Water carriage is crucial for the bushwalker. For the walker who likes their foot-borne adventuring done in the old style, there are a few options for carrying a usable amount of water. One of these is the canteen and one classic canteen which is rarely seen these days, but was a mainstay of bushwalkers and other bushgoers in the 1910s, 20s and 30s, is the circular and enameled steel Boer War era Pattern 1895 MkIV water bottle.
The original Pattern 1895 MkIV water bottle is an 850ml enameled steel round water canteen which wouldn’t have looked out of place slung from the saddle of a cowboy in the American west. It has a wool cover and a cork stopper connected to the body of the water bottle with a short length of chain. It was issued with either a leather or a textile shoulder strap.
I recently acquired one of these original Boer War canteens in very good condition. It was missing the shoulder strap but the wool cover was intact and the cork was present. It’s an exceptionally rare item, especially when compared to the tens of millions of WWI and WWII-era Mk VI and Mk VII enameled water bottles which later replaced it. The Australian War Memorial’s online collection has one of these Boer War water bottles, but it’s missing the wool cover. I’m obviously not going to take mine out bush, it’s far too rare and fragile for that. I will on-sell the original to a collector, but I wanted a reproduction. My first thought was do they even make repros of these canteens?
Well, they sort of do. In the USA, there’s a large community of Civil War reenactors along with a thriving gear industry to support them. One basic item of equipment used by many soldiers on both sides of the US Civil War was the Model of 1858 canteen. The original was a tin-plated sheet metal canteen with a cork stopper, wool cover and a folded linen or leather shoulder strap. In form, function and shape it was very similar to the British/Australian Pattern 1895 water bottle and with a few modifications it can be substituted for one.
I purchased a stainless steel reproduction of the Model of 1858 canteen simply because the tin-plated finish of the tinplate replicas is a lot more susceptible to rust than the enameled steel of the Pattern 1895 water bottle I was trying to emulate. The stainless steel on the repro won’t corrode as easily as either the original tinplate or the British enameled steel.
There are four main differences between the repro US civil war canteen and the Boer War water bottle-
- The spout on the repro civil war canteen is shorter than the one on the original Boer War water bottle and it has a rolled lip.
- The exposed metal parts of the repro civil war canteen are shiny metal while the surface of the original Boer War water bottle is finished with a blue enamel coating.
- The cork stopper on the repro Civil War canteen has a big metal loop on top big enough to put a finger through, while the loop on an original Boer War water bottle cork is only big enough for the chain tether.
- The capacity of the repro civil war canteen is 1100ml as opposed to 850ml for the original Boer War water bottle. Despite this difference in capacity, the diameter of both the civil war canteen and the Boer War water bottle are almost identical. The repro civil war canteen is a little thicker and so holds an extra 250ml of water.
The Civil War canteen can be had with a “butternut brown” wool cover which after some fading, will substitute nicely for the khaki felt cover of the Boer War water bottle.
Using the original Pattern 1895 Mk. IV Boer War Water Bottle as a guide, I set about modding the repro stainless steel M1858 Civil War canteen.
First task was to remove the canteen from its wool cover. The cover’s seam was unpicked down to the level of the metal shoulder strap loops on both sides and the canteen slipped out easily.
Next was painting of the canteen’s body to simulate the blue enameling on the original Boer War water bottle. The cork and chain were removed from the canteen and the spout plugged with cloth. Using a wire wheel I roughed up the shiny surface of the canteen, which would serve to help the paint stick. Hung up using a piece of tie wire through one of the strap loops, I first primed the exterior of the canteen with etch primer and allowed it to dry. Next was the blue top coat. I used some cheap royal blue spray paint as this was closest in colour to the original blue enamel on the Pattern 1895 water bottle.
While the paint dried I set about modifying the cork stopper. This was probably the hardest part of the whole process. I cut off the big loop with a pair of bolt cutters, and using a bench vise and a pair of large needle nose pliers, I set about forming the small loop for the chain. About ten minutes later I had a workable cork.
With the paint dry, I placed the canteen back into its wool cover and stitched it up. I then reattached the cork chain to the sling loop and removed the cloth from the spout. The resulting canteen looks very similar to the Boer War water bottle, which is exactly what I wanted.
The original shoulder slings for the Boer War water bottles were either a folded linen or canvas webbing sling for infantry, artillery and other dismounted troops, or it was a leather strap for cavalry and mounted infantry. I like leather so I went for the latter. I modified my sling design so that it echoed the WWI-era Light Horseman’s Pattern 03 water bottle carrier sling. This system is exceptionally easy to use as the shoulder strap is a big loop which is threaded through brass rings on the carrier, meaning it is a simple matter to bring the canteen from its resting place on the wearer’s side to the wearer’s lips in one simple and deft motion. In fact, reading how to do it would have taken you three times as long as actually performing the motion.
The sling is constructed from 20mm wide leather with 3mm thick leather used for the cradle and 4mm thick oiled leather used for the strap. Brass buckles and D-rings and copper rivets and burrs are used for the sling.
So that’s as far as I’m going with it. It’s a traditional water bottle with a vintage vibe which I’ll be happy to take out bush. It can be easily “civilianised” by using any preferred colour of wool cover and/or by using any shade of folded linen or dyed leather for a shoulder strap.
If you were looking to make the civil war canteen conversion into a Boer War water bottle more accurate, then there’s a few pointers I can offer.
- Cut off and grind down the spout then braze on a 4cm long piece of tinware or copper tubing, smoothed off and painted royal blue.
- Replace the cork itself with an original or reproduction of the WWI/WWII MkVI water bottle corks.
- Replace the modern-looking stainless steel chain with a finer brass example.
- Purchase an accurate replica felt cover and leather shoulder strap from VMA Leather in New Zealand, who incidentally sell more accurate replicas of the Pattern 1895 water bottles for display or for film use.