History Revealed! Origins Of The Army Lensatic Compass


For several years I’ve been trying to piece together the history of the US Army’s lensatic compass.  In an earlier post on this blog we discussed the various types of compasses and a bit of the developmental history that can be inferred by viewing the examples in my collection.  However, there was (and still is) very little solid history on the development of the lensatic compass available on the web.

For an item as ubiquitous as this compass the lack of historical data seems a odd.  The development and usage histories of many other items of WWII-era equipment are well documented.  Take the M1 Garand for example.  Collectors can discuss in detail every single part on that rifle and can accurately date and discern the manufacturer of each part by noting subtle differences in how the piece was machined or finished.  This wealth of knowledge is due to the fact that the development and production records for the Garand were made available decades ago by the US military and the various manufacturers.  Of course collector interest is also a factor.  The Garand is one of the most collected pieces of WWII equipment and when you have thousands of collectors clamoring for detailed information the odds are pretty good someone is going to unearth the data.  Since there can’t be more than a dozen serious collectors of Army lensatic compasses there’s a whole lot less clamoring.

As an item of individual equipment that guided millions of Soldiers across the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific in WWII, and continues in use by our Soldiers today, I’ve always felt the history of the lensatic compass deserved better coverage.

Earlier this week I was on a different quest.  I recently purchased an interesting bit of Army topographic kit, a Vertical Sketchmaster (I’ll do a posting on that later).  Since the device came without paperwork or documentation the first thing I did was hit Google for a quick search.

[A short segue here.  Hey Google, your search results are starting to look like those from the half dozen or so search engines that have all but fallen off the internet.  When I do a search on your site I’m looking for real results, not page after page of ads or eBay listings.  Any more, searching on Google is like searching on – dare I say it – Yahoo!]

Buried about three pages deep in the search results was a reference to a holding in the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC) titled “History of [the] U.S. Army Topographic Laboratories (1920 to 1973)”.

The phrase “Army Engineer Topographic Laboratories” got my immediate attention because the document could only be referring to what used to be know as the Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineer Topographic Laboratories, or ETL.  ETL and it’s predecessor organizations within the Corps of Engineers served (and still serve) as the Army’s R&D lab for development of topographic, terrain analysis and geospatial systems, processes and equipment.  Now called the Army Geospatial Center, it was an organization I called on many times during my career for support and advice, and they always came through.

As luck would have it the document is available in digital form through Google.  I immediately downloaded it and started reading.  Published in 1973 as an ETL internal paper by John Pennington, it is a short rundown of the history of the Army’s topographic R&D labs and covers major projects and equipment development between 1920 and 1970.  I don’t want to spend too much time on this document in this post, because I feel it deserves it’s own separate discussion at a later date.  For now I’ll just say it is a treasure trove of historical information.

While reviewing the document for information on the vertical sketchmaster I quickly came across discussion of lensatic compasses.  This was something completely unexpected.  I never considered that the development of the lensatic compass was something an Engineer topographic R&D lab would have been involved with.  After reading the entries it now makes perfect sense – the Engineers had doctrinal responsibility for development of land navigation equipment and were the Army’s subject matter experts on compasses of all types.  While the development of land navigation techniques including the use of map and compass was the responsibility of the Infantry School, development of the compass as an item of equipment was the responsibility of the Engineers.  Of course the two branches worked hand-in-hand on the project, with the Engineers serving as a test and development agency in support of the Infantry School.

The document briefly discusses compass development both prior to and after WWII and adds some fascinating tidbits to the history of the development the lensatic compass:

Since the quality of the scan is pretty poor I’ve reproduced the key parts below:

(7)  Compasses.  Although the compass is not strictly a surveying instrument, considerable effort was expended by the Mapping Branch of the Engineer Board in the World War II period on the development of small compasses for Infantry and other arms.


The work started in 1938 when the Infantry requested that an inexpensive, commercial-type compass be found to replace the marching compass then issued because the marching compass was too large, elaborate, and costly.  This investigation was assigned to the Engineer Board, and it was soon found that no suitable commercial compass was available.  The W. & L.E. Gurley and the Taylor Instrument Companies, however, were willing to make a suitable compass based on a new design; and each company made six samples in 1939 as ordered from the Engineer Board.


After testing by both the Infantry and Cavalry and some modifications by the manufacturers, in November 1940 the Engineer Board recommended procurement of the cheap lensatic compass from both manufacturers.”


Thus we have the WWII-era M1938 lensatic compass.

M1938 Lensatic Compass
My question now is, was this originally a liquid filled model?  Read below.

One interesting point is that while lensatic compasses made by Gurley are fairly common (they were a major manufacturer of surveying equipment at the time) I have never seen a military lensatic compass made by Taylor Instruments.  However, Taylor Instruments did go on to be a major manufacturer of wrist compasses for the US military in WWII.

But the story is not over.  Even back in 1940 they were struggling with the issue of how to dampen the compass needle or card.

“Since the mechanical dampening arrangements in all compasses available up to that time had not been entirely satisfactory, the Engineer Board started investigations of liquid dampening in December 1941.  Compasses of both the lensatic and the wrist type with liquid dampening were developed, tested, and adopted in the 1941 to 1944 period; and it was thought for a time that the compass problem had been solved.  However, it was discovered that, with temperature changes, an air bubble often developed in the compass capsule which impeded the free movement of the compass needle and affected the accuracy.


In July 1944, the Superior Magneto Corporation, one of the liquid-filled compass suppliers, solved the liquid  dampening problem by applying the induction dampening principle.  The compass body was made of copper which set up an eddy current and magnetic field as the compass needle rotated, thus acting as a drag to dampen the needle oscillation.  Samples were immediately procured and tested.  As a result, the induction dampened wrist compass was standardized in April 1945, and the induction dampened lensatic compass was standardized in May 1945.”


Based on the number of WWII compasses available for sale from auction sites like eBay I think that Superior Magneto was the #1 supplier of lensatic compasses during WWII.  Knowing their core business – the production of magnetos – it makes sense that their engineers would have a clear understanding of the principle of induction and how to apply it to the problem of compass needle dampening.

Today M1938 compasses with induction dampening are easy to identify.  They have a white compass bowl that contains the compass card.  The white bowl is the stamped copper cup that the compass magnet interacts with to slow oscillation.  It is an excellent dampening system and is still used today in US military-issue lensatic compasses.

M1938 Lensatic Compass with induction dampening.
Note the white compass bowl.  This is really a stamped copper cup that interacts
with the north-seeking magnet to reduce oscillation of the compass card.

Let’s skip forward now to the late 1940s, when it was clear that the lensatic compass was in need of an upgrade.

(3)  Compasses.  The development of compasses, both the wrist and the lensatic types, was reopened in 1947 to provide instruments which would overcome the deficiencies noted in those developed during World War II.  Experimental models of the lensatic compass were produced by Taylor Instrument Company, Rochester, New York (Fig. 84), and the Brunson Instrument Company, Kansas City, Missouri.  Both were found to conform to the military characteristics, but the Brunson model was considered superior.  Experimental models of the wrist compass were produced by the Brunson Instrument Company, Kansas City, Missouri (Fig. 85), and were delivered to ERDL in January 1950.  Cold weather tests of the lensatic compass were conducted at Fort Churchill, Canada, and in January 1951 service test models were procured and shipped to service test agencies.  Here again, as with the compass development during World War II, emergency procurement of large quantities of both compasses were made before all testing and development had been completed.


Development of both compasses was completed in 1952.  The lensatic compass was classified as standard type, and the project was closed in November 1952.”


The result of these tests and type classification are the classic M1950 Lensatic Compass, a design still in use today:

M1950 Lensatic Compass produced in 2010 by Cammenga.
Today Cammenga is the sole contractor producing lensatic compasses
for the US military.

The M1950 is still one of the best compasses ever developed, and I consider it the best military compass ever issued to any military anywhere in the world.

3 thoughts on “History Revealed! Origins Of The Army Lensatic Compass

  1. You are quite correct when allowing the Engineer Corps had doctrinal responsibilities for compass development. This however glosses over a classic bureaucratic dust-up between the Engineers and the Quartermaster, is subject to my own on-going research.

    Although typical characterized (without attribution) as being issued to U.S. Army Air Forces pilots as “survival gear”, a Box, Match, Waterproof with a compass integrated in the box cover was issued to infantry in the Pacific (“PTO”) and China-Burma-India (“CBI”) Theaters of Operations, supplied by Taylor Instruments Company, Rochester, New York on three contracts, issued by the Quartermaster in a chronological sequence starting August 1942 with deliveries on the final contract completed June 1943, for “BOXES MATCH”. As will be noted below, the Quartermaster General was quite deliberate and calculating in apparently not including “with compass” in his reporting.

    The waterproof matchbox with compass was among the roster of specialized equipment undergoing field testing and evaluation by Captain Cresson H. Kearny and his experimental jungle platoon, drawn from 5th Infantry, Panama Mobile Force, Summer 1941. It would be among the 18 items rushed into production after General Douglas MacArthur, late July 1942, urgently requested the Quartermaster to procure 150,000 sets of special jungle equipment, including “(a) waterproof matchbox with compass, developed originally for mountain use…intended to ensure the jungle soldier a supply of dry matches and a guide through the dense undergrowth” (SEE: Thomas M. Pitkin’s 1944 monograph (Quartermaster Equipment for Special Forces Q.M.C. Historical Studies, No. 5, O.Q.M.G. (February 1944) at p. 115, and Kearny’s post-War remembrance (Jungle Snafus…and Remedies, Cresson H. Kearny, Major of Infantry, A.U.S., Retired, Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, Cave Junction, Oregon (1996) p. 163, hereinafter cited as “Jungle Snafus”).

    Kearny’s post-War recollections, however, make no reference to the mountain warfare origins of the waterproof matchbox with compass. This is hardly surprising, noting how there is no evidence of coordination between the Quartermaster’s jungle and mountain equipment development committees. In fact, exactly the opposite much more likely the case, as witnessed by the parallel development of waterproof mountain and jungle food bags, to note but one conspicuous example of stove-piped development of specialized equipment.

    Kearny, in his memoir under the Chapter 10 heading “How the Quartermaster General in World War II Got Individual Waterproof Compasses to Tens of Thousands of Jungle Soldiers”, recalls “(w)hile in Washington on temporary duty a few months after Pearl Harbor I was unable to persuade key Engineer Corps officers of the need for individual compasses. But I did succeed in strengthening the belief of Major General E.B. Gregory, the Quartermaster General, that each jungle infantryman should have a compass. I showed him an available civilian matchbox with a small waterproof compass sealed in its screwed-on, gasketted cap. The first Jungle Platoon of the Panama Mobile Force had tested dozens and had found them to be dependable. Because matches and means for keeping them dry were responsibilities of the Quartermaster Corps, General Gregory was able to have a large number of those matchboxes produced (I was later told 100,000). They were procured within a few months at a unit cost of less than one dollar. Their civilian color was changed to Army olive drab. Most soon were issued to tens of thousands of our infantrymen fighting on tropical islands and later in Burma. Those little waterproof compasses saved lives and improved both morale and combat effectiveness.

    Unfortunately, the Quartermaster Corps was not permitted to order any additional waterproof match containers with compasses. Shortly after Army engineers learned that the Quartermaster was supplying compasses thus breaking the Engineer Corps’ generations-old compass monopoly, the Corps succeeded in getting the equivalent of a cease-and-desist order against the competing Quartermaster Corps. Since then no more military matchboxes with compasses have been produced anywhere at any time, to the best of my knowledge. The last were issued late in World War II to Mars Task Force Infantrymen in Burma” (Jungle Snafus at p. 163).

    I suspect Kearny being told 100,000 waterproof match box with compass produced reflects only the first of three awards made to Taylor Instruments Company, 155 QM13834, $76,000, awarded August 1942, deliveries completed October 1942. It should be noted this August 1942 contract issued immediately after MacArthur’s late-July request for 150,000 sets of jungle equipment, which included the matchbox compass. If it is assumed that first contract with a value of $76,000 sufficient for 150,000 matchbox compasses, then that equates to a unit price of approximately 50 cents. Even if we go in the opposite direction and total all three awards made to Taylor, 155 QM13834, $76,000, awarded August 1942, deliveries completed October 1942; 155 QM14131, $127,000, awarded October 1942, deliveries completed February 1943; and 155 QM15237, $62,000, awarded February 1943, deliveries completed June 1943, and use a unit cost of $1.00, that means on the order of 265,000 matchbox compasses delivered by Taylor Instruments between award of the first contract in August 1942 and deliveries completed under the third and final contract in June 1943.

    Adding further weight to Kearny’s recollection is the three matchbox compass contracts, starting in August 1942, were issued back-to-back, with one contract ending the same month the subsequent contract awarded. While this might be explained by availability of funds, more likely is the Quartermaster was seeking to slide its compass procurement under the bureaucratic radar screen. The fact each contract reported in War Supply Contracts described as “BOXES MATCH”, with “COMPASS” nowhere to be found in the listings, while circumstantial evidence, nevertheless supports Kearny’s recollection that the Quartermaster General knew he was treading on the Engineer Corps turf, when engaged in development and procurement of waterproof matchbox compasses for use by jungle troops. Finally, none of these matchbox compass contracts carry a “ENG” prefix, but are “QM” designated, meaning the source of funds not the Engineer Corps but those budgeted to the Quartermaster. Two additional contracts awarded to Taylor for the handheld lensatic compass, conversely, are described as “COMPASSES” and carry the “ENG” prefix, these larger dial compasses issued with a waterproofed canvas case with M-1910 wire hangar, allowing for attachment to web pistol or cartridge belt. These compasses are also clearly marked on the back of the case “Corps of Engineers / U.S. Army”, in contrast to matchbox compass, lacking any such attribution.

    Disruption and threats to organizational fiefdoms within the Army is certainly not unique to the Engineer Corps. The guerrilla warfare between the Ordnance Department and the Quartermaster, leading up to the 1920 re-organization of responsibilities for development and procurement of meat can and associated field mess equipment, as well as intrenching tools, case in point. Ordinance fought this transfer of responsibility, and then did not acquiesce quietly during its implementation after 1920.

  2. I have the compass my daddy used during WW2. Unfortunately it needs a good cleaning and the compass no longer rotates. Do you know of reputable place that I can send it to have a clean and fixed? The one my daddy gave me has a black face and fluorescent west east south in the arrow it was made by Nesco.

    • Diana, unforunately those compasses were not repairable. There’s no real way to open it up and clean or repair it. I DO NOT recommend opening them up to try to do it yourself because the luminous points on the dial are filled with radium (yes, radium). My recommendation is to just keep it as a momento of your father and his service.

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