When I began collecting patches in the 1970s, reproductions of missile patches did not exist. If someone wanted a patch from a particular unit and found it, they could be 100 percent certain it was an authentic, original patch from the era when the unit was active, often referred to as a “period patch.” That is no longer the case.
The first USAF missile patches to be reproduced (i.e., made again after the unit was inactivated) were the three created in the mid-1980s by the Missile Heritage Foundation (MHF), a private association then active at Vandenberg AFB. Using official art work and descriptions obtained from the Air Force, the MHF commissioned “post-period” patches for the following early strategic missile wings: 451 SMW, 702 SMW, and 704 SMW. (These are presented in the “Museums, Foundations, & Associations” album of the gallery.)
Another decade elapsed before other missile patches were remade by other missile veteran organizations (e.g., The Tactical Missileers). But rather than serving as fundraisers, these were created principally for former members of units who wanted a patch (or an additional patch) from the unit(s) in which they had served. (These are not in the gallery.) All of these repro’s can easily be distinguished from original Matador, Mace, Atlas, and Titan I patches because the originals were, with few exceptions, produced on looms (as were the early Titan II and Minuteman patches), whereas the later patches were made on multihead sewing machines and therefore have an entirely different look and feel. And then eBay made its debut in the late 1990s and before long dozens of patch sellers appeared, specializing in reproductions of both older and more recent patches. But rather than being multihead-made, nearly all of these are made on old-fashioned, single-needle sewing machines, guided by hand rather than a computer. As such, they have a distinctive and often sloppy look, making them relatively easy to spot.
Today, many patches offered on eBay and other online venues are modern recreations of the originals. Sometimes they are identified as such but too often they are not. So if you're looking for a period patch for your scrapbook or shadow box, the admonition “caveat emptor” should be taken to heart. Since nearly all patches displayed in the AAFM gallery are originals (the few exceptions are noted), they can and should be used for comparison when attempting to determine the authenticity of a patch you are considering.
Two special types of repro’s with quasi-official status also exist, called Heritage and Reunion patches. Heritage patches are reproductions of earlier patches that were worn by a unit during an earlier era, usually World War II but sometimes later, whose wear on today’s uniforms has been sanctioned, and often even encouraged, by commanders (for example on Fridays). Heritage patches are ordered by the unit or a unit member. Closely-related Reunion patches are similar creations, but differ from Heritage patches in that they normally have been ordered by a veteran's organization of unit alumni rather than by the an active unit. Visually, there is nothing that differentiates a Heritage from a Reunion patch (unless the reunion patch has an added tab or scroll containing the reunion location and/or year). In fact, both Heritage and Reunion patches are often made to mirror, as closely as possible, an original unit patch (exact same size and colors), so the only clues one might have as to their recent origin are the differences in the weave and type of backing. Because Heritage patches originated in the unit, I have included them in the gallery (and have tried to remember to always label them "Heritage"). With a few noted exceptions, Reunion patches are omitted because, generally speaking, they aren't worn by active-duty members.
I should mention that if you're an individual who's considering having your old unit patch reproduced, be advised that official U.S. Air Force emblems are protected by federal law; reproduction for commercial use or for profit is not permitted without express permission from the individual unit commander. And if you're thinking it's okay because your unit was inactivated years ago so there's no one to ask, remember that many units are reactivated later on with different designations (one example is the old 381 SMW at McConnell, which almost had a longer life as the 381 TRG at Vandenberg), and even when that's not the case, it could be at some future date because of the USAF's Lineage and Honors system. For emblems from inactive units, the appropriate thing to do would be to ask permission from the Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA), custodian of the records for all official USAF emblems.
By the way, unless you need them in quantity, it's easier, and often less expensive, to obtain vintage originals from auction houses, patch dealers, and/or collectors than to have old patches remade. Nevertheless, "Knock-off Kings" will continue to reproduce any patches for which they think there's a market, even when doing so is illegal. As I said before, buyer beware. If you've already used the gallery for comparison purposes and are still unsure whether a patch you're considering is an original or a reproduction, I'll be happy to provide my opinion. Just forward a scan via the AAFM and I'll get back to you.
Curator, AAFM Patch Gallery