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
- 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.
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 The military gives up obsolete, excess and out-of-date gear and equipment to Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) Disposition Services that, in turn, sells or auctions it off.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.
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.
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.