The differences between “real” Military Specification compliant Paracord and “commercial” paracord are very specific and very well-defined. However, they are neither well known nor well understood, especially by people who are not in the MilSpec Paracord manufacturing business.
And yes, some of these differences between mil-spec and commercial paracord are very significant.
Military Specification Paracord is manufactured in strict accordance with the Military Specification C-5040H, and commercial paracord is not manufactured to any single manufacturing, quality control or delivery standard.
Clearly, most people would not have the skill, experience or manufacturing data or information to determine whether most of the requirements of MilSpec C-5040H had been fulfilled or not.
However, there are four easily-observed distinctions between MilSpec Paracord and commercial paracord, that a layman could easily learn and detect with a simple visual inspection.
NOTE: These visual inspections refer specifically to “Type III” Paracord, which is the type of paracord that most people are referring to when they talk about “Paracord.”
To make these visual inspections, cut off one end of your paracord with a sharp knife or scissors, and pull back the outer protective sheath, or “mantle” of the paracord. This will reveal the multiple Inner Strands, or the “kern” of the paracord.
The observations below can be easily made with the naked eye, and ALL FOUR of the following requirements MUST be met for Paracord to be “Mil-Spec” rather than just “commercial” paracord.
(1) 7 or 8 or 9 INNER STRANDS – count the numbers of the INNER STRANDS in your paracord. MilSpec C-5040H requires that Type III Paracord MUST have 7 or 8 or 9 Inner Strands. If your paracord has 6 or fewer Inner Strands, it is definitely not Mil-Spec Paracord.
(2) 3 INSIDE STRANDS – Count the numbers of INSIDE Strands that make up the 7 or 8 or 9 INNER Strands referred to above. MilSpec C-5040H requires that each of the 7 or 8 or 9 Inner Strands be made up of exactly 3 Inside Strands. Commercial paracord very often has INNER Strands that are made up of only 2 INSIDE Strands. If your Paracord doesn’t have exactly 3 INSIDE Strands, it is definitely not Mil-Spec Paracord.
(3) Twisted Strands – Observe the INNER and INSIDE Strands of your Paracord closely, again. All of the INNER and INSIDE strands MUST be twisted to be in compliance with MilSpec C-5040H. Some commercial Paracord has straight, rather than twisted INNER and / or INSIDE Strands, or even a combination of straight and twisted Strands. If ALL of the INNER and INSIDE Strands of your Paracord are not twisted, your Paracord is definitely not compliant with the MilSpec.
(4) Colored Manufacturer’s ID Marker Strand – Inspect closely, again, the Inner Strands of your Paracord. This strand is also sometimes referred to as a “Manufacturer’s ID Strand,” a “Colored Marker Strand,” a “Colored ID Marker Strand, or even simply an “ID Marker Strand.” The Mil-Spec requires that every manufacturer of true Mil-Spec C-5040H compliant Paracord include this twisted COLORED Manufacturer’s Identification Marker Strand in all of their Paracord.
The United States military assigns the color or colors of these ID Marker Strands to each individual manufacturer of Mil-Spec Paracord.The reason for the inclusion of the Colored ID Marker Strand is for manufacturing “accountability.” In other words, the manufacturer of any given Mil-Spec paracord can be determined by observing the Colored ID Marker Strand twisted inside of the Paracord.
Commercial paracord often does not include a Colored ID Marker Strand. However, sometimes, even commercial paracord DOES include a Colored ID Marker Strand. This is a cheap trick used by some manufacturers of commercial paracord to make their paracord appear to be the stronger and more reliable MilSpec Paracord. Remember, if your paracord DOES have a Colored ID Marker Strand, but does NOT have the features described above in items 1, 2 and 3, your Paracord is definitely NOT compliant with the Mil-Spec C-5040H.
In Summary: the differences between mil-spec paracord and commercial is that Mil-Spec Paracord MUST have 7 or 8 or 9 TWISTED INNER Strands, each made up of exactly 3 TWISTED INSIDE Strands, and must include a Manufacturer’s Colored ID Marker Strand.
Another NOTE: Just because your paracord does, indeed, very specifically include all four of the requirements above, this, in and of itself, does not mean that your paracord definitely IS compliant with Mil-C-5040H. This Military Specification is 20 pages in length, and includes many more requirements than just the 4 requirements above.
However, you can know for certain that if your paracord does NOT have ALL four of the features listed above, then it has definitely NOT been manufactured to Mil-C-5040H, and is definitely NOT “real” MilSpec Paracord.