Note: While some might question the timing of this article given the recent combat death of a SEAL in Yemen, I think this is exactly the time to publish such a piece. While members of the military, including SEALs, are fighting and dying, people in no danger whatsoever are capitalizing on their efforts – and their deaths – for financial gain.
A while back I was having a discussion with the owner of Faxon about why I didn’t like his ARAK upper. It took four minutes and thirty-two seconds for him to tell me that a Navy SEAL had shot it and really liked it, in a tone that said “If a SEAL likes it, your opinion is irrelevant.” That hasn’t been my only such experience in this industry. SEALs killed Bin Laden! How dare you question them on anything ever.
It’s important to draw a distinction between a former Navy SEAL using a product once and saying something inoffensive and ambiguous about it to the manufacturer and the United States Navy buying a product for Navy SEALs to use across all the teams and guys and stuff. I want to talk about both sides of that coin here. Still, even if something is used by every Navy SEAL or will make my rifle identical to the one that killed Bin Laden, I don’t really care.
I should also mention that I’m not just picking on frogmen here. Special Forces, Delta/CAG/however they’ve chosen to identify this year, Force Recon, SOCOM, Rangers, Raiders, Air Force Security Forces – all of these names (well, almost all) have been invoked to silence dissent and prompt the swiping of credit cards. Let’s face it, though, the marketing types know that to reach the most buyers, namedropping SEALs is a Tier 1 marketing plan. So while I focus on them here, the general theme applies across all such uses of “Appeal to SOF Authority.”
Why, you ask, do I not care if these total badasses use your product?
It’s not a jaded hipster reaction – what a Navy SEAL uses just has little relevance to my life and my needs. In keeping with that whole “relevance” theme, there are indeed some things used by Navy SEALs which I end up using. But in the Venn diagram of what Navy SEALs are doing and what I am doing, there is not a whole lot of crossover. Thus, there aren’t many products they use which I also spend money on.
SEALs have precision rifles that are really awesome and durable and weigh more than my ego. If you had to build one, you’d spend many thousands of dollars duplicating it. I’d rather put together a rifle that was lighter and didn’t kick as much or cost as much to shoot as .300 WinMag or .338 Lapua – and maybe something with longer barrel life, too, because I actually have to pay for all this stuff. The only time I’ve ever really *needed* a precision rifle was years ago when my friend Paul and I were competing in the Competition Dynamics 24 Hour “Sniper” Adventure Challenge. In that case, having a rifle was more of a check in the box than anything else. The Army Marksmanship Unit was there in 2012 and on the stages they made it to, they outshot everyone – but their gear weighed so much that they couldn’t make it over all the hills to complete the course. My rifle and gear was much lighter than anything you’d find issued to a military unit at any level, with corresponding reductions in accuracy and durability, but we placed higher because we actually managed to finish the course.
Is there stuff Navy SEALs use that I might have use for? Sure. Navy SEALs use the Arc’teryx Drypack 70. I have an Arc’teryx Drypack 70. They use it to haul gear while swimming a hundred feet underwater off the coast of Gabon or something. I use it to terrify Boy Scouts by putting their sleeping bags and notebooks in it before tossing the pack into a stream, lake, or ocean while we’re on a campout. Their gear comes back dry and their heart rate eventually returns to normal. The pack costs $1200 and if I’d actually had to pay for it, I would not have acquired it – it was given to me for free. It’s fantastic at what it does, but it is entirely impractical as a backpack for the majority of things I do. There are other, cheaper packs (most packs are cheaper than $1200, I’d wager) which would keep my stuff dry while I’m hiking up a stream. And there are other, significantly cheaper packs for day to day hiking and camping use.
I also have two examples of the Kelty MAP 3500, a pack reported to have been designed in conjunction with the SEALs. Thanks, SEALs! It’s a great pack, even if the zippers on my newer version totally suck. They don’t make ’em like they used to, I guess.
Are there things Navy SEALs need in a product that I also need? Yes. When the SEALs buy a handgun, they need something reliable. I, too, need a reliable handgun. But maybe they need something of a specific size and with the ability to attach a silencer, while I just need something that won’t print in my gym shorts. Our needs rapidly diverge.
So while there are things the SEALs as a whole use which I might conceivably use, the fact that they use it is not a driving factor in the purchase – in fact it’s the opposite. If the SEALs are using something, I stop myself and ask, “Do I really need something that they would use?” Because we really do have vastly different needs.
On most of the occasions which I have heard this particular appeal to authority, though, it hasn’t been what we just discussed. It hasn’t been that I’m hearing from HK about the new wunderpistolen they’ve sold to the SEALs. It’s been that I heard “Navy SEALs use this!” from a guy whose company definitely doesn’t have a CAGE code.
In other words, they met a guy who may or may not have been a SEAL and they took him to the range or gave him some free stuff at a trade show. Voila, a SEAL has your product! And since the definition of “use” is somewhat broad, the frogman in question might simply have worn the shoes or shot the gun once and then stuffed them in a closet or given them to a friend. Sure, he might also be carrying or wearing it at all times. But one man’s preference, no matter how tough a man, doesn’t sway me, and it shouldn’t sway you. Entirely leaving aside the question of whether or not he was compensated for his opinion or whether he even voiced it as strongly as is being presented, the number one qualification for becoming a SEAL is not “gun nerd” and many former special forces guys are hardly firearm aficionados or experts. They may have specialized in another field such as communications or medicine, and while they were certainly very proficient with firearms and may still be very proficient, their firearm expertise may not rise to the level required to properly beat down an opposing and reasoned opinion.
In closing, I don’t care if Navy SEALs use your product. I care about the details of your product and what makes it better than the other products on the market. I care why it’s relevant to my needs, not to the needs of other people. If you do manage to sell it to the SEALs, great. You deserve recognition for that – but you might not deserve my money.