U.S. Military Mess Gear

Individual mess gear consists of the basics for a soldier to feed himself in the field. More generally, mess gear may refer to mass feeding equipment used to cook and prepare food for large numbers of troops in company or larger units.

Cleaning a mess kit and canteen cup at a utensil washing facility, March AFB, Riverside, CA, July 1986
Cleaning a mess kit and canteen cup at a utensil washing facility, March AFB, Riverside, CA, July 1986.

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Individual Mess Gear for the U.S. Soldier

U.S. Mess Kit

The individual mess gear -- the soldier's mess kit -- consists of the two part "meat can" plus knife, fork and spoon. This has been the standard design since the early 20th Century. The canteen cup is also sometimes included in the description.

Can , Meat (Mess Kit), M-1910, M-1918, M-1932 or M-1942

M-1918 Mess Kit off-center ring

The M-1932 Meat Can is the style that was in use during World War II. It was based on the aluminum mess kit that was in use before World War I, consisting of a pan with a hinged handle plus a lid that fits over the pan and is held together as one unit when the pan handle is folded over. A ring attached to the edge of lid, off center, can be slipped over the pan handle so the two can be dipped in boiling water together. The unit when folded is about 9 inches long and 7 inches wide.

Mess Kit Closed

The older style mess kits had the flat lid that could also be used as a plate. The M-1932 unit had the plate divided into two sections so food could be separated. The folding handle, when closed, fits into the groove formed by the divider. The ring on the plate was moved to the end of the groove so the lip of the handle fits right into it. The M-1932 Meat Can was made of "corrosion resistent" galvanized steel, not aluminum. It used the same WW I style narrow profile steel handle attached by a cast hinge.

Mess Kit Markings

The M-1942 Meat Can body was the same design as the M-1932, but made of stainless steel. The M-1942 handle was thicker and wider, made of the same material as the body, and attached by a stamped part, not the cast hinge. The M-1942 style remained in use long after World War II, through the Vietnam War.

The Meat Cans are almost universally marked US on the folding handle, along with the date and manufacturer. When the plate/lid was put on top of the pan and the handle foled over and snapped in place, the Meat Can became a unit that was stable and quiet. It was normally stored in the Meat Can Pouch of the M-1928 Haversack (most of World War II), or inside the Musette Bag, Combat Pack, or Rucksack.

Mess Kit Utensils: Fork, Knife, and Spoon

U.S. Army Mess Kit with Fork, Knife, and Spoon
U.S. Army Mess Kit with Fork, Knife, and Spoon.

The M-1926 pattern Spoon, Fork, and Knife are individual utensils that were issed to soldiers from prior to World War II into the 1980s. The M-1926 utensils were virtually identical to earlier versions except that each had as slot in its handle so they could be slipped over the mess kit pan handle, along with the plate by its ring, for cleaning in boiling water.

The utensils were stamped from tin plated steel or rust resistant steel. There are variations, especially in the knife handle. During World War II the knives had bakelite or aluminum handle, thicker than the stainless version. Later contracts returned to stamped stainless steel, a simpler design.

Mess kit knife handle U.S. stamped

All the utensils were stamped "US" on the handle front. The contractor name may appear but often there is no date, even on knives which are most frequently dated.

The utensils were stored with the mess kit, but it was important to keep noise down so the could not just be thrown in the pan. Some rucksacks or packs had slots for the utensils sewn in so each item could be slipped into its own noiseless fabric slot. Another idea was to wrap the fork, knife and spoon in a sock.

The Mess Kit in Use

The two halves of the mess kit can be linked together with the ring of the plate slipped over the handle of the pan. That way you can hold them both open to receive food, using only one hand. As you pass along the mess line, the cooks served hot items first, often meat first with vegetables, potatos and other side dishes on top, which kept piling up in the limited space available. A piece of pie and maybe a spoonful of mixed nuts went on top of everything else.

Now you were on your own. You had to balance the two parts of the mess kit plus your canteen cup of coffee or cocoa. Finding a place to sit was a challenge and then you had to eat from the top down. So you ate the dessert nuts and pie first, followed by the side dishes and then the main course last. Having a hot meal was good, especially on holidays, but an odd experience compared to civilian meals.

When heating the canteen cup, the handle could get quite hot. There was a slot in the lip at the end of the handle that is just the size to slip in the M-1926 Fork. That way you can lift the canteen cup off the burner securely without burning yourself.

For more information on methods of heating field rations, visit the linked page.

Cleaning Up the Mess Kit After Eating

When eating in organized units, the standard procedure is to set up a mess kit laundry. At a minimum this consists of 4 galvanized garbage cans with immersion heaters in three of them. The first (no heater) is used for trash and scraping food off the mess kits. Then you put the plate ring over the pan handle followed by the knife, fork and spoon using the slots in their handles. Holding the pan handle with everything else hanging off it, you make two dips in hot soapy water and one in clear boiling water. Each dip is about 10 seconds. This procedure prevents most types of food poisoning. More modern mess kit laundry facilities are available when units have access to them.

Quoting from FM 21-15, "Care and Use of Individual Clothing and Equipment:, 15 Feb 1977, P23:

"Your mess gear consists of the messkit pan and the field mess knife, fork, and spoon. Before using your mess gear, clean and dip it in boiling water for at least 3 seconds. Eating with mess gear on which grease or food particles have been left may cause serious illness or make the food less appetizing. After eating, food particles should be completely scraped off as soon as possible."

"Clean mess gear by dipping it in hot soap, detergent, or hand dishwashing solution (130 degrees F). Use a brush, if you have one, to wash off food or grease; rinse thoroughly for about 30 seconds in clean boiling water. Air-dry the gear by swinging it back and forth until it is thoroughly dry. Never wipe mess gear with a cloth or towel."

Complete instructions on setting up a company mess kit laundry can be found in 'FM 21-10, Field Hygiene and Sanitation' available from the Olive-Drab.com archive at the linked location (2MB PDF file). See page A-21 and surrounding pages for food related topics.

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