Tactical is as tactical does: finding a tactical definition


What’s a good tactical definition? The word tactical is one of the most prevalent — and most over-used — phrases in the firearm, outdoor, and…well, tactical industries. We’re going to talk today about tactical meaning and context. 

Hopefully without being pedantic. Well, too pedantic anyway.


What does tactical mean?

Tactical meaning is very easy to define: something is tactical if it is used tactically. Right?


Tactical Definition

The meaning of tactical is two-fold: first is formal (i.e. dictionary), the second is common use (i.e. colloquial). 

The dictionary definition: tac * ti * cal

The dictionary definition: tac * ti * cal

Dictionary.com defines the tactical thusly: 

tactical (US) [ tak-ti-kuhl ]


1. of or relating to tactics, especially military or naval tactics.

2. characterized by skillful tactics or adroit maneuvering or procedure:tactical movements.

3. of or relating to a maneuver or plan of action designed as an expedient toward gaining a desired end or temporary advantage.

4. expedient; calculated.

5. prudent; politic.


tactical (UK) / (ˈtæktɪkəl) /


1. of, relating to, or employing tactics: a tactical error

2. (of weapons, attacks, etc) used in or supporting limited military operations: a tactical missiletactical bombing

3. skilful or diplomatic: tactical manoeuvre


First recorded in 1560–70

strategy vs tactics

Many people decry the use of the ubiquitous word. Sometimes they have a legitimate complaint. Other times they’re just enjoying their right to be a part of the permanently disaffected, “I’m gonna bitch about something” crowd (particularly on social media) — but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. 


Tactical is a label placed on something someone wants to jack the price up on and sell for a higher price because it’s ‘tactical’. In the context of the firearms, knife, and gear industry, it has been over-used and bent from its proper meaning. That originally meant methods or weapons used in combat. Now it means camo packaging and a 30% or greater price hike. They are playing off the proper definition. 

“Tactical” should refer to hard use gear with no frills designed and constructed to use under adverse conditions. 

A box marked tactical doesn’t make it so.

A tactical price doesn’t make it so. 

A camo finish might just mean it’s easier to lose.

How it works when your ass is on the line...that’s what makes it tactical. 

Jake Bush


Tactical Meaning

What makes something tactical?

Well that’s the question, isn’t it? 

Something is tactical in one of two ways, at least in the word’s most contemporary common usage. Put simply, something becomes tactical by virtue of how it is used or how and why it is designed. 

The most prevalent connotation today is that of the eponymous tactical industry, to wit: it is a thing (tool, garment, or insert noun here) that has been designed (or at least labeled as) something to be used in an exigent, typically life- or injury-threatening, situation or environment. This label or description is often apt but is just as frequently a misnomer.

The second implication is similar, but rather than a physical object (noun), it’s an action or a mental event or condition (usually a verb), i.e. take the words movementtrainingreload, mindset, etc. and throw tactical in front of it. 

Both of those usages (there are more, as you’ll see) are correct. Both denotations are frequently overused. However, the argument can be made — and I ascribe to this — that the word tactical has become a colloquialism variously defined or interpreted by user and context. 

This is perfectly appropriate when discussing a tactical lever gun (and what might make it more effective in a fight or for home defense) and similar instances. Other times it’s just stupid. 

A third meaning of the word, of course, is that of tactical vs. strategic. That is most often used in a military sense, even if applied to a civilian application. More on that below. 

tactical meme: tactical pogie bait

The value of tactical snacks, pogie bait, gedunk, or scran is not to be underestimated.


Examples of “Tacticalization”

Tactical Gear

Once upon a time, the joke was, “Paint something black, call it tactical, and charge more money for it.” Nowadays you could replace black with FDE, Coyote Tan, or some other color and it would work just as well.

There is some truth to that derisory phrase, but not as much as some malcontent frequent-complainers and condescending often-scoffers might believe (or at least want you to believe).  

You may disagree with the nomenclature, but some seemingly improbable items (jeans, for instance, or brass knuckles, or boots) are tactical, not just colloquially, but by design. Tactical equipment that has been improved and/or intentionally designed for use in a fight or less-than-permissive area does merit the title.

Are any blue jeans you choose to wear in anticipation of a possible gunfight tactical? Sure, if you chose them because you can move in well in them, or the crotch allows you to Chuck Norris kick someone in the face without causing a seam blowout and a cock-and-ball reveal, or something similar.  Likewise, if the pocket layout allows you to more efficiently access your flashlight (for a bezel strike) or an extra magazine (for a…tactical reload). 

And let’s not forget, many a commando has worn jeans operationally for the specific advantages they provide (Vietnam era Navy SEALs anyone?).

What makes something tactical? Well, first you gotta tacticalize it!

What makes something tactical? Well, first you gotta tacticalize it!


However, some denim britches have been designed from the ground up to be of greater advantage in an exigent situation. Examples of this include the Brokos Operatus jeans, 5.11 Tactical’s Defender jeans, the Vertx Defiance jeans, etc. Such garments all boast features intended to be of use in a tactical activity (q.v.). This might include pockets for a rifle or pistol magazine, specific pocket placement or orientation, reinforcement in certain areas, etc.

You can debate about the efficacy of those features, but not their intention. That makes them “tactical”. 

Plus they have really cool names, and that is really important. 

tactical meme: the tactical stack

Unlike some tactical maneuvers and formations, the “tactical huddle” (which is different from the “tactical stack“) is not a good…tactic.

Attributes of tactical gear can sometimes be altered, upgraded, or modified for tactical use, i.e. tacticalized (to quote Travis Pike)

Because if you’re going to be tactical, you should definitely do so tactically.

Tacticool meme with a tacticool rifle

This (dramatized) tactical rifle has been tactically upgraded with a number of tactical accessories and attachments. Original creator unknown, but he or she deserves a nod of approval. 

Such attributes include, but aren’t limited to: 

Accessibility/improved efficiency
Durability, i.e. ability to withstand hard use under specific conditions
Range of motion/ease of movement
Implement concealability, i.e. hiding tools or weapons
Individual concealment, specifically as in allowing an individual to avoid attracting notice, i.e. the grey man or “in mufti” principle.
Comfort (particularly under specific conditions)

Often the item or mechanism by which something is upgraded is also referred to as tactical, i.e. “tactical rifle accessories” or “tactical scope”. 

Tactical Activity

Here is where we get into a lot of verbs. Not just broad stuff, like tactical training and tactical patrolling, but specific actions: like the tactical reload. Agree with the common use definition or not a tactical reload is different than an administrative reload, and is further distinguished from a speed or combat reload.

Tactical activities aren’t always verbs, of course, particularly at the individual, armed citizen level. There are adverbs, adjectives, euphemisms, and probably other syntax/language terms/words I don’t know. Like when you conduct or rehearse tactical decision games with your family. 

It’s hard to describe a high-risk warrant service, hostage rescue, or other job conducted by a SWAT team as anything but tactical, of course. That’s why we have the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) and individual “tactical operators” — although the operator term is another matter entirely (and one we’ll discuss at a later date). 

FBI HRT members

FBI HRT (Hostage Rescue Team) personnel “stacked up”. Photo by Jon Fletcher.


Tactical Brands

Permutations of tactical appear on many an advertisement, product label, and company description. 

Some of them, as in the case of certain training companies (e.g. Viking Tactics, Vickers Tactical, Raidon Tactics, Lead Faucet Tactical, etc.) are completely righteous. 

Some things are decidedly not. 

stupid is as stupid does

Stupid tactical is as stupid tactical does.


Tactical Training Organizations

Another sort of brand is the increasingly common tactical training company. The preponderance of such organizations actually use the T word in their name. The commonality of the term does not equal commonality of quality, but debating the relative merits of such instructors and their cadre isn’t the purpose of this treatise. 

Examples of such organizations include (in no particular order), Viking Tactics, Vickers Tactical, Lead Faucet Tactical, Combat Shooting And Tactics (CSAT), and Bone Tactical.

Four of those companies will provide excellent instruction. The fifth should have people running to find the definition of the word poseur and the term caveat emptor


Magpul AK Mags with Ken Hackathorn

Just about everything in this picture is tactical, not least the mustache — true story.


That’s it for now. This will be continued.

Have a tactical day.


tactical operator meme: tactical facepalm



Tactical Environment Ground Truth vs Big Picture Awareness

When you are engaged at the tactical level, you grasp your own reality so clearly, it’s tempting to assume that everyone above you sees it in the same light.


When you’re the senior commander in a deployed force, time spent sharing your appreciation of the situation on the ground with your seniors is like time spent on reconnaissance: it’s seldom wasted.

Jim Mattis, Call Sign Chaos


Tactical Skills and Gunfighting

The universal truth about gunfights is that there are no universal truths. Gunfights are replete with variables unique unto themselves which will never be exactly replicated…

…In another sense, there are universal truths about gunfighting. There is a thread of continuity throughout all gunfights that go well. The basics are in place, clean mechanical skills are exhibited and the shooter’s mental composure is in evidence. There is a thread of continuity in all shootings that go poorly. The basic skills are not in place, clean mechanical skills are not in evidence and mental composure is all but absent…

…More to the point…is this truth: Individuals who have good clean mechanical, shooting and tactical skill sets and who additionally maintain their composure under fire seem to prevail more than those who do not. The deeper and broader the skill sets and the more clarity of thought under pressure that an individual exhibits, the more cleanly the gunfight is resolved…

Remember this as you train.

Scott Reitz, The Art Of Modern Gunfighting


Tactical Acumen in Exemplar Selection

Later that year I was sent to Okinawa to join my first infantry unit. I was lucky: I had joined the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, where most of the key leaders had spent years fighting in rice paddies, mountains, and jungles. They knew their stuff.

Far from being standoffish because they had seen combat, they were tough and friendly, and they readily shared their combat knowledge. I didn’t have to earn their support; it was mine to lose, not to gain. At the same time, each of us was establishing an individual professional reputation. Whether you stayed in the Corps for four years or forty, that reputation would follow you: Were you physically fit? Were you tactically sound? Could you call in artillery fire? Could you adapt quickly to change? Did your platoon respond to you? Could you lead by example? example?

You had to be as tough as your troops, who weren’t concerned with how many books you’d read. I tried to work out with the most physically fit and learn from the most tactically cunning.

Jim Mattis,  Call Sign Chaos


Tactical vs. Strategic at Tora Bora

…[B]attles often veil the valuable lesson that failure at the strategic level by men and women in conference rooms can easily obscure an enormous tactical victory by the boys on the ground…

…I will leave the overall strategic debate to the critics and scholars, for I was not in those air-conditioned rooms with leather chairs when they came up with some of the strangest decisions I have ever encountered.

And I could care less.

When it comes to tactical issues on the ground, in the dirt and rocks and snow, face-to-face with the enemy, American general officers and political decision-makers typically are not involved in the tactical planning. They provide the macro task, issue vague guidance, and articulate the big-picture intent. Ultimately, they approve or disapprove the final plan. Tora Bora would be no different.

Dalton Fury, Kill Bin Laden


Tactical Gear for a High Value Target (HVT)

I’d already laid out my Crye Precision Desert Digital combat uniform. Designed like a long-sleeved shirt and cargo pants, the uniform had ten pockets, each with a specific purpose. The shirt was designed to wear under body armor. The sleeves and shoulders were camouflaged, but the body of the shirt was tan and made of a lightweight material that wicked sweat away. I’d chopped the sleeves off of my shirt because it was hot.

Sitting on my bed, I started to get dressed. Nothing I did from the moment I started putting on my pants was random.

Every step was carefully planned.

Every check was a way to focus and make sure I didn’t forget anything.

These were the same steps I did before every mission.

Before I slid my pants on, I rechecked each pocket on my uniform.

In one cargo pocket, I had my assault gloves and leather mitts for fast-roping. The other cargo pocket had an assortment of extra batteries, an energy gel, and two power bars. My right ankle pocket had an extra tourniquet and my left one had rubber gloves and my SSE kit.

In a pocket on my left shoulder, I felt the $200 cash I’d use if we got compromised and I needed to buy a ride or bribe someone. Evasion takes money, and few things work better than American cash.

My camera, a digital Olympus point-and-shoot, was in my right shoulder pocket. Running along the back of my belt, I had a Daniel Winkler fixed blade knife.

I tucked my shirt in and picked up my kit and inspected it again. The ceramic plates covered my vital organs in the front and back. I had two radios mounted on either side of the front plate. Between the radios, I carried three magazines for my H&K 416 assault rifle and one baseball-size fragmentation hand grenade. I also had several chemical lights rigged to the front of my vest, including the infrared version that can only be seen using night vision. We’d crack the plastic lights and throw them in front of rooms and areas that we had cleared. The lights were invisible to the naked eye, but my teammates could see them through their night vision and know what areas were secure.

My bolt cutters rode in a pouch on my back, with the two handles sticking a little ways above my shoulder. Attached to my vest were the two antennas for the radios.

Running my hands over my kit, I tugged on the breaching charge I rubber-banded to the back of it. I next focused on my helmet. It weighed less than ten pounds with the night vision goggles attached. It could officially stop a nine-millimeter round, but in the past, the helmets had stopped AK-47 bullets. I switched on the light attached to the rail system that runs down the side of the helmet. It was a brand-new Princeton Tec charge light. I’d used it in my last deployment.

I set the helmet on my head and pulled down my night vision goggles, or NVGs. Unlike some of the conventional units, we had NVGs with four tubes instead of the usual two. This allowed us a field of view of 120 degrees instead of just 40 degrees. The standard goggles were like looking through toilet paper tubes. Our NVGs allowed us to clear corners more easily and gave us greater situational awareness. Switching on the $65,000 goggles, my room was bathed in a green hue. With a few adjustments, I could see the furniture in crisp detail.

Finally, I picked up my rifle. Pulling it into my shoulder, I turned on my EOTech sight. Mounted behind it was a 3X magnifier, which allowed me to shoot more accurately during the day. Aiming at the wall near my bunk, I tested my red laser, which was visible to the naked eye, and I flipped down my NVGs and tested the IR laser.

Pulling the bolt back, I chambered a round. I performed a press check by sliding the bolt back and inspecting the chamber to make sure a round was seated. I double-checked to make sure it was on safe, and I rested the rifle back against the wall…

…With my camouflage uniform on and my gear ready to go, I grabbed my Salomon Quest boots and pulled them on. They were a little bulkier than the low-top trail-running shoes my teammates sometimes wore. I swore by these boots because they protected my baby ankles, which I twisted with great frequency. I had climbed the mountains in Kunar Province and patrolled through the deserts of Iraq in these boots. All of my gear was proven and had been vetted on previous missions. I knew it all worked…

…For the last hour, I’d considered the smallest tasks. Everything had to be perfect. I tied the loops of my laces down in a double knot and tucked them into my boot top. In the middle of the room, I hoisted my sixty-pound vest over my head and let it rest on my shoulders. I tightened the straps, basically sealing myself in between the plates. I took a second to make sure I could get to everything.

Reaching above my head, I could grab both handles of the bolt cutters. I touched the breaching charge over my left shoulder. I connected the antennas to my radios and put on my “bone phones,” which sat on my cheekbones. These would allow me to hear any radio traffic through bone conduction technology.

If I needed, I could also put in an earbud to cancel out the ambient noise and allow sound to travel directly into my ear canal. In my right ear, I would hear the troop net. On the troop net, I would hear all of my teammates communicating with each other. My left ear would monitor the command net, which would let me communicate with the other team leaders and the head shed.

As a team leader, I’d need the two separate nets, but the reality was there wasn’t going to be much traffic on the command net for this objective. Only the officers were going to be talking on the satellite radios, and most of the radio traffic on the target would be through the troop net. All of my checks were done. I’d completed my steps to prepare for the mission. I took one last look in the room to make sure I didn’t forget anything, and headed out the door.

Mark Owen, No Easy Day


The Effective Tactics of Savages


In January 2014 ISIS fighters from Syria—well-trained, well-equipped and in huge numbers—surged across the now-illusory border into Anbar in large conventional columns of armed and armored vehicles, joining guerrillas who had already been active in Fallujah and Ramadi, in an offensive that drove the government out of both cities.

The initial push left ISIS in complete control of Fallujah, and in partial control of Tikrit (Saddam Hussein’s home town and a long-standing center of Sunni insurgency) and Ramadi, capital of Anbar. The offensive was noteworthy in part because of its speed and violence, in part because of ISIS numbers and capabilities, but mainly—to my eyes, anyway—because it telegraphed that ISIS had moved beyond its recovery phase of 2011–12, beyond the renewed insurgency of “Breaking the Walls,” into what guerrilla-warfare theorists call a “War of Movement.”

ISIS was acting more like a conventional army than a guerrilla organization: instead of operating in small, clandestine cells, in plain clothes, by night, with civilian vehicles and light weapons, ISIS was running columns comprising dozens of technicals, trucks, artillery pieces, and captured armored vehicles. It was moving openly, in large groups, by day, in uniform, fielding heavy weapons (mortars, rockets, and heavy machine guns).

Its tactics combined urban terrorism and clandestine reconnaissance with mobile columns, snipers, roadside bombs, suicide attackers, and terrorist cells, showing a level of sophistication well beyond that of AQI in 2006–7.

And as it captured territory, it was acquiring tanks, heavy armored vehicles, artillery, and vast amounts of funding, and picking up recruits. ISIS was thinking and fighting like a state: it had emerged from the shadows.

…the ISIS breakout of 2014 was an indication that the terrorist organization had retained an impressive capacity for rapid tactical adaptation.

David Kilcullen, Blood Year


Considering the Tactical Skills of an Opponent

Finally, the decision was made to make entry through the front door. This is always a nerve-wracking experience. You don’t know exactly where the suspect is, you don’t know his intent, and you don’t fully know his capabilities. In this case we knew the suspect had used a knife on the victim, but we didn’t know if he had a firearm, and if so what type and caliber it was, or what his tactical/shooting skills were. There are always more questions than answers in such situations. And hanging over everything was the pervasive concern over making a wrong decision that got yourself or your partners injured or killed, or resulted in some unknown other person in the building being injured or killed.

Scott Reitz, The Art Of Modern Gunfighting


Tactical Victory Does Not (Necessarily) Equal Strategic Victory

Victory is…different in neomedieval warfare. For Clausewitz and the Westphalian way of war, overwhelming force wins the battle that wins the war and ultimately the political objective or national interest. But when Westphalian militaries engage neomedieval foes, they often win every military engagement yet lose the war, because military success does not equal political victory in a neomedieval environment. In other words, the utility of force in neomedieval warfare is low. Examples of this phenomenon are plentiful: France in Algeria (1954–1962); the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (1979–1989); Israel in Lebanon (2006); the United States in Vietnam (1959–1975), Iraq (2003–2011), and Afghanistan (2001–2014). In each of these cases, the state tried to bomb its way to victory over a militarily inferior enemy yet ultimately failed to achieve its strategic objectives because military force could only achieve tactical results. Westphalian strategies do not work in neomedieval warfare.

Sean McFate, The Modern Mercenary




Tactical Experience Translated to Tactical Training

Jim and Bryan were both decorated for valor for leading small teams in the Tora Bora Mountains in 2001, awards that were pinned next to the Bronze Stars for Valor they had won during a little-known firefight on a rocky outcrop in western Iraq in 1991. Jim eventually became the squadron sergeant major and retired from Delta after being wounded in Iraq and earning his third Bronze Star for Valor. His new job would be no less dangerous.

The third one, Pat, was wounded and decorated during Operation Acid Gambit, the rescue of hostage Kurt Muse at the beginning of the invasion of Panama. Pat survived three helicopter crashes during his time in Delta, and was again wounded during the first combat raid into Afghanistan before retiring several months later.

A fourth troop sergeant major, Larry, was also on the Muse rescue in Panama and is one of the best pistol shots in the world.

Soon after retiring, Bryan, Pat, and Jim took their skills back to Iraq and Afghanistan, as part of an organization with the mission of protecting our troops from improvised explosive devices—IEDs. Résumés containing the words “Delta Force” rise to the top of the heap in a hurry in today’s security-conscious world.

Dozens of former Delta operators have moved into the security industry, while others have taken their skills to the CIA, and they provide progressive leadership, organizational ingenuity, unique expert training, and unparalleled vision in helping protect the United States.

Having retired from the army, many of Delta’s world-class shooters have chosen to carry their skills to the civilian, law enforcement, and military markets where they teach the finer points of combat marksmanship and urban battlefield tactics.

Delta Force legends like Paul Howe of Combat Shooting and Tactics Inc., Larry Vickers of Vickers Tactical Inc., Brian Searcy of Tiger Swan Inc., and Kyle Lamb of Viking Tactics Inc., can’t only teach you how to shoot a gnat off a bull’s ass at fifty yards while on the move but they will actually show you how it’s done first. And they will teach you the combat mindset so important to develop to do this task while someone is trying to kill you first.

Dalton Fury, Kill Bin Laden

David Reeder’s Wu Tang name is Lucky Prophet. He is a retired AF veteran, former Peace Officer, and current Tier 2.5 writer-operator. Over the course of his career, he has worked a variety of military and lE billets, served as an Observer-Controller at the National Homeland Security Training Center, a MOUT instructor, and an MTT tracking instructor – all of which sounds much cooler than it really was. Although he only updates his website once in a very great while, he can absolutely be relied upon to post to social media (@reederwrites) at least once a month. -Ish.

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