Camp lighting, classic camping style – the folding candle lantern – Part 1

Aside from the comforting red-orange flickering glow from a campfire, some sort of camp lighting is a must-have.

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My modern canvas bell tent lit by the soft glow of a folding candle lantern during a canoe trip a couple of years back.

Nowadays the options for camp lighting are many and varied – from the UCO Micro candle lantern through to the awesomely-effective inflatable, solar powered LED lanterns or the much-maligned compact but super-bright LED headlamp – why much maligned? Invariably if you’re out camping with a group and people are using these headlights, you’ll be blinded every time someone looks at you. At times I have taken to wearing sunglasses at night around the campfire when camping with larger groups and I personally won’t use a head lamp out of a pure disdain for them.

If you like the old-timey vibe, you can go for a pressure lantern such as the Coleman Powerhouse dual fuel lantern. If you’re boring, then use a gas/propane lantern. If you’re going to do that you might even go for some 12v LED strip lighting or fluoros…

For “classic” camping such as I practice, the options for camp lighting are somewhat limited, but they are definitely cool.  One of my camp lighting favourites is the candle lantern.

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A selection of some of the folding or collapsible candle lanterns I tend to use. Back row – Replica brass Stonebridge lantern, Swiss Army candle lantern, Tin-cased Excelsior Lux. Front Row – Aluminium cased Excelsior Lux lantern, 3-sided German/Austrian WWI trench lantern (copied from the French M1910 lantern), NZ-made copy of a standard UCO candle lantern

I favour the old-style folding candle lanterns. They are compact, cheap to feed and give off a light bright enough to cook, eat or even read by.  In general they are light enough to take hiking and I have one as part of my swaggin’ it kit – either a brass Stonebridge replica or a Swiss Army model. They impart a nice, dare I say it romantic, light to a classic camp, and illuminate a canvas or japara tent quite nicely with a warm, diffuse glow.  Although I own different models of modern UCO candle lanterns and clones as well, I won’t cover them here since they aren’t old-timey enough.

All of my old-style folding candle lanterns have clear mica windows.  This material is actually a transparent natural mineral with a similar feel to plastic. It is lightweight and fireproof and is far less fragile than glass. You may sometimes see clear mica referred to as “isinglass” or “talc”.

1970s SWISS ARMY FOLDING CANDLE LANTERN –

This particular incarnation of the Swiss Army folding candle lantern dates to the 1970s and is windproof, rain proof and folds completely flat.

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1970s Swiss Army Folding Candle Lantern. Shown here with a Woolworths-sourced basic household candle.

It is designed to take special stearine candles, but if you gently bend the sides of the sprung clamp inward with a pair of pliers, you’ll discover that cheap-as-chips normal household candles will fit securely.

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My old green one shown here folded flat, is from the 1920s and is a very similar design to the Excelsior Lux lantern of the 1910s, but is about a 3rd larger.

These Swiss lanterns originally came into service in the 1920s and are a larger, highly-modified version of the turn-of-the-20th-Century Italian mountaineer’s “Excelsior Lux” lantern shown further below. Used by the Swiss army as EMP-proof bivouac and camp lighting, they were also included in the Swiss combat medic kits of the 1970s and 80s.

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The lanterns were standard equipment in Swiss Army combat medic bags of the 1970s and 80s.

Whereas earlier models were made from olive drab-painted tin and had only three windows, the 1970s Swiss lantern is made with a stainless steel body and has clear mica windows on all sides. It is assembled by unfolding it completely, hooking the two end panels together on their long sides to form a rectangular box shape, and then swinging the top and bottom panels into place and securing them with attached wire rod latches. The lantern has a spring-loaded door in one panel which is used to insert the candle into its spring clamp and light it.

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The Swiss lantern disassembled and folded flat. You can see the damage to two of the mica windows on this one. Bummer, because it’s one of two I own and use regularly. Still, the damage is slight and doesn’t really affect the operation or light output from the lantern.

They’re tough, very well designed, very effective, almost completely windproof, can be lightly modded to take normal supermarket candles (cut in half) and said half-candles will last for two or three hours depending on ambient temps. I would say they are pretty much the pinnacle of folding candle lantern design. The only improvements which could be made might be an oil-burning insert (for using with kerosene, citronella, diesel, maybe even animal fat or used cooking grease), and a casing made out of hard anodised aluminium or even from titanium as a means of keeping the weight down. Until someone comes up with heat resistant, thin, transparent polymer sheeting, the weak point in these lanterns will always be the relatively fragile mica windows.

Availability of these online in places like ebay is good, but they are pricey. At time of writing there’s a few on ebay out of Austria and Germany (search on ebay.de), and you’d be looking at around A$110 (US$85-ish) posted to purchase one. Gone are those heady days of the early 2000s when these lanterns first came onto the surplus market in their tens of thousands for $5 to $10 each until they were bought up en mass by wedding planners, cafe owners and interior designers who used them once for a wedding or photoshoot and then discarded them.

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Camp lighting via Swiss Army candle lantern on a recent swag walk.

Are they worth current prices? You’ll have to be the judge. If anything ever happened to my pair of Swiss Army candle lanterns I’d happily replace them at the current high prices. I reckon they are that good, and I have gotten that much use out of them.

NEW-MANUFACTURE “REPLICA” STONEBRIDGE FOLDING CANDLE LANTERN – 

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I thought I’d show you this one before showing you the original. It’s quite different from the original, so calling it a replica is a bit of a stretch. How different you may ask? Well, it’s as if the person who designed it had a copy of Stonebridge’s earlier 1906 patent and a few photos of Stonebridge’s later 1910 vintage lantern, but no measurements, let alone a sample of the original lantern to work off.

It’s a lot smaller than an original, the proportions are all off and it’s missing a few important features of the original such as the adjustable vents and the spring-loaded windscreen, so when used in windy and rainy conditions, it’ll blow out or rain will blow in and douse the candle – this has happened to me. They are nowhere near as effective as an original (nor as the Swiss or Excelsior Lux lanterns for that matter), but they do have some advantages.

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Size difference between the replica (right) and the original

The smaller size means it’s lighter and suitable for hiking or swaggin’ it. It’s made from raw, unlacquered brass sheet so you can polish it and keep it shiny and pretty or you can let it tarnish or go all verdi-greasy (verdigris) for that well-used look.

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Replica Stonebridge Lantern all folded up with some other bits and pieces for a swag walk.

In most conditions the lantern works pretty well. It easily takes UCO lantern candles, so beeswax or citronella candles are an option, and I have used cheap discount store-bought church candles in it too, which are a little thicker than the more expensive UCO candles. The supplier also sells specific candles for this lantern but I haven’t used them so I can’t comment on how they go.

Unfortunately it is designed in such a way that the thinner-than-usual mica windows wear a bit faster from normal folding and unfolding, but the good news is that the mica windows are easy to replace, maybe even easier than those on an Original Stonebridge lantern.

Probably the best points of this lantern, apart from the solid Kephartian vibe it gives off are that these are relatively cheap (if you live in the USA), availability is good, and there are even accessories available for them.

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Replica Stonebridge lantern shown here tied to the tarp ridge line during a recent swag walk.

At time of writing the only place you’ll find them is at Garrett Wade . If you’re outside the USA, then shipping on these is overpriced. When I bought mine a few years back, the shipping cost was more than the item itself, but that appears to have changed. As of September 2017, an Australian buyer would be looking at about A$50 for the lantern itself and then about A$30 postage, for a total of about A$80 shipped. The shipping cost is high, but they are the only game in town for a new-manufactured classic camping style folding candle lantern.

Are they worth it? If you can’t find a decent Swiss army surplus lantern, sure. If treated with care your kids and grandkids will be using this lantern.

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Field Telescope – the real deal

You may have read a post I wrote ages ago about an inexpensive Indian-made “training” telescope? Well, here’s the real deal. A while back I was lucky enough to acquire a very nice 1917-vintage old-timey brass military telescope to use alongside my 1900-ish deer stalker’s telescope, and of course the half-sized, Indian-made “decorative” telescope.

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1917-vintage Broadhurst, Clarkson & Co Sig., Tel (MkIV) in its natural environment, being used as an aid for field panorama sketching. Seen here a couple of months back on a mid-winter swag walk in the mountains west of Sydney.

Here’s a tip if you’re ever looking at one of these old telescopes online or at a second hand store with a view to buying it – If the seller says it must be broken because it won’t focus, then you’re probably very close to getting yourself a bargain. Why is that? These multiple draw telescopes won’t focus if you just twist the eyepiece. In fact, if you do that with this particular model, the eyepiece will unscrew and fall off! Nope, to focus these you must push in or pull out the last draw tube until the image comes into focus.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, on to my telescope. The telescope is a World War One era British signalling  and general service telescope. It was used by signallers before radio communications became commonplace. Flashing electric light or signal mirror Morse code or perhaps semaphore flags were used to send messages over long distances and the message was received by an observer with a telescope.

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Trainee signallers at a South Australian army camp circa 1915. Two heliograph (signal mirror) units on tripods are the “transmitters”. A telescope on a tripod  is the “receiver”. Until well into the 1940s, this was the most common use of the military telescopes – on land at least.  SLSA B46130/235

Probably more famously, these were used by British and Commonwealth snipers in the First World War and while they were replaced in British service by a lighter model, this particular model of telescope soldiered on with Australian reconnaissance parties, intelligence officers and snipers during the Second World War too. In fact, I can’t lay my hand on the photo, but I’m pretty sure there’s a picture of an Aussie sniper spotter using one of these obsolete telescopes during the Korean War of the 1950s.

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Simply captioned “Snipers 5th L.H., one firing and other pointing with telescope.”, I believe that this image shows famous Australian Light Horse sniper Billy Sing and one of his two main spotters, “Jack” Idriess on Gallipoli in 1915. The spotter here is seen using one of the telescopes in question which has been camouflaged with hessian strips. Idriess of course would later become well known as the author Ion L. Idriess. AWM P10522.024.003

The telescope is marked with the following –

“TEL. SIG. (Mk IV) also G.S.
BROADHURST, CLARKSON & Co
LONDON
1917
22084”

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The Low Power eyepiece is shown above its leather pouch. With a relatively narrow field of view, sometimes it’s easier to use the telescope with this lower power 20x eyepiece fitted.

As far as I can tell, it’s a variable 20x to 40x telescope with a brass body and has a leather covering on the barrel and the extending sun shade. It has two leather end caps, a shoulder strap and a small tubular leather pouch threaded onto the shoulder strap which holds the low or high power eyepiece – whichever isn’t fitted to the telescope at the time.

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The telescope extended. It’s over a metre long and in fantastic condition for a 100 year old piece of equipment.

I bought it online from overseas with very little info from the seller. The pictures supplied by the seller were promising, with the 100 year old leather components looking almost pristine. I figured that if the leatherwork was in such great condition, then the rest of the telescope would be too. Sure, there was a risk that the objective lens may have been infested with fungus or smashed, but it was worth the risk and I was not disappointed. It’s a truly beautiful instrument.

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If you look closely you can see the markings.

The weight was a huge surprise to me. I’ve taken the telescope along on several overnight bushwalking and swagwalking trips and you definitely notice the extra weight of the telescope and tripod.

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The telescope is carried by the shoulder strap. The tripod seen here is not original to this telescope, it’s actually a few decades older and was originally a deer stalker’s or target shooter’s tripod since it came with a rifle rest attachment as well. When strapped up in this fashion, the tripod can also be carried on the telescope’s shoulder strap.

I’ve been using it for field panorama sketching and it really helps with the details. You could use binoculars for this purpose, but I think that to get the same sort of powerful magnification as with this telescope, the binos would be huge and prohibitively heavy for this sort of work.

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When all closed up with both leather end caps fitted the telescope is very well protected and quite compact. Still very heavy though!

This is a powerful telescope – really powerful. Last full moon I set it up in the backyard to check out the moon. The image was spectacular. Clearly defined raters and debris trails from the meteor impacts. Due to full time auto focus on my phone’s camera I unfortunately I haven’t yet worked out how to take a photo through the telescope, but when I do I’ll take a whole lot and post them. It has to be seen to be believed.

The Hootchie – Part 1 – An Adventure Through Time – ADDENDUM

Back in the olden days, at the very dawn of this little blog, I wrote a post covering the evolution of the Australian Army hootchie, the humble “shelter, individual”. In that poorly-written little piece I indicated that the hootchie as issued to Australian forces from the late 1950s onward was the first time Aussie and British Commonwealth military planners had even considered the fact that soldiers might need something a bit bigger than a 7 foot by 3 foot groundsheet to bivouac under in bad weather.

If ever called out on it, I’ll vehemently deny that my incomplete research on the topic led me to being wrong, so rather than call it “new information” let’s all pretend that space constraints on the original post meant I had to leave some important stuff out. Yep, that’ll work.

So what did I miss out? A few things…

From the time of the Battle of Waterloo circa 1815, the British army had adopted the French idea of the tente d’abri (literally “shelter tent” in English). It was a 2-man shelter made from two sheets of linen canvas with a plethora of buttons and buttonholes along the edges so it could be connected to others. Usually two of these tentes d’abri were used, forming a small “A” tent.

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US Civil War era tente d’abri style shelter. Usually called a “dog tent” by the troops because it looked like a dog kennel.

The idea is familiar to this day as it had also been adopted by the United States military in the decade before the outbreak of the US Civil War in 1861. The troops there called it a “dog tent” but it was officially known as a shelter half. In the US, the shelter halves were issued right through until after the Vietnam war. These later shelter halves are roughly trapezoidal in shape and when pitched as a two man tent, have both ends closed in. I have a set of two halves dated 1982. It makes a nice, snug and warm windproof and waterproof little pup tent which is great in cold weather.

In British military publications from the 1870s, the shelter was still officially known as the “Tente d’abri” or simply as the “d’abri”. Some time in the mid 1880s, the designation changed to “MkI Shelter”. and it was used throughout the Boer War and into the First World War, also by colonial and later Federal Australian troops.

The dimensions of the Mk I Shelter sheets were approximately 183cm long x 153 cm wide. When two were fastened together, the resulting tent was 183cm long x 214cm wide x 107cm high.

In Australian service, these were used extensively by Australian Light Horse troops during the First World War. They were rolled with a blanket and carried as a swag roll strapped to the rear of the saddle and used as swag-style bedding when bivouacking. They were also used in the camp environment as pitched two-man shelter tents just like the American shelter half “pup tents” of the Civil War.

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Mk I Shelter in use by Australian Light Horse troops at a camp in Palestine in 1917. B52640 SLSA.

There was a variant of the MkI shelter which saw the two halves sewn together into a large, hootchie-style tarp, but it seems to have been an interim measure between the Mk I and the Mk II which is described below.

The MkII was more tent-like in design, but could still be used as a tarp if required. It was essentially a MkI sewn up variant with one closed in end. The end of this shelter was made from two triangular sections of canvas which closed using a dutch lacing (grommet and cord loop) closure.

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An Australian Light Horse Camp in Palestine in 1918. A combination of single MkII shelters (oriented north/south) and  pair of larger shelters each made from two MkII shelters fastened end to end (oriented east west)

The MkII Shelter became the basic troop accommodation for British and Empire personnel in the field. Later, it was modified with an extension on the rear and a front closed by a pair of canvas flaps. This last model was known as a “Bivy” tent and soldiered on in British Army service until the 1990s. During WWII there was a lighter weight tropical version which was completely mosquito netted, not a bad modification, although it seems to have been used in Europe more than any other theatre of that conflict.

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This painting depicts a pair of MkII shelters in use in an Australian AIF camp in France circa 1917. AWM ART03331

I guess it’d be prudent to discuss the various improvised shelters which were made by troops bivouacking. These were usually two or more groundsheets laced together, or even a pair of wool service blankets fastened together with blanket pins. Surprisingly, these blanket shelters did an amazing job at keeping the rain off, but the flip side was that the soldier had to carry a wet blanket around which weighed a ton and took an age to dry out.

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Illustration from the 1914 British Army field service regulations showing an improvised bivouac shelter made from a pair of wool service blankets pinned together.