A jerry can is a 5.3 gallon (or 20 liter) fluid container that is narrow and flat-sided. Red versions are typically filled with gasoline, and you can find them in almost any garage. If you’re familiar with the off-roading world, you’ve likely seen jerry cans in the back of many a Jeep. Some bumpers even include a jerry holder as a desirable feature.
Though the jerry can is ubiquitous now, when it was first engineered, it was a revelation. Transporting fuel is easy to take for granted. Before the jerry can, there were a lot of failed attempts at fuel transportation.
The road from engineering marvel to mundane happened a long time ago, and now the jerry can is a staple in every off-roaders kit and home garage. But the jerry can has a long history that helps to explain its design, features, and name.
The Jerry Can
Why Is It Called a Jerry Can?
The name jerry can is sometimes written as jerrycan or jerrican (and sometimes, very incorrectly, as cherry can). Like the container itself, the name has its origins in World War II.
During the Second World War, a popular slang term for Germans was “jerry.” As the name would imply, it was the Germans who designed the first jerry can.
The Germans had first needed a convenient way to transport fuel during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. A rudimentary jerry can was formed to meet this need. In 1937, Wehrmacht Einheitskanister, an engineering firm, tried to produce their own version. They wanted a practical and mass-producible version of the one cobbled together on the battlefield.
Vintage Jerry Cans
First Jerry Can Design
There are a few notable engineering features of the first jerry cans. Most notably, they were small. Thanks to the size and the unusual triple-handle, soldiers could carry two full cans or four empties. They also had a large spout and flip top closure. These features meant soldiers could fill and empty jerry cans without the use of a funnel or other secondary equipment. You could even open the spout with one hand.
By creating a container that was both rectangular and flat-sided, engineers ensured jerry cans were stackable. And by creating numerous indentations, it became harder for the containers to be damaged if they fell during transport.
Meanwhile, the British armies used square-shaped fuel containers that were made out of pressed tin. If the tins were crushed, they leaked fuel like a sieve. This was a huge waste of necessary supplies, and the smell of spilled fuel could cause headaches and nausea in the troops.
The design of the British fuel containers was so poor that they earned the name “Flimsies.” They were usually only used once before being discarded, making transporting fuel prohibitively expensive.
Naturally, there was a huge demand for the “jerry can.”
The British Flimsy
The Germans were unlikely to share their engineering developments with either the British or Americans considering they were at war with both countries. But as German troops were captured and their jerry cans seized, the Americans and British both ended up with a sizable supply. Using these, both countries were able to reverse engineer jerry cans of their own.
The American jerry cans are distinctive because instead of a pattern of indentations, one central X ensures even distribution of pressure. The British copy has a slightly stranger pattern, with a cross-like indentation that has curved arms.
Over a million gallons of fuel a day were being sent out to allied troops at the time, so there was a seemingly infinite need for jerry cans. Though they were refillable, soldiers were terrible at returning their empty cans. This resulted in a massive shortage. To recover the jerry cans, schoolchildren were offered prizes if they returned the containers.
The jerry cans were found as stepping stones, as components of makeshift shelters, and in any number of other locations. All told, the children returned close to a million cans.
There Were a Lot of Jerry Cans
Modern Jerry Cans
The jerry can is still in use today, though you’re much more likely to find plastic designs rather than metal ones. The plastic jerry can gained popularity starting in 1970. It’s almost as strong and significantly lighter.
Some manufacturers, like Rugged Ridge, still make jerry cans out of stamped steel. Many of the design features on these modern jerry cans clearly trace their origins back to the original. The three-handled design was a necessity for soldiers carrying four empties at a time, and the traditional “X” design feature is still visible on the sides.
Your state may have regulations that apply to new jerry cans. Old jerry cans are often exempt though, which is another great reason to look at a stamped steel jerry can.
This article was researched, written, edited, and reviewed following the steps outlined in our editorial process. Learn more about CJ's editorial standards and guidelines.