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Bush Craft – From duck to duct – the story of a legend


Story & pictures Paul Donovan

If I were only allowed to pack three items in a survival pack, they would be a knife, paracord, and duct tape. With these, I think you could surmount any catastrophe. It’s likely we know the origins of the knife and paracord (ok, if you don’t, paracord is used for parachute guylines), but what about duct (or duck) tape? What’s the story there?
Without a doubt, duct tape has to be one of the greatest products ever invented. I have lost count of the myriad times I have used it to get me out of a sticky situation, and read stories of similar accounts.
That has to be one of its biggest attributes: there seem to be few boundaries as to its application.

Your favourite water bottle has sprung a leak? Duct tape it…

Going back to WW2

Believe it or not, this sticky tape has its origins way back in WW2. It was invented by a division of the global Johnson & Johnson brand in response to the US military’s needs for a waterproof tape. Unlike the subtle grey colour we associate with it today, the tape was originally olive green in colour to blend in with the myriad military applications it would eventually be put to.
What Johnson & Johnson came up with was a rubber-like material, which an ingenious boffin in a white coat (in this case a lady by the name of Vesta Stoud) had the brainwave of sticking to duck cloth backing for strength. That explains its original name ‘Duck Tape’. However, some believe the name originated from the tape’s water-shedding ability.

Duct tape actually has three layers: a top layer of water-repellent polyethene, a middle layer of fabric mesh, and a sticky layer of adhesive.
The tape found many uses throughout the war. I believe it was originally designed to seal up ammunition boxes and make them waterproof, but it was soon being used to patch up broken jeeps and aircraft, and even in First Aid situations – to hold broken bones in place, as a sling, and as a makeshift plaster to seal wounds.
When the war was over, the tape filtered down into civilian use and was marketed to the construction industry as a way of holding pipes and air-conditioning ducts together. At the same time, it underwent a colour change from military green to a civilian grey colour, helping it to blend in with the ducts. It was also rebranded ‘duct tape’ – the name we associate it with today.
I believe the military green version is still manufactured in America but is not exported. Ironically, some research has found that duct tape should not actually be used to seal joints in ducts, as it can become brittle and fail. It can also catch fire.

Wartime service again

The tape, again, saw service during the Vietnam war. Helicopters were particularly at risk from enemy fire and a well-aimed shot or stray bullet could bring a chopper down. More often than not, the bullet missed the fuselage and ripped through a rotor blade. Wind passing through the bullet hole caused a terrible vibration, which made the helicopter unstable and difficult to control.

To the rescue came duct tape. When the chopper landed to refuel, technicians would run out with a roll of tape and seal up the bullet holes, which restored balance and integrity. Such was its stickiness that the tape held firm, although it was prone to occasionally lifting, and when covering a larger hole formed sizeable clumps which could also cause stability problems. That said, many choppers were said to have flown hundreds of miles with duct tape plasters on their rotors.

You have worked up a blister and need to keep going? First pad the blister, then add a strip of the sticky stuff.

Gulf War

Duct tape even played an integral role in protecting helicopters during the Gulf War. As the helicopters took off or landed, such dust storms were whirled up that the edges of the rotor blades were becoming eroded – also leading to vibration problems. An ingenious air technician had the brainwave of placing strips of duct tape along the leading edge of the rotor blade, which protected it from the sand-blasting. Another feather in the cap for duct tape.
I have used it on mechanical objects but also to repair broken tent poles, to keep my trousers up, in a First Aid situation to strap a broken finger (don’t stick it directly to the finger, otherwise it is jolly painful when you try and take it off!), to cover a blister (as with the finger, don’t stick it directly to the blister), and as tinder to start a fire when I couldn’t find any dry stuff. (If you use it to start a fire, be aware that it gives off toxic fumes, so don’t breathe them in.) I have even used it as a temporary fix to seal a split in my mountain bike tyre.
Following the expiry of the patent, the tape is now manufactured by no less than eight different companies in the US. You may have come across ‘Gorilla tape’. This is not a knock-off brand or, simply, duct tape being marketed under another name. It is an evolution of duct tape and tape in its own right. It is actually stronger than duct tape, as it uses two offset layers of fibres instead of one and features a stronger adhesive.
The only problem I have found with duct tap is that if you leave it stuck to something for any length of time in hot weather, when you try and peel it off it leaves the sticky glue attached to the object, which can be difficult to clean off.

A book that might shame the heft of War & Peace could be written on the myriad uses of duct tape. From its origins during World War Two until modern times, duct tape has become the go-to item when things need fixing in a hurry. It has not only saved lives but gotten many 4x4ers out of sticky situations. If you don’t have a roll in your kit, best you go and buy one now, and you’ll thank yourself down the line when you really do need the stuff.