Whether it was to find quality clothing that was literally designed for a battlefield, some basic camping gear or just the kind of prepper-friendly goods you couldn’t find at a department store, there used to be the Army/Navy surplus store. Anyone who grew up from the 1950s through the 1990s likely remembers that smell; it wasn’t exactly “napalm in the morning,” but it was very much a blast from the past.
Those “aromas” were a combination of old clothing, along with leather, plastic and rubber that had been in storage just a bit too long, intermixed with a bit of mildew and, at times, a fair offering of rust. To many, that might not sound as if it would be an attraction for a retailer. Yet, if you were looking for quality military surplus, it was a welcome smell.
These shops were the places at which military history met military collecting; where equipment from anytime after World War II to Vietnam that had been used in the field, as well as much that was never issued, was offered for sale. Whenever the U.S. government would “order” too many uniforms or find it didn’t really need an extra million or so canteens, this type of stuff was offered cheap via specialty retailers who sold it to an eager public.
Today, there are still so-called “Army/Navy” shops around, but anyone visiting them is more likely to find knockoff camouflage for playing airsoft or overpriced camping gear rather than the good-quality “vintage stuff.” The sad fact is that the heyday of the military surplus store has passed, and with it, the way for preppers to get their hands on the quality military-grade gear deals they seek. Instead, with few exceptions, there are now online catalogs that offer “surplus” mixed in, but it simply isn’t the same.
The Origin of Surplus
While the idea of “surplus” to many today is camouflage, the original surplus was actually heavy, navy-blue wool peacoats, ill-fitting combat boots and lots and lots of guns and canvas gear. Military surplus began in the United States following the Civil War. The reason was that this “War Between the States” was the first conflict in which the military provided uniforms for the troops.
“Military surplus began in the United States following the Civil War. The reason was that [it] was the first conflict in which the military provided uniforms for the troops.”
The reasoning was simple: In earlier wars, the number of soldiers was small, and beyond the U.S. Army, most soldiers owned their militia uniforms. There had been only 7,000 soldiers at the start of the War of 1812, along with 458,463 serving in the various militias. By the end of the Civil War, some 2,200,000 men (and some women) served in the U.S. military, while roughly 1,000,000 more fought on the side of the Confederacy. Each side had to mass-produce uniforms and equipment and, after the war, there was a massive surplus, not only of uniforms, but also rifles and even horses the military no longer needed.
To recoup some of the costs, the U.S. government began to auction off these items to civilians at cut-rate prices. This process became tedious and time-consuming, so soon, the military just eagerly offered items in bulk to anyone who wanted them. One individual cashed in: Francis Bannerman, who went on to build a surplus empire that even included a castle (see the ‘Bannerman’s Surplus’ sidebar below)!
The need to sell surplus equipment grew again after the Spanish-American War and then in earnest after World War I. But a big change to the business came in the 1930s, when federal and state firearms acts, including the National Firearms Act of 1934, banned the military from selling weapons directly to consumers or even foreign countries.
The Heyday of Surplus
Francis Bannerman is largely remembered by collectors today, but he set the model for how surplus stores could be run in the aftermath of World War II. America’s need to be the “arsenal of democracy” essentially created the military surplus store—something that existed in major cities, the burgeoning suburbs and even in rural communities.
“It wasn’t just American surplus that filled these stores. NATO surplus, as well as surplus from neutral countries … was dumped on the market.”
This continued again after Korea and then Vietnam. Even the anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s did little to slow the growth of the surplus store. Thus began the “golden age” of the surplus store, which continued throughout the latter years of the Cold War.
It wasn’t just American surplus that filled these stores. NATO surplus, as well as surplus from neutral countries (Switzerland and Sweden, for example), was dumped on the market. This included Swiss Army bikes, military skis, tents and all sorts of field gear.
Then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. Within three years, the Soviet Union was no more. Suddenly, vast quantities of Warsaw Pact/communist bloc military surplus were offered for sale. There was simply more “supply” than “demand” for a while, and that caused the first problem for dealers. Items that had once been rare and sought-after now flooded the market.
The Persian Gulf War of 1991 also resulted in new “desert” camouflage items suddenly being released to complement the vast quantities of woodland camouflage offerings. The Pax Americana of the 1990s came to a crashing halt on September 11, 2001, which began the still-ongoing Global War on Terror. This resulted in a slight boon for the surplus market but, in truth, the armies of the world are actually much smaller than at any time since before World War II.
While there were more than 10 million American soldiers in uniform during the Vietnam War, there’s been under a quarter of that number serving in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As the U.S. military needs fewer soldiers, there’s simply less military equipment—and, as a result, less surplus.
“These shops were the places at which military history met military collecting; where equipment from anytime after World War II to Vietnam that had been used in the field, as well as much that was never issued, was offered for sale.”
“There’s still a great deal of surplus, but the old stuff has all but dried up,” said Jim Korn, owner of Kaufman’s Army and Navy Store, which has been a fixture on New York City’s 42nd Street for decades. “There’s still some German and Austrian stuff coming in, but a lot of vendors are making quasi-surplus stuff that’s of lower quality.” Korn, whose grandfather started the shop before World War II, told American Survival Guide, “There’s no over-abundance like we’ve seen in the past.”
Faux Surplus and Online Catalogs
As the “real-deal” military surplus dried up, the stores evolved, offering work pants and shirts, camping gear, hunting accessories and modern tactical clothing. These began to resemble a Gander Mountain or Cabela’s and had less actual surplus.
The downside for the prepper looking for deals was that much of the new stuff was no bargain and—making matters worse—the quality wasn’t up to true MIL-SPECs (military specifications). For the shops, it also meant that their bottom lines suffered, because the profit margins for hunting and camping gear is much lower than that of true military surplus.
Even those shops that can continue to get the “good stuff”—those located near military bases or with good connections—can see their days coming to an end for a few other reasons. The first is that these have largely been family businesses, and while the torch might have been passed from one generation to the next, it’s unlikely this trend will continue.
“ … some nations have started to ban the practice of selling off surplus. This will only make it harder for preppers to get their hands on the good stuff.”
“The major decline in the Army/Navy [store] is because old-time dealers are retiring, and their kids don’t want to do this,” Korn explained.
The second trend is that surplus is actually still available: It’s moved online, both to small sellers offering items on eBay and other Internet platforms, but also via catalog companies such as Sportsman’s Guide. The large operators still offer a good variety of products, and preppers can find great deals, but the downside is not being able to see the items “in the flesh” to determine size, fit, quality or durability.
Another trend has been that at times, military surplus has become fashionable. Leather bomber jackets, especially those that have been customized with a painted insignia or aircraft nose art, are so collectible that the prices exceed that of a new coat. Likewise, retailers such as Urban Outfitters have sometimes offered military-style items, including a so-called “vintage U.S. Navy coverall” for $120.
Whether all such items are actually “vintage” is questionable, but it resulted in similar attire spiking in price on eBay. The same has been true of Navy peacoats, Israeli “paratrooper bags” and other surplus. Whatever the item, once the “hip” crowd discovers it, the price skyrockets.
The final nail in the surplus store coffin is the fact that even as soldiers remain deployed around the world, some nations have started to ban the practice of selling off surplus. This will only make it harder for preppers to get their hands on the good stuff.
Don’t Forget These Surplus Items
Not all military surplus is equal. Collectors love the old helmets, dress uniforms and accoutrements. This “museum” stuff is nice to look at, but it isn’t what draws preppers to a surplus store. It’s the durable clothing, the quality-made equipment that can literally go to war and the gear designed for a battlefield. You pick up some clothing, including pants, jackets, T-shirts and socks, and then head over and get surplus web gear, which can include ammo pouches, rucksacks and map cases.
However, there are a few other items to add to your surplus store shopping list.
MIL-SPEC Cots. While these don’t offer the comfort of a high-quality bed, a military cot is a whole lot better than sleeping on the cold, hard ground night after night. Many of these even feature a military mosquito net, which can be crucial in the warmer months. It can help ensure a good night’s rest and keep potentially infectious insects from eating you alive.
Military Blankets/Sleeping Bags. Along with the cot, that heavy wool blanket or military sleeping bag will seem like a godsend in your post-civilization bunker. These might not be as nice as the blankets at a five-star hotel, but they could last a whole lot longer.
Military Sewing Kits. Almost every military surplus store worth visiting will have a few of these sitting behind the counter (and most will have a thick coat of dust). Pick up a few of these on your next outing, because nothing beats having some extra thread and a needle at hand. It also helps to have period-type thread for mending vintage clothes.
Ammo Boxes. Go to a gun show, and chances are that there’ll be some joker offering heavy plastic ammo boxes for what might seem like a king’s ransom. Skip that junk and pick up some actual military surplus ammo boxes instead. These will be metal and will go the distance—and beyond. Just be sure to check the condition of the rubber seal in the lid.
Canvas Belts. While web gear is good (and do pick up some of that stuff too), don’t forget to grab a number of canvas belts. In addition to keeping your pants up, these belts can be used to quickly and easily hold your other gear together.
Boots. “Military-style” boots can be bought online or from outdoor retailers, but surplus stores are more likely to offer the absolutely legit MIL-SPEC boots. Napoleon reportedly said, “An army marches on its stomach,” and while that might be figuratively true, it’s important to remember that it also marches on its feet!
The guns of the American Civil War had barely fallen silent when the first military surplus empire was born. Francis Bannerman VI was just 14 years old when his family began buying military surplus left over from the recently concluded conflict.
Three decades later, Bannerman opened a store on New York City’s Broadway—not to sell surplus to civilians, but to help outfit volunteers eager to fight in the Spanish-American War.
When that conflict ended, Bannerman then bought weapons directly from the Spanish government, along with items that were captured by the American military and sold at auction. It was all too much for Bannerman’s shop, so he vastly expanded his already-successful mail order catalog, thus setting the model for the Sportsman’s Guide catalog and all the modern catalogs to come.
Via these catalogs, one could buy uniforms, dress helmets, rifles … and even cannons! In the era before the National Firearms Act of 1934, private citizens could purchase weapons the military no longer needed, and while Bannerman never actively sold machine guns, he did offer enough firepower to equip a small army (ah, those were the days … ).
Bannerman was successful, and with his success came a bit of paranoia. His New York City showroom was too small to store his arsenal of weapons or the 30 million rounds of surplus ammunition. So, in 1900, he purchased Pollepel Island, located about 50 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River. It was just 6.5 acres, but it was the perfect place to build a warehouse. Nevertheless, it was no ordinary warehouse: Bannerman, being a bit eccentric, opted to build a castle.
Most of the building was used for storage, but there was also a small residence on top of the castle. “Bannerman Castle,” as it became known, served as an advertisement for his business. It was never fully completed by the time Bannerman died in 1918; and, just two years later, 200 pounds of shells and powder exploded, destroying much of the complex.
With the passage of various laws that barred the sale of military weapons to civilians (notably, the aforementioned National Firearms Act), the business declined, but Bannerman (the company) continued to sell weapons until the 1960s. By then, time had taken its toll, not only on the castle—which was further damaged in a fire in 1969—but also on the original Broadway showroom. What had once been a well-organized surplus shop filled with treasure became little more than a warehouse of mildewed uniforms and mismatched firearms that had the charm of a hoarder’s basement.
When the company finally folded, the New York Police Department bomb squad and U.S. Army took most of the remaining inventory, with most of it then burned or sunk in New York’s harbor. It was a sad end to the original surplus empire.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide