With our archives now 3,500+ articles deep, we’ve decided to republish a classic piece each Sunday to help our newer readers discover some of the best, evergreen gems from the past. This article was originally published in October 2016.
You’ve probably been to an army surplus store.
They all look pretty much the same wherever you live. Surplus stores can be found in strip malls in the rough part of town or as stand-alone warehouse-style buildings with corrugated metal roofing and very few windows. They’re easy to miss while driving because they typically only announce themselves with a small yellow sign emblazoned with “Army Surplus” in black lettering.
When you walk in, your nose is met with that distinct army surplus smell: musty canvas mixed with metal and rubber. Flags hang from the ceiling — an American flag, flags from the different branches of the military, a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. Every conceivable space in the store is filled with product. You’ll see bins scattered throughout the floor filled with gas masks, canvas duffle bags, canteens, and nylon combat belts. Shelves are jam-packed with combat boots, cargo pants, and helmets. And the coat racks are stuffed with pea coats and camo as far as the eye can see. Inside the glass case of the front counter, you’re likely to find antique military items like Nazi paraphernalia, guns used during WWI, and a plethora of knives.
For decades, the army-navy surplus store was the go-to place for individuals looking to find a good deal on products to outfit themselves for camping or hunting, prepare for the apocalypse on the cheap, or simply pick up a stylish pea coat at a bargain price.
There was such a glut of military surplus clothing and gear in the United States during the 20th century you could practically throw a rock in any direction and hit an army surplus store. They were prolific and played a vital role in distributing an over-abundance of government-issued supplies that accumulated during the last century’s wars.
But if you’ve visited an army surplus store lately, you probably noticed they just aren’t what they used to be — that the quality and quantity of the selection of products isn’t the same.
What happened to the once venerable tradition of the army surplus store?
Today we’ll chart its rise and fall.
The Rise of the Army Surplus Store
The army-navy surplus store as we know it today got its start after the Civil War. Up until then, the U.S. government didn’t need to buy supplies in mass quantities for its troops, as it used a militia system for defense. Individual states and militia members themselves were responsible for getting outfitted for battle.
That changed with the War Between the States. War-making became more centralized and industrialized. Instead of relying on states and individuals to provide the gear needed to fight, both the Confederacy and the Union leveraged mass production to equip their troops (the latter having the industrial advantage in this area).
At the end of the war, there was a huge surplus of arms, uniforms, and horse tack sitting on shelves and in warehouses collecting dust. To recoup some of the costs of these leftovers, the U.S. government began auctioning off the supplies in bulk to civilians at heavily discounted prices. While small storeowners from around the country took advantage of these deals, one man in particular turned military surplus into a giant business empire, ultimately creating the business model of the army surplus store we recognize today. His name was Francis Bannerman.
The Bannerman Army-Navy Surplus Empire
Francis Bannerman was born in Scotland in 1851 but immigrated to New York with his family as a child. His father made a living selling goods acquired at auctions, and a young Francis often accompanied him to these sales where he’d pick up big lots of various knick-knacks himself, and then sell them in smaller lots to stores. It was the 19th-century version of eBay-esque arbitrage. On top of this little side hustle, Bannerman created a profitable business selling scrap metal and abandoned ships that he found in the harbor near Brooklyn, New York. All while he was still in primary school.
At the end of the Civil War in 1865, Francis (who, let’s keep in mind, was only 14 years old) used profits from his scrap metal business to acquire large lots of military surplus at government auctions. One particularly successful acquisition netted him over 11,000 captured Confederate guns. Because the teenage entrepreneur bought this gear at such heavily discounted prices, he was able to mark it up