Changing Stripes: a History of Tiger Stripe Camo

It has been said that just as a leopard can’t change his spots so too a tiger can’t change his stripes. Yet when it comes to military camouflage, the versatile tiger stripe camo pattern has changed and evolved over the years. The fact remains however that unlike the U.S. military’s Operational Camouflage Pattern (OCP) or Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP), the iconic tiger stripe camouflage pattern was never actually an “official” form of camouflage.

Tiger Stripe Camo

While it has been called “tiger stripe camo” unofficially, as the name derives from its resemblance to the stripes on the big cats, it is unique in that the pattern has no name. And unlike OCP, UCP, or the other official camouflage patterns, tigerstripe camouflage is also not really one specific pattern. Some experts have suggested that there were nearly two dozen different variants, so it really is the name of a group of camouflage patterns rather than one particular pattern.

Navy SEALS wearing tigerstrip camouflage in Vietnam.
U.S. Navy SEALs wore locally produced tiger stripe uniforms in Vietnam – and yes, blue jeans were also commonly worn by the frogmen. (Photo: U.S. Navy/Public Domain)

“Tigerstripes are a blend of WWII British Windproof camo and French lizard patterns, and the first set was made in the late ’50s for the Vietnamese Marine Corps,” explained Bob Chatt, owner of high-end military collectibles shop Vintage Productions. Chatt has more than 30 years of experience dealing with Vietnam War-era collectibles and has seen more tiger stripe clothing than probably anyone else alive!

French lizard pattern jacket from author's collection
A late pattern French lizard camo jacket in the author’s collection.

“The very first tiger pattern was a locally-made copy of the French lizard pattern produced for the Vietnamese Marine Corps (Sọc Răn Thữy Quân Lục-Chiến). The pattern incorporates bold black stripes over lesser brownish-drab stripes & light green trace elements, with an olive green base color. Production of this design ended in 1967, although units continued to wear the pattern until 1970. Illustrated below are the original pattern (far left), followed by two variants designated sparse and dense.”  Camopedia

French Lizard Camo

As noted by Chatt, tiger stripe derived from the French lizard pattern, which was adopted by the French military after the Second World War. The French pattern itself– also known as TAP47 or Leopard pattern – evolved from the camouflage on the British paratrooper’s Denison smock. The French pattern featured overlapping prints that were generally green and brown over a lighter green or khaki. Items with this pattern were meant for use in the jungle terrain of Africa and Indochina.

It featured narrower stripes than the British camouflage, which was widely developed for use in the wooded terrain of Europe. The French lizard camouflage proved more than adequate at disrupting the vertical form of a soldier’s body. It was widely employed in French Indochina during the First Indochina War with the Việt Minh that led to the provisional division of Vietnam.

French soldiers in Indochina in the early 1950s wearing the lizard pattern uniforms, which proved quite adequate in the jungle terrain. (Photo: Public Domain)
French soldiers in Indochina in the early 1950s wearing the lizard pattern uniforms, which proved quite adequate in the jungle terrain. (Photo: Public Domain)

The French Army continued the use of horizontal lizard patterns until after the Algerian War as it was felt it was too closely associated with the Paratroops Munity that called for French President Charles de Gaulle not to abandon French Algeria. However, a variant of the lizard pattern remained in use with the entire French Foreign Legion in the 1960s and by the French Foreign Legion paratroopers until the early 1980s.

The Israel Defence Force also used French lizard uniforms, which were supplied from French stocks – while several African countries including Chad, Gabon, Rwanda, and Sudan all adopted similar uniforms. The final country to use the pattern across its military was Congo, which only phased it out in 1978.

Portugal had also developed its own version of lizard camouflage that was similar to the French, but it featured vertical lines rather than horizontal lines. It was used from 1956 by elite paratroopers and then the Army’s Specials Rifles, and was worn in the Portuguese “Overseas Wars” in its African colonies. The pattern then became popular among the insurgent forces and was adopted by the armed forces in some of the former Portuguese African colonies including Angola.

he Portuguese military wore its own version of lizard camo in its wars in Africa. The soldiers seem somewhat anachronistic wearing modern camouflage while mounted on horses for a cavalry style reconnaissance mission.
he Portuguese military wore its own version of lizard camo in its wars in Africa. The soldiers seem somewhat anachronistic wearing modern camouflage while mounted on horses for a cavalry style reconnaissance mission.

The vertical lizard pattern was adopted by Brazil, which had retained close ties to Portugal, but also by such nations as Egypt, Greece, India and Syria – but the colors have tended to be less tropical and more desert oriented with those respective patterns.

A Communist Bloc version was adopted by Soviet Special Forces while Cuban forces also adopted a pattern that evolved from the variant used by Angolan forces – of which Cuba had sent advisors.

During the early stages of the Second Indochina War – what we know more commonly as the Vietnam War – the pattern was modified by the South Vietnamese Armed Forces (ARVN). It featured brush-strokes that interlocked more than overlapped and featured less background color than the French lizard pattern/TAP47 version.

Vietnam Tiger Stripe Camo: Officially Unofficial

In late 1962 to early 1963 it was adopted by U.S. advisors and Special Forces in Vietnam. As noted previously it was never an official U.S. issue item, but special operators preferred the locally made uniforms as these proved more durable and blended in better to the terrain than the olive drab uniforms used by the U.S. Army at the time.

Throughout America's involvement, a variety of camouflage – much of it locally made – was used in Vietnam. These Navy SEALs are wearing tigerstripe camouflage among other patterns. (Photo: U.S. SEAL Museum/Public Domain)
Throughout America’s involvement, a variety of camouflage – much of it locally made – was used in Vietnam. These Navy SEALs are wearing tigerstripe camouflage among other patterns. (Photo: U.S. SEAL Museum/Public Domain)

Marine Corps advisors also had contracted Vietnamese tailors as well as Southeast Asian manufacturers to produce fatigues as well as Boonie hats. The tigerstripe uniforms were manufactured across the region so there is a wide variety of patterns and color shade variations.

“During Vietnam, tigerstripes were made in Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, Okinawa, Taiwan, Philippines, and Korea,” said Chatt. “No one will ever know how many different patterns there were as every tailor shop could and did print their own patterns.”

The other fact about tiger stripe camouflage is that it was universally appreciated by those who were “in-country” during the Vietnam War.

“Not only Special Forces type units wore them, infantry, Air Force para-rescue & Air Police, Marines, Riverine – anyone who had access to them would wear them,” added Chatt.

ERDL

However, because it was never official and moreover because it wasn’t “uniform,” as the war progressed, other camouflage patterns were introduced. These included the-then-new ERDL camo pattern, which was (after camouflage evaluation trials) the predecessor of the woodland BDU pattern. This was used by SOF soldiers and specialty units, and is sometimes mistaken or even misidentified as tiger stripe camo. However, these are two distinct patterns.

A Tigerstripe uniform (foreground) and ERDL pattern (background) in use by US forces in Vietnam, circa 1969. (Photo: Public Domain)
A Tiger stripe camo uniform (foreground) and ERDL pattern (background) in use by US forces in Vietnam, circa 1969. (Photo: Public Domain)
Tiger Stripe camo and ERDL camo pattern during camo trials, 1975.
Tiger Stripe camo and ERDL camo pattern during camo trials, 1975, via Soldier Systems Daily.
John Wayne in the 1968 film The Green Berets, the only Vietnam War film to have the support of the U.S. military. Wayne and the Jim Hutton can be seen wearing one variation of tigerstripe while the actors playing the ARVN soldiers are wearing another type. Such differences were actually common in Vietnam. (Photo: IMFDB/Public Domain)
John Wayne in the 1968 film The Green Berets, the only Vietnam War film to have the support of the U.S. military. Wayne and the Jim Hutton can be seen wearing one variation of tigerstripe while the actors playing the ARVN soldiers are wearing another type. Such differences were actually common in Vietnam. (Photo: IMFDB/Public Domain)

Allied Tiger Stripes

During the war, the pattern was also used by Australian and New Zealand forces including the Australian Special Air Service Regiment and the New Zealand Special Air Service. As the war wound down, so too did the use of the tigers tripe camouflage by the U.S. military and its allies.

After the war tiger stripe camo didn’t exactly go away, but unlike the tigers that can’t change their stripes, the shops did adapt to the changing market. Tigerstripe continued to be produced and was marketed in many of the same shops but to tourists. In addition, while the United States ceased using tigerstripe after the Vietnam War it remained in use in the Philippines and other places.

Coffee and tiger stripes

(Meanwhile, in Marawi…)

In recent years the Australian military has introduced it for use in OPRFOR (opposition force) roles.

Members of the Philippine Army wear a 21st century version of tigerstripe that isn't really that much different from what was worn in Vietnam 50 years ago.
Members of the Philippine Army wear a 21st-century version of tiger stripe that isn’t really that much different from what was worn in Vietnam 50 years ago.
U.S. Special Operations soldiers also use tiger stripe camo in OPFOR (OPposing FORces) roles.
U.S. Special Operations soldiers (specifically, in this case, some Green Berets with 5th Special Forces Group) also use tiger stripe camo in OPFOR (OPposing FORces) roles.

For collectors, it remains difficult to know if a particular item was in fact used during the war. Reproduction and modern fakes have further muddied the waters for collectors. As with most items of a military nature, it is best to buy the piece, not the story that comes with it.

A reproduction tigerstripe jacket that, apart from the age, is almost identical to those made in the country decades ago. If anything the quality of the reproductions is often superior to the originals! (Photo: Private Collection)
A reproduction tigerstripe jacket that, apart from the age, is almost identical to those made in the country decades ago. If anything the quality of the reproductions is often superior to the originals! (Photo: Private Collection)
Philippine SOF soldier in modern tiger stripe camo.
Philippine SOF soldier in modern tiger stripe camo during the Battle of Marawi.

You may also like: Fightin’ Firearms: slickguns for our Guard!

Meantime, if you’re interested in the history of guns, read the gun timeline on PBS…or of course, any of the articles from Breach-Bang-Clear’s Weapon Crush Wednesday series.

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10 Replies to “Changing Stripes: a History of Tiger Stripe Camo”

  1. Ok here’s the issue, the stripes are in the correct orientation to shadow caused by vegetation in jungles and dense bush when you are prone. However, when you go vertical the stripes run in contrast to the shadows and plant growth. Tigers never walk on 2 feet so the orientation of their stripes is always correct. So, it’s great for setting an ambush but not patrolling. Just my take.

  2. I was wearing a locally procured Tiger Stripe M16 magazine vest on 22 May ’69 when I was hit by a mine while moving to off-load a log slick , a UH1 hauling a couple of REMFs and beans & bullets for our company– C/4/39 9th ID. We ‘plain old grunts’ lacked the connections for the really cool stuff like the SFers and SEALs who also worked in the same AO as we did. Great food, cold beer, nice women…yea, those SPECIAL guys had it all! Obviously I lived to tell the story!! Oh yea, really dig this article!!

  3. There is or used to be a company owned by Tim Schloss called Tiger Stripe Productions that produced a nice pattern. I learned of him from paintball magazines.

    I haven’t seen much in the way of camouflage here in Orlando, Florida. It’s hard to even find any surplus like when I lived in Virginia up to 1989. I did purchase from a company called RAM Enterprises and the cost was like $30 for top or pants. Seemed so easy to find sources like 15 years ago.

    I was told that the military often disposes of or even buries used BDU’s. If that is true or done often, or not at all I can’t say. I am sure I could purchase from somewhere, but when I find some it’s costly and often not real military issue, which could mean it is of inferior quality or it is terribly expensive. Even my father who is a retired Marine thinks it’s expensive at the PX. He doesn’t understand there is price to looking cool. 🙂

    I have nobody to consult or talk to, but I love BDU’s for their comfort and practicality and wish I could find them sold locally or mail order for a reasonable price. Those days seem to be long gone.

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