Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What is Mil-Spec Paracord?

You might have encountered the “Paracord Craze” controversy about “real” and “fakeType III 550 Paracord. Some people are referring to U.S. Made vs. Chinese knockoff paracord, others mean “nylon” vs. “polyester”, and still others suggest that “Mil-Spec” is real and “Commercial” is fake. While the former two might hold water, the latter argument falls through.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are definitive differences between “Mil-Spec” and “Commercial” 550 Paracord, but each are still categorically “550 Paracord”. Most people are familiar with the “Commercial” version of 550 Paracord: rated to a tensile strength of 550 lbs, 7 2-ply inner strands, 100% nylon, 5/32” diameter, mildew, rot & mold resistant, available in hundreds of colors and patterns. In this blog post, I’d like to address the less familiar “Mil-Spec” 550 Paracord, as an effort to dispel some of the rumors out there.

Mil-Spec” is used to denote that a product has been designed
to meet the requirements of the Department of Defense.
Mil-Spec” is a designation used for “Military Defense Specification”. Consider the following description, taken directly from page 2 of the October 1994 “Acquisition Reform” Report from the United States General Accounting Office (GAO):

“In general, ‘military specifications’ describe the physical and or operational characteristics of a product and ‘military standards’ detail the processes and materials to be used to make the product. The standards can also describe how to manage the manufacturing and testing of a part. For example, a specification might describe the kind of wire to be used in an electrical circuit and a standard might describe how the wire is to be fastened in a circuit and what tests should be conducted on the circuit. Military specifications and standards, collectively referred to as ‘milspecs,’ are a major part of DOD’s [Department of Defense] Standardization Program, which seeks to limit variety in purchased items by stipulating certain design details. Some principal purposes for milspecs have been to (1) ensure interoperability between products, (2) provide products that can perform in extreme conditions, (3) protect against contractor fraud, and (4) promote greater opportunities for competition among contractors.”

In other words, “Mil-Spec” is used to denote that a product has been designed to meet the requirements of the Department of Defense regarding the manufacturing process and materials, as well as the physical characteristics and operational function of the product.

Mil-Spec Type III 550 Parachute Cord has been given the ID “Mil-C-5040”, with the latest specification revision “H”, published in March of 1994. In October 1997, the Mil-C-5040H specification was declared inactive for any new design, but is still used for replacement purposes. You can find the Mil-Spec Revision and Inactive documents in .PDF under the “Revision History” table HERE.

Mil-Spec Paracord was first used in the suspension lines of
U.S. Parachutes during WWII.
Historically, Mil-Spec Paracord (Parachute Cord) was first used in the suspension lines of U.S. parachutes during WWII. Troops then began to find other uses for the versatile rope, which eventually crept into civilian world as soldiers came home from the war. Now, there are literally hundreds of uses for paracord (we’ll need a dedicated blog post for that topic).

I’ll do my best to explain Mil-Spec Mil-C-5040 Paracord in the simplest of terms, but I can’t make any promises. :P The main difference between “Mil-Spec” and “Commercial” Paracord is in the quality control and type of internal yarns used.

In each strand of Mil-Spec Type III 550 Paracord, there are 7 to 9 inner strands. To directly quote the official Revision H document, "the core yarn shall be constructed by plying five yarns of 210 denier, resulting in a 1050 denier yarn, for the initial spin, or by using 1050 denier singles yarn, then plying three of the 1050 yarns (either 5 ply or singles) together, resulting in a final core size of 3150 denier." Denier is a measure of the thickness and weight (linear mass density) of the strand of fiber that is measured. The denier formula is: 9000/(denier value) = Meters of yarn equal to one gram. 8.57 meters of 1050 denier nylon equals one gram. (As a reference, a single strand of silk is 1 denier, meaning that it takes 9 kilometers of silk to equal 1 gram!) There is a piece of ID cord in each strand of Mil-Spec Paracord to identify which manufacturer the cordage came from. The outer sheath is braided using 32 to 36 strands of nylon yarn. The minimum static tensile strength is 550 pounds.
Mil-Spec Paracord only comes in a handful of colors.

Mil-Spec Paracord only comes in a handful of select colors: Black, White, Olive Drab (Camo Green), Foliage Green, Coyote Brown, Tan 499, Red (Medic Red/Drab Red), Solar Orange (Safety Orange/Drab Orange), and a few other basic colors. However, Commercial-Spec cord can come in literally hundreds of colors and patterns, which is why it's so popular with Paracord Crafters.

For a full description of requirements from the Department of Defense, feel free to read through the entire “Military Specification” document for Mil-C-5040H cord.

So, I hope that helps clear things up just a bit. “Commercial” 550 Paracord is just as real as “Mil-Spec” 550 Paracord. The highlight of Mil-Spec 550 Paracord is that it must go through rigorous testing, from raw materials to the final product, in order for it to be certified for U.S. Military use.

Have you found yourself questioning the legitimacy of any “550 Paracord” that you purchased? What was odd about it? Comment below! We’d like to hear what you’ve encountered during the “Paracord Craze”.


  1. I have been using paracord for some time now and I have found quite a few uses for the mil-spec. People also love it, so I have posted a few projects at Paracord central.

    You are welcome to visit the site and comment on my works :).


  2. I have a question related to this: you do a good job here explaining the difference between Mil-Spec and Commercial paracord, but are they both still considered "Type III"? Or does the "Type III" designation only apply to true mil-spec cord?

    1. Thank you for asking! Both are still considered "Type III" with the understanding that they each have a 550lb minimum tensile strength, have 7 inner core strands, and a 32/1 or 36/1 sheath structure. Other than that, the variable differences between commercial and Mil-Spec paracord are innumerable.

  3. Just a quick rant from my side -
    While it certainly is true that there's some good quality "commercial 550 paracord" for sale out there, I'd just like to point out that it is, in fact, not paracord. My definition is quite simple. If it's not made for use with parachutes... it's not paracord, period.
    550 lbs tensile strength is not an indication of 5040 compliance. It's a tensile strength specification that just happens to be equal to the one in PIA/MIL-C-5040.
    Commercial paracord cannot be "type III" either. Type III implies compliance with PIA-C-5040 or MIL-C-5040. Type III requires three yarns per strand, so how can the two yarn paracord ever hold up to scrutiny? It can't.
    There's a massive amount of junk and false advertising out there, and you never really know what you're buying until you have it - unless you ask for a CoC before shopping. All proper paracord comes with a certificate from the manufacturer that indicates compliance with standards. That's paracord you can trust to perform. Paracord you could use if you were a parachute rigger.
    In any case, military specification paracord is just that. Commercial "paracord" is most certainly not. Beware spurious products. Certainly never buy any that's made from polyester or has bulk fiber instead of individual strands (unless of course you're using it for decorative purposes, which seems to be all the rage these days)

  4. I had heard like above said 2 ply cord vs 3 ply that the 2 ply would handle 350 weight and 3 ply the true 550.

  5. don't want in that mess. I'm just a simple guy looking for a paracord around 5/32" to make dragonfly and damselfly flies to add to my survival pack.If you see them around, fish will eat them. Can be made of a multitude of color and patterns,but a little goes along way. That is my problem.What can we do? Give a lotof them away.Thanks,Pete

  6. All of the links to the Military Specifications appear to be 404 now (I assume they worked at the time this was written).

    Do you have updated links? Or a saved copy of the specifications, preferably as a PDF?

    Thanks, Rolf.

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