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Back in the USA, newly married and traveling with a baby, Hafer was looking for a place in civil life. He connected with Best, whom he knew from the world of CIA contractors. While still a contractor, Best began making fraternal videos making fun of military life – blowing up a giant pink teddy bear with Tannerite on it, for example – and posting them on Facebook and YouTube. They caught the attention of Jarred Taylor, an Air Force Staff Sergeant based in El Paso who had a video production company. Taylor helped Best bring out a more elaborate product with more guns and more women in bikinis. Soon, Best in military circles was an internet celebrity with over a million subscribers to his YouTube channel. He and Taylor started a military t-shirt company called Article 15 under the Uniform Code of Military Justice that regulates minor disciplinary matters. Their shirts featured designs like a Smokey Bear armed with machine guns (“Only You Can Prevent Terrorism”). Sales exceeded $ 1 million in the first year.
Although Article 15 grossed nearly $ 4 million in its third year, Best and Taylor realized that it could only make a limited amount of money. “People don’t have to buy a t-shirt every week,” says Taylor. Together with oats, they tried to develop the market they had found better.
This market included not just military veterans but, perhaps more importantly, non-veterans who wanted to emulate them. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, Americans who viewed the military as an up-and-coming lifestyle rather than a professional career or patriotic duty were a decidedly marginal subculture relegated to an olive world of surplus business and subscription soldiers. But that changed when veterans began cycling back from Afghanistan and Iraq to a country that – although largely removed (and often painfully forgotten) from the reality of their ministry – they generally admired and, in some cases, represented them wanted to live their experiences. This was particularly true of the elite Special Operations personnel, who assumed an oversized role in the period after September. 11 wars.
“I hate racist, proud boy-esque people. For example, I’ll pay them to leave my customer base. ‘
The fascination and romanticization of Special Operations brought us video games like the later episodes of the Call of Duty franchise, films like “Lone Survivor” and a sagging shelf of Navy SEAL memories. An entire industry also emerged that retrofitted “operator culture” as a lifestyle. There’s Grunt Style, a popular clothing brand founded by a former army sergeant that sells camouflage polyester shorts (“ranger panties”) and T-shirts with a variety of skull and ammunition designs. The clothing company 5.11, which manufactured special trousers for climbers, traded under the name 5.11 Tactical in 2003 and was soon selling T-shirts with two forearm pockets (“a quick, comfortable and concealed solution for concealed carrying”) and “Active Shooter Response” pockets specially designed for carrying assault rifle magazines. It now has 85 retail stores in 27 states. (Before becoming co-head of Black Rifle, Tom Davin directed 11/5) And of course there are the gun manufacturers, shooting ranges, and shooting instructors who cater to people who don’t consider themselves hunters, target shooters, or conventional home defenders. as most gun owners once did, but as commandos preparing for theoretical war.
Up-and-coming brands like Stetson and Breitling sell inclusivity as exclusivity: They are nominally touted to a romanticized elite – the rough cross-border commuter, the dashing sailor – but the real money lies in giving everyone else access to this elite. The target market for high quality carbon steel survival knives includes the 7 percent of American adults who have served in the military. But it also includes the broader population of web developers and program managers who are unlikely to be exposed to physical harm in their daily lives, but who wear ranger beards or sleeve tattoos and speak of their “everyday wear”. The Grunt Style motto is: “You don’t have to be a veteran to wear Grunt Style, but you have to love freedom, bacon and whiskey.”
Best had made fun of this market in his videos: “Now that we have the super-fitted Under Armor shirt and a small operator hat, we have to put on a beard and body armor,” he said in a 2013 video with the title “How to become an operator.” Even so, he, Hafer and Taylor tried to develop products that would appeal to him. There was ReadyMan, a survival team that sold bespoke tools (tomahawks, tourniquets, AR-15 cleaning cards) and training in “proven man skills”, but sales were modest. A crowdfunding website called TwistRate, aimed at members of the military and law enforcement agencies with business ideas for tactical firearms that Kickstarter wouldn’t host, eventually went out of business. Their whiskey, Leadslingers, seemed to be a lot of fun until they realized all the regulatory headaches that come with alcohol distribution. (The Drinkin ‘Bros podcast that promoted them was more successful.) They even made a feature film and worked with the military clothing company Ranger Up on a zombie comedy called “Range 15”. They cast themselves but paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to appear in the likes of Sean Astin, William Shatner, and Danny Trejo – and spent about $ 1.5 million (much of it crowdfunded) to make a movie that grossed just over $ 600,000 at the box office.