How to Buy, Collect and Repurpose Military Surplus Gear and Equipment

Picture shows a military surplus gas mask with elongated mouth piece with a filter attached.

So, you want to start collecting military surplus gear, or maybe you have compared prices with modern hunting and camping equipment prices to surplus prices. Whatever your reason, your curiosity has piqued an interest in purchasing military surplus items. Maybe you have questions and concerns about quality and condition—totally understandable. Judging via a picture online is difficult, and finding information is equally challenging. There are a limited number of resources when you attempt to research a particular piece—especially when it comes to foreign military surplus.

Not sure where to start? I hope this quick-start guide will be a good first step to beginning your collection.

Reasons for interest in buying military surplus equipment vary:

  • Military surplus collecting
  • Sentimental reasons
  • To own a significant piece of history
  • Nostalgia
  • It is rated for heavy field use
  • Cool and interesting items
  • Alternatives to expensive modern gear and equipment

Except for highly collectible, extremely rare and incredibly expensive items, such as authentic German WWII Third Reich pieces or Civil War swords and similar, generally surplus gear is extremely affordable, absolutely functional and durable. Highly collectible items are extremely difficult to find and come with a hefty price tag, and in some countries, they are illegal to own. For example, anything a fallen leader owned or touched commands a high price and high demand in certain circles. I found one Civil War sword listed for nearly $10,000. In addition to serious collectors, military surplus gear is popular with hunters, campers and preppers. We also recently have seen a resurgence in interest in military surplus guns. Especially gaining in popularity is the Mosin Nagant. When I bought mine, you could still find them for about $80. Due to popularity and demand, prices have risen. Historically, military surplus rifles are easy to find, affordable and cheap to feed, plus many people find them a joy to shoot.

Picture shows a series of eight different types of Mosin Nagant rifles wood stocks.
Especially gaining in popularity is the Mosin Nagant.

How Does Military Surplus End Up in Civilian Hands?

The United States military gets their equipment from big-name companies, such as BAE Systems. So how do we end up with it? The military gives up obsolete, excess and out-of-date gear and equipment to Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) Disposition Services that, in turn, sells or auctions it off.

Once equipment, gear and supplies becomes de-milled (which means retired, replaced with new gear, considered old or obsolete, no longer used, units go inactive, missions change or when supplies are in excess), the United States and foreign militaries auction off that gear. Additionally, people are still recovering long forgotten-about military equipment from storage in bunkers and warehouses.

For example, the military would contract out a product, such as a poncho, to a factory. That factory would then store the product off site. During WWII, bombs hit many of those factories. After the war, forgotten-about, off-site storage, incorrectly inventoried supplies or simply abandoned storage means that, years later, people still recover those old military supplies. The United States also will sell old supplies to foreign militaries. The government sells that surplus to try to recoup at least some of the large amounts of money spent on equipment.

From airplane parts to paper and printers—even a donkey and hovercraft—the government auctions almost all its once-owned property. However, the government destroys or renders inoperable some items, such as military vehicles and complete aircraft. They do that so useable military equipment will not fall into the wrong hands. Certain ammo cans and newly retired equipment also are equipment civilians cannot buy. European military surplus is not sold off until at least three years after decommissioning.

Picture shows a military surplus gas mask with elongated mouth piece with a filter attached.
Military surplus gear is not only cool to own, but worth every penny you spend.

There is no official standardized grading system for military surplus gear. Everyone who sells the gear defines its condition differently. Even though a company or store says it is in good condition, the buyer might think otherwise. Cheaper Than Dirt! developed its own grading system when listing military surplus gear. Cheaper Than Dirt! considers all military surplus products used even though some is in ‘new unissued’ condition. Cheaper Than Dirt! describes military surplus in four different conditions:

  • New, unissued
  • Grade I – Used, in like-new to excellent condition
  • Grade II – Used, in good condition, may show minor use
  • Grade III – Used, in fair condition, will show normal wear and tear from daily use

Cheaper Than Dirt!’s resident surplus experts and buyers pick out its surplus goods for many reasons. First, they choose items when the price and quality is right, and second, when they find collectible items high in demand. Our team also considers curious, unique or interesting items that come up for sale not readily available or easily obtained—such as a body bag or surgical suction pump. Findings include clothing, sleeping bags, tents, bags and other material goods are an affordable alternative to modern clothing, camping equipment and bags, especially when cotton prices are high. Some equal and similar products, such as backpacks and cold weather-rated sleeping bags, are much more expensive, and some are lesser quality than our typical surplus gear.

Some collectors may find certain information of interest such as the National Stock Number or NSN. The NSN is the number assigned to items requested by the government and recognized by NATO as a way to identify, track, standardize and organize products. The NSN system began in WWII to standardize and classify items the same way throughout every branch of the military. This 13-digit code always appears in the same format: four numbers followed by a dash, two numbers followed by a dash, two more numbers followed by a dash and then four final numbers, so it looks like this: 1234-56-78-9101. Called the Federal Supply Class, the first four numbers define the type of item. The next two numbers designate the country of origin—not manufacture—but country requesting item. The last seven digits are randomly assigned. The designations for the United States are 00 and 01. For example, when you read the magnesium fire starter’s NSN, it is 4240-01-160-5618, and the U.S.G.I Kevlar PASGT helmet’s number is 8470-01-300-3819. You can see that the second number in both sets is 01, meaning the United States requested the product. The NSN often appears in the extended descriptions such as on a case of weapons oil or a USMC pilot survival kit. If you are a collector, you may find this information helpful in organizing your own stockpile of supplies.

Picture shows a camo, military surplus backpack.
Some equal and similar products, like backpacks and cold weather-rated sleeping bags are much more expensive and some are lesser quality than our typical surplus gear.

I love military surplus items, from the useful to the just plain interesting. Cheaper Than Dirt! writers have written quite a few reviews about fun to functional military surplus gear. Get reading and get collecting! I think you will find military surplus gear is not only cool to own but also worth every penny you spend.

Remember, military surplus is in limited supplies, so not all products will be in stock, and we may not get them back. When you find something you are genuinely interested in and the price is right, I highly suggest jumping on it. Military surplus items are getting more and more scarce.

Do you collect or use military surplus gear? What have been some of your favorite finds? Share it with us in the comment section.


The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (7)

  1. I like shopping at military surplus stores because they have great camping equipment. I think the military sleeping bags I have bought are some of the best that I own. Not to mention that they are normally much cheaper. I honestly don’t know why someone wouldn’t shop at a military surplus store.

  2. Folks: I think it depends a lot on what you’re collecting and what you’re collecting it for. History, field comfort and a one time use bug out bag have different requirements. Firearms; I think that’s the only way you’re going to get a genuine piece of history like a M1 Garand, and when I hold one of those I do get some great memories that the kids now a days can only read about. Thanks to Obama putting the Kibosh on the return of the ones we sent overseas to our allies that’s probably going to be a thing of the past.

    A friend bought a Moisin Nagant and he loves to shoot it. Frankly, I think it’s kind of primitive in comparison but I’m trying to get him interested in researching where it might have come from. A friend in Washington has a genuine Thompson sub-machine gun and a Luger. Having carried an M1 I appreciate our modern firearms all the more. But I have to admit I’m looking at a Springfield Armory, I believe it’s a new M1-A1. It appears to have the same operating system and looks of the M1 Garand but it’s box magazine fed and it’s scoped for us old farts, and Father’s Day is coming.

    As far as your 782 field gear is concerned, with the exception of the field packs, I think the older the better if you can get it in good serviceable condition. The stuff we used in the Marine Corps in the early 60’s was first rate and most of it was left over from WW-2 and Korea. But I have to admit I do like the new field packs better. You can carry more, more comfortably.

    I taught automotive next door to a guy who taught metals and he felt nothing should be cooked or eaten out of aluminum because of metal transfer and oxidization. It made sense to me. Have you ever looked inside a used aluminum canteen? Yuk. It looks like it’s coated with salt or snow. Have you ever gotten a cool drink from a plastic canteen? I haven’t. A steel canteen seems to keep your water cooler and with a hand full of pebbles and a good shake you can get it squeaky clean. Get the canteen cup too. They’re great for making coffee or hot chocolate. I think it’s the same with your mess kit and the weight difference is negligible. Not everything new is better. Hank

    1. Time to add a plug for Utah’s Smith & Edwards and their military surplus and preparedness materials. I love CTD and spend a lot of money here so I don’t feel too disloyal telling you about S & E on the CTD website. S & E us a place that could only exist in Utah. It started as military surplus, farm & ranching store — about the largest general store you can imagine, complete with outside yards where you can find about anything from military tanks to tractors. S & E’s military items have been used by we ranchers since long before my time. I routinely purchase brand new insulated canvas bags that we use to pack in places with our horses but also to ship frozen black Angus steaks all over the country. They were made to hold MREs and keep the troops food at a specific temperature. I first saw them at a ranching auction and paid over $100 because the auctioneer used them to keep food FROZEN during pack trips. I can buy them new at S & E for $30 ish and they have never failed to keep our meat frozen during shipping, which means I can ship 3 and 4 days instead of overnight or 2nd day with the old containers. We ladies love military surplus too — I just ordered six of those CTD sewing kits. I’ll take out the uniform buttons and add some extras and they will become prepper stocking stuffers for the “young ones” for Christmas. S & E is just starting to expand their online goods so CTD could bring the same military surplus goods to us online more quickly — HINT HINT CTD!

  3. Well I still have my original 1955 pistol belt and canteen. canteen is aluminum, not like the steel WWII canteens were. you could put beer in those. The army said no beer in the aluminum cause it would change the drink in someway! that’s sound doubtful? I do not have the steel cup for the canteen, but am looking for it. I have the original holder for it and it fits on the pistol belt. I use it at times when a hurricane comes through and you need all the water you can get for a few days. Got great buy and find for my British Enfield (1943) found a original 1943 never used bayonet for it. I am holding history in my hand. Wish that Enfield could talk

  4. For me, it was always Manning’s. My dad would stop there almost everyday, on his way to work at Convair, in Ft. Worth. I say almost, but I suspect it was everyday, like clockwork. I grew up, finding sacks in all our cars, all over the house, and in the tbree barns we had, with Manning’s price stickers, individually marked. Still have some of it. Much of the unique and cool atual military stuff was either lost in two major fires we had, or I foolishly sold in yard sales later, as per my ex-wife.
    Nowadays, it’s Omaha Surplus in Ft.Worth, if you want to physically examine, or try stuff on before buying. Sorry Suzanne, but the actual military stuff I’ve seen offered buy CTD is extreamly limited, compared to what Omaha has. Coleman’s Military Surplus has a lot also, but I don’t know much about them, as I’ve had their catalogs for Two years, and only placed an order yesterday.
    The info you shared about decerning the military numbers is very interesting. I wish now, that I still had a lot of the stuff my dad had, that we lost, or I sold. That was very cool and useful stuff, that was made to last generations, and can’t be found today.

  5. Surplus gear was usually a lot cheaper than the ‘nose picker’/civilian variety and a lot heavier duty. When my son was in Scouting I got ‘volunteered’ into a leadership position and the scouting honchos didn’t like what I did. I didn’t like the BSA approved stuff, it was very light weight and expensive. I encouraged my dads to take their sons to Palley Supply Company, (I don’t know if they’re even still in business anymore), but they were the biggest military surplus dealers in Southern California at the time.

    There you could see it, feel it and try it on before you bought it. We had to have them in their funny little uniforms but my kids were safer from the elements and a lot more comfortable and we did a lot more camping than the other groups. I’ve seen too many folks unhappy with what they thought they were buying on line once they finally got it. That would be my advice if you want to equip yourself on the cheap; for the first place to try. If you can get: a decent field pack, a mess kit, a canteen, a fart sack, a shelter half, an entrenching tool and a good poncho then you’re usually ready to go. Hank

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