If you’ve been in the market for a new compass lately, particularly if you’re in the US, you’ll have noticed it’s a minefield of cheap baseplate compasses, ball compasses, pocket watch compasses, watch band compasses, lensatic compasses and even prismatic compasses all of unknown origin and accuracy. We can take a wild guess and assume that most, if not all of these are made in China, but do they actually work? If they do then they could well be a bargain. If they don’t then they are at best a waste of money and at worst a search and rescue mission waiting to happen.
I own and use good, reliable compasses – solid known-brands which have proven themselves to me in the field – but I’m curious about these cheapies. If you check various blogs and forums for info on whether the cheap and nasty compasses work, you’ll come up with a resounding “no! Buy a Cammenga/Silva/Suunto/etc.” Are these folks speaking from experience with the cheap compasses or are they just “parroting”? It’s very rare that a competent outdoors navigator even tries these cheap instruments and it’s even rarer that they would post their results. However, some have, and their findings are what has piqued my own curiosity and convinced me to look past my own innate nav gear snobbery and approach the issue with an open mind.
One such person is Gary from http://www.ravenlore.co.uk . A while ago he posted his review on the Chinese made DQY-1 transit compass, which is a copy of the pattern made famous by the US military M2 compass and the Brunton Transit compass. This single review was enough to cause me to question my previous assumption about compasses that if it’s Chinese-made and cheap, then it’s worthless.
Another person was a poster on a bushcraft site who performed an accuracy test on a variety of Chinese-made baseplate (Silva type) compasses. His findings from that brief and simple test showed that most of the compasses pointed to magnetic north as they should. This simply served to intrigue me further.
Another person posted an Amazon review about a certain type of compass where he reported it to be as effective as the original it was knocked-off from. Now I had to see for myself.
I have a further very specific reason for wondering if these Chinese made compasses actually work, but I’ll discuss that issue after we see the results of the tests.
The purpose of this series of Fake Compass Smackdown posts is to see if some of these average Chinese-manufactured marching style compasses can be relied upon to work for their intended purpose. This will be determined via a series of tests, using known and trusted compasses as the control.
Test 1 will be my patented Does This Piece of Crap Actually Point To Magnetic North?™ test. This is where the cheapie compass is placed on a calibrated jig and we see if it points to magnetic north. If it points to magnetic north then it doesn’t get thrown in the rubbish right away.
Test 2 will be my award-winning Can I March on a Bearing/Azimuth With It?® test. In this test I take the compass out to a nearby piece of sparsely-vegetated bushland and walk along a sighted bearing for 300 metres. If it takes me to the same spot as my WWII-vintage MkIII Prismatic compass, then it doesn’t get thrown in the rubbish.
The Control Compasses:
These are used to confirm the bearings and are the yardsticks against which the cheap compasses are measured. All are graduated in degrees and are accurate.
1. Silva Baseplate Compass
2. Suunto M9 Wrist Sighting Compass on a nylon NATO Zulu band with coated brass hardware. Ideal for taking quick bearings on the move, this Northern Hemisphere compass does encounter a little “dip” in these southern latitudes, but when worn on the wrist it can be compensated for without compromising accuracy.
3. Canadian 1943 vintage MKIII Prismatic Marching Compass. The prism allows accuracy down to a 1/4 of a degree if the compass is in good condition and if you have a steady hand. This is the most accurate of the lot – in my limited stable of compasses anyway.
I was intending to use my US M1950 Cammenga H3 lensatic military compass as a control during these tests, but I got rid of it since the capsule fogs up. Despite that, I’ve been spoiled by the British prismatic compass with its quarter-degree resolution. The best a US lensatic compass can manage is 5 degrees. It’s about as precise as an Imperial stormtrooper.
1. New-manufacture alloy “Engineer” lensatic compass. A Chinese copy of the Japanese lensatic compasses of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, which were themselves a copy of a WWII era US M1938 lensatic military compass. That makes this one a 3rd generation copy! I don’t have high expectations of this one, but at least it has the sighting wire in the lid – many of the Chinese ones don’t. Seems to have a dial copied from the US military M1950 lensatic compass, so even if it points in the right direction it’ll suffer the from the same drawbacks – an inability to give precise readings.
2. New-manufacture alloy “Meridian” compass. This is a Chinese copy of the excellent German Kasper & Richter Meridian sighting compass which is itself a modern developmental fork in the road from the British prismatic compasses. Not quite a lensatic and not a prismatic, this one has a lens set into the bottom edge of the compass which in theory, should allow for readings as accurate as those from a military prismatic compass. Time will tell.
3. New-manufacture prismatic compass. This is a Chinese copy of a British M73 prismatic marching compass with a few features added from the later M88 lightweight pattern compass. The dial assembly and sighting window and sighting window guard appear to have been co-opted from the Meridian pattern compass above. This indicates they are probably manufactured in the same factory. The compass appears to be graduated in degrees, which is nice.
That’s the line up as it stands. I am still waiting on one of the test compasses to arrive, so please stand by for part 2 of this series where we’ll begin to run through the test phase.