Defining Tactical vs. Tradecraft

It seems as though folks have a tough time understanding differences between the two- and there’s quite a difference. From an experienced standpoint, it’s rather easy to spot amateurs conducting both. The internet is full of amateur hour; just in the past month we’ve been bombarded with “experts” chipping in their two unrequested pennies.

All things Tactical in nature are overt- or close to overt. It’s out in the open, visible, with the appropriate kit for the situation.

All things Tradecraft deal with underground movement- clandestine activity outside what’s visible. It is the antithesis of Tactical.

Think of it like this; Open Carry is tactical in nature, Concealed Carry is tradecraft. Get it?

Now that we understand the difference, it’s important to recognize certain differences in posture and technique. israeli.jpgPrior to contact, these guys looked like everyone else on the street. Even with weapons drawn, they’re hard to distinguish from the crowd- unless you know what to look for. Teams in plainclothes usually have a way to identify each other, normally through a certain color or all wearing a nondescript piece of clothing; a certain watch, same shoes, hat, etc.

Tactical units are overt- in uniform of some type, Swat.jpgin a proper and practiced formation, looking for a fight. Like this SWAT team pictured, you’d have to be blind not to spot them.

It’s important to recognize an important difference between the two pictures; one I refer to as “social barriers”. Out and about, you might bump into the guys in the top photo and be none the wiser; conversely there’s no mistaking the guys in the second pic, and you wouldn’t go near them much less talk to them.

Wearing a ton of kit, carrying a long rifle in the open, and walking in a formation are all barriers which isolate them from the people. This is not a “hearts and minds” crowd. Let’s take a step back for a second- knowing that each of the successful guerilla movements the West has faced all had something in common- fighters hard to distinguish from bystanders- which approach of the two pictures seem more plausible…top or bottom?

A Time and a Place

It takes a lot to keep folks in kit for long periods of time. On the individual level, it takes discipline. Vests get hot and heavy in a hurry. After a while guys will start cracking their backs and shifting weight on their feet. You intake more water from your body perspiring, and after the first several hours under duress your mind wanders to simply wanting to pull it off. If you’re already not a crossfit superstar, you’re going to run into problems after a few hours. And all of this is on top of the fact that it takes a rather large supply line to keep that team kitted up; while the camera is on them, there’s a large apparatus supporting them. Guerillas cannot expect such support other than what they procure on their own.

Your gear, being out in the open, increases your visibility. So without the imminent chance of contact, there’s little need for that much gear. In other words, it makes you a target for someone. You’ll find your outfit on someone’s ROE card. It might be smarter and more effective to have a low profile vest and kit, if a kit is even needed at all. It’s scenario dependent, but there’s a definite difference between being on the streets of Aleppo vs. the showdown in Malheur. tuxedoThis guy to the left here seems to not care either way. Come dressed for the right party.

A lot of the cool-guy photos from overseas feature guys in local dress; think on that one for a second. The goal is reducing visibility to become more effective. It’s really not any different than unmarked police cruisers. In addition, wearing a bunch of kit might and probably will intimidate the very folks you’re aiming to win over. Before anyone gets their panties in a wad over “soft” culture or whatever, understand that without the support of the populace your movement ceases to exist.

Less-visible Communications…”know when to hold ’em…”

As mentioned in “lower profile HT operations”, reducing your signature is extremely important. The less visible you are about your capabilities, the better off things will be. Sure, you can be intercepted, possibly jammed, etc, but make the OPFOR work for it. Telegraphing every move ensures a loss, everytime. Guaranteed. Using obscure means to communicate at the local level is one way, limiting who transmits and why is another, and looking for methods off the beaten path is yet a third layer in this cake.

At the tactical level, the bulk of your electronic signature will be in the form of Line of Sight traffic. Any way you can obscure this, you should be doing so, such as adding a few digital HTs to your equipment list, and making sure that those means of communication are standardized between everyone on that particular team.

At the Tradecraft level, lots of folks seem to have all of the answers- “just use a One Time Pad”…seems to be the common meme. Laughably, I even read one comment somewhere saying that everyone at Malhuer should “just use OTPs for all encryption!”

Yeah, right. Because let me stop the world in motion to decode this message from the ECP real quick. Not. Tactical communications are immediate in nature. As in, it’s happening right now, needing someone to react to it. Tradecraft communications are normally either instructions or a report of some kind- and normally are responded to by unconventional means(meaning…I don’t just call you back…). Some call them “do not respond” messages. And they are transmitted over long distances, directionally. These are what you will find encrypted through the use of a OTP. Get it?

Get Serious

All of this is meant to make you better- use it. OPFOR is serious about what they’re doing, and trying to go toe to toe on their playing field is suicide. As the Afghans used to tell me and many others, we have the watches but they have the time. It’s very true. Mull on that one, and start re-thinking the approach.

22 thoughts on “Defining Tactical vs. Tradecraft

  1. Jim

    Spot on. Something I learned from doing EP/Counter Surveillance work and I applied elsewhere-

    Professionals continually excel at their job so that they can do it in plain sight without the average joe blow being any wiser.

    Kinda like how you dress, so as soon as you step out in public every criminal/cop/whoever doesn’t go, “Oh, that guys dressed pretty tacticool, I’m guessing he has a gun.”

  2. mtnforge

    “As the Afghans used to tell me and many others, we have the watches but they have the time. It’s very true. Mull on that one, and start re-thinking the approach”

    That right there is one of those great timeless axioms (no pun intended)

    If any people have a full knowledge as example what that is all about it is the Mujahadeem. Their ideology not withstanding, their history of and how they fought the old Soviets is a serious study of how to win. It’s a brutal ugly serious business, takes a lot of guts, indomitable will and patience.

  3. Scott freah

    ROE card? Not familiar w this term, very good post nc. We are going to have to get smart fast or get dead quick.

  4. 55six

    YES YES YES! I am so tired of Black Hawk pants and tactical polos in public. BE GRAY. Blend in. The nail that stands out gets hammered first.

    Jeans, t-shirt, good IWB holster and reload, all these things every day.

    In SHTF, same applies. Don’t look like “that guy”.

  5. Have a few observations to add hope helps.
    As time goes on I have increasingly found no use or desire, and a number of workarounds to avoid the need to frequent places of high population density in part because of the crux of what you posted above NCSout. I imagine at some point if ones AO is located in deep rural local, there will be no longer traditional reasons for frequenting such places where ones survival depends on how one appears to OpFor but only under the direst needs to do so. Unless of course OpFor decides to contest and occupy the “unsecured spaces”. But then rural mountainous terrain and boreal rain forest have a quantity and quality all their own.
    Simplify simplify.
    I think too it is important to if needs be develop trade craft to work that enemy infested territory on the fringes of the deep rural to ones advantage. Because there is kind of a phase line or gray area between rural and urban where it requires simpler techniques and thinking to blend in.
    When you think about the Appalachian mountain areas, they have never been totally tamed, geographically and culturally, there are fingers of this frontier that extend out from the ruggeder deep rural parts, back ways in and out, void of interstate corridors and urban/suburban strips. Took a long time for the Appalachian’s to be tamed. In some ways they never have been, and look to revert back in some ways especially in the coal fields to the destruction of coal mining and the on order economic effects. Seeing that reversion already. If anything the clannish nature of the indigenous residents actually puts the onus of disguise on outsiders and intruders, and it is very difficult to fake the nuances of local dress and appearance, accents, vernacular, wear and tear on clothing, how people subconsciously scan their surroundings, as indigenous have a inherent knowledge of terrain and environment an outsider doesn’t, and indigenous hasn’t need to scan everything. Just the little tells only a native can pickup on, almost impossible to disguise. Where on the other hand, suburban and urban/industrial areas are melting pots of humanity by nature, at least until they go feral and tribal. Then its probably a whole different kettle of fish.

    1. Completely agree.

      A lot of your observation is the same observations both Mao and Guevarra on rural revolution.

      Human terrain is the key high ground.

      1. Ok, good point right there of how to look at it, so taking it a bit further could you say there are 2 key high terrains, or possibly 3?
        Technical? (or how technical aspects are incorporated into the first two?)

      2. Yes…but in different categories of needs.

        Human is always at the top.

        Technical…well, that has more to do with equipment. Look up staff functions in an Infantry Battalion.

  6. Interesting article. I’m going to put a word in for Mosby’s second book. It covers a lot of the ideas in this article in detail.

    It’s kind of funny how many different ways the word tactical has been used in the last 15 years. I always thought being tactical meant operating yourself in a manner that was conducive to your tactics, which are dictated by your situation/ mission. In other words, what’s your METT-TC? And how do you best achieve your goal?

    I think alot of guys simply grab a plate carrier and ar and that is as far as their tactical planning goes. Which really goes to show you that they don’t know what “being tactical” really means. Thanks for another good write up ncscout.

    1. Yes, John did a good job getting into the meat of the topic in vol. II, more than I can in a blog setting. I think a lot of folks are terribly confused about it, confounded by a serious lack of experience.

      In a general sense, I completely agree on the word “tactical” fitting all things “tactics”- however these days it seems every douche who slaps on cargo pants and a plate carrier thinks he’s some sort of badass, kinda like the dudes who bought BDUs and LCEs in the 90s when I was growing up. It makes a group stick out like a sore thumb. Newer guys to clandestine or semi-clandestine roles all seem to have this same issue though- it’s not exclusive to Militias, Survivalists, III%ers and such.

      I really appreciate the kind words, thank you.

  7. An example of Low-Profile Comms:

    iPhone & Android app

    + Send & receive messages for free
    + Share locations on detailed offline maps (also for free!)
    + Instantaneous transmission within range
    + 1-to-1 & group messaging
    + Delivery confirmation & message retry (1-to-1 chats only)
    + “Shout” broadcasts to anyone within range

    Ahem, cough, cough:
    + End-to-end encryption (384-bit elliptic curve)

    + Compatible and interoperable with iOS & Android devices
    + Upgradable via firmware & software updates

    + Antenna
    + 2-watt radio
    + Flash memory good for 100’s of messages
    + 24+ hour battery life on standby
    + Rechargeable lithium-polymer battery
    + Micro-USB connector
    + Bluetooth-LE data interface
    + Status indicator lights
    + Nylon attachment strap
    + Water-resistant
    + Dust-tight
    + Size: Roughly 5.8 in x 1 in x 0.5 in or 147.3 mm x 25.4 mm x 12.7 mm. When the device extends, its length increases by 2.2 in or 55.8 mm
    + Weight: About 1.8 oz or 52 g

    1. PRCD

      That looks fantastic especially when hunting with friends. Too bad battery technology isn’t better.

      I’ve been reading the history of the resistance of French Protestants and a lot went bad for them when they gave up their weapons. One method of fooling OPFOR in the situation you describe would be turning in weapons and making new ones. Does anyone do much writing on making black-powder revolving or autoloading firearms?

      1. Not just the French, but the Russian middle class during the Bolshevik revolution, Polish Jews in Warsaw, Armenians during the Ottoman Invasion, and so on and so forth.

        A captured people allow themselves to be disarmed. Don’t become a captured people.

        And black powder or any other obsolete weapon is only a solution to get current weapons…if you had to. A better bet is building caches now.

  8. Pingback: Brushbeater Defines Tactical And Tradecraft – Mason Dixon Tactical

  9. Pingback: Brushbeater Defines “Tactical” And “Tradecraft” | Prepper's Survival Homestead

  10. mtnforge


    “Technical…well, that has more to do with equipment. Look up staff functions in an Infantry Battalion.”

    I agree to a point. I believe a very important discussion regarding the topic in your last sentence, hopefully without causing any trouble is needed.
    Allow me to predicate that need with this, staff functions as structured for wealthy almost unlimited material and resource supplied army, employed as such among a potential reluctant insurgency in this present time is akin to herding cats. Ugly as that is, it is the truth of the matter. I’m not saying that out of pessimism, or resistance is futile thinking, or even it can be done, quite the contrary. Getting Americans to cooperate in such matters is herding cats. That may change when things get really bloody and the economy is truly in the crapper, but we are not quite there, yet.
    OK, here is what I’m getting at, and please forgive me my introduction above, it is given in a good light, because I see the need for proper organization, but as one of those cats, the standard model leaves something to be desired. I have not been in the military, my perspective is not the same as yours. But I have been, and am, a working productive and creative person all my life, and that perspective entails a certain holistic approach to activity. I’m a working stiff, a welder, coal miner, machinist, equipment operator. I raise my own food, live off grid, I’m self sufficient, not a prepare, it was the way I was born and bred.
    I dont suffer fools and the lazy, and I have no use for most management in current America, it truly sucks now. It was not always like that. I have over 40 years working time, I’ve watched the erosion of productivity in this great country, and management of that activity is to blame. Political, economic, spiritual management, they got their heads up their arses.
    Staff functions as you point out are necessary, in no doubt, but these staffs, well from my perspective, as they are organized, they don’t exactly have a stellar track record. Add in independent guys like me, who ain’t got use or time for most management bullshit, who just understand you usually do best with the absolute bare minimum of staff direction, where the objectives are laid out, and the guys who do the work and heavy lifting, they need to be trusted, supported so they can get the job done, not managed.
    I’m trying to get at something here, it is like a splinter in my mind. I have this intuitive sense for staff functions to be successful among an insurgency there is going to have to be a very serious and candid examination and retrofit from past institutional dogma, into a bare bones streamlined flexible home grown minimalist table of organization.
    You been in that military structure, that is awesome, a guy like you brings inestimable value to the dynamic, yet you are indoctrinated to a moribund institutionalized military organization, please don’t take offense by that, because I’m the opposite, it is the question of balance here, of finding ways that work, in the present, not because that is how it has been done. You have to think like guys like me. We got a craw full of institutions, really that big one that is taking on killing people for peacefully resisting, we really don’t want nothing to do with them now. They don’t work, that management, it don’t work, they sonofabitches had to go screw up the best thing ever happen to the human race since that precious little babe was born in a manger.
    I know what your saying about staff and all, we are going to have to figure out something else in the staff department, some other style and method, or at least something that dovetails with the civilian partisan, their tribes and culture.
    You said it yourself, “Human is always at the top”.

    Maybe I’m reading to much into it, maybe time’s not right, maybe we ain’t ready for this, sometimes I’m not sure of anything but there’s a fight coming, and the chips are gonna have to fall where they fall for things to figure itself out.

  11. PRCD

    “And black powder or any other obsolete weapon is only a solution to get current weapons…if you had to. A better bet is building caches now. ”

    I’m interested in this. From a tradecraft perspective, any weapon used during times of increasing lawlessness (examples include Baltimore, Detroit, or Argentina and Venezuela) should be discarded where the cops can’t find it. Generally, in places where lawlessness reigns, the local (and national) government is on the side of the criminals similar to how Rome used the mob. The criminals (urban “yoof”) such as we see in Baltimore are a protected class created by the government. The government is immediately suspicious of anyone who uses force in self-defense. James LaFond writes a lot about this.

    In an escalation of lawlessness where the government was coming after citizens but citizens were resisting in a tradecraft fashion (clandestinely/discreetly), I still think you’d want a concealable weapon you could part with easily in case you had to use it. Being caught with a weapon after being suspected of using it would result in an indictment.

    In a situation where irregular tradecrafters become organized into a regular military, even one that uses 4GW tactics, it would be time to dig up the cache.

    My limited experience with firearms and street self defense lead me to believe that I wouldn’t want to use my CA-registered 1911 in self-defense should lawlessness increase. I’d want to use something I could throw away and make a new one later. It seems guys on YouTube are getting throw-away wepapons to fire reliably, even cycle modern semi-auto pistol actions.


    1. Buy small handguns.

      Learn to wear them in spots some one searching you would be uncomfortable searching.

      It’s all dependant on what you’re doing. Obviously carrying a self defense weapon is different from other purposes.

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