History of Army Surplus and How It Has Changed


If you’re interested in army surplus, you won’t be surprised to find it has a history nearly as old as our country. While the bulk of it didn’t start until after WWII and has grown to what we know today due to the Vietnam War, the oldest known surplus store was opened in the 1870s. Before that, our military sold their used items in local stores if they needed money, and most uniforms were shuffled together out of items on hand instead of mass-produced for use.

In 1865, a fourteen-year-old entrepreneur named Francis Bannerman began purchasing lots of Civil War items from the US Government. At first, he sold it in various shops around New York City, but eventually, he opened the first military surplus store, Bannerman’s Army & Navy Outfitters, located on Broadway Street, and became an instant success.

Over several years, he purchased more adjoining property and built an empire selling everything from tactical equipment to ammo and horse tack. Many famous explorers from the early 20th century got their equipment at Bannerman’s, as did the military itself. In fact, eighteen years later, regiments of militia volunteers who wanted to fight in the Spanish-American war were outfitted there. Sadly, after his death in 1918, no one took care of the inventory, and his empire turned to dust.

WWI brought a new wave of inventory, and in response, other people began opening stores. This timing was impeccable because The Great Depression began soon after. Many American families relied on the ability to get durable items they needed that would last a long time and could be counted on for quality.

By the end of WWII in 1945, army surplus was a staple of American life. Government Issue (GI) stock could be found in thousands of War Surplus stores across the United States. Even smaller towns were in on the action. Before the sporting goods stores of today, these surplus stores provided people with most of the outdoor equipment they needed for camping and hiking.

This boom lasted well through the ’90s as the Vietnam War left millions of items in stores, and anyone born before 1990 should remember seeing them and possibly going inside.

Today, most surplus stores sell army-esque items, meaning they’re getting them from the same manufacturers, but the items themselves never made it through the military barracks. Since Vietnam, war has changed, and large-scale battles with millions of soldiers are no longer how combat happens. This has left the military without the need to constantly order new supplies, leaving little to no surplus for civilians.

This doesn’t mean that surplus stores and military goods are non-existent, however. There is still surplus available, and it’s still for sale. However, it’s not the everyday items that people need, and new versions are purchased by suppliers for retail, as they’re more likely to be bought.

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