Considering how common “Right Shoulder Shift Arms” (henceforth, RSS) is, it’s surprising how little attention reenactors give to doing this right. This article will provide the information needed to do so.
The errors start with the name of the command. When an officer commands, “Right Shoulder, SHIFT” the proper response is to – do nothing. the officer adds “ARMS,” which is the command of execution.
RSS is the position designed for marching and running. Consequently, it should be used sparingly when troops are stationary; should almost always be used when troops are on the move; and should always be used when moving faster than a quickstep.
Reenactors often march at “Shoulder Arms.” This is unnecessarily fatiguing and inaccurate to boot. “Shoulder Arms” (a.k.a. “Carry Arms”) is a marching salute. So, during the Grand Review in May, 1865, the troops marched at RSS, shifting to “Shoulder Arms” only when passing the reviewing stand.
RSS is invariably ordered from “Shoulder ARMS.” Consequently, RSS should not be ordered without first getting the troops to “Shoulder ARMS.”
When teaching the manual of arms, in order to promote uniformity and assure that no steps are omitted, it is best to teach it “by the numbers.” That is, each maneuver should be broken into numbered steps and commands given for each step, pausing between steps to assure that every recruit has done it right.
With the left hand, grasp the piece just below the lowest (rearmost) barrel band.
Letting go with the right hand, raise the piece with the left hand, twisting it until the lock faces the front (Casey’s and the ’61 Tactics for the rifle erroneously omit the twisting step). Stop raising the piece when the left hand is at shoulder height. The piece should be four inches ahead of the shoulder at this point. The ’61 Tactics for the musket has the right hand on the wrist or small of the stock at this time, but that is not necessary and is omitted both by the ’61 Tactics for the rifle and by Casey’s (which replaced the ’61 Tactics in 1862).
With the right hand, grasp the butt as discussed below.
Let the left hand fall to the side.
Raise the piece further until the lock rests on the right shoulder.
Note that, while Civil War drill manuals break each position of the manual of arms into “motions,” a motion might encompass multiple numbers. Nor do the manuals call for issuing commands “by the numbers” (the earliest reference I’ve seen to drill “by the numbers” is 1887). Although doing the manual of arms “by the numbers” is a “reenactorism,” it is nevertheless justified by its usefulness for teaching the manual of arms.
Although all manuals call for the right hand to be over the butt of the piece, they differ on where to place the fingers. The alternatives are as follows:
FOUR FINGERS ON THE BUTTPLATE
A photo of the 134th Illinois returning to camp after a foraging expedition near Columbus, Kentucky (Fig. D) shows one man with this grasp. In addition, magnification of a photo of the 26th New York Infantry in columns of companies before Fort Lyon, Virginia (Fig. E) shows three men using this grasp.
Although putting the beak or point of the stock between the thumb and forefinger is highly natural, this grasp is not authorized by any of the manuals. There may be a reason for that. If one using this grasp unconsciously straightens his thumb, the butt can slide sideways. By contrast, since the last four digits tend to grasp in unison, putting the beak of the stock between any of the last four digits means that grasping will prevent the stock from sliding both sideways and down; an important consideration when running with the piece.
THREE FINGERS ON THE BUTTPLATE
Drawings that appear in both the ’61 Tactics for the rifle and Casey’s show this grasp. That it was used in the field is shown by the aforementioned Fig. D, in which two men use it. In addition, seven of the 26th New Yorkers (Fig. E) use this grasp.
TWO FINGERS ON THE BUTTPLATE
This is prescribed by the text of the ’61 Tactics for the rifle (School of the Soldier (SS) Para. 210) and Casey’s SS 219. Note that the text of those works thus contradicts the drawings that go with them. Nevertheless, one of the 26th New Yorkers (Fig. E) uses this grasp.
ONE FINGER ON THE BUTTPLATE
Though unauthorized by the text of any manual, the drawing from Hardee’s 1855 Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics (Fig. A) depicts it. Moreover, one of our 26th New Yorkers (Fig. E) uses it.
NO FINGERS ON THE BUTTPLATE
SS 496 of the ’61 Tactics for the musket call for “placing the right hand on the flat [side] of the butt.” The accompanying drawing shows all fingers slung over the bottom of the butt, with no fingers on the buttplate. The disadvantage of this position is that the piece can slide downward if held too vertically. Nevertheless, a man using this grasp is seen in Fig. D.
Despite no fingers on the buttplate being authentic for muskets used before mid-1862, it is safer (and more authentic after mid-1862) to put two or three fingers on the buttplate.
HEIGHT OF PIECE
The text of all the manuals calls for the part of the piece opposite the lock to rest on the shoulder. Most of the drawings in the manuals (Fig. B) are to the same effect. Unaccountably (since it contradicts the text), the drawing accompanying RSS for the rifle in the ’61 Tactics shows the lockplate above the shoulder, with the wrist or small of the stock resting on the shoulder.
Photos show even more variation. The aforementioned photo of the 134th Illinois (Fig. D) shows four men with locks on shoulder while their sergeant has his lock below shoulder height. The photo of the 26th New York at Fort Lyon (Fig. E) shows 51 men with locks on shoulder; 40 men with lockplates above the shoulder; and six with lockplates below the shoulder (for percentages, add one to each numeral). Finally, a picture of Company K, 6th Vermont at Camp Griffin, Virginia (not provided) shows 7 men (18%) with locks above shoulder; 17 men (45%) with locks on the shoulder; and 14 men (37%) with locks below the shoulder.
Resting the wrist of the musket on the shoulder permits the musket to roll. Having the lock below the shoulder increases the weight on the right hand. That leaves lock on shoulder as the most practical. Given that it is also the most commonly shown position, and the one endorsed by the manuals, lock on the shoulder is the position reenactors should use.
The text of period manuals does not say at what angle to hold the piece, from side to side, nor front to back. We must therefore consult drawings and photographs.
Scott’s 1835 Infantry Tactics has a drawing of RSS from the side (Fig. B), which shows the musket tilted back a full 39 degrees (it also shows a ridiculously shortened butt). Although subsequent manuals do not contain side drawings, if Scott was going to be changed, one would expect subsequent manuals to expressly say so.
Because the manuals did not specify the angle, officers were free to specify their own angles or none at all. As a result, photos show some companies at a uniform angle (though not necessarily 39 degrees), others with varying angles within the same company. A survey of photos that show troops more or less from the side reveals angles ranging from 22 to 44 degrees, with an average of 34 degrees. See, for instance, Fig. C, which shows a member of the 93d New York Infantry at Bealton Station, Virginia in August, 1863. He holds his musket at 29 degrees.
Because there is choice in the matter, practicalities should be considered. The more vertical the musket, the more weight is shifted from the shoulder to the right hand, thus resulting in more arm fatigue over time. Concern that leaning the piece too far back will hit the man behind is remedied by tilting the piece to the left as well (see next section). When tilted to the left, the piece will point to the space between the men behind, thus not hitting either of them. By contrast, if the musket is held too vertical, it will not be possible to lean it to the left as shown in the manuals (as the head will be in the way).
Considering both what was common and what is practical, I recommend tilting the musket back 39 degrees, as shown in Scott (Fig. B).
TILT TO LEFT (from soldier’s viewpoint)
Drawings that accompany the manuals show a variety of leftward angles (Fig. A). We can throw out the ’61 Tactics for the rifle because a) most reenactors use muskets, not rifles, b) holding the piece parallel to the “gig line” would result in hitting the man behind when the piece is tilted back as far as shown in Scott’s and c) Casey evidently considered this drawing erroneous, since his own drawing shows a more leftward tilt.
That still leaves some variation in leftward tilt. Hardee’s and Casey’s (Fig. A) both have the muzzle just left of the head, whereas the ’61 Tactics for the musket has the muzzle beyond the left shoulder.
Most photographs accord with Figure H. A notable exception is the aforementioned photo of Company K, 6th Vermont Infantry: six men hold the musket parallel to the gig line, seven have a slight leftward tilt, five (including two n.c.o.s) tilt the musket so the muzzle is above the left shoulder, and one man has the muzzle well to the left of his left shoulder.
In short, the piece should tilt to the soldier’s left, though the degree of tilt varies. Officers wanting uniform appearance will choose a degree of tilt and order all troops to stick with that.
On “Right Shoulder Shift, ARMS,”
• two or three fingers (no more, no less) should be on the lockplate;
• the lock should be resting on the shoulder;
• the musket should be tilted back around 39 degrees and
• the musket should be tilted to the left to a degree selected by the commanding officer.
Following these guidelines will promote uniformity, reduce fatigue and make us look more like the soldiers we claim to portray.
-By John A. Braden