A look at some WWI Compasses

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Through my recent eBay adventures, my vintage compass collection has increased dramatically. Some of my favourite new acquisitions are a pair of 1918-vintage US Corps of Engineers military marching compasses both made by Cruchon & Emons in Switzerland. These are the types of compasses that Horace Kephart might have used.

Left: US Corps of Engineers Verner's Pattern Mk. VIII prismatic marching compass. Right: US Corps of Engineers mirror sighting compass.

Left: US Corps of Engineers Verner’s Pattern Mk. VIII prismatic marching compass. Right: US Corps of Engineers mirror sighting compass.

The Verner’s Pattern Mk. VIII Prismatic Marching Compass

Signed “C-E” for Cruchon & Emons (NOT “Corps of Engineers” as you would expect), the 1918-dated Verner’s Pattern Mk. VIII prismatic was an absolute basket case when I purchased it. Incomplete, and with a heavy layer of dirt, staining and filth (inside and out) it looked like it had lain in a swamp for 50 years. A trip to a local hobby store saw me secure some brass bar for the replacement lid-opening tab and an assortment of correct-size replacement slot head brass screws.

Despite the complexity of the design, which includes both a dial-locking mechanism as well as a manual dial-damping button,  the teardown for cleaning wasn't difficult and only took about five minutes.

Despite the complexity of the design, which includes both a dial-locking mechanism as well as a manual dial-damping button, the teardown for cleaning wasn’t difficult and only took about five minutes.

The inside of the case under the dial was absolutely filthy – it went WAY beyond patina. After cleaning all the brass parts and giving them a mild polish with Brasso, the compass began to look great. Internal parts such as screw threads and the dial jewel were lubricated with pencil graphite and the missing parts fabricated and fitted until I can secure a junked case from which to cannibalise those parts.

Having polished the lid, it was hit with a light coat of black lacquer to imitate the brass blacking (an actual oxidization process) used on the compasses at the Swiss factory in 1918. You can see some strong remains of the original blacking on the mirror-sighting compass below.

Due to the potential radiation hazard from the remains of the radium illumination on this compass, all cleaning and restoration work was carried out while wearing a military-grade S10 respirator and surgical gloves.

The restored Verner's Pattern Mk. VIII prismatic compass.

The restored Verner’s Pattern Mk. VIII prismatic compass.

It’s worth noting that the Verner’s Pattern Mk. VIII compass was the standard British Commonwealth field compass for most of the First World War. British-marked wartime examples are common, but the US-marked ones less so due to America’s later entry into that conflict.

Cruchon & Emons Mirror Sighting Compass

This compass operates in a similar fashion to modern mirror-sighting baseplate compasses. One ring of indices on the dial is printed back-to-front and mirrored. To take a bearing, the user reads the mirrored bearing off the highly polished brass plate set into the lid.

The Cruchon & Emons mirror sighting compass. Note the highly-polished brass mirror which was the beating heart of this system.

The Cruchon & Emons mirror sighting compass. Note the highly-polished brass mirror which was the beating heart of this system.

Manufactured in Paris, France and in Berne, Switzerland by both Plan Ltd and Cruchon & Emons from 1915, the mirror sighting compass was never as well-regarded as the prismatic models. When introduced into US Army service in 1916, this mirror sighting compass was the most accurate marching compass ever fielded by US forces.

This example is a Berne-manufactured compass which dates to mid-late 1918. Although there are no date stamps, we can narrow it down due to the use of an aluminium dial (until mid 1918 they were enameled) and the brass mirror (brass mirrors were phased out in late 1918 and replaced by nickel-plated mirrors which wouldn’t tarnish under field conditions).

Like the Verner’s Pattern prismatic above, the compass is still highly accurate down to about half a degree when compared against a 1943 MkIII Marching Compass and a 2000s Silva 4/54 military baseplate compass

Instructions for use of the mirror-sighting compass. Image courtesy http://www.compassmuseum.com/images/hand3/plan_doc.jpg

Instructions for use of the mirror-sighting compass. Image courtesy www.compassmuseum.com

Despite the failure of any of the major militaries of the world to adopt the mirror sighting compass as standard (the US standardised on the Verner’s pattern prismatic compasses after WWI before adopting the lensatic pattern in the 1930s), the mirror sighting compass became a favourite amongst outdoor enthusiasts and wilderness travellers – particularly in North America. In the 1920s and 30s, outdoors outfitters Abercrombie & Fitch retailed a very similar compass, also made by Cruchon & Emons, proving that the type’s popularity as a general purpose direction-finding instrument did not wane for decades.

With index lines on the thumb-ring, the sighting window and the top of the lid, the mirror sighting compass is well-suited to field navigation with a map - of course, you do need a protractor to navigate effectively.

With index marks on the thumb-ring, the sighting window and the top of the lid, the mirror sighting compass is well-suited to field navigation with a map – of course, you do need a protractor to navigate effectively.

Marking on the base of the mirror sighting compass (L) and the prismatic (R).

Markings on the base of the mirror sighting compass (L) and the prismatic (R).

A Photo Comparison of the 1918 Verner’s Pattern Mk. VIII Prismatic Compass and the 1943 Mk. III Prismatic Compass

Sometimes it’s interesting to see the evolution of pieces of equipment over the years. Both the compasses shown below were state of the art for their day.

The Verner's Pattern (left) with polished case and blackened lid. GEC Mk. III prismatic compass (r) is in mint restored condition - all radium removed and replaced with Tritium and a mint-condition black lacquered case.

The 1918-vintage Verner’s Pattern (left) with polished case and blackened lid. the 1943-vintage GEC Mk. III prismatic compass (r) is in mint restored condition – all radium removed and replaced with Tritium and a mint-condition black lacquered case.

The Verner’s Pattern is a “dry card” type which means it can take a while for the north indicator to settle and give an accurate reading. Dial movement can be arrested by a damping button, which slows the movement without affecting accuracy. When the case closes, a tab on the lid engages a mechanism in the case which lifts and locks the dial to protect it from shock and damage.

The Mk.III prismatic has a liquid-filled capsule within which the dial card can move freely, but provides effective damping for quick readings when time is of the essence. As you can see from the photos, the beefy Mk.III is a monster when compared to the fine-featured Verner’s Pattern

This angle illustrates the size difference nicely.

This angle illustrates the size difference nicely.

Aside from the dissimilar damping mechanisms and the indexed rotating ring on the Mk. III, the basic theory of operation for both compasses is almost identical.

Aside from the dissimilar damping mechanisms and the indexed rotating ring on the Mk. III, the basic theory of operation for both compasses is almost identical.

The dials.

The dials.

The compass bases. The fibre friction ring is missing from the Verner's Pattern. Note the data on the Mk.III - The "B" prefix indicates this compass was manufactured by Francis Barker & Sons, while the lack of a date mark indicates it was one of a small batch of undated examples manufactured by F Barker & Sons in 1943 - a rare bird.

The compass bases. The fibre friction ring is missing from the Verner’s Pattern. Note the data on the GEC Mk.III – The “B” prefix on the serial number indicates this compass was manufactured by Francis Barker & Sons, while the lack of a date mark indicates it was one of a small batch of undated examples manufactured by F Barker & Sons in 1943 – a rare bird.

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10 thoughts on “A look at some WWI Compasses

  1. I have the Engineer Corps compass on the left images.
    Is there a place I can get a value for it? And is there a collectors sight, I’m interested in selling it.

  2. Great articles Craig! We have a small collection of 50 to 60 British, Australian, US and German WWI & WWII compasses, including a couple of really nice sun compasses, and it’s nice to see the subject getting some attention.

    • Thanks Al,
      That’s a nicely sized collection! Including escape compasses I probably only own 8 or 9 vintage compasses.

      What model sun compasses do you have? I find them fascinating.

      Cheers!

  3. Hi there, interesting read. I have my great-grandad’s Verner Pattern VIII and was interested in restoring it, but the radium thing got me spooked. I’ve not taken/figured out how take off the inner lid, i’m guessing handling with it on is still safe? and what did you use to clean the brass. Also, how come the top half is darker? Thanks

  4. Thomas,
    Unlike the later WWII era liquid damped compasses which get bubbles and evaporation of the purified kerosene damping fluid, an air-damped Verner’s Pattern prismatic like your great-granddad’s will work fine for another hundred or so years as long as there’s no corrosion inside the compass itself.
    Radium is definitely an issue, so if the compass dial moves the way it should then I’d suggest just leaving it alone. It’s quite safe to handle as long as it’s all sealed up.
    I used a heady mixture of Brasso and elbow grease to clean the brass.
    The top half of the compass was blackened for three reasons:
    1. to stop the flipped open compass lid acting as a shiny aiming point for enemy snipers;
    2. to stop the reflections from a highly polished compass lid dazzling the user while taking a bearing in bright sinlight;
    3. The blacking on the lid protected the brass finish and kept the military spit-and-polish brigade happy.
    Incidentally, since I wrote the article above, I’ve sold the US Army Verner’s Pattern VIII and replaced it with a Swiss manufactured, British Broadarrow-marked Verner’s Pattern VIII in almost perfect condition along with leather Sam Browne case, etc. I note with interest that the “new” Verner’s Pattern compass has had all of the bright brasswork hit with clear lacquer at the factory to protect the finish. So a properly restored compass should have the polished brasswork on the case clear-lacquered and the lid and lifting tab black lacquered or otherwise oxidised with a brown/black finish.
    I hope it helps.

    • That is really helpful, thanks. So really there’s nothing stopping me from giving it a good clean then top and bottom! My relative kept it in his dank cottage full of damp so the leather case is on it’s last legs. The top lid glass is cracked as well, which I can’t do much about. Thanks again!

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