What does Mil-Spec mean and is it right for me?
If there is one term or saying that is likely one of the most overused and misunderstood phrases in the firearms industry it would be “mil-spec”. Mil-Spec is defined as a part and/or complete firearm that has met “Military Specification” by passing a set of standards defined by the Military/Federal Government. Sounds good right? Let’s find out and let’s dig into what that really means to you the buyer or seller.
Starting with the definition Mil-spec which is defined as, ” A document that describes the essential technical requirements for military-unique materiel or substantially modified commercial items. MIL-STD-961 covers the content and format for defense specifications.” Oh, yea! I am so excited just writing about it, not. In easier to understand terms, Mil-Spec is a list of standards that are created for manufacturers, retailers, and wholesalers who wish to sell to the US Military. In terms of the military or a government agency, this is a really good thing. It ensures that everyone who is armed or is using a firearm that meets Mil-Spec requirements is armed with a firearm that is identical, equal in quality, and come with parts that are interchangeable with the person to your right or left. In terms of combat or being in the field, this is also a great thing. Let’s say the gun breaks or you need parts or you need ammo, boom, everything you need is all around you or at the armory waiting for you to grab it. Why? Because everything the US Military purchased is MilSpec and is built identically for this very reason.
In marketing terms, mil-spec has taken on some sort of life of its own and sometimes I hear it pitched as the gold standard of quality. Having served in the military and worked for the government I tend to chuckle, silently to myself, when I hear that its the gold standard of quality. The military or government agency I know has never been identified as working with or utilizes cutting edge technology. They are the best in the world despite the equipment they use on a day to day basis. However, their standards don’t change and for that reason, they tend to be 20-30 years behind the commercial markets.
For example, let’s talk about M4 barrel finishes. The current Mil-Spec requirement for barrels is for them to be chrome-lined. Chrome-lined barrels are designed to add durability and corrosion resistance and has been used since the inception of the M-16A which was cutting edge 60 years ago. Yep, you read that correct, 60 years ago. To be fair, chrome lining does work, but in terms of advancement, it’s not the most advanced treatment available. There are other treatments like black nitriding or melonite that provides similar levels of durability, it has better corrosion resistance, and it provides superior accuracy when compared against a chrome barrel. Nitriding isn’t Mil-spec for M4 barrels so it isn’t used, but in the mainstream, it is considered a better process to coat barrels than chrome. On one other note, Chrome lined barrels are the inside only, black nitride or melonite is treated inside and out which also adds to the overall quality of the process that chrome lining doesn’t have.
At the end of the day, the military is very good at testing and bringing things to their breaking point. If there is one thing I loved about being in the Marines, was that I got to overuse, break, blow-up, and tear things up without repercussions. This is a really good thing because in terms of the Military they will operate in the harshest of conditions, their standards are typically good for those conditions, and if it’s not good enough they will find out well before it matters. The issue for the rest of us who are civilians is, those tests, those conditions, and the standards they require aren’t typically applicable to the general public. For example, special ops teams who function in and around the water require weapons that will immediately fire after being submerged in the water. This is great if you are SpecOps, but if your a target shooter or just looking at firearms for self-defense than this requirement isn’t really that important. For the record, I do own a few guns that will fire after being submerged, but that’s only because I wanted to, and I paid a lot more for them. Hey you never know, I could I have to jump in the ocean and fight off zombies in the future.
So net net, MilSpec while very antiquated it does work for the US Armed Forces. This is evident in the fact we have the best fighting forces in the world and no country or bad actor could beat us on the battlefield despite the Mil-Spec standards not being the most innovative or newest technology. And although those parts or firearm you are considering are Mil-Spec rated, does that really mean its the best on the market and right for you. Typically it is not the best available and that can be easily proven by comparing things like sleeping bags, backpacks, boots etc… against what can be bought on the commercial market. The commercial items are far better than their Milspec brother or sister and that said, just because its right for the military, doesn’t mean that it is the right choice for you as discussed with the firearms that can shoot immediately after being submerged in water. So when you are looking online and/or at the store, remember when it says Mil-Spec or you are given the sales pitch that its good enough for the military it’s good enough for you, it just may not be and you should ask a few more questions.
Wikipedia Definition for Military Specification: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Military_Standard
Example of a MilSpec Pistol: https://www.tarriverarms.com/product/bt-apc9-pro-new-and-the-only-gun-to-beat-out-the-mp5-in-a-dod-contract/