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Tactical Concealment Viper Hood (4th Gen) / Ghille Zen Customs
5/8/09 - The Viper Hood from Tactical Concealment, Mfg, Co. is a light weight ghillie hood designed for snipers, assaulters or operators wishing to break up the outline of the upper body only, instead of a full-body ghillie suit. The Viper Hood is compatible with most combat gear loadouts; vests, LBE, backpacks etc.
In the past the ghillie suit was commonly based on a set of BDUs with netting sewn or shoe-goo'd to the back and canvas put on the front for crawling. I'm neither a sniper nor in the military, but built a couple of ghillie suits in the past just for fun (about 10 years ago). It was one of the most time consuming projects that I've taken on that was hobby-related, and ended up being quite a lot of work 'just' for fun'. It was around this time that ghille suit base maufacturers were just starting to pop up (that I was aware of anyways).
Over the past several years, ghillie suits have become a cottage industry with pre-manufactured ghillie suit bases available, to save the user from constructing one himself. These ghillie bases are designed from the ground up for that specialized task; using the lightest and most suitable materials available. Most of the better ghillie suit bases are more than someone like me could do at home without the materials, sewing machine, skills and time. One of the companies that has established itself as a leader in everything ghillie suit related is Tactical Concealment, Mfg. Co. TC has been around since 1999 and they offer just about everything ghillie related - suit bases, kits, material, garnish - you name it. TC outfits both military and law enforcment agencies with their products.
Tactical Concealment offers ghillie suit bases from full suits (the Mamba) to the lighter weight hoods that provide concealment for the upper body, like the Viper Hood. All their designs have gone through improvements and changes over the years, and the 4th Generation Viper Hood is the one shown here.
Tactical Concealment describes the Viper Hood as "designed not for just snipers but for any operator who can benefit from having a visual tactical concealment edge." The Viper Hood is scaled into a package that is practically suited toward the working needs and style of an assaulter, as it is compatible with LBVs, vests, body armour and backpack systems. It can also be used on reconnaissance or LE stakeouts where more camouflage than just a set of BDUs and a boonie hat is needed. The Viper hood breaks up the recognizeable and familiar outline and shape of the human head and shoulders, while leaving torso uncovered. An optional cape/drape is available that attaches to the rear to cover the back.
Body/shell - The Viper Hood is like a hoodie sweatshirt that has had the torso cut off below the shoulders and the ends of the sleeves shortened. The 'body' of the Viper hood is constructed of 330 D Cordura, in a very nice shade of dark earth/coyote which TC calls 'camel brown' (a slightly lighter version of USMC coyote brown). The body covers the shoulders, upper arms and the uppermost part of the back across the shoulders. The sleeves end just below the elbows, providing additional protection.
There are elastic shock cord adjustments for: shoulder girth, chest width, armpit tension, and elbow tension. All these adjustments enable the user to comfortably tailor the Viper Hood to his size and equipment. All the elastic shock cords have pull tabs and cord locks. The front SR buckle is on elastic strap, so that it moves with the user.
The entire body (except the inside of the arms) is covered in a square grid of 550 cord sheath (without the core), which is bartacked at approximately every 2". Five rear common loop attach points are provided for the back cape. Elastic and web loops are located at the front and back for attachment of garnish.
Summarizing the Viper Hood's key features:
Hood - The hood portion is permanently sewn and connected to the body with short lengths of webbing at the rear of the collar. The hood is constructed with a center panel of cordura, and side panels of nylon mesh. The size of the hood opening is adjusted by shock cord at the front on each side of the hood. The hood can be adjusted to fit around the user's face snuggly, or loosely. It's large enough to be worn over a helmet or any other headgear like a boonie hat, cap or shemagh. The hood is covered in the same grid of 550 cord sheath.
550 cord or elastic cord and cord locks (not included) can be added to the hood to fashion a front-rear adjustment to pull back the oversized hood so that it doesn't fall forward, over the eyes and face when in the prone position. Wearing a hat with brim will also keep the hood brim in check.
Back Cape/drape - The back cape comes in 'camelbrown drab' coloured mesh, and is essentially a mesh cape that attaches to the back of the Viper hood to provide camouflage/concealment for the back or backpacks. The cape attaches to the five common loops sewn to the rear of the Viper hood via velcro tabs. The velcro tabs are run through and secured to the common loops. Nylon 550 cord and cord locks are provided to allow the cape to be rolled up and secured. Deploying the cape is best done before donning the Viper hood.
The back cape extends to around knee level, and has 550 cord sewn in curved lines for tying small amounts of garnish. Only the bare minimum is necessary; the cape is not intended for a lot of garnish. There are also elastic loops for adding natural garnish/foliage. Used alone without garnish, the cape can be used as a mesh cover to break up the outline and shape of a backpack, or can be flipped forward (after attaching it reversed), over the head, to cover the rifle scope. It can also be detached from the Viper hood and used as a cover for stashed equipment, or a rifle veil.
Observations and notes - One of the first things I noticed about the Viper Hood was the attention to detail. Quality, materials and workmanship are excellent, and the garment definitely looks like it's built to last. For an outwardly simple-looking garment, it's actually not, and there's a lot of work that goes into making it with all the bartacks and adjustments.
Donning the Viper Hood is done by inserting the arms into the sleeves, like putting on a t-shirt, and lifting it over the head, rather than putting it on like a button down shirt or jacket. It's easier if all the adjustments are loose before putting it on, then adjusting each one afterwards. The neck/chest buckle is secured first, then the other adjustments made with the elastic shock cord. The only thing I'd like to see is the cord locks sewn down in place so one-handed tightening would be possible just by pulling on the shock cord ends. TC explained that the cord locks are designed to be pressed during adjustments, and that requires the use of both hands so there is no need to sew them down. I also gather that pulling shock cord through the cord locks without depressing the button wears it more quickly.
The Viper Hood is just the base, and garnishing is sold separately and left to the user to install. Tactical Concealment carries a full line of supplies and garnishing, both pre-dyed and natural, and while it can be very satisfying to garnish your own ghillie suit, it does require a lot of trial and error if you haven't done it before, and even so, if you don't know the 'tricks', you might not end up with the suit you envision. I've built a couple of ghillies myself, and spent ages on the garnish, but didn't get the results I really wanted. (I'm not in the military, LE nor a sniper, but I thought it'd be a good learning experience for me to build them, and try them out when shooting bolt guns out in the desert.) If you're like me, who doesn't have a lot of time now or know-how, and want it done right the first time, this is where a company like Ghillie Zen Customs comes in.
Ghille Zen Customs
Ghillie Zen Customs offers garnishment services for customers who don't want to, or don't have the time or knowledge/experience to garnish their own ghille suit base. Garnishing a ghille suit may seem simple: you just tie on strands of jute to yoru ghillie base, then become invisible, right? Personally, I haven't really found it as easy as I thought it'd be. It's a very time-consuming process, and is more than just trying jute or burlap strips to the base. There's a risk of using too much, or too little, or making them too long or short, and it takes experience and tricks of the trade to create textures that don't make you look like a shaggy dog or chia pet. There are also many other garnishing materials besides jute that the selection can be quite bewildering. Getting the right colours to match your AO can require dyeing your own jute if pre-dyed colours are too saturated or don't match.
Ghille Zen saves you the guesswork and time, and will garnish a suit to your specifications. Ghillie Zen is run by a former member of the military, Zac Rutkowski. His prices are very reasonable as they cover both garnishing material costs and labor. Note that other than being a dealer for Tactical Concealment products, Ghille Zen is a separate business from TC. Zac has been honing his ghillie-craft and making custom ghillies since he left the military in '99 and what started out as a hobby is growing into a full time custom business. Some of Zac's garnished ghille suits have been listed on Ebay under the seller "ghillie-zen".
Starting the process
The process was pretty simple; I emailed Zac and
described what I wanted, and tried to be as specific as possible.
Here are some of the requests/guidelines in my email to Zac:
I also sent him a few representative photos from years past of where I might use the Viper hood:
What Ghillie Zen does is start by establishing what purposes the customer's ghillie will serve (is this ghillie going to be used to crawl in, or is a highly mobile suit with less garnish needed etc). This makes all the difference in determining the amount of coverage needed, overall weight requirements, water resistance, breathability and compactability. These factors are critical when deciding on a garnishment scheme.
Once the function is determine, Zac then focuses on the environment the ghillie will be used in. Some customers will provide images, while others provide detailed descriptions. Having photos to work with helps determine tone sselection and appropriate texturing. The best photos are ones of the area that the ghillie is going to be used in. Zac uses the information, photos, preferences, specific details etc supplied by the customer to customize the garnish specifically to that customer.
The actual process for each garnishment is different. Ghillie Zen stocks a wide variety of natural fibers and IR compliant industrial dyes for whatever needs the customer may have. After the ghillie is garnished, if requested by the customer, Zac will sometimes 'condition' the ghillie using different techniques to give it a more natural appearance or to create a particular effect or texture. One of these traditional processes is commonly known as the 'mudbath', where the ghillie is literally dragged through the mud and given a good beating. It doesn't harm the suit, but simply breaks in the garnish and saturates it with natural soil tones. A similar method using only water is common for desert-specific builds.
When I had tried my hand at building my own ghillies, I found that garnishing was quite a challenge (and very messy - don't do it indoors or around good furniture with dark fabrics as the jute fibers get everywhere. If own a big dog or long haired cat, then you're used to this already). I used a variety of materials - some jute, cloth strips, fine mesh strips, string etc. Without the know-how of the tricks of the trade, it was not easy for me to create the textures I was envisioning, and my ghillie ended up looking like a uniform pile of raw materials. I also thought "more is better", and tried to compensate for the lack of texture by adding more garnish. It then ended up just looking like a bigger pile of raw materials. Since I didn't try my hand at dyeing the garnish, the colours were a bit too grey. It worked decently in a very specific environment (dry grass), but not very well anywhere else. Some of you might remember the pics below of that suit:
So, I was very interested to see if Zac would be able to meet the challenge and come up with a garnish that would come close to what I had asked for. The main challenge I saw was keeping the garnish short, and to the minimum. I didn't want the fluffy bush or Wookie look which seems so popular with commercial ghillies. Zac replied that he also prefers shorter strands on his personal ghillies, but keeps the garnish on the edges a bit longer so that it helps blend into the ground when prone. For the suits he sells on ebay, they're garnished longer to allow the customer to trim them to their needs.
Garnished Viper Hood
I must admit that I was a bit anxious, not knowing how Zac's garnishing job would come out and whether I'd be happy or disappointed. When I got the package back and unrolled the Viper, I was relieved and excited to see that it surpassed my expectations. In addition, Zac had sewn on extra 1" elastic bands onto the Viper body and hood for adding natural foilage. He also added hood adjustment shock cords which allowed more control over the hood.
Zac was able to create and illustion of texture and depth, using a combination of different garnishing materials. It looked like the garnish would work well in sandy/rocky areas, or even beach areas, looking like a pile of driftwood and seaweed. There were also a few different colours, including the sage 'bristleweed'. Zac puts the ghille through a 'ratting up' process that is different for each build, that is different for each customer pending on his AO and needs. On mine, the jute was wiry, and not too fuzzy, which creates a non-uniform, random texture. He also used burlap to provide shape and volume, and to add a different 'thickness' to the garnish.
The Viper Hood is illustrated below worn over a STRIKE recon chest rig with EMDOM Hydration Carrier attached in the rear. I have full access to all the pouches mounted onto the STRIKE. With the garnish, the Back Drape is of course a bit more bulky than before, but still rolls up compactly. I found that the perfect stuff sack for the garnished Viper Hood was my Kifaru Regulator stuff sack, which compresses the package circumferentially, making it easy to store in a pack than a ball-shaped stuff sack. It compresses the Viper Hood plus attached back drape into a retively small package (USGI canteen shown for scale).
Trying out the Viper
I have a young child, which makes breaking away and leaving the wife and kid at home for even a day trip to the desert somewhat difficult, so I wasn't sure when I'd be able to try out the Viper in the environment it was designed for. Fortunately, a couple of shooting buddies suggested a day-trip to the desert to get some longer range shooting in, so it was a perfect opportunity for me to try out the Viper. Zac was working on the garnish at that time and when I told him our plans, he got it done and shipped to me a week before we headed out. Now, Zac had done the garnish based on the photos I sent him, but depending on the time of the year, the colours in the desert can change. Also, we weren't going shooting at the same area I usually went, where I took those pics years ago. So, as we headed out, I wondered what kind of terrain we'd encounter.
The area we ended up at turned out to be quite similar to the other region I had taken those photos in, so it worked out quite well. Basically, it's high desert southwest; an arid, sandy, rocky area with scattered brush and desert plants. The weather was bright and sunny, with a pretty strong wind blowing. Thankfully, it wasn't blazing hot, and only got into the 70's. Just in case people are wondering what I'm wearing in the photos below, I was wearing a TAD Gear Force 10 Utility top, and SKD tactical enhanced BDU pants with knee pad slots. I used 5.11 knee pads inside the pants and Crye Precision elbow pads in the top. Tan Rocky S2V boots. I was wearing a 215 Gear Blended Operators Hat under the Viper Hood. I had my trusty old Remington 700 PSS in Accuracy International stock. And an EMDOM Hydration pack on my back.
Before donning the Viper hood, I took a photo of it laid flat on the ground amongst some rocks. You can see that the colours are a good match for the surroundings, with the brown jute and sage matching similar colours around it.
If the pics below look washed out, that's because it really was that bright out there under a cloudless desert sky.
The purpose of these photos are to illustrate the Viper Hood as garnished by Zac/Ghillie Zen Customs. I wanted to see how well the Viper would work as-is. Also, I chose relatively exposed positions for the photos, instead of trying to conceal myself as much as possible. If better concealment was the goal, I'd probably:
I'll also remind the reader that I have no LE/military experience, nor any expertise whatsoever in sniping/stalking/camouflage. I'm just Joe-civvie in a Viper Hood with a rifle. The observations I make below are based on common-sense (to me, at least) upon examining the photos. I just hope to provide information that might help the reader decide on whether this product meets their needs.
In all the photos below, the rifle is easy to pick out, and is a good reference of where I am, and the scale. I also decided to leave the Back Drape on at all times, rather than leave it rolled up. One of the things I noticed in the above photo where I'm kneeling with my back turned is a bare spot running down the middle of the back drape, where the hydration pack bulges out. This is because the 550 cord sewn to the drape is not present in that area, but there are the elastic loops for adding local foliage or more garnish.
I then lay on the ground, next to a bush. The most noticeable giveaways are the rifle, of course, and also the shadow under my head. Having a sniper veil to cover the rifle and front would help reduced or eliminate that shadow. From the front and sides, the Viper does a great job of breaking up the familiar head and shoulders outline, and even though the colour is darker than the sand on the desert floor, there were brown rocks and shrubs that the Viper matched quite well and could be mistaken for one from afar. The back drape provides coverage down to the back of the thighs in this position. It's a bit shorter because of the added bulk of the EMDOM Hydration pack I'm wearing on my back. That bare spot in the middle can be noticed as it's devoid of garnish. This is constrained by the 550 cord sewn to the Back Drape. I think that it'd help to put some more 550 cord and a bit more garnish in that area, as it tends to be exposed in the prone position. The elastic loops are there for attaching natural foliage but in the desert, it's mostly branches and twigs - which don't lend themselves very well to being stuffed into elastic cords like long grass or leaves. That's one of the reasons I'd probably add more garnish in that area instead of relying on natural foliage.
In the next set, I picked a position near the base of some rocks. Other than the rifle giving away my position, I think that I'd be able to sit still and be overlooked by most people (with the hood up of course). From afar, the Viper Hood could pass for the rocks, or as a bush on the side.
In the photos below, I moved up to the top of the rocks. This is quite an exposed position, as I'm outlined against the sky from below. But other than the rifle standing out, the Viper worked extremely well. From the rear, the Back Drape adds sufficient texture to make my back blend in with the rocks. With a sniper veil or ghillie'd rifle, I'd be pretty hard to pick out, even in this position. It's obvious that the black rifle barrel is the dead giveaway of my position, no matter how well I might be camouflaged. It illustrates the importance of camouflaging the rifle as well.
Additional notes and observations
For this particular outing, I wore the Viper Hood for a most of the shooting session - to familiarize myself with it and also to see if it'd get in the way. Since it wasn't that hot of a day, I was very comfortable in it. Donning it was no problem - I was able to perform all the necessary adjustments easily. The cape didn't get in the way, but the wind gusts did blow it around a bit when I was walking and it'd snag on bushes occasionally. I didn't stop - I'd just keep going and it'd come free. The upper arms do get a bit warmer with it on, which is to be expected as they're essentially inside cordura sleeves. However, after a while, I just got used to it, just like the knee pads I had on inside the pad pockets in the pants.
Wearing a hat under the hood helped keep the opening of the hood from falling forward without using the hood adjustments. Rather than pull the hood back when shooting in the prone position, I found that I could pull it forward and cover the rear of the scope while I was looking through it. It created my own dark little world from which I'd look out of, into the brightness outside. Doing this also kept the sun out of the rear of the scope and my eyes. The 215Gear Blended Operators hat with its mesh panels worked very well under the Viper hood, to keep my head cool. Because the hood is made out of mesh, I could still hear well through it, either with 'bare' ears or electronic hearing protection.
The Tactical Concealment Viper Hood didn't interfere at all with my shooting, weapon handling, nor feel cumbersome at all. It's a very well designed and made item. The Ghillie Zen Customs garnish job was excellent, and saved me the time, effort, trial and error of doing my own garnish while doing a much better job than I could have.
P.S. Thanks to Da Buds for taking the pic, and for a great day of shooting.
5/25/09 Update - I sent the back drape back to Zac so he could sew on some more 550 cord on and add more coverage in the middle of the back where the bare spots were. Compare the photo below to the one taken previously above. We also discussed making a sleeve for my rifle. In the meantime, I went ahead and spray painted the rest of the rifle to match the stock. I gave Zac dimensions and what I had in mind for a rifle sleeve. I didn't need a full sleeve, but something that broke up the outline of the barrel and scope, from the front mostly. What we came up with was a mesh sleeve for the barrel that ties in the back to the scope ring, and has an elastic shock cord with cord lock at the front of the barrel. For the scope, Zac made a small mesh drape with an elastic loop that attaches it to the objective lens of the scope, and ties off at the scope ring as well. After I installed it, we could see that both the barrel sleeve and scope drape could have been made a bit longer. In any case, it's a good start for a prototype piece.
Da Buds and I had planned another trip out to the desert (a completely different region than before with different terrain) to do some longer range shooting, so it was a good opportunity for me to see how the additional garnish on the back drape worked. I wore the same hydration pack under the Viper hood, and as you can see from the photos below, the coverage is much improved.
The rifle ghillie also makes a huge difference, as does the paint job. In the photos below, you can see that the Viper with Zac's garnish job also works well with the warmer-hued rocks and ground, as well as the lighter, grayer terrain in the previous trip.
Here are some additional photos of our shooting session. The monster rifle is my bud's .408 Windrunner. Good times.