The canteen and CamelBak have both served their purpose for the US military. Here’s why. Composite by Matt Fratus/Coffee or Die.
The metal canteen and the soldiers who carry it share a long history. The canteen was present in the trenches of France during World War I, at Army Special Forces camps in Vietnam, and with coalition forces during the invasion of Iraq. Few other pieces of essentially unchanged gear can claim so much history with US military forces.
But why is that so? Why do some soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines prefer a hand-held canteen with an attachable canteen cup over everything else?
A US M-1910 canteen with a cover was commonly used during World War I.
From the American Revolution to the brink of World War I, US military canteens typically came in two versions, each with its own problems. One was round and barrel-shaped and made of wood. The other was a tin flask with detachable straps designed to be slung over a soldier’s shoulder.
In 1909, the Infantry Equipment Board shifted from wood and tin to containers made from aluminum and steel. This shift came after successful field tests using about 800 canteens, cups, and covers. As a result of their analysis, the US Army Quartermaster Corps contracted several domestic companies to manufacture the M-1910 canteen, cup, and cover.
The kidney-shaped M-1910 was fashioned from a single piece of aluminum. Each M-1910 could carry approximately 1 quart of water. American doughboys first carried the M-1910 in France during World War I, mounted next to their first-aid kits on their ammunition belts, and production for the M-1910 continued into the 1960s.
A 101st Airborne paratrooper gathers snow from a tree in a Belgian forest to melt down into water. Soldiers sometimes did this in the field to make coffee. Photo courtesy of Pinterest. Composite by Matt Fratus/Coffee or Die.
Although the M-1910 canteen went overseas with American GIs during World War II, newer models were created en masse for the war effort. The M-1942 was similar to the M-1910 but built with different materials.
In the early years of WWII, aluminum was needed to build aircraft, which meant the military had to choose a new material for its canteen. In 1942, manufacturers started using plastic and porcelain enamel to make canteens that were typically black or blue.
According to the military blog Gear Illustration, stainless steel was more common. Manufacturers divided the canteen into two halves that were machine-pressed and sealed at a horizontal joint. This set the M-1942 apart from the M-1910, whose main seam was a vertical line.
The steel M-1942 had an olive drab canvas cover and a cup that fit over the bottom. Canteen cups were often used for boiling water and making coffee. During the Battle of the Bulge, 101st Airborne paratroopers used melted snow for water to make coffee in their canteen cups as they dodged German artillery fire in the Belgian forest near Foy.
Aluminum was phased back in for the canteens as the war progressed, and the service life of both models continued into the 21st century.
An evolution of US military canteens used from World War II to Vietnam. Photo courtesy of the US Army. Composite by Matt Fratus/Coffee or Die.
In 1966, US Army Special Forces serving in Vietnam requested a collapsible, 2-quart canteen to withstand the field environment. This next generation had a square-molded vinyl bladder with a threaded spout on top. According to David C. Cole, the former curator at the US Army Center of Military History, this canteen’s heat-sealed seams proved unreliable for combat conditions. A second model made of molded plastic was field-tested by the 4th Infantry Division in 1967. It was olive green with a sipping spout in one corner.
The Associated Press reported in November 1969 on why soldiers preferred collapsible, sloshproof canteens in the field. A collapsible canteen, soldiers found, could be compressed in size to prevent sloshing noises while moving.
The Vietnam-era collapsible canteens saw action as late as Operation Desert Storm in Iraq in 1991, though most were painted tan.
In 1989, emergency medical technician Michael Eidson took an IV bag and stuffed it into a tube sock, which he placed inside his jersey on his back. He ran a thin hose from the bag over his shoulder near his face and kept the spout shut with a clothespin. With his DIY water source, Eidson competed in the Hotter’N Hell 100-mile bike race held around Wichita Falls, Texas.
By the end of the race, the CamelBak was born.
US Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Sonny Williams performs a buddy rushing technique in a dry rehearsal for live-fire training during Exercise Koolendong 13 at Bradshaw Field Training Area, Northern Territory, Australia, Sept. 1, 2013. Williams is wearing a CamelBak. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. T.S. Dietrich.
The water carrier drew immediate interest from US special operations forces during the Gulf War, and by 9/11, CamelBaks were mainstream in military circles. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, CamelBak had supplied $3.4 million worth of the military-styled hydration packs for US troops. Infantry grunts often requested CamelBaks to be part of their basic combat loads.
CamelBaks served with troops throughout the post-9/11 conflicts, from Army soldiers and Marines walking patrols through Baghdad to special operations forces in the mountains of Afghanistan. Adapters and redesigns made them compatible with gas masks.
Still, traditional canteens hung around. According to David Kleemann, an Army combat medic, even among infantry units that adopt the CamelBak, troops are still issued two 1-quart canteens and two canteen cups. On missions, he wrote, CamelBaks often ended up inside a pack, out of easy reach, while soldiers reached first for the more durable canteens. Also, Kleemann said, canteens come with metal cups.
“As for the canteen cups, I’ve almost never eaten out of them but it is indispensable for shaving my face in the field,” Kleemann wrote. “I walk up to my gun truck or ambulance, rotate the mirror, then shave with the water in the cup.”
Not every soldier, airman, sailor, or Marine carries an assault pack or needs a CamelBak, either. That’s part of why the canteen remains a staple in the US military, in years past and for generations to come.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.