What I've Learned from Vintage Military Surplus Gear

How to build complicated equipment you can operate while being shot at

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.

AN-GRR-5 Radio

The somewhat famous Korean-War-era AN-GRR-5 shortwave radio receiver. Mine came to me without the case and the power supply / speaker unit. Luckily, it also came to me with a replacement for that unit that someone had built somewhere along the line. I'm always looking to complete the radio set if someone happens to come across one. In its full configuration, this was a radio that could be operated off of almost any power source available and with any improvised antenna. The controls are so solid that they convey a feeling of total indestructibility. I am also all but convinced that in its original case, it could be used a truck jack stand in a pinch.Vin Marshall

AN-GRR-5: Tuning Knob

The tuning dial in particular feels absolutely indestructible. The logic of its size and placement—front and center—appeals to me, since it is the most important control on the radio.Vin Marshall

AN-GRR-5: Clearly Printed Instructions

Don't assume the operator has been trained or has the (129-page) manual handy. If there is something he or she needs to know, explain it clearly in a place where it won't be missed. Here, the settings for power conservation are explained right next to where the control is set. Also of note, the specialized tool used in the course of radio operation has a place to live out of the way and is chained to the case so that it cannot escape.Vin Marshall

AN-GRR-5: Rugged Connectors

The connectors where external devices are attached are going to take a beating. Accept this and design for it. Pictured here are the antenna connectors, which can take any arbitrary arrangement of wire (in the A[ntenna] and G[round] lugs) or the multi-section whip antenna inserted through the tube at the top.Vin Marshall

TA-1042 Field Telephone

This is a PA-1042 Field Telephone. It was used, to my understanding, as part of digital field telephone networks throughout the 90s. The technology interests me because they encode Analog to Digital right in the handset. The design interests me because it is a technologically complex device with a minimum of controls, and which could almost certainly be used as a hammer.Vin Marshall

TA-1042: Sealed Keypad

The controls are rugged and few. The keypad is sealed against water, dust and oil. And it includes a Flash Override button— clearly needed in more consumer applications ("... Please continue to wait. We are currently experiencing higher than normal call volu ..." FLASH OVERRIDE!!)Vin Marshall

TA-1042: Rugged Connectors

As with the radio, we see the clear markings and rugged connectors. These may actually be even more rugged than those on the radio. Being spring loaded, they can also be operated quickly. Color coding also helps. When I analyze the thinking that must have gone into the design of military gear, I always come to the conclusion that one of the key points must have been: Make sure they can operate this in the dark while being shot at. And I don't think I'm far off.Vin Marshall

TA-1042: Strap

Mounting these phones to a tree is apparently a not uncommon task. Makes sense. As such, the design ensures that nobody will have to improvise at phone-tree-mounting time. Know how the device will be used and provide for it.Vin Marshall

TA-1042: More Rugged Connectors

You may have noticed that this looks a bit more durable than the RJ-11 connector on your phone at home. My take away lessons are two: (1) This would be a dumb point of failure, so don't let it be one and (2) Amphenol connectors are pretty great.Vin Marshall