Signal Mirrors

Soldiers using signaling mirrors.

Signal Mirrors – Survival Gear that Gets You Found

If you ever get yourself in a situation that finds you injured, with your vehicle broken down far from civilization, or lost in the bush; you need to be rescued. The best way to do that is to send a distress signal to your rescuers. There are several survival tools that will help you to signal your rescuers and get you back to your regular life sooner. Signal mirrors are one of the best.

The Need for Signal Mirrors

You might think that with today’s sophisticated gadgets that something as simple as a mirror would have no place in a survival kit. I wouldn’t bet your life on it.

The best way to cover a lot of ground when searching for someone is by using aircraft. Unfortunately, survivors are very difficult to spot from the air unless something is used to signal their location to the rescuers. Enter the low tech signal mirror.

A Little History

A kind of signal mirror has been used for almost two hundred years to send messages. Known as heliographs, these devises were originally used as a wireless telegraph by the Signal Corps and used sunlight, mirrors and Morse code to send messages over long distances.

During the 1930′s the Bureau of Aeronautics developed a 4” round chromium plated metal signal mirror. It had a small 1/8 sighting hole near the edge to help the survivor signal his rescuers. This was the standard signal mirror that was issued going into WWII.

In September of 1942 the National Bureau of Standards was asked by representatives of the Coast Guard, the Office of Strategic Services, and the National Inventors Council to assist them in developing a practical signal mirror. They quickly figured out the best materials, flatness, and size that were best for making a signal mirror, but they were stymied by the question of how to aim one effectively.

Signal Mirrors like the ESM/1 were mass produced in WWII.

The ESM1 is one of the best known WWII signal mirrors.

A few days after the request for assistance was made, a Bureau staff member named L.L. Young came up with the rearsight method, featuring a sighting hole in the shape of a cross. It was integrated into the next generation of signaling mirrors, the 4″x5″ tempered glass, double-sided ESM/1 made by GE. Two million ESM/1 signal mirrors were ordered in 1943. The Bureau of Aeronautics nomenclature for this mirror was the M-580 signal mirror. Some can still be found in lifeboat survival kits today.

Here is a WWII video showing how to use the ESM/1.


3rd Generation Signal mirrors were just on the horizon though. In Oct 1942 an inventor named Charles M. Learned presented his retro-reflective type of mirror which was much easier to aim than the rearsight. This new mirror was more difficult to manufacture though and therefore did not get produced until mid 1944 as the M-580-A reflex button emergency signal mirror. The M580A has eight orange reflectors provided on the back for night use.

On Dec 4, 1946 Richard S. Hunter applied for a patent (Patent number: 2557108) for his improved signaling mirror. It had a window in the center with a transparent refractive layer on both sides and a mesh screen in the window that is encrusted with a large number of high angularity retro-directive beads. This signaling mirror was again a vast improvement over previous mirrors, allowing the operator to aim the mirror quickly and without a lot of experience—with one hand.

Finally, the greatest signal mirror maker of them all (Mr. Malcom G. Murray Jr.) became interested in signaling mirrors and patented his first design in 1967. His hand-crafted signal mirrors are the best in the world and are available from his company Rescue Reflectors, Inc.

Fake Signaling Mirrors

Good quality signal mirrors offer the most efficient and effective daytime method of signaling to rescuers. Look for signal mirrors with retro-reflective aiming aids. Beware though of fake retro-reflective mirrors. If the mesh in the center of the mirror doesn’t reflect light back to its source when using the flash from a camera, then it is a fake.

Quality Matters

The best way to avoid poor quality and fake signal mirrors is to buy from a reputable brand. There are several to choose from.

Good glass mirrors with retro-reflective aimers include:

Plastic (polycarbonate) signaling mirrors are often good signaling devices too. They are very light, durable, and some even float. The downside is that the best of them are only about 90% as reflective as good glass. Good examples include:


Even though signal mirrors are low tech devices, they are very capable of signaling rescuers and should be included in your kits. Although the signalling devices that are available today are much improved over those from WWII, there are fakes on the market and you need to buy from a reputable brand.  Just make sure that you practice with it though, survival gear is no good if you don’t know how to use it.

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