Where to Buy Real Military 550 Paracord

(And Why You Need It)

You want true, military-grade 550 paracord, but where to get it? And how do you recognize it when you see it?

There is a lot of misinformation, misleading advertising and outright lies out there.

Well, enough’s enough.

To get to the bottom of this, I personally interviewed two certified, U.S. -based manufacturers who currently supply our military with the highest-quality 550 cord. They told me what to look for and where civilians like you and me can buy it.

This is what I found out.

What Exactly is 550 Paracord?

Paracord is a thin rope, comprised of a woven sleeve wrapped around several, usually 7, inner strands. The number 550 refers to its break-strength, in pounds.

It is time and battle tested, having been used as parachute cordage by the military for years. Made popular in World War II, paratroopers quickly discovered the versatility of this cordage in survival situations. (Other than when falling from a plane, I mean.) Over the years, its popularity among civilian survivalists has grown, and for good reason.

Skilled survivalists and outdoor enthusiasts can use it to build survival shelters, for hunting, fishing and trapping. It’s great for field repair work, in medical emergencies, when climbing or even for general hygiene. (More on this below.)

Commercial vs. Military Grade

Not all paracord is created equal. Military and commercial versions may have different number of inner strands, weaves, colors and be made of similar-looking, though still different materials.

550 paracord commercial vs military gradeCommercial 550, Mil-Spec 550, Generic Paracord

There are actually four main types (I, II, III, IV) that range from 100 pounds (type I) break strength to 750 pounds (type IV) break strength. NOTE: Break strengths may vary by application and manufacturer. The most common is type III, better known as 550.

You’d think that all 550 cordage would be constructed the same, but this is not the case. Certified defense contractors are held to a higher standard.

Military-spec type III 550 paracord is constructed of top-grade 100% nylon for maximum strength and weather resistance. It has a woven outer sleeve and at least 7 inner strands, each with specific weave and color-coding requirements.

The vast majority of all type III 550 cord sold retail in the United States is commercial grade, often made overseas.

But even if it is made in the U.S. by an official government contractor, it still may not be military grade.

This doesn’t mean commercial-grade is necessarily bad, far from it. But it definitely is not the genuine cordage used by the military.

Don't be fooled. What many online and brick and mortar retailers sell is actually commercial-grade and would NOT pass military inspection.

How to Tell the Difference

I contacted representatives from the E.L. Wood Braiding Company and Mills Manufacturing, both certified government manufacturers.

Here’s how they say their product differs from cheaper imitations:

NOTE: 550 cordage used by the U.S. military will pass all of the following tests. If yours lacks even one aspect, it is probably commercial grade, or worse.

  • Check the color of the inner strands. This is the easiest way to tell the difference between military and commercial grade.

    Military-grade has color-coded inner strands, the combination of colors being specific to each manufacturer. The military requires this for tracking and quality-control purposes.

    That said, color coding can be duplicated by uncertified manufacturers, but is not common in the cheapest versions.

    If there aren't colored inner strands, it is safe to assume it’s an imitation.

  • Count the inner strands. True, military-spec 550 cord will have at least 7.

  • Unravel the inner strands. Each inner strand should be cabled (twisted) and comprised of three strings. The cabling helps make stronger, more reliable cordage. Many knockoffs only have two strings. Some of the worst-quality strands are not cabled at all.

  • Check the label. Real paracord will have a label that specifies its classification. Instead of just “mil-spec”, “military-spec” or “military grade”, look for “MIL-C-5040”.

  • Measure the thickness. This relates to the number and quality of the inner strands. Military 550 cordage has an overall larger diameter (5/32”) while imitators may only be 1/8” thick. The 1/8” diameter is frequently what you’ll find in big box home improvement warehouses.

  • Check the materials. All military-grade 550 cordage is made of top-quality, 100% nylon. Commercial 550 is usually manufactured with inferior grades of nylon or other materials all together, like polyester or even a simple cotton.

    Nylon can be spliced and remains strong even when wet (which also makes it popular among boaters), resisting mold and mildew growth.

    If your paracord deteriorates or supports a vibrant mushroom colony after being left out in the elements, it was trash to begin with.

  • Check for smoothness. The Department of Defense has specific weave and cabling standards for their contractors. High-quality 550 cordage will have a tight, dense weave and twist, and will be free from irregularities like large, frequent bulges or knots.

Buyer Beware! Just because it says “Made in America” doesn’t necessarily mean the paracord is American-made.

Frequently, sellers of pre-made survival bracelets are guilty of this. Though the bracelet may have been assembled in America, the cordage itself may have come from overseas.

Where to buy Real 550 Military Paracord

Like I said before, most of the paracord sold in the U.S. is commercial grade and frequently made abroad. Simply, foreign cordage is cheaper. Where quality cordage may cost 15 cents per yard in America, retailers can get it manufactured in China for a third of the cost.

Though this cordage may pass the 550 pound break test, its reliability and consistency isn't top-notch. It may fail when you need it most.

While rock-solid strength and performance are paramount for actual parachuting, retailers assume that the general-public is less discriminating for their everyday use.

But for some, and I’ll group many survivalists in here, outfitting oneself with the best equipment for an emergency is absolutely essential.

Frankly, retailers of military 550 cord are difficult to come by.

Because manufacturers deal in such large quantities, they don’t sell direct retail. They sell to distributors, but tracking where the product goes after that is harder than it sounds.

After speaking with the manufacturers above, as of this writing I found only one company who sells the same paracord that our military uses:

Best Glide Aviation Survival Equipment, also known as

Best Glide Adventure Survival Equipment

They buy their paracord from E.L. Wood Braiding Company. You can get it retail at

bestglide.com

adventuresurvivalequipment.com

And if you plan on buying in larger quantities, there’s

wholesalesurvivalgear.com

mil-c-5040 paracord from bestglide.com

For the purposes of this article, I purchased 50 feet of 550 MIL-C-5040 paracord in OD green from bestglide.com. With standard shipping, it came to $12.69. The order shipped the next day and their customer service has been great.

You can get commerical-grade 550 cheaper, about half the cost, but you’re not getting the same quality and reliability.

What Actual Military-Grade 550 Paracord Looks Like

real 550 military paracordReal Military Spec 550 Paracord

This is actual, military-grade 550 cord in OD green I purchased from bestglide.com. Notice the neat, tight, 3-ply cabling.

The strand cabled with black and yellow is manufacturer-specific and required by the military. There are a total of 7 strands.

commercial grade 550 paracordCommercial Grade 550 Paracord

The black cord is a commercial-grade 550 purchased from Lowe's. It is 7-stranded nylon and has a 550-pound break strength.

Though not military-grade, it is still serviceable cordage and in an emergency, better than nothing.

The major differences are the lack of color-coded inner strands and the loose, 2-ply cabling. 

cheap paracord from walmartParacord (grade unknown)

This one surprised me. It is red-sleeved cordage purchased from Walmart in a bracelet-making kit. It was not advertised as "550", nor did the packaging disclose its materials, so I'm not sure exactly what to call it. It was made in China.

Though the cabling is loose and inconsistent (there were large irregularities along its length), each strand contains 3 strings.

Despite the more robust cabling, I would still not trust this cordage in any weight bearing capacity.

Notice the lack of color coded inner strands.

Uses for 550 Paracord

paiute deadfall trap

Any good survivalist could rattle off a Forest Gump-quality list of the numerous applications paracord has in emergencies. The following examples illustrate its amazing versatility:

Trapping: Because 550 cord is thin, flexible and weather resistant, it lends itself to snaring small game. However, because it is a fabric, trapped animals can chew through it, so be sure to check traps regularly or preferably construct instantly lethal traps, like a twitch-up strangle snare or Paiute deadfall.

twitch up strangle snare

Medical: The smooth inner nylon strands make improvised, though serviceable, sutures. Being smooth, they’re also good for dental floss. Use the whole cordage as a tourniquet, to make a sling or to help stabilize a splint for a sprained joint or broken bone.

bola

Repair: The inner strands work well as thread to repair torn clothing or packs. Wrap the strands around the edges of a bandana to make a draw-string pouch.

Hunting: Paracord can string a bow, secure the tip of an arrow, spear or stone war club, and even be used to fashion a bola.

Fishing: Smaller fish can be taken by line or net. Split the outer sheath and knot the inner strands end to end to make a line. Then lay the knotted inner strands in a grid and knot them together. If spear fishing, secure a length (use more than you think you'll need) to the end of the spear to make retrieval easier.

A frame survival shelter

Shelter: Make a lean-to or A-frame shelter. String a length between two trees and hang a tarp or branch boughs over it.

lean-to survival shelter

Sleeping: Lash branches together to make a raised sleeping platform. Weave  full strands together, like the fish net, to make a hammock. Particularly helpful in wet climates.

Click HERE for more on paracord and survival shelters

raised sleeping platform

Water survival: Lash logs together to make a raft. Construction is similar to the top of the sleeping platform shown above, minus the uprights. If exceptionally desperate, use short lengths make a flotation device by tying off the waist and cuffs of a pair of pants. Inflate by blowing into a leg cuff, then tie shut.

improvised flotation device

Climbing and Rappelling: 550 test cordage can be used in rappelling, but for safety, if you have enough, double or triple-up the cordage to ensure a safe ascent or descent. While the break strength is 550 pounds, the working load limit is only rated around 150 pounds.

Don’t Leave Home Without It

To ensure I always have a length of 550 cord on me, I made a bracelet and watchband, each out of single 12 foot strands.

Learn how to make your own paracord survival bracelet

Learn how to make your own paracord watch band - Coming Soon!

Learn how to wrap a machete handle

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