Military surplus equipment is more than just cheap, weird and green. For me, it's a design study in what happens when usability and ruggedness are given priority and production cost is forgotten. Check out the photo gallery for two of the coolest pieces in my collection—the AN-GRR-5 shortwave radio and the TA-1042 digital field telephones—and read on for more on military gear and my favorite sources.
Thinking about how equipment gets used by the military, the need for good design should be obvious. People who are not necessarily guaranteed to have any particular higher education are going to have to operate some fairly complicated equipment, possibly while in the dark, possibly while in the rain, and possibly while being shot at. And it's entirely possible that said equipment was just parachuted out of a plane or used as a jack stand (I'm convinced that an AN-GRR-5 radio in it's original case could stand up as one).
Leaving aside the cost issues, I like to look at these pieces of equipment as a design study: How to build something that will be easy to operate and will continue working in almost any conditions. Doesn't that sound like a reasonable set of design goals for any type of equipment? While cost is certainly a very real factor, I view military design as a call to action for lazy or just plain bad designers using it as an excuse across the board.
As for where to find the gear, try local surplus stores (these can be a hit or miss affair), hamfests (if it is radio-related equipment), or ebay, which is where I picked up the phones and the shortwave in the photo gallery. When you want say, 10 pallets of surplus, check out GovLiquidation.
Share your favorite military surplus equipment and the best places to shop for it in the comments and on the PopSci Flickr pool.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.