Design Features: Military Clips

(This page revised August 17, 2013)

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Soldiers will ensure that articles carried in pockets do not protrude from the pocket or present a bulky appearance.
— U. S. Army Regulation AR670-1, paragraph 1-9a(1)

The requirements of the United States Army regulation quoted above were responsible for the development of pens with so-called “military” or “soldier” clips. Many collectors, not familiar with this regulation, assume that any pen with a clip or cap shaped a certain way is a “military” pen with a “military clip.” When we break down the regulation and its implications, however, we see that only certain pens make the cut — even Sheaffer’s very compact Tuckaway might cause trouble between a soldier and his commanding officer. (I became intimately familiar with the regulation in 1965, when I was gigged for “Uniform, out of, one particular” for carrying my new Sheaffer Lifetime Imperial.)

Even before the regulation was codified, its requirements were enforced by tradition, as explained by an early edition of the Officer’s Guide (published by the Stackpole Company):

By longstanding custom of the Service, it is considered poor taste to permit fountain pens, pencils, or other items to protrude from the pocket of coat or shirt. Pockets should never be bulging with surplus articles.

In the Beginning…

Before and during World War I, most pens were clipless or had their clips mounted low on the cap. Shown here are a Beaumel from about 1910 and a Mabie Todd Swan from 1918:

Fountain pen
Fountain pen

The Swan is a “trench pen” designed and marketed for use by soldiers in the field, but it does not meet the requirements and (like the clipless Beaumel) would have to be dropped into a pocket or carried in the soldier’s kit.

Among the very few pens that could be clipped in a soldier’s pocket were the Jack-Knife Safety models produced by the George S. Parker Company beginning in 1916. Parker’s patented washer clip allows the pen to be concealed by the pocket flap:

Fountain pen

Meeting the Regs, Part I

In line with the tradition described by the Officer’s Guide, the regulation is officially interpreted to mean that a pen carried in a soldier’s breast pocket may not be visible or, by its bulk, cause a visible disturbance of the pocket’s profile. Here is a drawing of a World War II-period winter uniform shirt’s pocket. Including the flap, the pocket measures 7" (17.8 cm) in height:

Empty pocket

A purchaser can answer the first requirement, that the pen not protrude from under the edge of the pocket flap, by choosing a pen with a relatively short clip. To illustrate this point, here are a Parker “51” and a Moore Finger tip:

Fountain pen
Fountain pen

Let us place each of these pens into the pocket shown above. Here, with the pockets in phantom so that you can see the pens, is what happens:

Pocket with penPocket with pen

When the pen is positioned as shown, the Finger tip’s clip is too long to conform to the regulation, and the Finger tip is for this reason not permissible. But the “51” clip disappears under the flap, and thousands of military personnel — including General Dwight D. Eisenhower — carried the “51” with them into war.

Meeting the Regs, Part II

Fountain pen capThe second requirement is that the pen not present a bulky appearance, and clip location, not clip length, is the controlling factor in meeting this requirement. Many pens with clips as short as that of the “51”, or even shorter yet, fail to conform to the regulation because their clips are mounted low on the cap. A low-mounted clip, as illustrated to the right by a Sheaffer Balance, causes the pocket flap to bulge upward, in some cases to a dramatic degree:

Pocket with pen

Pushing the pen down in the pocket so that it won’t bulge the flap has the opposite effect, dragging the pocket’s hem downward so that the pocket itself becomes rumpled.

Fountain pen capThe solution to this problem is illustrated by the first pen depicted, the Parker “51”. The clip on the “51” (illustrated more clearly to the right) is mounted high on the cap so that the pen does not extend high enough to interfere with the pocket flap. Except on a few very inexpensive models such as the Parkette, all Parker fountain pen clips from 1916 until the 21st century were mounted high enough to satisfy the regulation.

Going Back to War

When the world mobilized for war in the 1930s, many pen companies responded to the hugely increased need for pens that would conform to military regulations. Among these was Waterman. Long known for its low-mounted riveted clip and only recently having changed to tab-secured clips similar to Sheaffer’s, Waterman redesigned its entire line once again, beginning in 1940 with the second-year version of the Hundred Year Pen, to feature a conformant high-mounted clip. Illustrated here is a second-year Hundred Year Pen:

Fountain pen

Ironically, Waterman had unintentionally created a very good military clip in 1930 — but the pen, the Lady Patricia, was marketed, as its name indicates, for women only:

Fountain pen

Chief among other companies whose pens were in conformance was Esterbrook, whose budget-priced Re-New-Point fountain pens appeared in about 1932. Shown below are a Dollar Pen from shortly before World War II and a Model J from 1944:

Fountain pen
Fountain pen

But other manufacturers, including Waterman’s first-tier competitors Sheaffer and Wahl-Eversharp, had long been selling pens with their clips low on the cap. Here are a Sheaffer Balance and a Wahl-Eversharp Doric, both from the latter half of the 1930s:

Fountain pen
Fountain pen

Wahl-Eversharp had recognized the need for a “military” pen earlier than Waterman. Beginning in the latter half of the 1920s and continuing into the 1930s, the company produced pens with “soldier” clips, such as the Gold Seal Personal-Point and Doric shown here, alongside its regular models:

Fountain pen
Fountain pen

Fountain pen capStickerBut Sheaffer came late to the game; not until 1941 did the Fort Madison giant begin making conformant pens. Taking one’s time, however, can produce some truly elegant results, and Sheaffer’s military clip (U.S. Patent Nº D123,485), used on Balance models, is an inspired piece of design. By extending the clip and wrapping it over the top of the cap so that it mounts on the back side, Sheaffer maintained the streamlined look that had characterized the Balance since its inception a little over a decade earlier. The new clip, because it is not attached to the front of the cap at all, allows the pen to sit lower in the pocket than any competing design. To indicate that its products conformed to military requirements, Sheaffer began affixing to the inside of its box covers the paper sticker shown to the right. Here is a Valiant, the largest Lifetime model in Sheaffer’s military-clip line:

Fountain pen

The Valiant was a full-length, standard-girth pen priced at $10.00. Its slender Lifetime companion was the Vigilant, with an $8.75 price tag. Non-Lifetime versions were the Defender (standard girth, $5.00) and the Commandant (slender, $3.50).

Here is the Valiant in the pocket:

Empty pocket

Meeting the Regs?

Because of the dual requirement of the regulation, some pens that might be thought military in style are in fact not conformant. Foremost among these is Sheaffer’s Tuckaway:

Fountain pen

Online auction sellers frequently describe the ”Tucky” as having a military clip. The pen’s clip is tiny, but it is mounted low enough that it just pushes the pocket flap upward:

Pocket with pen

Pushing the pen down in the pocket might work, if your sergeant is less than observant, but don’t count on it!

Another pen that some people assume to be conformant is the Morrison Patriot. At the time of this writing, one reputable Internet dealer was offering a Patriot with the following description:

The “Patriot”

A 1942 Military Fountain Pen manufactured by the Morrison Pen Company… This fountain pen was made specifically to comply with the requirements of the United States Army…

The Patriot, peculiar to the World War II period and produced in appropriately colored versions for the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, Army Air Forces (olive drab), and Navy (navy blue), might be military in appearance, but it does not pass the “pocket test.” The low-mounted clip immediately identifies the Patriot as a pen that “talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk”:

Fountain pen

In fact, the Patriot was marketed to the general public in a leather case with a matching pencil, for $6.25 (imprinted on the pen’s barrel) plus a wartime tax of $1.25. Advertising frequently suggested that the Patriot would be an ideal gift for a serviceman abroad.

The Aftermath

The end of World War II brought an era of unprecedented prosperity. Sheaffer had already discontinued its short-lived production of military-clip pens (the last of the Balances) in 1942, and with their disappearance the term “military clip” seems to have disappeared from the lexicon of the pen industry. Perhaps it was unneeded in the first place, as most military personnel could keep their pens in their duffel bags or seabags. Morrison, having recognized this fact, provided leather carrying cases for its Patriot sets.

Today, in this age of ballpoints and gel pens, the Army’s battledress uniform (BDU) has pockets more than capacious enough to conceal pens dropped in. And, as Col. John A. Hauck, U. S. Army (ret), explained to me, the dress uniform’s blouse (in civilian terms, the suit jacket) conceals the shirt pockets. Thus, sadly, nobody needs military clips anymore — not even the military whose regulation spawned their existence.


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