A C-ration is canned food that is pre-cooked and issued to soldiers in the military when it is not possible for them to eat fresh food. In the military, the fresh food is referred to as A-rations, while B-rations are generally food that is packaged but not prepared. D and K rations are also issued to soldiers and are referred to as emergency or survival rations.
The development of rations began in 1938. However, it was two years later, in 1940, when they were first field tested. After these tests, the military begin to distribute them on a regular basis. After WWII, because of budgetary concerns, the military began to standardize C-rations for field issue.
The MCI (Meal Combat Individual) would replace the C-rations in 1958. Though given a new name, the MCI was not much different then C-rations. Because of that fact, many people referred to them as such.
C-rations first came on the scene as a replacement for the Reserve Rations. They were originally designed to be used on an occasional basis. To make it stretch, the D-ration survival bar was used as a supplement to it. C-rations were developed as a better tasting ration then the Reserve Rations. It was also designed to be more nutritious and to keep better.
The original C-rations were 16 ounces. However, they would be reduced 4 ounces to 12 ounces, after field tests were conducted in 1940. There were three versions of the meal. There was a meat and potato hash option, meat and beans and meat and vegetable stew. Soldiers were also issued a B-unit or bread and dessert can.
The cans used to hold c-rations originally had an aluminized finish. This would eventually change. In 1940, the military started to use gold lacquer finish. This was primarily because to avoid or at least minimize, corrosion. Green paint was eventually used to color the cans. Each can was opened with a key, which was soldered to the bottom of it.
The C-rations cans were cylindrical. Many soldiers disliked this design and requested that they be rectangular in shape and flat. This would have made the rations easier to pack. The military refused, citing the fact that the number of commercial machinery necessary to create rectangular cans was lacking.
C-rations were not looked upon favorably by those in the Marines and Army during WWII. The cans were heavy and difficult to transport. Having to eat the same meals day after day was a common complaint as well. Because so many suppliers were creating the meals, there was very little consistency. C-rations were meant to be eaten occasionally. Because of that fact, monotony was never supposed to be an issue. However, soldiers ended up eating them for weeks at a time.