I'm trying to build a world set in the future, but mainly using modern culture and technology. I plan on this world to be explored mainly through illustration, so I need to design how things look. One of the problems I've been having is how to distinguish between members of different militaries. On the one hand, I don't want to do crazy things like inventing impractical armors or making armies wear impractical colors. On the other hand, I also don't want these armies to be comprised of men in identical camo and pocketed vests.

Are there techniques (whether in real-world militaries or in other worldbuilding efforts) that allow members of different armies to remain distinct without sacrificing practicality?

  • $\begingroup$ Could you define modern? In current day armies squad sizes etc are comparatively small and thus people will know each other unless it's fresh recruits. Any crew of a warship or similar will be tightly controlled and checked against IDs. And if you've got electricity, then FOF (Friend Or Foe) tags sending out a certain electric signature are a cheap and effectice solution. $\endgroup$
    – dot_Sp0T
    Feb 10, 2017 at 16:06
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Don't different countries already have different military camouflage? They might be similar and hard to distinguish between unless you memorize them but it's already being done in the real world. Also if I was going to war I wouldn't want to let my enemy know I'm from a certain faction, so making it less obvious would be better. $\endgroup$
    – user31746
    Feb 10, 2017 at 16:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Masterzagh There are many different patterns being used in various ways by many countries. It wouldn't be that hard to distinguish because when you train, you are well accustomed to your uniform. You see it all day every day. A slight difference would be significantly noticeable. $\endgroup$
    – ggiaquin16
    Feb 10, 2017 at 16:26
  • $\begingroup$ @ggiaquin I was talking about differentiating between 2 other countries. $\endgroup$
    – user31746
    Feb 10, 2017 at 16:54
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know if I want to make an answer out of a link, but The Epic Uniforms of Special Forces Around the World shows the amazing variety of uniforms out there. Mind you, these are special forces, so they all fit into a waste-not-want-not category. Each uniform is designed to support their goals, not just identification. Oh yeah, and the Danish Huntsman freak the heck outta me! $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Feb 10, 2017 at 18:02

5 Answers 5

  • There can be distinctive shapes for helmets, backpacks, rifles, etc.
  • Camouflage colors can vary slighty depending on the intended terrain. One side might be prepared to fight in temperate forests, the other is prepared for temperate urban areas.
  • To some degree, there are "designer" camo patters. Compare MARPAT and Flecktarn.
  • Deliberate recognition signals include IR reflective markers when one side has good vision gear and the other doesn't.
  • $\begingroup$ ah damn looks like you slightly beat me to the punch XD $\endgroup$
    – ggiaquin16
    Feb 10, 2017 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ @ggiaquin, you got more helmet examples than I do. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Feb 10, 2017 at 16:21

Define 'practical colours'.

If the aim of warfare is simply to kill as many people as possible then your colours are, practically speaking, very limited.

If, however, your aim is to impress, intimidate or let the civilian populace know that 'hey, the good guys are here now!', then it makes more sense to drape a big red-white-and-blue banner over your shoulders and throw piñatas to the populace.

Which leads to my point: If the state of military action in your world is such that being able to easily identify troops (either so your enemy knows who is hitting them, so you don't shoot your own people or so your opponents think 'golly, what a sharply turned out regiment!' and flee) is a higher priority in the minds of the people calling the shots then you will end up with brightly coloured, brashly nationalistic uniforms.

These may be thoroughly impractical for the purposes of not getting shot, but brilliant for whatever purpose the shot callers want.

As an example scenario: A government think tank in the Federation of Notreal decides that civilian resistance will decrease if soldiers appear nonthreatening. Notreally Soldiers in their rival Baddudistan are all issued mandatory 'happy face' body armour. Now you can easily tell the Notreally soldiers from the Baddudes because one side have happy faces on their chests. The people with boots on the ground know this is ridiculous, but it doesn't change their orders.

As it turns out the smily faces reduce civilian resistance, Notreal annexes Baddudistan and the idea of 'smily faces are better than camo' becomes firmly entrenched in the national psyche, remaining part of the uniform even when it's a bloody stupid idea.

Now the above is an absurd example, but it's meant to illustrate that a different uniform might have an advantage that isn't immediately obvious to the people being shot at on the ground (or actually justified), but which then becomes part of a national identity that people don't want to sacrifice (which may be important in an all-out conscription led war of attrition).

And the infantrymen will hate their officers forevermore.

  • $\begingroup$ That red, white and blue would highly depend on who you consider to be the "good guys". Will make a lot of sense if the good guys are Russians, not so much for Chinese, Japanese, Europeans,... you name it. ;-) $\endgroup$ Feb 12, 2017 at 10:56
  • $\begingroup$ The national colours of the Republic of Notreal are technically red, puce and blue, but the puce is so subtle it mostly looks white. ;-) $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Feb 12, 2017 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ Considering the number and type of wars America has largely been involved in (or Britain, or France, or Russia for that fact), I'd suggest that Red/White/Blue would on average signal the presence of a morally self-righteous foreign invader... $\endgroup$ Jan 25, 2019 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Ynneadwraith: Are you secretly a Baddudey spy? How dare you say such things about the noble colours of the Republic of Notreal!! We barely ever shoot innocent civilians for oil! $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Jan 25, 2019 at 16:11
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs Death to Notreally infidels....ahem...I mean, 'of course not dear chap, I don't know what you're talking about...' $\endgroup$ Jan 25, 2019 at 16:14

One thing you can take a look at is WW2 helmets. German helmets were different from US helmets. Also, uniforms often had a unique style to them that were practical but distinctly different. Take the Japanese vs USA as an example. Also flags were HUGE in being this distinct difference. Going back to ancient times where they would march into battle with the flag bearers waiving the regional emblem which wasn't so different during WW2 when flags would be posted outside of buildings for everyone to see who occupied it. While you may use the same camo colors, the pattern itself would be different. Take a look at US Marine Snow Camo VS Russian Snow Camo. All are different but practical.


The U.S. military uses dark (yet still identifiable) insignia patches on their uniforms to distinguish rank. You could apply this to a faction-based design that is similar and large enough to be noticed in your illustrated scenes.


Different occasions call for different uniforms

Not every moment of a soldier's life is spent staring down the sights of his rifle. Officers especially get extremely fancy mess dress. Even the ordinary Limey serviceman has fourteen different uniforms from full dress (ceremonial uniforms) to barrack dress (complete with specific directions for how sleeves should be rolled up).

Different equipment and fashions

Not all militaries are well-funded - some might shower their guys with the latest tacticool tech, and others make do with surplus Mosins. The equipment surrounding them would also be different - a soldier is rarely far away from various jeeps, artillery, tanks, helicopters, what have you. Heavy weapons such as rocket launchers or fixed machine guns tend to be more distinct than rifles and pistols. Speaking of pistols - the rules for a soldier's weapon, side arm, and bayonet are very different around the world!

Soldiers are also people, and people look different. Most militaries are made up of one or a few ethnic groups, so you get skin, hair, and eye color to play with, as well as physical size, facial hair, jewelry, etc.


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