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.