In November 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland in what is known as the Winter War . The battle lasted just over 3 months and ended with the Moscow Peace Treaty in March of 1940. The Soviet forces greatly outnumbered the Finnish military in soldiers, aircraft and tanks, however, their losses were more than 5 times greater. Many around the globe took notice of the Finn’s guerrilla tactics, using ski troopers on cross-country skis and wearing white capes as camouflage. It is also interesting to note that only two months prior to the Soviet invasion, Germany invaded Poland.
Back in the U.S., skiing advocates were encouraging the Army to develop a training system to produce our own ski troopers and rock climbers, especially after seeing the success of the Finnish troopers. What surprises me a little is that, amidst the Great Depression of the late 1930s, there were outdoorsman who were climbing and skiing around the country. Somehow, I just never visualized that skiing was going on during the Great Depression. Contrast that activity with my father’s childhood memory of growing up in Chicago in the late 1930s and 1940s, when he said to me, “You know that saying, ‘If the shoe fits wear it’? When I was a kid, we’d go to school and there was a big pile of used shoes in the hallway. We were all kinda’ poor, so the teachers would say, ‘Here are some shoes. If the shoe fits wear it’. I wonder if that’s where that saying came from?” Anyway, the Great Depression was a time experienced differently for many people.
In 1941, and likely prior to December 7th, and under the deadline of 60 days, the Coleman Company of Wichita, Kansas, was given the charge of producing a quart-sized, all-weather, single-burner stove which could be carried by a soldier. In record time, they produced the Coleman 520 stove, and seems to have been designated by the military as the M-1941 (though its actual full military designation is still unclear), which is the common term used by people to describe the AGM version. A second company, American Gas Machine Company (AGM), of Albert Lea, Minnesota, was also contracted to manufacture the Coleman design. According to documents I’ve read, over one million of these 520 stoves were produced during the war. The 520/M-1941 first saw service during the Africa campaign beginning in late 1942. Side note: AGM, which was struggling before the war and continued to struggle after the war, was acquired, and then merged with other companies, eventually selling their stove and lantern products under the Thermos brand name.
By the time the Africa campaign began in 1942, construction of Camp Hale , in Colorado, was pretty much completed and U.S. ski troopers were being trained in skiing, climbing, winter survival and ordinance. Camp Hale eventually became known for its 10th Mountain Division
Somewhere, in this same timeframe, Bestor Robinson , a lawyer, mountaineer and director of the Sierra Club in California prior to WWII, was assigned to a team at the U.S. Army’s Office of the Quartermaster General with the role of improving clothing and equipment for the army’s mountain divisions. The team was led by Robert Bates , who was an avid mountaineer, and it’s worth reading his short bio. During this time, Robinson, was granted patents for the design of a compact stove, which is regularly called the “mountain stove” by many today. His patent designs for the stove and various parts of it can be found by searching the web for these numbers: Patent No. D133440, No. 2354221, 2455950, D133054. The contract to build the new little stove was apparently awarded to the Aladdin Industries subsidiary of The Mantle Lamp Company of America or Mantle Lamp themselves, and manufactured under the name Aladdin, similar to the parent company’s well-known lamps. It’s kind of confusing exactly who made it, since The Mantle Lamp Company made Aladdin lamps, and they had a subsidiary with the same name, plus, Mantle Lamp eventually merged with Aladdin. Aladdin is still in business today. You may be familiar with some of their products which sell under the Stanley vacuum bottle name and other food and beverage containers.
The first model of the stove is commonly called the “wheel stove”, by many collectors, because of the horizontal wheel used to operate the stove’s burner. My understanding is that the wheel design was to allow troopers to operate the stove in cold weather without removing their gloves or mittens. This model was only made by Aladdin and only in 1943. For reasons unknown to me, the stove was modified from the wheel design to one somewhat more conventional after only one year, particularly in the valve stem. This second stove model is known, and is stamped, as the M-1942 MOD, where MOD denotes modified. The model was also produced by Aladdin in 1944, and Prentiss Wabers (a.k.a. known as Preway) of Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin and possibly by one other company (possibly Coleman), however, I have been unable to confirm this. In 1945, the M-1942 MOD was produced by Aladdin, Prentiss Wabers and Coleman. Coincidentally, Aladdin and AGM/Thermos ended up in court over the right to manufacture vacuum bottles in the late 1950s. It seems that the term thermos became a generic name, much the same way that the word Kleenex is used instead of facial tissue, or when Xerox was a generic term for making a duplicate paper copy.
I’ve never seen manufacturing year stamps past 1945, so it appears that the stove was very short-lived with a production run of only three years; one year being the wheel stove and two years as the MOD-ified stove. The 1943 wheel stove is rather rare and generally sells for upwards of $200 (2017), while the 1944 and 1945 models are more common, most especially the 1945 Prentiss Wabers model, and can be purchased for under $20 to over $100, depending on condition, accessories and other factors. I’ll bring some of those details to light in another blog post.
What gives this stove such a long life, is that it is mostly stainless steel and brass. Unlike other stoves of the same era, which have steel founts (tanks), steel pot-support/burner frames, and steel tip-cleaner stems, this stove doesn’t get destroyed by rust. However, I’ve worked on two 1943, M-1942 “Wheel” stoves, which is the early model, and it is not made of stainless steel and can have rust in places where the zinc has worn off. (Edited 17 March 2018)
The stove itself is a good design and I’ve found it reliable and enjoyable to use. The tank is stainless steel and I’ve never seen the M-1942 MOD with rust in it or on it. It will typically need a good cleaning, especially because it was designed to run on regular gasoline and was regularly used with that fuel. The gasoline will leave sediment in the tank and generally clog the vaporizer screen. It had a spirit cup for preheating the vaporizer (a.k.a. generator), folding feet and pot supports and an 8 ounce tank. The only feature I dislike on the stove is the check valve, also called air-check or sometimes NRV (non-return valve). This check valve design, consisting of a brass spring, brass cup and rubber gasket, was used in one of two forms from 1943 up to 1987. It’s a workable design, as is obvious from the length of time the military used it, but I’d prefer to have a check valve like the steel ball/stem-type used on other GPAs (Gas Pressure Appliances) like Coleman and AGM. When I put a stove in my pack, I want to be confident that I won’t have fuel leaking on my clothes or food, etc. and that 4mm rubber stopper held in place by a rather weak spring doesn’t do it for me. On the other hand, the rubber gasket is field-serviceable whereas the typical GPA design is not.
Looking back one or two years from the introduction of the M-1942, the older 1941 Coleman 520 design shared similar features, but each was designed to meet different goals. The 520 was designed with a 16 ounce tank (1 pint, or 177ml, was the military requirement) which is twice that of the M-1942, and had similar features such as fold-out pot supports and fold-out feet. Like the M-1942 some 520s had spirit cups. I don’t know when this was introduced or by which company, but it seems like 1941-1943 520s didn’t have them, while all AGMs (1941-1945) did. But, to make things more strange, I’ve never seen a 520 of any type with holes drilled through the burner bowl to allow fuel from the vaporizer to flow into the spirit cup. So, how did the military expect the soldier to use it? I can’t believe they expected him to carry around a squirt bottle of alcohol. Hmmmm……. In any case, all of the M-1942 MOD stoves I’ve seen have three holes drilled into the burner bowl to allow fuel from the stove to be used for pre-heating. Finally, both stove designs fit in the same canister (eventually) which I believe was called the Bayonet F canister, for the “F” design in the canister cap allowing for two different stove heights to be accommodated.
The Coleman 520 led to its post-war civilian successor, the 530, which, contrary to what you may see on ebay listings, was never used by the military. The new Coleman No. 530 stove was called the G.I. Pocket Stove, though a confusing wikipedia entry seems to imply both the 520 and the 530 are the G.I. Pocket Stove. An examination of original cardboard boxes and an original instruction booklet shows it as Model 520 Coleman Instant Lighting Stove or, on some booklets it’s shown as a Coleman Military Burner Model 520. In my opinion, the name G.I. Pocket Stove was Coleman’s marketing term for just the post-war 530 stove. Some reproduction advertisements state, “…this famous Coleman Military Burner . . . Soon, it will be the ‘Pocket’ Stove you’ll want . . .”
Given how good the M-1942 stove is, why didn’t we see a version of it produced for the civilian market? I think there are at least two possible reasons. First, Coleman produced the 530 for two years (1946-1947) in the U.S. and possibly 5 years in Canada (1946?-1950) and then discontinued it. Why did they do this? Was it because the market wasn’t interested in a “pocket” stove? Could it be that the civilian market had an excess of military surplus stoves? I’m not sure. The M-1942, similar to Coleman’s wartime 520 had patents filed for it. The government owned the patents, and from my understanding, would not give or sell them back to the person or company who filed for them. Coleman modified the 520 vaporizer design . . . slightly, by changing the threads and using a hooked tip cleaner similar to the one used on their lanterns, to create the 530 vaporizer. They also modified the valve body, pot support, and eliminated the fold-out feet. Apparently, this was enough to allow them to produce the 530 stove. Perhaps the patent filers for the M-1942 had the same difficulty and didn’t bother to fight it. After 1947 in the U.S. and 1950 in Canada, Coleman only produced larger single-burner stoves, which are the 500, 501 and 502, but wouldn’t produce another pocket or backpacking-size stove again until the 1970s, while AGM, Preway and Aladdin never did, as far as I know.
If I could only keep one single-burner stove made before 1980, to use for my hiking, backpacking and snowshoeing adventures, it would be the M-1942 MOD.
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Some credit goes to a couple of people exchanging information about Bestor Robinson and his patents on a Classic Camp Stoves M-1942 MOD post.