Jerry Saunders is a Marine veteran, bladesmith, founder of Corvus...
In This Article
The concept of being a “gray man” is often referenced in survivalist circles, but after seeing the term misused countless times, we’ve come to realize that it may need some clarification. The author of this article, and several RECOIL staffers, spent their previous lives skulking around third-world cesspools serving God and country in a capacity that required them to blend in or become “gray” — nondescript passersby who garner little to no attention and are quickly dismissed by those they come into contact with.
The ability to become transparent in a hostile environment is important not just to accomplish a mission, but also to protect oneself and one’s family after the job is over. This is all well and good in theory and in conflict zones, but how can those lessons help you on a practical everyday basis? Or, more specifically, what threats exist during your daily routine that a gray man lifestyle could protect you from?
Unless your name is followed by “007,” it’s unlikely that foreign agents are actively tailing you, looking for ways to make you talk. However, identity theft is a crime epidemic that’s only getting easier for criminals in the digital age. Details about your past and many of the things that make you who you are can be found in various computer databases around the world. Just like a puzzle, thieves don’t need every single piece to see the whole picture. Your political affiliation, military service, alma mater, and marital status are all slivers of information that can be used to track down your digital footprint and commandeer it.
There’s also the risk of setting yourself up as a target for theft. If you keep a trunk gun in your car, and your trunk is littered with pro-2A bumper stickers, you just made your vehicle a target for any criminal or ne’er-do-well looking to score a firearm that can’t be traced back to them. This also applies for mountain climbers and marathon runners who may keep high-end outdoor gear stowed in their vehicles for that spontaneous excursion. If your daily wardrobe is composed entirely of high-dollar tactical or outdoor apparel, you’re basically advertising you’d make a great mark to anybody looking to fence these popular retail items. The worst part about this is that broadcasting information about yourself may put you at risk for somebody to try and steal something you may not even own! Let’s say, for example, you have military service decals on your car. Not all veterans own guns. But that aforementioned crook looking to steal a gun might target your vehicle or home anyway, based solely on their own misguided perception that all vets are gun gurus.
Indulge us in a quick trip down memory lane. Imagine your high school cafeteria at the peak of the lunch rush. Chances are that most of the tables were grouped by clique: the jocks in their letter jackets, jeans, and athletic shoes. Skaters or surfers, depending on where you grew up, with shaggy hair and baggy shorts. The goths huddled together in matching pale makeup and dark nail polish. We’re willing to bet even if you never saw any of these groups in your high school, you could picture them clear as day. That’s because this mental exercise is more about stereotyping and observation than actual past life experience. The point is that with little more than a brief description of physical appearance, you were likely able to generate passable facsimiles of whole groups of people and surmise certain expectations about how they live their lives.
Now think about certain gangs. What’s the point of being a criminal? To get away with committing crimes and making sure no one can figure out your true intentions. What’s the point of being a gangster? To identify yourself with certain type of clothing, tattoos, and demeanor so everyone knows who you are. It’s sort of a parody of itself. How does a criminal manage to go unnoticed and conduct criminal activity if they’re advertising their criminal affiliation to everyone purely to satisfy their own egos? This also applies to you as an American if you’re traveling in a region potentially hostile to Americans. Swallow your pride and don’t stand out. Acknowledge and practice local customs, research the typical attire worn in the area you’re venturing into before you go, and do your best to look and act like a native who’s confident and knows their way around, not a tourist who’s a fish out of water and easily manipulated because they look lost or confused.
The ability to make rapid and reasonable inferences about others based solely on outward appearance isn’t limited to the lunchroom or the streets. Many of these same indicators run rampant across the so-called tactical and prepper communities. Patches, stickers, and clothing are instant, automatic signs of what groups or ideologies you overtly identify with. Surely many of us have driven down the road and spotted another vehicle with firearms-related stickers on it. We understand wanting to show your support for the firearms industry and the second amendment, but those same decals convey other information that you may not wish to disclose. The same goes for your clothes, shoes, jewelry, tattoos, hairstyle, and even the way you carry yourself.
Let’s address the simple topic of vehicle decoration. Here are some more specific examples of seemingly harmless adornments and what a person with ill-intention might be able to learn from them:
Vehicle stickers, license plates, or ball caps depicting military service, former rank, or medals/ribbons awarded: These instantly identify you as having military training and, in some cases, what unit you were in. Further information could be gathered about you through DoD or VA records, or private websites dedicated to locating veterans and military members. If you belong to veterans’ associations like the American Legion or VFW, somebody looking for more information could be tipped off to try looking for you in local halls.
Political party affiliation stickers: These allow others to know where you stand and how you think about politics in this country — and we all know how divided that’s become. Somebody following you could “bump into you” in any crowded place with news on the big screens and strike up a conversation with a politically charged comment that they’ve slanted in favor of your advertised party. Having built instant rapport, they might be able to elicit more detailed personal information about you in deeper conversation.
Stick figure family decals: If your stick family is an accurate head count of your household, you just told the world how many precious loved ones are home, and if you have pets (depending on the sticker). Someone intending to enter your house undetected now knows how many people need to leave the house before it’ll be unoccupied so they can break in. And a person with more sinister intentions just found out how many potential hostages or points of blackmail are available to leverage against you.
School stickers saying things like “My child is an honor student at XYZ High School” or “Proud U of M Dad”: Stickers like this give bad guys an exact location where they can gain access to your children away from your protection.
We’ve all seen license plates in our states like “GlockGuy” or “SigMan” or “Double Alpha.” Being proud is always a good mindset, but overt things like this let a criminal know that your car may be worth breaking into at some point.
Above: All three of these individuals are regular products of their environment. For better or worse, none of them will likely get a second glance. This normalcy can be used to your advantage.
Let’s move beyond bumper stickers. What other mundane facets of your daily life are potential “information leaks?” One of the biggest ones is wardrobe. Your T-shirt, shoes, belt, or ball cap tell plenty about your background or, at least, the image you choose to project.
Suppose you’re on vacation or a business trip, and you’re walking through the airport with a little more time than usual to make your connection. Hanging around the gate next to yours are four guys. They appear to be in their late 20s, physically fit with shaggy hair, beards, sleeve tattoos, and farmer’s tans. All four are wearing khaki or OD green cargo shorts, Salomon trail shoes, Oakley sunglasses, and Suunto watches. Based on that description alone, what do you think these guys do for a living? Where do you think they’re going?
The truth is that even while off-duty, most first responders wear a uniform of sorts. If you take your survival or personal security readiness seriously, you’re probably prone to the same phenomenon. An unbuttoned flannel shirt over a tucked-in T-shirt and a webbed nylon belt is a pretty big indicator that you might be concealing a firearm. What can the cashier at your local grocer tell just by looking at your cargo pants and trail shoes, the knife clipped to your pocket, or the fire starter on your keychain?
We all want to be prepared to survive any potential calamity, but your outfit may tip off malicious individuals about your earnestly collected stocks of food, fuel, and quality tools. This subset of the population may see your car or your home as a ready-made cache of sellable goods they can make easy money off of or even appropriate for themselves, and they may not care which one of your stick figure family members they hurt in the process. Read any mainstream news article about emergency preparedness, and you’ll see at least one person comment about how they don’t bother stockpiling supplies because they have guns and can simply take what they need by force. Don’t let your home become the first stop for some scumbag’s post-SHTF shopping spree.
Above all, remember that these tips are situational. Strolling down the street in a rough neighborhood while wearing pressed slacks and a dress shirt will stand out, much like wearing baggy shorts and a hoodie in the middle of a white-collar office-building complex. Study your surroundings, and you’ll soon realize what you need to do to blend in.
Like any other survival skill, “going gray” takes dedication and practice. For additional information on specific techniques, refer to books such as Gray Man: Camouflage for Crowds, Cities, and Civil Crisis by Matthew Dermody (see the review from Issue 29). Internet searches, when taken with a shaker of salt, can turn up helpful hints. Don’t be afraid to train and experiment. Go to your local big-box store and try to find off-brand alternatives to your favorite outfits. Stay away from memorable bright colors or bold patterns. Keep your accessories inexpensive and low-key. Put your knife all the way in your pocket instead of clipping it to the outside — yes, we know this may not be legal in some places but, as Ed Calderon often says, “What you can do and what you’re allowed to do are two different things.” If you’re traveling, wear business attire even if you don’t have to. People will look past the middle manager faster than anybody dressed in the latest in tactical chic.
We all want to be proud of our lifestyle and our accomplishments, as well as those of our loved ones. But also be aware of the amount of valuable personal information you surrender in the process — information that could be used to harm you severely were anybody so inclined. Methodically removing these outward indicators from your daily routine is the crux of the gray man philosophy.
We also want to be realists and don’t expect you to simply erase your personality or unique sense of style. It may be best to start integrating gray-man concepts during long-distance travel. International travel is the most important because being immediately recognizable as an outsider or tourist puts you at substantial risk. In addition to that, your self-defense options will be much more limited. Firearms will almost certainly be unavailable, and you’ll have to pack your knife in your checked bag — if the host country even allows pocket knives. Depending on the agent, TSA may or may not let you have a tactical pen. Domestic travel allows some discretion. Your mode of travel and destination will dictate what kind of gear you can bring. If you’re going to an area with high crime rates or even a sociopolitical culture that’s not your own, being forgettable might save you some hassle. But we admit that going gray to go for groceries probably isn’t critical to your personal safety.
Your home is another place to be proud of. So you make sure to hoist that Marine Corps flag high in that front yard or a Special Forces flag letting people know your background. College football flags are also everywhere, which may be used to identify where you hail from or where you went to school. For example, imagine a person flying a Marine Corps flag in their yard with a MARSOC sticker on their Ford F-150 lifted on 35s with a Glock sticker on the back window in North Carolina. Just from driving around that neighborhood, a criminal now knows where he lives, where he works, and what he drives. Now all they need is a few days of surveillance and internet access, and everything else can be found online from his license plate and address.
One of the most unique identifiers that can thwart even the best gray man is speech and body language. For instance, if I’m speaking to someone and they assume I have zero military background (which happens often), but I accidentally answer their question with “roger” or “copy that” — if they’re quick enough to catch that phrase they’d immediately suspect I’m lying about my service background. “Affirmative” or “negative” as answers stand out like a metal gong. Accents from Boston to Minnesota, or Georgia and Texas, can easily be distinguished from one another and can provide people with one more piece of information about you. A large and bearded Caucasian man in Dubai wearing a Harley-Davidson sweatshirt, Salomon shoes, and Kühl pants probably isn’t there to see the Burj Khalifa. His two friends with Multicam backpacks and patches that say “Bagram Infidel Club” or something similar won’t help them attain gray-man status either. Their accents also can help narrow down which state they’re from while they talk to one another. All these indicators would allow an individual with nefarious intentions to easily strike up conversation and extract even more information about them and their overall intent or mission in that area.
Situational changes occur often. I’ve found myself blending into a very liberal mountain town of lovely mountain climbers and white water canoers and kayakers, only to be in a double-breasted suit and tie three hours later at an embassy-level dinner. Imagine the transition from dropping children off at school to going onto a military or government installation, but not being in the same clothing for either activity? It can be done. Is it necessary? For a very small percentage of people, it is, but for the majority of us, the answer honestly is no. However, just like practicing with firearms, medical training, or fieldcraft, the time you take to practice and train will always help you when the real time comes.
When you first start practicing gray-man principles, it might feel like playing a game. Putting on different clothes and trying different styles is not unlike wearing a costume. If it feels awkward, then you’re off to a good start, because that means you’re out of character from how you normally present yourself. As you do it more and more, you’ll simply slip in and out of various wardrobe styles as the situation dictates. Then, later on, a day will come where blending in is natural, subconscious, and even extends to your behavior and mannerisms. That day will be the day you’re truly a gray man.