The Position of a Soldier Under Arms.

by Brian VandePolder and Mark Tully


"Great Care must be taken that the men carry their arms well, keeping them steady against their shoulders, precisely as directed in the first part of the explanation of the manual exercise. The most common faults are the carrying the firelock too high, and holding the butt too far forward." -- Timothy Pickering1

soldier at shoulder
A British Soldier at the Shoulder from a Contemporary Illustration. Both the British 1764 Manual and von Stueben's Manual accurately describe this fundamental position. Note that the musket is held tight to the side of the body (not in front) and is carried almost vertical. Also note that the arm is relatively straight and the hand low so the musket butt is just above the hip joint.
Whether you use the British 1764 or the von Stueben manual of arms, the position of the musket at the shoulder is identical. This is the basic position of a soldier under arms and is the starting point for all of the other movements in the inspection and firing sequences. It is therefore vitally important that we periodically review the correct way of performing this most basic of maneuvers.

Excerpted here is the position for a soldier under arms from both the 1764 and von Stueben manuals2. Note the incredible similarity in the phrasing of the following passages.

The 1764 Manual: "...the left elbow not to be turned out from the body; the firelock to be carried on the left shoulder, as low down as can be admitted without constraint; the three last fingers under the butt; the fore finger and thumb before the swell the flat of the butt to be supported against the hip-bone, and to be pressed so that the firelock may be felt against the left side, and that it may stand before the hollow of the shoulder, not leaning toward the head nor from it; the barrel almost perpendicular." 3

Baron von Stueben: "...the left elbow not to be turned out from the body; the firelock to be carried on the left shoulder, at such a height that the guard will be just under the left breast; the fore finger and thumb before the swell of the butt; the three last fingers under the butt; the flat of the butt against the hip-bone, and pressed so that the firelock may be felt against the left side, and stand before the hollow of the shoulder, neither leaning toward the head nor from it; the barrel almost perpendicular." 4

There are a few key points contained in both of these excerpts. "Just under the left breast" puts the triggerguard near the base of the ribcage -- not up in the armpit as is commonly practiced -- and the arm almost straight. This is also consistent with the '64 phrase: "as low down as can be admitted without constraint."

Both manuals also state: "the flat of the butt" should be "against the hip-bone", which puts the left hand just above the thigh joint. Again, the arm will be almost straight. There should be a slight bend to the elbow, as holding the musket with the arm perfectly straight puts the musket too low so that bounces off the thigh and interferes with marching. Keeping a perfectly straight arm while holding a ten-pound musket also could strain the arm muscles and cause the elbow to stiffen up, making it painful to present and fire.

Both manuals also state that the musket should be "almost perpendicular" to the ground, i.e. the barrel should be almost vertical and not leaning to the rear. This is easily accomplished by keeping the musket "pressed so that the firelock may be felt against the left side."

In addition to the written sources cited here there is much pictorial evidence of soldiers at the shoulder firelocks -- one of which is shown at right5.


"Standing shouldered, is the first position of a soldier under arms; it being the most graceful and easy manner of carrying a firelock, either standing or marching, and that from which all other actions are to be performed with the greatest facility and grace." -- Pickering1
NOTES
1. Pickering, Timothy, An Easy Plan of Discipline for a Militia, second edition, Boston, 1776 (reprint), page 7.

2. We have not done sufficient research on German and French manual of arms. However, there are several contemporary illustrations that show the same method being employed as described here (see American Heritage History of the American Revolution, pp 172-175).

3. Manual Exercise of 1764, New York edition, 1775 (reprint).

4. Steuben, Baron Frederick von, Baron von Steuben's Revolutionary War Drill Manual, reprint of 1794 edition, New York; Dover, 1985.

5. Illustration is based on the gouache sketch "Private Man of the Picket Company of H.M. XI [11th] Foot" by an unknown artist (ASI Haswell, A. E. and Dawnay, N. P., Military Drawings and Paintings in the Royal Collection, Phaidon Press, London, 1966, plate 130). Other soldiers with properly shouldered muskets can be seen in this series of gouaches (see May, Robin and Embleton, GA, The British Army in North America, 1775-1783, Osprey, p 5 and 15. Also see the series of paintings of the 25th Foot in Minorca, (artist unknown -- probably Giuseppe Chisea) ca. 1773, ASI National Army Museum, Chelsea, London, accession numbers 7402-124, 7402-127, and 7402-125 (also see article in the JSAHR vol. 19, 1940, pp 19-33).