Optics and The First Camoflauge

Propper’s Blog posted up an excellent link on the early development of camouflage. As it turns out, the first impetus of camouflage in the modern era was from the development of optics… but not to target infantry.


But before the First World War, camouflage mostly consisted of wearing drab colors difficult clearly to see at a distance. The distinctive blotches of color that are so familiar to us today didn’t come about before then. So the question contains a very interesting sub-question: Why did camouflage as we know it today suddenly start to develop very quickly around World War I? I think you’d need to mention something very relevant in any discussion about World War I weapons technology: OPTICS.

The late 19th-early 20th c. brought about two critical innovations:

  • The optical or “coincidence range-finder”
  • Cubism [1]

main-qimg-124f47ebc1c9babdfef46efc4b844a1a (1)main-qimg-124f47ebc1c9babdfef46efc4b844a1a (1)

Prior to the invention of the optical range-finder, capital ships has previously guessed the ranges for their bombardments (often angling each barrel differently and seeing which was closest). After each salvo, the gunners would adjust based on feedback from the lookouts until on target.

With new optical range-finders, it was easy to get on-target. To disrupt the optical range-finders, navies opted to use Cubism principles to break up the outline of the vessel.


Shortly thereafter, the same ideas were applied to infantry and the modern camouflage era began in earnest.

For the full story, check out the full article on Quora, with detailed pictures, discussions on trigonometry, and analysis on why camo did not come about until later.


  • Pete Sheppard

    This is known in naval circles as ‘dazzle camouflage’; it made a resurgence during WWII. It assumes the ship WILL be seen, but misleanding enemy targeting systems long enough to hit the enemy first, OR get out of range if the attacker was a sub.

  • Fred Johnson

    Thanks for the link to Quora.

    I always like seeing those wild camo patterns and tried to replicate many of them when I made plastic models as a kid.

  • Risky

    “Shortly thereafter, the same ideas were applied to infantry and the modern camouflage era began in earnest.”

    Show me a doughboy in dazzle camo and this statement will have some merit. Infantry camouflage is based upon avoiding and reducing detection and has little to nothing to do with rangefinding. If confusing rangefinding was the priority on the ground, we would be employing stilted fighters and recruiting midget warriors. Infantry camouflage has its roots with the French ‘camofleurs’ and has nothing to do with dazzle camo ships.

    thereafter, the same ideas were applied to infantry and the modern
    camouflage era began in earnest. – See more at:

  • A.g.

    If I can :


    I know that’s french but this girl, studying geopolitics, is very accurate and relevant.

  • wetcorps

    So what happens if a cubist painter paints a dazzle camouflaged boat? Does it makes the boat appear oddly realistic in the painting, or does it double the cubism?

  • TominVista

    As an old submariner, I can offer some insight into the photo of the ship (actually a cargo or troop ship) that has the “cubist” black-and-white-stripe paint job. A WWI or WWII (and even later) submarine making a periscope approach leading to a torpedo attack, used estimated “angle on the bow” to determine the target ship’s course. Angle on the bow is the angle between the line of sight to the target and the fore-and-aft centerline (bow direction) of the target. The paint scheme disrupted the ability to see where the actual bow was and in what exact direction it was pointing. This disruption technique also led to convoys “zig-zagging” to mask the convoy’s actual overall direction of movement, and to try to preclude the submarine from closing the track of the targets, which were usually faster than the submerged submarine. Submarine periscopes typically used a built-in rangefinder which stacked two images of the target ship on one another. If you knew the height of the masts or funnels etc., then you could determine the approximate range to the target.