"Those who live a comparatively fixed life can hardly weigh aright the importance of a good canteen." -- Lieutenant Colonel Philip Reade, Inspector General, United States Volunteers, History of the Military Canteen, 1901.
LTC Reade's book makes interesting reading, even at the remove of more than a century. You can find it here: http://www.archive.org/details/historyofmilitar00readrich
The problem of water supply to the American trooper in Iraq or Afghanistan is the same as the Confederate private's at Gettysburg, or the Roman centurion's at Philippi.
Canteens have been around since the first nomad figured out how to carry water in a hollowed out gourd with a bit of vine for a sling. For militia purposes in the 21st century, canteens are still extremely useful.
I recently had a conversation with a fellow about why he neglected having a canteen of any kind in his kit. "If I have to fight, I'm going to fight light and besides I'll be fighting in the city. There's plenty of water sources."
"True," I said, "but have you ever noticed that, even in peacetime, you often find yourself in one place and the water in another?"
"Well, I'll use bottled water," he replied.
"And how will you carry it?"
"Uh, I guess I'll get one of those bottle carriers that hikers use."
"Uh huh. You know what they call that?"
He looked blank.
"A canteen, son. A canteen."
Even lightfighters need water. I suggested he get a GI 2-quart canteen on a sling and keep it with his rifle and bandoleers.
Below is an excellent summary of the history of the M-1910 USGI canteen found at that great site, olivedrab.com: http://www.olive-drab.com/od_soldiers_gear_canteen.php.
I will have more after you read up on the history of the lowly GI canteen.
A basic item of equipment for ground troops is the canteen. With the high level of physical activity that is normal in military operations, every person needs a significant ration of water on a regular basis. The canteen and its accessories provide the vital link between the water supply and the individual soldier on the move.
U.S. Army 1 Qt. Canteen, Early World War II with metal cap.
Part of every soldier's basic equipment is his canteen. Since World War I, with the M-1910 standard, the basic U.S. Army canteen, also used by the other armed services, has been 1 quart in volume. Other canteens in 2 quart or larger volumes have been issued, but the almost universal canteen remains the 1 quart size. The design of the canteen cover, also standardized as the M-1910, also remained nearly constant for many decades.
The canteen system includes a folding handle cup that nests with the canteen, an insulated cover that attaches to belt or pack, and a cap attached to the canteen by a chain or strap.
U.S. Army 1 Qt. Canteen, M-1910, with cup and cover
Early World War II canteens were the M-1910 design in aluminum with an aluminum cap attached to the canteen neck by a small chain, as in the top photo of this page. This unit was carried over from before World War I (the design of 1910), made from two halves vertically welded up the sides. Later canteens were made with two stainless steel halves joined horizontally. In the back of the canteen cover in the top center photo, you can see the wire hooks that attach the canteen cover to the cartridge belt, as above, or pistol belt. The same wire clip was used for attachment of many other types of accessories such as the first aid pouch, bayonet, or intrenching tool.
A rare World War II variation was an enameled canteen and (more rare) the enameled canteen cup. They were issued only to Navy and USMC in black/deep blue enamel to save alumimum and stainless steel materials.
U.S. Army 1 Qt. Canteen, WW II Plastic Cap.
The canteen cover M-1910 had a khaki canvas cloth outer layer (changed to olive drab late in World War II), usually with "US" stamped in it, and an insulated liner made of dark grey felt. Two Lift the Dot (LTD) fasteners attached the flaps to the front of the cover, holding the canteen securely inside. In the summer, soldiers were instructed to keep the liner wet -- evaporation helped cool the canteen. In the winter, if kept dry, the insulation helped keep the water from freezing. An eyelet in the bottom of the cover provided drainage. USMC issued covers with longer tabs that crossed to opposite LTD fasteners, like folder arms.
The aluminum cap was replaced by a black plastic (Bakelite) cap, the typical canteen of World War II, as in the uncovered canteen photo immediately above. A cork washer in the cap made a tight seal.
The Vietnam period (1960s) saw the aluminum canteen replaced by an olive drab polyethylene plastic bottle with a matching cap held to the canteen by a broad plastic strap, instead of a chain. The cover evolved from the insulated cotton design to a nylon insulated material, with snaps instead of the metal fasteners closing the cover. The M1910 bent wire hook attachment system became the "ALICE keeper" sliding attachments related to the Alice load carrying system. The nylon canteen covers have a small flap pocket, with velcro flap, intended to hold a bottle of water purification tablets.
U.S. Army 1 Qt. Canteen, Vietnam Plastic.
Later plastic canteens have a cap with a smaller opening in the top center that allows use of the drinking apparatus on military gas masks. This is made so a plastic tube can run from inside the gas mask into the canteen. During gas attacks, the soldier can drink without removing his mask or exposing the contents of the canteen to the gas. You can buy the heavy duty replacement cap from U.S. Cavalry Store . That cap works with standard GI one quart and two quart canteens as well as the Arctic Canteen.
Plastic canteen with gas mask drinking cap.
The early model M-1910 canteen cup had a metal strip handle that folded onto the cup itself. Identifying marks -- "US", manufacturer, date -- are stamped into the handle or on the bottom of the cup. The material was aluminum until 1943-1944 after which stainless steel was used. The early style cup was replaced in the 1970s by NSN 8465-00-165-6838, a steel model with butterfly folding wire handles attached to the outside of the same basic cup. The lip of the aluminum cup was rolled (a problem since it got too hot), while the stainless cup edges were not.
The metal canteen cup is intended to hold hot liquids, such as coffee or soup, and can be used to boil liquids. Because of this need to handle heat, the metal cup is still used with the plastic canteen. Small stoves are made in the exact size to provide heat to the canteen cup, such as the "Natick Stove" or earlier models that use Trioxane fuel tablets or bars.
The metal canteen cup continues in use, but is not carried by everyone. The use of MREs, prepackaged water and drinks, and other changes has reduced the need for the separate cup. Thanks to James Yeager for help with this section.
All military canteens have markings on the canteen and on the cover. Typical markings on the aluminum canteen are stamped into the bottom and include "US" plus the year and manufacturer name. The molded plastic canteens have simliar markings in raised letters on the bottom and have a warning not to expose the canteen to an open flame on the upper part of the body.
Covers typically have "US" on the front plus year and manufacturer identification on the bottom or back. The nylon covers have more extensive information such as contract number, NSN and more.
It was very common for soldiers to mark their name or service number on equipment, to stencil unit information, or other identification, as in the top photo.
Two Quart Canteens
Two Quart Collapsible Canteen.
Since many soldiers were carrying two of the one quart canteens, a two quart canteen was developed and issued during the Vietnam war. They had the same black plastic top as the last issued metal canteens, but consisted of a plastic bladder inside a nylon case. The case had a small flap-covered pocket for water purification tablets on the outside.
A later version of the two quart canteen (shown in the photos) had a more substantial plastic bladder with a top same as the plastic one quart canteen. A nylon case was supplied for this canteen as well. This model is known as the "Canteen, Water, Collapsible, 2 Quart".
2 Quart Canteen Cover
OK. Most of the militia formations I've had a chance to recently inspect use a combination of all of the above canteens or Camelbaks (more about them in Part Two).
Some guys favor collapsible canteens (in one or two quart) because you can drink, squeeze the container until the water rises to the level of the spout rim, cap it, and thus it will not make noise sloshing. Others used to the rigid canteens make a point to drink a whole canteen shared amongst their fire team members, so that all canteens are either empty or full, thus avoiding the telltale noise of sloshing.
Cleaning canteens is a blind man's game because you cannot tell what sort of crud is built up on the inside, nor can you tell after washing if you got it all. This is especially true of canteens purchased used at surplus stores. Remember, too, that more liquids than water are/were carried in canteens. It behooves anyone who buys a used canteen to clean it thoroughly. And then clean it again. Metal canteens of aluminum or steel were often cleaned in the field with a slurry of water and sand (some troops in Vietnam used uncooked rice or pebbles), scouring out the inside by vigorous, sustained shaking. FM 21-15 instructs GIs to clean their plastic canteen with hot, soapy water and rinse thoroughly.
Some fellows who use aluminum canteens clean them with the same stuff you use to get rid of coffee pot residue -- Lime Away.
I will not discuss here in detail the long term health issues of drinking water from aluminum or BPA plastic containers. There is a theory that older ex-GIs are more likely to develop Alzheimers because of the water they ingested from aluminum canteens in World War II and Korea. This is, however, still just a theory. Many users who prefer metal canteens (especially useful in cold climates because you can thaw a frozen metal canteen in a fire) therefore choose stainless steel instead of aluminum.
The carcinogens present in BPA plastics are perhaps better documented but my theory has always been that I am more likely to die of a bullet than a carcinogen in any case. But then, my father expected to be shot by a jealous husband before he was forty and yet he died of a stroke having lived twice that age. (There are non-BPA plastic containers that can be used, but more about them in Part Three.)
Regarding the most useful of GI implements, the canteen cup, I have long been a fan. Ever since the 90s, I have discouraged folks from loading themselves down with a messkit because there are few tasks that a messkit can do that a stainless steel GI canteen cup cannot, in handier and lighter form. More about this in Part Three as well.