How Oakley single-handedly took over the world of military eyewear

Miguel Ortiz Avatar
soldier wearing oakleys

In Black Hawk Down, Sgt. Pilla (Danny Hoch) impersonates Cpt. Steele (Jason Isaacs) saying, “Take those sunglasses off, soldier. Delta wants to wear Oakleys, that’s their business. I don’t wanna see them on you again. Hooah?” Today, you’d be hard-pressed to walk around a military base without seeing Oakleys. How did the brand become so dominant in the military? Let’s take a look.

marine oakley military
A Marine wearing Oakleys in Iraq, c. 2007 (U.S. Marine Corps)

Like so many other successful companies, Oakley started in a garage. In 1975, with just a $300 initial investment, James Jannard began selling motorcycle grips. The proprietary material he used was unlike any other before it and provided exceptional traction, especially when wet. Registered as Unobtainium®, it was the first material patent for the company and is still used for Oakley temple tips and nose pads to prevent the eyewear from falling off of a wearer’s face.

airman at bagram airfield
An airman wearing Oakley Gascans at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan (U.S. Air Force)

In the 1980s, the company expanded to goggles and the Oakley name became more recognizable in the world of sports. The iconic Oakley M Frame hit the market in 1989 and introduced the company’s High Definition Optics® technology. With three points of contact, one on each temple and the nose bridge, the M Frame was both comfortable and stable and was adopted in many sports. The separation of the frame’s arms from the head provided space for helmet straps and Oakley M Frames became especially popular amongst cyclists.

oakley military airman
An airman wearing M Frame 2.0s in Afghanistan (U.S. Air Force)

With the adoption of its iconic “O” logo, Oakley’s brand recognition grew through the 1990s and early 2000s. Oakleys appeared on-screen in movies like Black Hawk Down and Mission: Impossible II, making them must-have eyewear for the general public. Although they weren’t designed specifically for tactical use, the eye coverage offered by M Frames made them a popular choice with SWAT units and military operators (when they were allowed).

oakley military green beret
A Green Beret wearing tan M Frame 3.0s with clear lenses (U.S. Army)

The use of Oakleys in the military really took off with the introduction of the ballistic-rated M Frame 2.0 in 2006. Not intended to replace the regular M Frame, the 2.0 was designed specifically for military use and surpassed ANSI Z87.1 Industrial Standards for high-mass and high-velocity impact protection. In addition to its durability, stability and comfort, the M Frame lenses can be quickly changed from clear to tinted depending on the user’s needs.

With the Global War on Terror in full swing, the military emphasized the use of eye protection and the M Frame 2.0 was included in the Army’s Authorized Protective Eyewear List. In 2012, military feedback on the 2.0 led to the development of the M Frame 3.0. Using thinner, curved arms and removing the Unobtainium® earsocks, the 3.0 allows for more comfortable wear under helmet straps and communication equipment while remaining stable on the face. The latest M Frame Alpha builds on the thinner profile of the 3.0 while making lens changes easier.

oakley military EOD
An EOD airman wearing Oakley military sunglasses in Iraq, c. 2011 (U.S. Air Force)

The M Frame 2.0, 3.0 and Alpha models are all Army-approved eyewear. However, Oakley’s reputation for durability and performance led to other models being worn by service members. The Flak line, especially with its Asian fit, is a popular alternative that fits some wearers more comfortably than the larger M Frames. Although ESS, Honeywell, Revision and Wiley X also produce Army-approved eyewear, Oakley’s brand recognition makes it a top choice for troops both in the field and in the barracks.

Feature Image: U.S. Army