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I make toys for kids who don't want to grow up. I'm on the lookout for new projects. If you're interested in commissioning me to build something ridiculous, shoot me an email.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Cobra Trooper Costumes

In the GI Joe cartoons, they always said "knowing is half the battle."  Assuming I know what I need to know, I figured I should get a handle on the other half of the battle: enemy cannon fodder 

The Cobra Infantry troopers were this cannon fodder.  This horde of nameless soldiers showed up en masse whenever the show needed a big battle scene.  In case you don't remember the cartoon, they looked like so:

When I was a kid, I often wondered what would compel someone to join the bad guys in a fictional universe.  It seems like it's probably not easy to recruit for an outfit touted as "an evil terrorist organization, determined to rule the world," especially when it looks like your primary job responsibility is to get wiped out by the good guys at the end of every weekly episode.  The motives of the thousands of unnamed dudes were always fascinating to me.  It turns out, there's in-universe explanations for their actions.  From Joepedia:

 Before Cobra started to have more specialized personnel, there were the Cobra Troopers. These men served as the basic infantrymen of Cobra. Each man swore absolute loyalty to Cobra Commander. While serving as the infantrymen of the organization, they are also cross-trained to be proficient in at least two other support skills. Cobra Troopers are mercenaries, criminals and people who are angry at the world who have taken up Cobra's offer of wealth and power.

 Or the file card on the back of the action figure package:

So yeah.  They're just bad guys and apparently there's no shortage of them looking for work.  Got it.

Over the years, the depictions of the Cobra infantry troopers have changed a bit:

The action figures have also been updated from time to time:

They've almost always had their vaguely Nazi looking helmets, Eastern Bloc weapons, and the big, red Cobra logo emblazoned at center mass, like a convenient bullseye for the GI Joes to aim at.  Over the past three decades, there must have been dozens of variations on this theme.  Out of all of them, my favorite rendition is the one-sixth scale figure offered by Sideshow Collectibles a few years back:
Starting with the general aesthetic of the Cobra Troopers, they managed to "un-cartoon" them and create a believable real-world look.  So if there was a costume version to build, this one was perfect for me.

I'd already made a kinda right looking helmet for my Cobra Commander costume:

Painted Cobra Commander Helmet

A while back I'd made the mistake of leaving the helmet mold out where I could see it, so whenever I find myself doing fiberglass work and have some leftover material, I tend to just crank out another copy of this helmet.  It's a problem:

But with most of the skirt trimmed off of the bottom and a coat of darker blue paint, the Cobra Commander helmet is the Cobra Trooper helmet:

For the most part, the rest of the Cobra trooper ensemble was made of off-the shelf items.  I even put together an Amazon re-order list so I could replicate the whole thing in a hurry if need be.  You can check it out here: https://amzn.to/3d4Bzyq

Here's all of the store-bought parts laid out with one of the helmets:
Tactical Pouches and Whatnots

That was the easy part.  

The hard part was, try as I might, I couldn't find a shirt that looked the part.  A lesser maker might have been happy with a BDU shirt with a logo on the shoulder, or a pullover combat shirt with no collar, but in order to achieve the look I wanted, I needed a closed collar shirt built like a fatigue shirt with no visible buttons and the placket closing way over to the right-hand side so there would be no visible opening in the middle.  

Since I couldn't just buy the shirt I needed off the rack somewhere, the next best thing was to have it custom made.  Having no real desire to spend money on this project and no skilled seamstress chomping at the bit to make the thing for me for free, it was time to grit my way through picking up some more sewing skills.

To be clear, I hate sewing.  Most of the reason I hate sewing is that I have no formal training and, while I'm capable of muddling my way through and making fabric stick together and look professional, I spend the entire time thinking the following:

I don't know what I'm doing.
Someone out there knows how to do this right.
Someone out there would actually enjoy doing this.
Why the hell can't I find that someone and talk them into doing this?

It also doesn't help that I'm usually using a 1950's vintage industrial machine that has no built-in functions other than stitching in one direction.  This is why most photos of me sewing are angry looking photos:
Shawn Sewing Anger

This time around it would be different.  I've been largely enjoying an unprecedented amount of isolation and free time on account of the global pandemic.  So I decided to take advantage of the lull and watch a bunch of YouTube videos telling me all the things I've been doing wrong over the years.  The most helpful channel I found for learning the basics of sewing was Tock Custom.  That guy has dozens of videos explaining everything the sewing-illiterate needs to know including how to read patterns, what tools you need, types of seams, and sewing machine basics.  It turns out this is all I needed in order to get past most of my historical frustrations with the process.

Since I didn't have a pattern to work with, I'd have to make one.  I started by digging one of my old Navy Working Uniform shirts out of storage:
NWU Uniform Shirt

The various panels of this shirt were traced out on paper so I would have the shapes I'd need.  Then I used pattern tracing paper to make smoother versions of them with an additional 5/8" margin added to the outside (which I now know is called a "seam allowance"). While I left off the chest and sleeve pockets, I decided to retain the reinforced patches on the elbows and the tabs for the sleeve button closures.

So here's the beginning of me laying out the patterns for cutting on some navy blue poly/cotton twill:
Pattern Layout for Cutting

The fabric also came from Amazon.  You can get it here: LINK or here: LINK
Once I'd cut out all of the panels, it was time to start sticking them together.  In this case, I started by making the button tabs for the sleeves, then assembling the collars with the interfacing inside for stiffness.  Then I sewed the reinforcement patches onto the elbows and made the placket where the shirt front would close.  Then it was time to make the parts look like shirts.

Taking a cue from my old uniform shirt, I needed the seams to look like this:
Flat Felled Seams

I've now learned that this is called a "flat felled seam," common on heavy duty garments such as jeans and work clothes.  I might have opted for something simpler, but it was also the way the seams were made up on the BDU pants I was using:
Flat Felled Seam

If you don't know how to make this type of seam, check out that Tock Customs YouTube channel I mentioned.  It's a bit of a pain, but the resulting look is just what I needed to match the store-bought pants that would go with the costume.

After a couple of surprisingly calm, un-angry evenings, I had two shirts made:
Assembled Shirts

I made two sizes of cobra logos on my vinyl cutter and then used my T-shirt press to fix the logos in place:
Shirt with Logos

At this point, I had to try everything on.  In case you're wondering why the Cobra Troopers always wear facemasks and helmets, it's probably to keep them from looking like this:
Test Fit 2

The very last step in the shirt sewing process was to learn how to use the automatic butthole feature on Dr. Girlfriend's sewing machine to make button holes in the sleeve tabs:
Buttons installed

Then it was a matter of strapping everything together: 
VanDerp as Cobra Trooper

That's my assistant Rachel.  She wasn't nearly big enough to look right in this outfit, but it was a start.

The rifle is an airsoft AK74 from Lancer Tactical.  It looks good, has a folding stock and plenty of weight, but it would never be allowed into any convention.

Of course, I can never make just one of anything.  At this point I did happen to have four helmets: 
  Cobra Trooper Helmet Lineup

You'll note the big black emblem on the helmet in the foreground.  That's apparently the distinguishing mark that indicates he's an officer.  That, and replacing the black balaclava with a red one:

In order to make it cheaper and possibly more logical, I decided that my version of this guy would have the same black harness and pouches as the rest of the troops.  Bad enough that the red mask makes him stand out so much from the crowd.  It seems weird to outfit the officers with completely different kit. 

Also, since I had some rank devices left over, I decided this guy will be a major in the Cobra infantry.

Someday I may go through the trouble of making another shirt so it can have silver logos like the old action figures did:

For now, I have two finished costumes and can call this a done thing.  I just need to find a couple of models and do a photoshoot.

So far, I just can't take the costume seriously when my shop assistant Rachel is wearing it:

Stay tuned for proper finished photos of a couple of henchmen for an evil terrorist organization, determined to rule the world...


  1. Thanks for the sewing channel recommendation. It's a skill I haven't yet touched and it's nice to have a good starting point.

  2. That is awesome! Made only more fascinating by the knowledge that Cobra is appanrently in control of a sewing machine with an "...automatic butthole feature..." (best typo ever?).

    Certainly could explain why they seem so angry all the time. If I were in there infantry, I'd definitely petition for all velcro uniforms.