Paracord AKA 550 Cord
Parachute cord (also paracord or 550 cord) is a lightweight nylon kernmantle rope originally used in the suspension lines of US parachutes during World War II. Once in the field, paratroopers found this cord useful for many other tasks. It is now used as a general purpose utility cord by both military personnel and civilians. This versatile cord was even used by astronauts during STS-82, the second Space Shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
The braided sheath has a high number of interwoven strands for its size, giving it a relatively smooth texture. The all-nylon construction makes paracord fairly elastic; depending on the application this can be either an asset or a liability.
While the U.S. military has no overall diameter requirements in its specifications, in the field 550 cord typically measures 5/32″ (4mm) in diameter.
Despite the historic association of pararopes with Airborne units, virtually all US units have access to the cord. It is used in almost any situation where light cordage is needed. Typical uses include attaching equipment to harnesses, as dummy cords to avoid losing small or important items, tying rucksacks to vehicle racks, securing camouflage nets to trees or vehicles, and so forth. When threaded with beads, paracord may be used as a pace counter to estimate ground covered by foot. The yarns of the core (commonly referred to as “the guts”) can also be removed when finer string is needed, for instance as sewing thread to repair gear or fishing line in a survival situation. The nylon sheath is often used alone, the yarn in the core removed, when a thinner or less elastic cord is needed. Ends of the cord are almost always melted and crimped to prevent fraying.
In addition to purely utility functions, paracord can be used to fashion knotted or braided bracelets, lanyards, belts, and other decorative items.
US Military issue paracord is specified by MIL-C-5040H in six types: I, IA, II, IIA, III, IV. Types IA and IIA are composed solely of a sheath without a core. Type III, a type commonly found in use, is nominally rated with a minimum breaking strength of 550 pounds, thus the sobriquet “550 cord”.
The US military specification for paracord outlines a number of parameters to which the final product must conform. Although it contains specific denier figures for the sheath strands and inner yarns, there are no overall diameter requirements for the cord itself. Below is a table of selected elements from the specification.
The same properties which soldiers appreciate in paracord are also useful in civilian applications. After World War II parachute cord became available to civilians, first as military surplus and then as a common retail product from various surplus stores and online websites. While some commercially available paracord is made to specification, even when labeled as such a given product may not correspond exactly to a specific military type and can be of differing construction, quality, color, or strength. Particularly poor quality examples may have significantly fewer strands in the sheath or core, cores constructed of bulk fiber rather than individual yarns, or include materials other than nylon.
Paracord has also been used by many since the 1970s for whipmaking. The durability and versatility of this material has proved beneficial for performing whip crackers and enthusiasts. Since nylon doesn’t rot or mildew, it has become known as an all-weather material for whipmaking. Nylon whips have grown in popularity over the last few decades, more so in the last several years.
Other uses of parachute cord is in the stringing of mallet percussion instruments, such the xylophone, marimba, or vibraphone.
A very similar usage niche is nylon webbing, a strong, economical fabric woven as a flat strip or tube, also often used in place of rope.