blue thread with urban-gray background with the exception of rank insignia for 2nd Lieutenant and Major, which incorporate brown thread.
    • Name and service tapes are embroidered in midnight-blue thread on ABU patterned background tapes.
    • Chaplain, aeronautical, space, cyber, missile, occupational badges, duty shields, commander’s badge, and weapons school patches are authorized.
  • Outerwear such as APECS parka and sage green fleece are authorized for the ABU
  • Sand rigger’s belt
  • Trousers
  • Sage green combat boots
    • DLA green socks.
U.S. airmen wearing ABUs on an exercise in 2011

Backpacks and other accessories must be sage, black, or ABU pattern.

BDUs, Camouflage and You

Airsoft players wearing MARPAT bdus in the field.

There are many benefits to owning BDUs or ACUs for airsoft. First, you no longer have to sacrifice your wardrobe to 6mm battlefield conditions. BDUs and ACUs are made to take a beating without going to pieces. The clothes you wear every day may make a good militia or undercover outfit, but they won’t be in the best condition when you leave the field. When you put on a camouflage outfit, you mask the shape of your body with odd patterns and colors. It will take an extra second for someone to spot you when they’re looking over their surroundings. If your enemy passes you over for even a moment, you can shoot before they shoot you.

The color of your camo pattern will also affect your readability. You need to choose the right pattern for the right field. You’ll blend in better at indoor fields with darker more urban colors. Look for shades of black. browns and dark blues or grey also work well. For outdoor games, you’ll need to tailor your look to the season and the foliage you find in the area. Light greens blend in best with more places, my personal suggestion is going with MARPT camo for outdoors. It does an amazing job of blending you into foliage and shadows then most other BDUs out there. Some suggest Tan although from experience, I’ll find you much quicker with lighter sand colors then I would if you had a more natural camo.  If you play sports, you know having the uniform right is almost as important as playing right. After all, you wouldn’t take to a baseball diamond or football field in your street clothes. Sliding your arms into the sleeves of an airsoft combat outfit becomes part of the ritual. It gets you in the mindset for a day at the field.

There’s also something to be said for the tactical fashion show that is the staging area. Getting the pieces of BDUs just right can be a joy. I’ve seen loads of World War II and Vietnam era infantry BDUs. If you have more modern tastes, the BDU and the ACU are what you have to choose from. Just make sure you don’t attach any medals or honors to your outfit. That’s called Stolen Valor. Veterans won’t appreciate your misrepresentation of their service if you pretend you earned what you wear.

A Little Old School: The Battle Dress Uniform (BDU)

Airsofter sporting older style BDUs

If you’re trying to build a Cold War era specific outfit, the BDU is the essential choice. The Battle Dress Uniform was issued across all American service branches by 1981. You’ll know it when you see it. Manufacturers originally printed BDUs in that roughly leaf-like pattern. Most armed service branches in the States did away with BDUs by 2004 in favor of specialized patterns and colors. Pure BDUs work best in the dark or with dark foliage. If your favorite field is indoors, the BDU may be a good choice for you. The shadows all over the place will give you a little more time for players to recognize you as a target. The green leafiness of your outfit will also work well in tall green plants. You would be surprised how well a bit of tall grass will hide you.

Of course, now you can find BDUs in all sorts of colors such as  or Savage Orange. There’s even a glamouflage version, which is great if your goal is to stand out instead of blend in. In fact, that’s one of the strengths of the BDU. Because it’s been around longer, more manufacturers have had the opportunity to customize it for the civilian market. If you’re looking for a quality BDU in the classic ERDL pattern, the Emerson has you covered. It has the essential coloring for your period specific needs. There are also some modern touches. The shirt is made mostly of that temperature control material that keeps you cool under your gear.

New School: The Army Combat Uniform (ACU)
Airsoft player wearing ACU Tan BDUs.

The Army Combat Uniform refers to many colors and patterns used by the United States Armed Forces since 2004. Because of this, it’s going to be difficult to talk about the merits of individual outfits. Until 2010, ACUs used to be this digital pattern. If you’re looking for the in vogue pattern on the tactical runway, you want MultiCam or Scorpion W2. The more recent patterns are almost the same. The U.S. Army plans to replace their stock of MultiCam gear by October 2019. By then, the Army will call the outfit the Operational Camouflage Pattern. Because of its modern design, you’re more likely to blend in with more backgrounds wearing a set of ACUs. You’ll also find gear in these camo patterns.

Packs, combat vests and even external airsoft M4 parts come in ACU patterns. A strong choice for your ACU needs is Propper. Their products are sewn to U.S. military specifications, so they’re sure to stand up to airsoft use. Propper makes both the older digital pattern for coats and pants as well as multiCam outfits. If you want options with the breathable material on the torso, take at look at what tactical gear makers Condor and Rothco have to offer. If you’re like me, there is no substitute for a good set of black cammies. Tru-Spec is another strong brand. They have a black multiCam shirt with the lightweight material that goes into the best combat shirts.

BDU vs. ACU Final Thoughts

While no outfit will make you completely invisible, camouflage does help. The best way to blend in is to stay still. With your camo outfit, find a spot you blend with and stick with it until you’ve taken down a few enemies. Stay too long and they will call out your position or worse. The enemies you took out will get you back! Leave us your thoughts in the comments about what your favorite fatigues are and why?

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1 Comment
  1. Kevin MatamorosChief Master Sargent
    Not Mining your Own Badge
    XC 698
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    Take a moment and tell us what’s your favorite fatigues and why?

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