Arms vs. Firelocks, a Question of Research


By Chip Gnam


I have frequently heard discussion among musketmen regarding the use of the command "Arms," instead of "Firelocks." For example, the command "Present Arms!" is followed by "Shoulder Firelocks!" I certainly have pondered the seeming ambiguous use of the two words; why is the musket referred to as an "arm" in one command and the more common "firelock" in the next.


A common theory has been that when the bayonet is affixed to the musket, it effectively is two weapons (therefore "arms") and no longer just a firelock. But that doesn't explain why both the British and von Steuben Drill Manuals mix the two different words in different commands after the bayonet is fixed. I have even heard it suggested that the Manuals are "wrong" in their use of the words of command and that we should always use the term "arms" instead of "firelock" when giving drill commands when the bayonets are fixed on the muskets, despite what is written in the drill manuals of the period."


I have recently found an answer to this 18th century riddle in the drill manual of Timothy Pickering. Pickering was, among other things, a student of military matters living in Massachusetts at the time of the American Revolution. In 1775 he published his "Easy Plan of Discipline for a Militia," as a simplified drill manual to be used by the part-time soldiers of the militia. Besides his interesting, and unique drill instructions, his book contains an informative examination of other drill manuals of the period.


Like reenactors today, Pickering was a novice at military drill, and he seems just as confused by some of the instructions in the period drill manuals as we are today. He includes explanations for some of the drill commands, based on his research into many drill manuals from the period, as a way of explaining the uses of some of the commands.


Included in his book is a clarification of the use of the word "Arms" instead of "Firelock." His explanation begins by asking why the British Drill Manual has two different commands for the same position: "Rest your Firelock" and "Present your Arms." (Von Steuben eliminated the command "Rest Firelock.") His research takes him back to the drill of the 17th century when infantry armies included pikemen, as well as musketmen. Pickering explains:


Whenever the musketeers were exercised alone, they always came to the position of rest, by the word Rest your muskets! But as musketeers and pikemen were frequently exercised together, it became necessary to use some word which should apply to both; and arms was chosen for that purpose, as signifying both the arms, or weapons, of the musketeers, and that used by pikemen...


That this is the true account of the matter is evident from the Exercise of Foot ordered by King William III in which (p. 143) is this direction—


"When arms are mentioned, it signifies both musketeers and pikemen."*


The use of the word "Arms," for certain commands, instead of "Firelock" was simply a tradition carried forward in both the British drill manuals of the period, as well as von Steuben's manual long after the pike had been retired from service.


This illustrates the importance of making research the basis for our interpretation (and recreation) of the 18th century, instead of guesswork and personal opinion. We shouldn't start changing history (in this case, the period drill manuals) just because we don't understand it. Instead, we simply need to do more research if we want to fully understand it.


*From page 19 of Pickering's "Easy Plan," reprinted by King's Arms Press.


Copyright © 2001 Chip Gnam. All rights reserved.