The Complete History of the Jerry Can

Let’s face it, the word “carry” is thrown around a lot these days. With every passing day, it seems like a new product is released into the market of daily carry essentials. From pens to wallets, to backpacks and pocket knives, each one of the purposeful “carry” items works to serve a specific purpose: that is, to make our day-to-day lives that much easier. Interestingly enough, this mantra of convenience didn’t start with the designer pocket knife, but rather has been passed down through generations of humanity hoping to relieve the burdens of everyday life – whatever that may have meant at the time.

Case in point, the Jerrycan. Its history? Strictly military before having been repurposed accordingly in the past couple decades. Now, what was originally used as a spare fuel container has now made its way into American homes in the form of wet bars or other non-original purposes. Don’t get us wrong though. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, for the Jerrycan’s intended use is still widely accepted today by those who live off the grid, journey into the badlands, or require some extra fuel or water in the high desert. We’re just hoping to get the story straight.


Prewar Germany

It’s no secret the 1930s was a time of turmoil and wartime preparation for Europe. And at the time, aside from soldiers, a key resource to the armed forces was fuel. Without it, you were immobile. Stranded for the taking by your adversaries. With this in mind, the Germans developed in 1937 what was known at the time as a Wehrmacht-Einheitskanister which quite literally meant “Armed Forces Unit Canister.” Clearly, the Germans weren’t trying to brand this canister in any specific manner, nor were there trying to beat around the bush in its intended purpose – i.e. keeping the tanks fueled and ready at a moment’s notice. “Jerrycan” comes from the American US Forces slang term “Jerry” for Germans.

From here, leave it to the Americans to find a shortcut to the name (taken from the American US Forces slang term “Jerry” for Germans) as well as adopt the cans for their own use – compliments of American engineer Paul Pleiss who first came across the cans while journeying by road to India in 1939. He and his German engineer colleague were short on emergency water for the trip. They then came across a stockpile of jerrycans at the Berlin Tempelhof Airport and managed to get their hands on three of them. After the trip, making it safely across 11 international borders, Pleiss then flew back home to Philadelphia where he informed the American military about the can.

Ironically enough, it raised little interest without a tangible sample. And why would they? The Allied Forces at the time had their own fuel canisters to offer. However, they were no match for German engineering. Instead, the Allied versions were made from thin mild steel that was welded together and easily punctured – leading to fuel leaks. Also, a wrench was required to remove the cap in order to access the fuel inside, also not ideal. They were also poorly designed and required a funnel and a spout as well.

The German Jerrycan

A Superior Design

Clearly, the Allies had some issues to contend with. The Germans, however, were able to design and manufacture a masterpiece – an original design that remains in play today. This version could hold up to 5.3 gallons of fuel, featured rounded handles for convenient carry and transfer from soldier to soldier. These handles also enabled soldiers to carry up to two at a time if necessary. As for their construction, the German jerrycan was built from two pieces of stamped steel that interlocked with one another – thus eliminating leaks altogether while simultaneously driving down the costs of production.

Additionally, those iconic ridge designs the jerrycans are so well known for? They were all part of the stamping process and thus allowed for contraction and expansion of the interior liquid based on fluctuating temperatures. What resulted was one complete unit. No funnels or external spouts required. Instead, the lid was attached to the device (as was the aluminum ring pin to keep everything locked). Different colors also were introduced so the interior content could easily be determined as well. From here, it was hard for Americans to resist adopting the design for their own purposes.

American Adaptation

Securing the Jerrycan’s Future

Remember the American hesitancy to adopt the new design? Well, upon setting sights on one such jerrycan in Camp Holabird, Maryland the US made a swift decision to build their own version. Here, the new design retained the German handles, size, and shape. These new US cans were also engineered to be stacked interchangeably with both German and British versions. Almost overnight, the US-designed jerrycan became widely used by the US Army and Marine Corps units. In fact, in the European Theatre of Operations in 1945 alone, over 19,000,000 were required to support the US forces.

Without these cans, it would have been impossible for our armies to cut across France…[exceeding] the German Blitzkrieg of 1940.
-President Roosevelt

This US design was slightly lighter than the German version as well (about 1.5 lbs to be exact) and served a pivotal role in the outcome of the second world war. It was actually President Roosevelt himself who stated, “Without these cans, it would have been impossible for our armies to cut across France…[exceeding] the German Blitzkrieg of 1940.”

Today, the Jerrycan is defined as a metal or plastic packaging of rectangular or polygonal cross-section. In certain states, colors designate what lies inside as well: red for gasoline, yellow for diesel, and blue for kerosene. They’ve made their way around the world and are used in practically every country on earth where individuals require extra fuel and water for their journeys. There were adopted by the Soviets during the Cold War and NATO by default. Now, odds are wherever there’s an off-road track, backcountry race, military vehicle presence, farms, or even doomsday bunkers, odds are there’s a Jerrycan not too far away.

The Ultimate Guide to Mil Spec

For a comprehensive look at other military-influenced gear, take a look at this complete guide to mil-spec, outlining what it means for a material to be considered mil-spec along with gear that’s falls in line with these credentials.