The Fake Compass Smackdown Part 1 – Pre-game Brief

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 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

Swedish-made Silva Ranger 3 compass graduated in degrees. My basic, go-to bush compass. It's light and it's accurate.

Swedish-made Silva Ranger 3 compass graduated in degrees. My basic, go-to bush compass. It’s light and it’s accurate.

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.

Suunto M9 compass on a nylon NATO/G10 watch band. Mine looks very similar but it's on a grey nylon Zulu band. Image © http://briangreen.net/

Suunto M9 compass on a nylon NATO/G10 watch band. Mine looks very similar but it’s on a grey nylon Zulu band. Image © http://briangreen.net/

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.

A brass, 1940s-Vintage Mk. III prismatic marching compass

A brass, 1940s-Vintage Mk. III prismatic marching compass

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.

Cammenga US military issue lensatic compass. Widely touted across the length and breadth of the internet as being the "best" compass available. It's not and I'm no longer a fan.

Cammenga US military issue lensatic compass. Widely touted across the length and breadth of the internet as being the “best” compass available. It’s not and I’m no longer a fan.

The Candidates

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.

Fake M1938-pattern Engineer Lensatic Compass. Cost was a whopping US$4.50 including shipping. Image from the original eBay listing.

Fake M1938-pattern Engineer Lensatic Compass. Cost was a whopping US$4.50 including shipping. Image from the original eBay listing.

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.

Fake Meridian-style compass. Cost was a whopping $8.96. Image from the original ebay listing.

Fake Meridian-style compass. Cost was a surprising $8.96 including shipping. Image from the original ebay listing.

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.

Fake M73 Prismatic compass. Easily identified by the Kasper & Richter style graticule on the sighting window. Thankfully sold as a replica.

Fake but apparently functional M73-style Prismatic compass. Note what appears to be a functioning prism (unlike the Indian “decorative” fakes). The cost of this compass was an eye-watering $36 including shipping. Image from an online retailer.

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.

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10 thoughts on “The Fake Compass Smackdown Part 1 – Pre-game Brief

  1. Looks like one of the test compasses – the Chinese-made M73-style prismatic – is on a slow boat from China, so I haven’t been able to perform the field tests yet.
    The fake lensatic compass and the fake Meridian-style compass have arrived and I’ve tested them against my MKIII prismatic. Surprisingly they are both relatively accurate at first glance. I was very pleasantly surprised with the Meridian style compass. The build quality is a little rough, but I love the design so much I might have to pick up a genuine K&R Meridian.
    The final test compass should be here before Christmas (hopefully) so I’ll post the results of the accuracy tests soonish – fingers crossed.

  2. Part 2 of this series is currently a bust.

    The seller in question sent me another Meridian-pattern compass instead of the M73-ish prismatic he’d shown in the pictures on his DHGate listing. I’ve notified them of the error and am pushing for them to send me the correct compass so I can complete this series.

    IF I ever receive the correct compass I’ll revive the series, but for now consider the tests to be a non-starter.

  3. I’d be interested in your findings. Having had the misfortune of using copies and other cheaply made compasses I found their materials may look good at first, but they do not age well, if you get a working compass out of box. Features difficult to get right are most critical items: quality the jewel movement and the strength of the magnetic needle; rotation tends to be sticky or frankly jams easily; the needle loses magnetism after few years; often the needle is easily deviated by magnetic fields that wouldn’t affect a Suunto compass. Balancing tends to be variable and needles have more tendency to stick with just small inclines. In fluid filled compasses, bubbles form spontaneously after a few years or after a mild drop.

    • I just noticed your comment on M-1950 aka Cammenga US military compass. Your comment is true once the compass ages, add to it bezel jams and pivot fouls. However, you can field service it easily and put it back into like new shape, so it will last a lifetime with occasional care; some posted videos on youtube on how to do it. I’m not sure I’d take older compasses to battle knowing it may need service, but when its newly issued it performs to spec otherwise it would not pass military quality control. Since the M-1950 has been fielded for over 50 years, good or bad, it would make a good compass to compare all compasses against. The test specifications are published so you know what tests to do and most anyone can do it themselves at home. http://www.everyspec.com/MIL-PRF/MIL-PRF-010000-29999/MIL-PRF-10436N_43431/ Even the best compasses available today cannot compare to the history of this compass so even with its quirks, its ‘reliable’ because we know how to fix it.

  4. I received my M-73-style compasses (I ordered two) from
    http://www.sofmilitary.co.uk/army-prismatic-compass-new-product,8568

    They look nice and have a nice heft to them. They are constructed from heavy guage aluminum, however the prism housings are plastic. This includes the two posts supporting the prism slider, which strikes me as rather flimsy. Worse yet, although the scale on the outer bezel is marked 1-36 (indicating degrees), the scale you read through the prism is graduated in mils. In the M88 and M73 compasses sold online they are available in degrees or mils, and the markings on the bezel scale will match the scale you read in the sighting prism. Not so with these new-construction compasses.

    The compass card has two scales, the outer one which you read with the prism, and one with a smaller radius. On the M73 and M88 one will be marked in mils and the other in degrees, so that by looking direcly at the card you have both scales avalable (to lower accuracy) regardless of which type of compass you have, however on the compasses I received both of these scales are in mils.
    So, to sum up, although the compass appears to be calibrated in degrees (due to the scale on the bezel), it is a mils-graduated compass and the prism assembly is plastic. If you want an inexpensive prismatic compass calibrated in mils you might be satisfied with one of these.

  5. I need to make a minor correction, my statement “On the M73 and M88 one will be marked in mils and the other in degrees” is obviously wrong based on a second look at a larger picture of an M88. Nevertheless, the new-construction compasses have two scales on the card graduated in mils.

  6. Thanks for the follow-up James.

    It rather sounds like they copied aspects of the 60 & 70s era British-made Enbeeco civilian-market prismatic compasses, which also have a plastic prism housing. It’s not a bad thing for non-military use, the user just has to be more mindful when handling the compass in the field.

    It’s interesting that the card is graduated in both mils and degrees. I might have to pick up one from SOF so I can pull it apart and see which parts are compatible with the Meridian and its clones. If the purely degrees-graduated capsule from one of the Meridian clones fits then that’s an extremely inexpensive fix.

  7. I think you’re probably right about the design elements, and I need to correct my initial comments. The outer ring is graduated in degrees, the card scales are graduated in mils. I had misunderstood some of the pictures I saw onlne. There are two circular scales on the card: the outer (reversed) one that you read with the prism, and a smaller scale inside that, and both are in mils. If I had realized ths I probably wouldn’t have purchased the compass(es) and just might have shelled out the bucks for a genuine M88 graduated in degrees, or shopped for a Mk III on eBay. But I might hang on to these. I’m not interested in using these for orienteering or any form of navigation per se, but I wanted a decent sighting compass to use wneh setting up my telescopes on my tracking mount. (I’m a former naval officer experienced in air and sea navigation, so hand-held compasses are a hobby.) I have a telescope setup procedure that requires an accurate azimuth, and I can do this just fine with a compass graduated in mils. So if I accept this, my biggest issue with the compass is the plastic assembly housing the prism, especially the two cylindrical posts for sliding the prism up and down. It just seems that you could snap the housing off if you aren’t careful. I might take one of these (remember, I have two of these compasses) apart to see if I can fit brass stock to replace the (I think) plastic posts.

    One other thing, the compass card is *not* luminescent. The degree-graduated bezel ring does glow in the dark, but the actual compass card is quite invisible in the dark. If you want to shoot an azimuth at night you’ll need a flashlight.

    One comment on your “Engineer” lensatic, Silva markets a nice version of this in the US, the Silva 360. It does not have a wire in the front sight, but the slit is narrow and if you align the front and rear sights there is an optical illusion (a diffraction effect, no doubt) so that there seems to be a wire there! If this is an accident they couldn’t have designed it better on purpose! Nevertheless, with a lensatic compass I have to shift my line of sight from the sights to the lens to read the scale, but with the prismatic model I can read the scale while linng up the sights (though the near sight is fuzzy-looking.) This should allow for more accurate reading. Interesting how something as simple as a magnetic compass has such sublety.

  8. FYI -all Silva compasses are now made in China. Silva in North America has been separate from the Swedish company since at least the mid 90s and have been outsourced to China since that time. The Swedish manufacturer was taken over by an investment firm around 2009 and began outsourcing all compass manufacture to China. Hence they no longer carry “Made in Sweden” on the baseplate – the company is Swedish, the products Chinese made.

    Kasper and Richter makes good quality baseplates and sighting compasses that are very affordable and as far as I know still made in Germany.

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