Bull’s Head Can Opener

Tonight’s object is not actually military, however there is evidence to suggest it was used quite extensively by troops in a number of wars so I hope you will find it as interesting as I do.

The development of canning in the early 1820s was to revolutionise the delivery of rations to troops in the fields. Cans kept meat fresh and edible for long periods and although heavy they were relatively easy to transport. The only problem with early canned foods was opening the tins themselves! Instructions on the labels invited the consumer to use a hammer and chisel, for soldiers bayonets were also likely implements to open the tinned goods! Tinned goods did not start becoming common on the civilian market until the 1860s and by this point can openers had been developed. The most common design for the next sixty years was made of cast iron in the shape of a bull:imageThese were often painted red and the front of the opener includes a spike and a blade along with a stylised bull’s head:imageThe back of the can opener had a bull’s tail:imageThis example is a civilian opener, but GR marked examples have been seen. Although soldiers carried a tin opener on their jack knives, this larger can opener would have been much easier to use, especially on some of the large 7lb tins of bully beef that were supplied to feet larger groups of men. Archaeological evidence has found examples of these bull head can openers on American Civil War battlefields, Boer War battlefields and on the Western Front indicating they were indeed used. Here an example was found in South Africa:

I found the head and half the handle of one in Mooi River(South Africa) whilst leveling sites for house construction. The site was camp to a division of the red coats during the Anglo Boer war 1899. The site was riddled with rifle cartridges, cavalry buckles, ink wells etc.

Tinned goods really came into their own on the Western Front in World War One and corned beef, commonly known as ‘Bully Beef’ became synonymous with the British Tommy. Strict guidelines were issued to manufacturers to detail what should go into a tin:

The carcasses of cattle in prime condition not under two or over four years of age… Each 12oz. tin to contain not more than ½ oz., and each 24oz. tin not more than 1oz., of clear jelly made from soup stock and soup bones.

As well as corned beef, men were issued tins of ‘Machonochie’s stew’, a somewhat dubious meat and vegetable stew tinned and sent out to the front. This was designed to be eaten hot and contained a large amount of animal fat, unfortunately there was seldom time to heat the tins so they had to be eaten cold and this turned them into a greasy solid mass that was not popular. Tins could also go off if not correctly canned, the best way to detect this was to puncture them with a bayonet- if the tin hissed then it was best to leave it well alone!

A private serving in the Middle East recalls:

One of the features of the night marches was the frightful stink. The Maconochie’s stew ration gave the troops flatulence of a particularly offensive nature. So we marched along on air released by hundreds of men breaking wind.

There is still debate as to how widespread the use of the bulls head tin opener was by World War One, however if not widespread there is certainly indication that some carried and used them and this example will be joining my other personal kit in my 08 pattern haversack._74383704_q1580_iwm_soldiers_eating

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