Sunday, March 20, 2011

Demystifying military rosaries (Part 2)

This post discusses the construction and manufacture of government-issue military rosaries and clarifies what can be considered a "Chaplain" rosary. The previous post attempted to clarify the difference between these pull chain rosaries given to soldiers during WW I and traditional sterling and metal rosaries that are sometimes described as soldier, Chaplain, paratrooper, pilot, Special Forces, etc. rosaries.

Just to repeat this important distinction, these commercially-made rosaries may indeed have belonged to a veteran from any branch of the military. Buyers are cautioned to look at the pictures very closely and decide for themselves whether the provenance is credible and whether an otherwise ordinary rosary is worth the sometimes considerable investment. Trust in the seller is another important consideration, so gather as much information as possible about both seller and item and decide accordingly.

Okay, back to our topic. Like any organization procuring a large number of items, the War Department (today's Department of Defense) created detailed specifications for military rosaries and contracted their manufacture to multiple suppliers. This accounts for minor differences from one rosary to another, while sharing the same basic characteristics:

All had pull chain construction and measured between 16 and 17 inches depending on the crucifix used (see below). Some manufacturers also made pull chain rosaries for sale to foreign governments (including Canada and Australia) and to the general public, but these non-issued rosaries did not follow the exact same specifications of those procured by the U.S. military. I once had a non-issued rosary marked "Lustern" (Louis Stern Company) that was made in the US some time between 1871 when the company began to the early 1950s when it closed.
  • The vast majority were made of silver-washed brass. A very rare few were made of silver-washed tin (magnetic). Depending on how the rosary was stored for the last 90-something years, some may be worn down to the brass with lots of verdigris while others retain much of the silver wash and have a lustrous, glowing patina. Neither is more authentic than the other but as a collector, you may prefer one over the other.
  • Not all crucifixes were the same, but they were all stamped, simple and flat. Many had a graceful swirl or the letters INRI on the end of each cartouche, but there were other designs too. Some people have identified the swirled crucifixes as Chaplain rosaries, but this is not true.
  • Not all center medals were the same, but they all had Christ carrying the Cross on the back, symbolizing the burdens carried by our soldiers in defense of our freedom. Most were oval-shaped and had the Virgin Mary on the front, commonly in profile as the Sorrowful Mother.
  • The same rosaries were used in all branches of the military. The newly manufactured rosaries were distributed to Chaplains of all denominations for distribution to any Catholic soldier or sailor who requested one.
Regarding the rosaries issued by the military to Chaplains, they were exactly the same as the "soldier" rosaries with one difference: the crucifix and center medal were sterling silver and were marked accordingly. (The standard-issue rosaries had no markings whatsoever.) In other words, they had pull-chain, silver-washed beads with sterling components. They were NOT all-sterling, traditionally chained rosaries. These military-issued Chaplain rosaries often found their way to enlisted personnel in the field or in the hospital, simply because they were always in the Chaplain's pocket.

One last comment of interest from our learned friend:

I see listings saying that the military rosary is a paratrooper's rosary or a pilot's rosary or some other Special Forces rosary. There were no Special Forces in the First World War, which is when these rosaries were made, and there was no distinction between rosaries for Army, Navy, Marines, Pilots or Paratroopers. In fact, there was no Air Force as all pilots were Army. Navy and Marine pilots came about prior to the Second World War as did paratroopers. It's important to remember how the military was structured in 1916-18 and not think in terms of today's military."


  1. I have several WW1 rosaries which exactly fit your description, but I have never found any official documentation that they were in fact issued by the military. Does any such documentation exist?

    1. Hi Ben... To my knowledge, no official documentation exists. The gentleman referenced in Part 1 of this post on military rosaries was a government contracting officer and he learned about them through old contracts and specifications documents. I combined his information with anything else I could find that seemed credible and wrote these posts so that this information wasn't lost over time. Thanks for reading and commenting! Donna.