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The Myth of the Gray Man



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Low-Profile Theatrics Versus Reality

Grey man, gray man, greyman, et al. — whether you spell it with an “a” or an “e,” with one word or two, this reference has quite a lot of associations. Several companies use it as part of their name. There’s a book series, it’s part of EveryDay Carry (EDC) culture, and it’s even a Netflix movie starring Ryan Gosling.

The root concept originates from clandestine services having to operate in hostile locales. When we see a spy movie, it’s usually some fit, muscular, 20-something male jumping over things and fighting authorities like Jason Bourne, or maybe a suave James Bond wearing a tuxedo and using his name openly. The reality is less exciting and less sexy. The CIA doesn’t want their agents to stand out, but instead to blend in with the locals and go unnoticed. More bland than Bond. More chemical engineer than Daniel Craig. To be some shade of forgettable.

[Some of the many brands, books, and products with the name]

Said in a different way, to be a gray man is to fit into your surroundings, to get your “when in Rome” on. But in the intervening years between when it was first penned and present day, the idea morphed into a separate concept entirely.

BUT WHY?

Though it’s not hard to understand why cloak-and-dagger agencies would embrace the concept, unless you do some sort of undercover work you may not understand why you’d want to do this yourself. However, there are situations in life where you may not want to be noticed that don’t have anything to do with wearing wires or passing parcels.

Chief among them, and also why the EDC crowd latched on, is to not be targeted — by criminal elements looking to steal from you nor be marked as “someone with a gun” by a robber or mass shooter. Basically, it’s the same reasons why you wouldn’t want your CCW to be obviously printing (see Chris Cypert’s piece in CONCEALMENT Issue 23). In fact, you can safely view being a gray man as the next level above ensuring your shirt covers your shooter.

Here, we’ll talk broad concepts, some easy traps to avoid, and some points to ponder.

CLOTHING IS CULTURE

Clothing, accessories, and accoutrement are cultural and social signifiers; they help people establish the wearer’s identity. The type of clothing you wear tells others what you’re into. This is plain to see with religious wear like yarmulkes, kufis, and crosses, but it also includes things like sports jerseys, shirts branded with university logos, and even the style of the clothes themselves. Clothing is one of the first things people notice, and without conscious thought many will quickly categorize someone by class and other divisions.

Clothing also serves as a conversation starter. It should go without saying that it’s a really bad idea to wear clothing from a sports team or band you know nothing about. If you’re wearing an Indianapolis Colts jersey, you should at the very least be unsurprised if someone wants to talk to you about the game last week.

SHOES MAKE THE MAN

There’s a saying that “all costumes fall apart at the shoes,” and it’s largely true. Next Halloween or costume party, give it a try for yourself: cowboys with Converse and pilgrims with Pumas. Footwear, sunglasses, watches, and other daily wear rarely changes on a whim. Fit can be very personal, and people tend to stick to what they like.

And even if you don’t know much about shoes, many out there do. Salespeople, in particular, are more class-conscious, using watches and shoes to determine if someone is a “good fit” (more or less likely to purchase a product). There are endless Facebook groups and forums that obsess over every aspect of personal items, taking the time to identify and psychoanalyze the choices of others in some form of fashion phrenology.

[Not just shoes, but other accessories like watches and sunglasses can give you away]

And if the shoes don’t match, that person might be wearing a wardrobe rather than their own clothes. This is so common that it’s become both a game and a joke within some circles — “spot the undercover cop.” In daily life, this sort of shoe mishmash may provide nothing more than a simple curiosity to an onlooker, but it’s dangerous for those who have to do this for real. Or maybe you just aren’t being as sneaky as you thought.

ACCESSORIES & AUTOMOBILES

The same thing happens when the accessories don’t match. Back in the late aughts, it became popular to use tennis or squash racquet bags to transport short-barreled rifles — so much so that several companies produced their own unbranded bags in a similar style. The fact that the person carrying it often didn’t look like they ever hit a court or that a bag with no logo might be deemed strange was of little consequence.

There’s an absolutely tangible benefit to disguising a gun as something else for transport, especially for those who live in areas with higher population density (see “Safe Storage for Apartment Dwellers” in CONCEALMENT Issue 27), but be it a racquet bag or a pseudo-musical case, the addition of an appropriate bumper sticker or iron-on patch from eBay can go a long way.

And if you’re running around with a vehicle covered in gun stickers, it shouldn’t come as a shock if someone tries to pop your window in a parking garage to take a look. While certainly not everyone with a gun sticker has a pistol tucked under the front seat, the likelihood is higher than random happenstance.

WHEN IN ROME & ZONKEYS

In Tijuana, you may come across some strange, striped donkeys on the street. For nearly a century, it’s been a common practice for enterprising individuals to paint stripes on a donkey to make it more zebra-like in order to solicit photographs (and tips) from tourists. If you’re not prepared for it, it may garner a gawk. However, for the locals, these zonkeys are nothing more than routine.

It doesn’t matter how you’re dressed, and it doesn’t matter how good your camouflage is — if you’re ogling the zonkeys, you’ve marked yourself as an outsider.

Tijuana is far from the only place with such trappings, though rarely are they as spectacular as a zonkey. Staring up at tall buildings is an obvious sign someone isn’t from the city, for instance. It doesn’t matter how weird, beautiful, or absurd a thing is — if people see it every day, it eventually becomes part of the background.

MODERN MEANING

If you’ve spent any time around the gun community or at least been to a gun show, you’ve definitely at least seen someone wearing the “5.11 Tuxedo” — a photographer’s vest on top paired with so-called “tactical” pants. The vest is intended to hide a pistol on the hip but still allow for a faster draw than from traditional concealment — the fact they aren’t a common sight outside of a safari in the 1970s be damned. Security through obscurity only works with the ignorance of the observer, and these vests have become nothing more than a marker that the wearer is actively armed. Call it Gray Man 1.0.

[Gray Man 1.0, and the definitely-not-a-cop who is going to ask you about underage alcohol parties]

After the EDC crowd cottoned to the gray man concept, the original undercover espionage aspect was modified to mean the ability to blend in, so that others wouldn’t know you’re capable and carrying. And as typically happens when an enthusiast group embraces an essence, it gets twisted into something else entirely. For the “tactical” crowd, it means shirts without logos, trail running shoes or low boots, and swapping the baby-poop-brown FDE for a palette of gray and blue hues. Instead of the 5.11 tuxedo, you got double doses of Arc’teryx Wolf Grey.

The fact is that if you know what to look for, even these Gray Man 2.0 types are rather easy to spot. And if you think you’re guilty of this, no worries: the vast majority of our staff is, too. Though it’s rarely said out loud, it’s kind of the point: when you dress like this, you aren’t really maintaining a low profile but instead sending signals to others like yourself — “We’re into the same things.”

QUICK CHECKLIST

What dressing like a gray man actually looks like isn’t a list of specific items but instead a moving target that depends on what other people do in the same area. However, you can make a list of what to avoid if you don’t want to look like a stereotypical gun owner, aside from avoiding camo. While none of these are a sure thing, and this list is far from exhaustive, they’re all positive indicators:

  • Any item with overt gun/knife branding
  • T-shirts with American flags on the sleeve
  • Wraparound sunglasses
  • G-Shock watches
  • Trail running shoes or “tactical” boots
  • Paracord bracelets
  • “Tactical” pants or shirts
  • Visible knife clips on pockets (especially multiples of them)
[A little bit of hyperbole, but this isn't far off from what we've seen before]

[maybe save the Yeet Cannon love for a time when it doesn't matter if people know you're armed]

LOOSE ROUNDS

The gray man concept is far from the first to suffer from contextual drift. If you grew up in the Western world, the word “ninja” will illicit martial arts, black garb, and a face mask with only a strip of eyes exposed. This isn’t actually what ninjas wore, just how they were depicted in kabuki theaters and the Hollywood films that followed. Exactly like the gray man concept, ninjas simply wore what blended best within their area of operation as to not attract attention to their activities.

If you’re in a situation where you want to have a lower profile, don’t try to pretend to be something you’re not: costumes can be obvious to those who live within those circles. Instead, find a way to be a slightly different version of yourself. Still you, just not all of you. The essential takeaway isn’t what you should and shouldn’t wear, but that you should know what impression you could be giving people — whether you’re actually carrying a gun or not.

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2 Comments

  • Hammer says:

    Overall good points. Context always matters. For example, I live in a rural, outdoorsy town in the Rockies where wearing trail running shoes, having a folding knife clipped in your pocket and a G-shock are very common items amongst locals, and not because they are all ‘closet operators.’ These same items may draw attention elsewhere. The bottom line is that there is no universal ‘gray man’ outfit – that’s the whole point.

  • Richard says:

    Context, context context. Back in the oughts, I was in Italy. Probably 2/3 of the men had tactical vests, fanny packs or both. Lots of old ladies in my neck of the woods use fanny packs. I doubt either of these demographics are packing. I spend much of my life hanging around campgrounds or small towns where such outfits are the norm. I suspect these Gray Man articles are written by big city dwellers.

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  • Overall good points. Context always matters. For example, I live in a rural, outdoorsy town in the Rockies where wearing trail running shoes, having a folding knife clipped in your pocket and a G-shock are very common items amongst locals, and not because they are all 'closet operators.' These same items may draw attention elsewhere. The bottom line is that there is no universal 'gray man' outfit - that's the whole point.

  • Context, context context. Back in the oughts, I was in Italy. Probably 2/3 of the men had tactical vests, fanny packs or both. Lots of old ladies in my neck of the woods use fanny packs. I doubt either of these demographics are packing. I spend much of my life hanging around campgrounds or small towns where such outfits are the norm. I suspect these Gray Man articles are written by big city dwellers.

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