Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Mess Tin Primer, Part II

Part II - Kochgeschirr-type Mess Tins

     It was seen in an earlier post that mess tin designs often developed along parallel tracks. However, one design that undoubtedly influenced many other 20th century mess tins was the German Kochgeschirr (lit.: cookware) Modell 31, commonly referred to as the Kochgeschirr 31 or M31. The Kochegeschirr 31 was shortened and improved derivative of the Kochgeschirr 27. The Kochgeschirr 27 which was an aluminum version of the tinned steel M1915/17, in turn derived from the M1910. The Kochgeschirr 27 was manufactured through 1940. The capacity of the two models were as follows:
                                 body (Unterteil           lid (Kochgeschirrdeckel)
Kochgeschirr 27        2.14 liters                      1.71 liters
Kochgeschirr 31        0.76 liter                        0.54 liter

Kochgeschirr M1910

Measuring marks in ½ liter increments were stamped into the body. Late-war versions of the M31 saw a change in the design of the handle lugs to ease manufacture and the elimination of the measuring marks on the body. Enameled steel staged a comeback in some M31s as aluminum was diverted to more critical areas of war production. Although originally produced without an insert, by 1945 some M31s were being produced with an insert, a somewhat unusual development in light of critical wartime shortages of metals.

German M31 marked with L&SL40 stamped onto the lid and handle lugs. L&SL is the manufacturer's code, and 40 the year of manufacture.   
There are several features that are common to "Kochgeschirr-type" mess tins:
  • two-piece construction, consisting of a body and a lid which fits over the top portion of the body
  • A "kidney" shape when viewed from above; similar types may have an oval or "D" shape. 
  • wire bail attached to the lower section
  • hinged flat metal handle attached to the lid (an exception was the German M1887 Kochgeschirr's handle, which was separate)
For the purposes of this post I have provided an illustrated glossary of mess kit nomenclature. The nomenclature is not “official”, but intended only to clarify references to specific parts of the Kochgeschirr in this post. 

Kochgeschirr-type mess tin nomenclature
Body - the lower part of the mess tin.
Lid - the cover, which can be inverted and used as a frying pan.
Handle lug - a projection on the side of the mess tin body, used to hold the bail in place. Lugs may be in          the form of a loop or a stud.
Bail - a wire handle, attached to the sides of the mess tin, and used for carrying the mess tin or hanging           it over a cooking fire.
Strap loops - metal loops, attached to the body, lid or lid handle, through which straps (ususally made           of leather) are passed to secure the lid to the body and/or the mess tin to the soldier's field gear.

Some Kochgeschirr-type mess tins may be equipped with an insert, a shallow dish that fits inside of the body, and serves as an additional serving bowl.  

Kochgeschirr 31 Descendants
Prior to and during World War II, various nations copied the design of the Kochgeschirr. Several of these are illustrated below.

Soviet M36 mess tin, post-WWII manufacture. The Soviet M36 mess tin was copied from the German M31, with the only major modifications being the shape of the handle lugs and three rivets on the lid handle instead of two.

Finnish Mess Tin. 
WWII-era Finnish mess tins also claim parentage from the German M31. During WWII, Finnland also used German M31s, British mess tins supplied during the 1939-40 Winter War, and captured Soviet mess tins. Note the differences in the lid handle, especially the lack of an upper strap loop.
After WWII a number of nations manufactured copies of the M31. With the exception of the manufacturer’s marks, the Austrian and Romanian versions are virtually indistinguishable from the pre- and early-war M31. The Austrian, Polizei, Bundeswehr and DDR mess kits were issued with an insert.

Austrian post-WWII Kochgeschirr. It has few discernible differences from the wartime M31: there are no manufacturer's marks on the handle lugs, and different markings where the lid handle is attached to the lid. This example is marked with "HV 84" (Heeresverwaltung - Austrian Federal Army; 84 is the date of manufacture, 1984), underneath it "JGB", the manufacturer's abbreviation.
The Austrian Kochgeschirr with insert. The insert has 2 slots that allow the end of the lid handle to be inserted so that both the lid and insert can be carried in one hand.

This Romanian Post-WWII Mess Kit is nearly identical to the German M31, with the exception of smaller handle rivets and the complete absence of manufacturer's markings or stamps.

A variant produced for the West German Police was similar to the M31, except that the handle lugs were similar in shape to those of the Soviet M36.(

The West German Bundeswehr adopted a modified version of the M31 in the 1960s. It had a higher lid; note the approximate 8 mm space between the top of the upper strap loop and the ridge on the lid. The handle lugs were changed to a circular socket type.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Iron Curtain the DDR (East Germany) produced a simplified descendant of the M31. The handle lugs were similar, but smaller, than those on the original M31. It also lacked the upper strap loop. The lower strap loop could be a full loop, or sometimes only a flange on either side of the handle. The handle was secured to the lid with 3 rivets.

Comparison of (left to right) East German, WWII M31, and West German Kochgeschirr. Again, color is not a reliable indicator, especially in the case of the East German Kochgeschirr. I have examples in varying shades of gray/green, and have seen some repainted to mimic WWII Kochgeschirr.
Some models were nearly exact copies of the M31, others were slightly modified, but many types follow the M31’s dimensions so closely that the lids and bodies are interchangeable. To illustrate the point, the photo above shows lids interchanged between a Soviet M36, East German and Austrian Kochgeschirr.
Kochgeschirr M31 Look-Alikes
Though not necessarily derived from the German WWI or WWII Kochgeschirr, numerous other mess kits are often incorrectly identified or misrepresented as such. The Wehrmacht's policy of utilizing captured equipment, including mess tins, further adds to the confusion. Some examples of captured mess tins were repainted before re-issue.

Post-WWII Polish Mess Kit M.23/31 (Menazka wz.23/31). The prewar Polish M.23/31 was constructed of tinned steel. Post-war versions had no manufacturers markings and were made of aluminum. Note the higher "shoulder" on the lid and the vertical strap loop on the lid handle.

Polish wz.70, replacement for the wz.23/31. The shorter body and high lid give it a squat appearance.

Hungarian 65M, another post-WWII variant.
Appearing at first glance to be an M1910 Kochgeschirr, it's big (2 liter capacity), impressive, and ....Swiss, not German. However, the "D-shape", stud-type handle lugs, lack of German-style strap loops, and the cutout in the handle are identifying features that distinguish it from the German M1910.

Basically a shortened version of the Swiss mess tin, this type of Norwegian mess tin was manufactured from 1960 through 1975. The Norwegian mess tin is often confused with the Swiss.

Comparison of Swiss (left) and Norwegian (right) mess tins.

German WWII M31s are much sought after by collectors and reenactors. Unfortunately there are vendors who, either through ignorance or willful intent, have listed many a post-WWII mess tin as a German WWII Kochgeschirr. There are a number of ways to determine whether that M31 you are eyeing is genuine or not:
  • The date and manufacturer’s mark on lid and handle lugs. This may not be present on all late-war handle lugs, but its presence is a good indicator of authenticity. 
  • The date should either be pre-war or wartime dates. Sometimes the dates or manufacturer's codes may not match, but the dates in both areas should be pre-war/wartime dates. Two-digit dates after 45 are not wartime mess kits.
  • Presence of strap loops on the lid handle, both top and bottom.
  • Type of handle lugs: cast aluminum loops or steel plate (late1943-1945, illustrated below).
  • Color is not a reliable indicator. 
  • There is no substitute for good research.
There were wartime M31s produced without a lid handle or manufacturer's mark, usually in unpainted aluminum. These are believed to have been produced for civilian workers.

The handle lugs can also help to identify the type of mess tin.
 Close-up of handle lugs:
Pre-war and early WWII German M31

Late-war Kochgeschirr 31. 


Soviet M36

East German

Norwegian (Swiss is nearly identical)

 H.Dv.86/2 Verpflegungstabellen, 25 August 1938, Berlin (excellent information and photographs of German WWII mess tins and  accessories) (good descriptions of German WWI mess tins)
    All photographs not cited are mess tins from my personal collection.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Mess Tin Primer: Part I

A Mess Tin Primer, Part I – An Introduction and the Early Years

     I feel that no discussion about field rations would be complete without addessing the subject of that humble implement of fine soldierly field dining, the mess tin. Mess tins are an important, but relatively unexciting, item of an individual soldier’s field gear. Mess tin design just doesn’t seem to generate the same level of historical interest as the evolution of the submachine gun or the V-2 missile. 
     This series of posts will provide a brief overview of mess tins through the 20th century, with the emphasis on identifying military mess tins and their country of origin. In addition to basic design changes, most armies’ mess tins have experienced numerous variations in manufacturer's details and markings, materials, and accessories. 

Mess Tin: What’s in a Name?
     What exactly is a mess tin? It depends on where you are in the world and who you ask. The word “mess” has its origin in the Old French mes, "portion of food". In a military context, mess refers to a communal eating place, where soldiers gathered to eat those "portions of food". Generally speaking, mess kit (aside from its application to formal military evening wear) refers to a set of utensils for eating in field conditions, consisting of a food container accompanied by eating utensils. The food container is intended to serve as container for prepared food, as a cooking vessel, or both.
  In the British and Commonwealth armies the food container itself was referred to as a “mess tin”. Around 1876 the US Army approved the adoption of a standard issue mess kit, and christened it as a “meat can”. In 1955 it was officially re-designated as “mess pan”, the nomenclature it retains until the present day. However, in the US military, the term “mess kit” (officially, the mess pan with eating utensils and carrier) came to be commonly applied to the meat can/mess pan itself. In other armies, the terminology is usually (but not always) more specific as to the intended functions:

Finnish: kenttäkeittoastia (field cookware) kenttäpakki (field kit), or (slang) pakki (kit)
French: gamelle (bowl)
German: Kochgeschirr (cooking utensil)
Hungarian: csajka (mess tin, mess kit)
Italian: gavetta (mess tin)
Japanese:  ハンゴー (han gou=rice cooker)
Norwegian: Feltkokekar (field cookware) or Enmannskokekar (one man cookware)
Swedish: Enmanskök (one man kitchen), or Kokkärl (cookware or pot)
Swiss: Essgeschirr (dish on which food is served)
Russian: котелок (kotelok=kettle or pot)

   In lieu of a universally accepted term, for the purposes of this blog post I will refer to the individual meat can/mess pan/boiler/mess tin itself (i.e., exclusive of eating utensils, carriers, stoves, windscreens, straps, covers and the other paraphernalia that may accompany them) by the British term “mess tin”. Although not usually used here in the US, "mess tin" is more specific and less apt to lead to confusion than "mess kit".

     In the design of mess tins it is often difficult to pinpoint exactly where on the ancestral family tree a specific mess tin belongs, although there have been some tell-tale developments along the way. The design of the mess tin followed a slow developmental process, evolving from a nondescript assortment of commercially procured tin plates, kettles and frying pans that accompanied armies to the field. Prior to the adoption of individual mess tins, a commonly found utensil in the camps of many armies was the “boiler”. A lidded cooking vessel for boiling or heating water and food, boilers were commonly constructed of tinned steel and were equipped with a wire handle for carrying and for suspension over a cooking fire.

Reproduction 18th-19th century boiler (
The transition from boiler to mess tin is quite apparent, as illustrated below. The British Army was one of the first to begin issuing individual mess tins, as early as 1813. The British D-shaped mess tin was basically a boiler with a flat side to allow it to fit more closely when strapped against field gear.

Reproduction British D-shaped mess tin, as first issued in 1813. The insert on the right was intended to be used as either a frying pan or a dish.
British D-Shaped Mess Tin, typical of the type issued during WWI.
 By the late 1800s many European armies had adopted mess tins of similar design to the boiler, although it is difficult to say who copied whom. Many were "kidney" shaped (when viewed from the top) or oval. A common feature was one or more metal loops for straps that would secure the mess tin to field gear. 

German M1887 Kochgeschirr. The handle was carried separately and inserted into the metal loop to use the lid as a frying pan.
Italian mod.1896
Norwegian M1876

This Russian mess tin of the early 20th century was a kidney-shaped version of earlier round kettle designs.
France, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Sweden adopted round mess tins in the mid-to late 1800s. They were similar in appearance to cooking kettles or pots.

The French Army’s gamelle individuelle modelle 1852 is essentially a lidded bucket. French soldiers in WWI often discarded the noisy chain. The modelle 1852 served until 1935 when it was replaced.
Austro-Hungarian M1899 Mess Tin - enamelled steel

Russian M1889 Mess Tin did not have a lid or insert.

Swedish M1859 Mess Tin
The United States followed a divergent path with their first issue mess kit, which entered production in 1876. As the usual method of individual cooking in the field was pan frying, the U.S. Army issued a mess tin that was in effect a frying pan with a long folding handle and a lid.
US Army Meat Can, late 1800s manufacture, tinned steel.
Early US mess tins were not assigned a model number. 


     Prior to World War I mess tins were usually constructed of tinned or enameled steel or, less commonly, of copper.

Swedish M1888 - copper
Russian M1889 - copper
 In many nations the necessities of wartime shortages during both World Wars resulted in the same model of mess tin being produced in different materials. The Austro-Hungarian M1899 was produced in tinned steel prior to WWI; wartime production used enamelled steel.
Austro-Hungarian M1899 - tinned steel

Austro-Hungarian M1899 - enamelled steel
      By the 1920s and 1930s many nations had transitioned to aluminum as the material of choice. Aluminum was lightweight, cheap, easy to fabricate and corrosion-resistant. On the minus side, it can be dented quite easily. During WWII, wartime shortages of aluminum caused some nations to temporarily revert to tinned or enameled steel construction.
     The United States experimented with a variety of materials during WWII, including enameled steel and aluminum, but eventually settled on corrosion resistant steel. Sweden produced earlier versions of the Emanskok M.40 in stainless steel, but later switched to aluminum. With few exceptions, in the post-WWII years most armies settled on aluminum mess tins.


Saturday, November 30, 2013

Roasting Coffee in the Field

      Depending on the army and the historical period, the coffee issued to individual soldiers or mess sections could have been green and unroasted. There was a good reason behind this practice: as long as they are kept dry, green coffee beans can last as long as 2 to 3 years and still retain their flavor. But as soon as they are roasted, the volatile oils that give coffee its taste and aroma begin evaporating rapidly. Here is a simplified method of roasting coffee in a field environment.
     If you have no local sources for green coffee, there are numerous purveyors of green coffee on the internet. My personal favorite is, but most vendors are reasonably priced. Their websites are also a great source for info on home roasting, storing, coffee varieties, etc. Store green coffee beans in a breathable package such as a paper or burlap bag in a cool, dry, dark place  (but not in the refrigerator). Do not store green coffee near food items with a strong aroma, as the coffee may absorb those aromas.

     Roasting coffee in the field is not at all difficult and can produce an outstanding cup of coffee if done properly. Coffee can be roasted in a dry, grease-free steel or iron frying pan. I prefer a cast iron frying pan that is not used for any other cooking, so that the coffee doesn’t pick up any tastes from what was previously cooked in the pan. Do not use a Teflon-coated pan. I highly recommend that you do your coffee roasting outside, using an outdoor grill, a camp stove, or an open fire.

Green coffee beans.
Opinions and techniques vary, but here are several basic recommendations that should be observed: 

Roast coffee outdoors. It will produce fairly strong odors, smoke, and chaff.

Do not crowd the pan. Roast only a single layer of beans at a time, and leave a little surface space for expansion. 

The most important thing to remember while roasting is to keep the coffee beans moving! Do not let the beans set still for longer than 15-30 seconds while roasting. Moving the coffee around is what gives an even roast and prevents burning. Pan roasting will not give you as perfect a roast as can be achieved with a rotating drum roaster, but you can achieve a fairly even roast with practice. 

While roasting, flip the beans as if you were sautéing, or stir with a wooden or steel spoon or spatula.

     Coffee beans will pass through several stages, or styles, as they roast. Once the beans pass the medium light brown stage, the longer that they are roasted:
  • Acidity decreases
  • Body becomes fuller (until very dark roast, when the body becomes weak)
  • Aroma decreases
  • Sweetness increases (until very dark roast, when the sweetness drops sharply)

There are several major steps in roasting coffee, and different levels of roasting: 

First Crack
     As you begin roasting, the water content of the beans is heated and expands, causing a cracking sound similar to a crackling wood fire. The beans will expand in size and lose approximately 15% of their weight. The cracking noise eventually stops. The beans will be a light brown or cinnamon color and the surface will be dry. At this stage they will produce a coffee that tastes grassy or sour; keep roasting!
      As the beans continue roasting , they reach the medium light brown or American style roast. If you prefer a lighter roast, you may stop at this point and proceed with the cooling step. 
The coffee beans are at the medium light brown stage.
I moved the beans to one sid in order to show the chaff which is produced.
Second Crack
     After the beans have gone through the light and medium brown roasts, they reach the second crack stage. The beans crack again, and are at the full medium brown or City style. You may stop roasting and proceed with cooling at any stage. If you continue roasting, the beans will start to develop a glossy sheen from the heated oils. This is the medium dark brown or Full City  or Viennese style roast, a stage preferred by many. 
The coffee beans are going from medium dark brown to dark brown roast.
Notice the large amount of smoke. This is normal, and not a cause for concern,
as long as you keep the beans moving.
      If you prefer an even darker roast, continue roasting until the beans develop a shiny surface. This is the dark brown or French or Espresso style roast, and is the style preferred in many European countries (and my personal preference). Beyond this stage is the very dark or Dark French style roast. Beans at the very dark stage will have a very shiny surface.

Coffee bean roasting stages, clockwise, from upper right: 
Light brown/cinnamon
Medium light brown/American
Full medium brown/City
Medium dark brown/Full City/Viennese
Dark brown/French/Espresso
Center: green coffee beans
The beans should be immediately cooled once the preferred roast stage has been achieved in order to stop carryover cooking. Pour the beans into a metal colander or bowl and swish them around, or pour back and forth between two containers. This also helps to eliminate the chaff. Large amounts of chaff can give the coffee an “off” taste.

Be careful! The beans will still be quite hot, and can cause some very painful burns.

Curing or De-Gassing
     Although not always feasible in a field environment, the freshly roasted beans need to rest and develop their flavor. Before grinding, store the freshly roasted (but cooled) beans in an airtight container for a minimum of four hours, up to about 24 hours. The time needed to develop full flavor and aroma depends on the type of bean, roast, and most importantly, individual preference. I know that the average soldier would probably not have been able to wait 24 hours, but unless you're participating in a one-day re-enactment or under threat of a surprise offensive by the Boche, then it's worth the wait.

     If kept in an airtight container, whole bean roasted coffee can remain fresh for 7 to 10 days, but is best consumed as soon as possible. Grind only the amount of roasted coffee beans that you need for immediate use. Once ground, the beans begin to rapdily lose the volatile oils that give them their flavor.

     Grinding coffee beans in the field is not too problematic. During the US Civil War, soldiers would grind the beans between two rocks or use a rifle buttstock and a rock. Many years ago a fellow soldier told me of how his Texan grandfather would still grind his morning coffee with a hammer and a brick, then throw the grounds into a pot of boiling water over an open fire, resulting in what my friend insisted was the best coffee he ever drank.
     Of course a more elegant solution was for the soldier to procure a small commercial hand-cranked coffee mill, or as was the case of the French army, to issue a standard coffee mill (below). German rolling field kitchens (gulaschkanone) were equipped with a coffee mill.

French Army Coffee Grinder M1896 (Moulin a café " KLEPPER "Modèle 1896).
The "klepper" was issued at the basis of one for every 2 squads. (

Canteen Cup Coffee (aka Cowboy Coffee)
     Few things are more comforting than a hot cup of java after a cold night spent in the field. The following methods are a basic, simple way to make "field coffee" (and we don't need no steenkin' French presses or no fancy perky-lators!). 
Method 1      
Place 2-4 mess kit spoons (2-4 tbsp) ground coffee and 16-20 fluid ounces (475-600 ml) cold water in a canteen cup or similar container. Bring to a boil and immediately reduce heat or remove from heat. Let brew for 4 to 7 minutes and the grounds have settled to the bottom
Method 2
Using measurements in Method 1, place coffee grounds in a canteen cup and pour boiling water over the coffee. Let brew for 4 to 7 minutes and the grounds have settled to the bottom.

With any of the above methods, pour the coffee off of the grounds into another container or just stop drinking when you get to the grounds at the bottom of the cup.

The US Army's official 1916 recipe for coffee for one man was as follows:

Yield: one medium strength cup of coffee

1 heaping spoonful coffee
(the US Army mess kit spoon was one tablespoon (1/2 fluid ounce or 15 ml.))
2/3 cup (5.3 fl oz/ 160 ml) water

Add the coffee when the water is boiling, and let boil for 5 minutes.
Stir grains well when adding.
Let simmmer ten minutes after boiling.
Settle with a dash of water or let stand a few minutes.