Military surplus binoculars

Ross Bino Prism No5 MkII, 1939
Ross Bino Prism No5 MkII 7x50, 1939. These were World War II UK binoculars originally supplied to the Army or RAF. Headquarters & General Supplies sold a similar ex-RAF Ross binocular for £18 9s 6d in the 1950s

Looking for some cheap binoculars? These are top quality, just one careful owner, the British Army...

Between 1945 and 1960 the UK Government disposed of £4 billion worth of surplus clothing and equipment. [1] Shops in London's back streets disposed of everything from aircraft broken up for spares to bearskin hats. Binoculars costing the tax payer £70 went for just £16.

How about these? Former property of a U-Boat captain...

German WWII binoculars also appeared on the market at the end of the 1950s. Whilst the UK equipment was a bargain, the German binoculars traded at a premium. Perhaps there was some kudos to owning ex-Luftwaffe or ex-U-boat binoculars? The main reasons for the high prices were the quality of the German optics and the price of new Zeiss binoculars.

There was one disadvantage to military surplus binoculars. The military prioritised reliability over convenience. They needed to keep dust out and to keep breakable parts to a minimum. So both German, British and American military glasses had individually focused lenses. Most 1950s civilian binoculars focused both lenses with a central ring. People had to weigh up the quality, the cost and the convenience.

Military surplus binoculars had a reputation for quality. Some dealers used terms 'American Navy pattern' or 'famous German officers' war office pattern' to sell cheaper binoculars.

Who sold military surplus binoculars?

A number of businesses sold military surplus equipment. The Glasgow-based mail-order firm Charles Frank sold UK, Canadian and US surplus binoculars. The London department store Gamages, which had a reputation for selling anything and everything, got in on the act as well. The two main dealers were J A Davis (famous for Denhill) and Headquarters & General Supplies. Both sold a huge range of goods, some surplus, some imported.

These companies purchased huge stocks of surplus equipment. In 1949 Davis boasted that their Kershaw binoculars were part of a £7,000 order.

UK military service binoculars

UK military binoculars on the second-hand market in the 1950s and 1960s were of two types. The British Army No 2 pattern which was a small 6x30 binocular with individual focusing eye pieces. There was a similar RAF model. They were made by Kershaw or Taylor Hobson.

The second type was based on the Ross Stepnite. It used Porro-Abbe prisms. The prisms were cemented into a shallow cylinder, which included part of the eyepiece lens. This reduced light loss by 20%. This design was used for the British Army No 5 pattern binocular. A similar design by Barr & Stroud was favoured by the Navy. [2]

The No 2 type binocular was not really powerful enough for the 1950s' and 1960s' markets. The most popular civilian binocular was 8x30. So the ex-military ones sold for around £10, which was the going rate for the cheapest imported binoculars from Hong Kong or France.

The No 5 pattern was more desirable. The 7x50 was an excellent night vision binocular. They were particularly favoured by yachtsmen and sailors. They could make up to £20 which was the price of a good mid-market binocular. Equivalent new binoculars from Ross or Barr & Stroud cost £50.

Examples

Charles Frank was able to offer a consistent supply of ex-military binoculars from the UK, the USA and Canada. In the 1960s their catalogues listed:

German military surplus binoculars

UK surplus binoculars were a bargain. The German ones commanded high prices. The main reason for this was that the German glasses were technically comparable with some of the best new glasses on the market. They were made from a lightweight alloy. The most common 6x30 type weighed 13oz. They may have had 'bloomed' or coated lenses. Zeiss invented the process before the Second World War.

Both J A Davis andHeadquarters & General Supplies managed to get hold of ex-Wehrmacht, ex-Kriegsmarine and ex-Luftwaffe binoculars. They were often made by Zeiss. They charged premium prices for them.

Headquarters & General Supplies offered the following models with some appeal to collectors.

In 1959 J A Davis offered the basic German Dienstglas (Service Glass) 6x30 for £15 15s.

The most sought after war time binocular of this era was the Zeiss 10x50. It was a useful magnification with a large objective lens. J A Davis offered one in 1959 for £48 10s. (Or in £800 in today's money). In those days a similar new binocular from the West German Zeiss factory would have cost more than twice that price.

Most people assume WWII German binoculars were made by Zeiss. They were in fact made by a huge number of makers. Some makers were in occupied territories. Several Polish and French makers made binoculars for the German armed forces in WWII.

You can identify the maker by a secret code, normally three letters - see World War II German binoculars - manufacturer codes 1939-45

References

[1] 'Cheap at half the price' published in the Daily Mirror, 27 October 1960, page 15

[2] 'Binoculars, opera glasses and field glasses by Fred Watson, published by Shire, page 22

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Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history

20th Century History ★ Antiques & Collectables

Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history

★ 20th Century History ★ Antiques & Collectables ★