from hunting to war and back

Camouflage suits “Lovat Scouts”, early XX century. Photo Imperial War Museum / iwm.co.uk

The stereotypical image of a sniper stealthily approaching a firing position and waiting for hours for his target is unthinkable without a ghillie-type camouflage suit. This piece of equipment is of great interest from different points of view – from the history of origin and development to the specifics of use.

Scottish traditions

Many attributes of a peaceful life were created for the army and only then went beyond its limits. The ghillie suit is an exception. It is believed that the first gillie suits were created in Scotland at the end of the 19th century. and were intended to help hunters.

According to the traditions of that time, hunters were accompanied by assistant huntsmen who were supposed to hunt down the game, drive it, etc. These assistants were called “ghillies”; such a nickname alluded to “gil doo” – forest spirits from Scottish folklore, dressed in leaves and moss. Quite a long time ago, the ghilli huntsmen began to produce various means of camouflage, which allowed them to work unnoticed on the ground.


American soldiers on the fronts of the First World War, 1918. In the foreground is a sniper in a ghillie cape. Photo Imperial War Museum / iwm.co.uk

Over time, by the end of the 19th century, individual means of disguise were transformed into full-fledged costumes. Usually, long cloaks or burlap capes with hoods were used, cut unevenly at the edges and / or with sewn patches. Also, the basis for the suit could be a net on which pieces of fabric, bundles of grass or threads, etc. were fixed.

In general, it was then that the main features of the gilli suite were formed, which have not undergone any changes to this day. The costume should hide the hunter’s figure as much as possible, blur his silhouette and merge with the surrounding area.

From the hunt to the war

In January 1900, the Lovat Scouts Regiment was formed specifically to participate in the Second Boer War, staffed mainly by yeomen and hunters from the Highlands. It was the first in the British army, the sharpshooter sniper unit.


Snipers from Great Britain and France at the Boars Head 2012 exercise. The fighters use different types of camouflage. UK Department of Defense Photo

The soldiers of the regiment were good shooters, and also had extensive experience in ambush hunting – all this could come in handy at the front. In addition, they took with them to the war some elements of civilian hunting equipment, incl. camouflage suits. Thus, the Lovat Scouts became the first known army unit to use ghilli in a real conflict.

Although the conditions in South Africa were vastly different from those of Scotland, camouflage suits came in handy for the fighters. After minor alterations to local conditions, the ghillies were again able to effectively hide the shooter and merge with the terrain. According to the results of the battles, the Lovat Scouts received the highest marks – and camouflage suits played a significant role in this.

World wars

During the First World War, the British army began to create its own school of sniping, which, among other things, provided for the creation and modernization of camouflage equipment. The “Scouts” suits were improved and were actively used in all formations. Factory production was established, but often snipers had to make suits on their own – as well as modify them for a specific area.


Sniper pair of special forces KSK, Germany. Photo Wikimedia Commons

The British experience did not go unnoticed. Snipers from other countries began to make their own versions of ghillies, first at the artisanal level, and then by the efforts of sewing organizations. Quite quickly, everyone realized that a sniper in a camouflage suit in a well-prepared position is practically invisible – and at the same time is capable of inflicting the most serious damage on the enemy.

The experience of the First World War was actively used in the interwar period and in the next global conflict. Snipers of all countries received or made their own ghilli of different types. Thus, Britain and the Commonwealth countries continued to use complex multi-piece capes or cloaks with hanging rags. Red Army snipers received camouflage coats – monotonous or camouflage capes and jackets, which were independently supplemented with leaves, bunches of grass, etc.

Development continues

After the end of World War II, sniper work retained its high value, and special equipment remained in service. Camouflage suits continued to evolve, primarily through the use of new materials and configurations. Burlap, tarpaulin and cotton gave way to other fabrics. Dense textiles were replaced with fine mesh. Stripes of woven material gave way to imitation grass.


Polish sniper. Photo Wikimedia Commons

Also, new camouflage color schemes were developed, adapted to the conditions of certain potential theaters of military operations. Unlike standard army camouflage, the sniper’s equipment should more closely match the terrain – both the success of the work and the very survival of the shooter depend on this.

The advent of new means of observation, suitable for use in the dark, presented new demands on the ghillie. Materials and / or impregnations for the fabric were required that did not stand out against the background of the terrain, even with minimal lighting. There was also a problem of thermal insulation so that the sniper would not “glow” due to the heat generated.

The old ghillie suits were afraid of fire. Numerous rags and fluffy elements made of burlap, dry grass, etc. easily picked up fire and threatened the shooter’s life. By the end of the XX century. both fire-resistant materials and special impregnations appeared. Modern ghillies of this kind are non-flammable and non-combustible.


Israeli arrows. You can clearly see how their camouflage is adapted to the terrain. Photo IDF

Ghillies of the “classic” appearance eventually appeared in our country. For their characteristic appearance they were nicknamed “Leshim” and “Kikimors”. The authors of these nicknames did not know Scottish folklore, but they built associations in the same way as the hunters of the late 19th century.

In battle, hunting and sports

Currently, camouflage suits of a characteristic type continue to be widely used in various fields. Ghillies remain an attribute of the Scottish rangers and retain their place in the armies and security forces of all developed and developing countries. The suits have worked well and are unlikely to be abandoned in the foreseeable future.

The use of ghilli in the armies has become a real advertisement. It was thanks to army snipers that such equipment interested a wide range of hunters in different countries. As a result, for a long time the gilli suite ceased to be an exclusively Scottish hunting tool.

Numerous action films about snipers and other tough guys from special forces have contributed to the popularity of ghillies outside the armies. In this case, it was not so much a camouflage effect that was useful, but an unusual spectacular appearance, sharply different from the standard army uniform.


Russian snipers from the 4th Guards Tank Kantemirovskaya VV Division, 2012. Photo by Vitalykuzmin.net

The emergence and development of military sports games led to an additional demand for army equipment in general and for camouflage suits in particular. So, airsoft and hardball have their own snipers. They also have to disguise themselves, at least for the entourage or imitation of the soldiers of specific units.

Age-old traditions

The first camouflage suits, which are the ancestors of modern “ghillie suites” and “goblin”, appeared at the end of the 19th century. and were intended only for peaceful purposes. In the future, such costumes ended up in the army – and did not leave it for more than a century, but at the same time they were spreading in other related areas.

Over the past century, the characteristic shaggy costume has become widespread and actively developed. Apparently, in the foreseeable future, it will retain its place and will not go anywhere. This means that the enemy and the game will still have to be careful, because any pile of foliage, grass or moss could be a sniper ready to fire.

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