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McBride’s Top Ten Points: Planning a morning of company drill

Posted on Tuesday, September 1, 2015 at 7:21 am

Give them the bayonet.

Give them the bayonet.

Besides reenactment weekends, no activity better defines our hobby than do our one-day company drills. Drill days are dress rehearsals for our veteran members and our “college  orientation” days for newbies.

To be blunt: The leadership of any established company-sized reenacting club that goes without drill gatherings is shirking its responsibility to its members, and to the battalion to which the company belongs. We just can’t learn to dance without the dance lessons our drill days provide.

A company can’t meld together as a cohesive outfit without time for the men to get to know each other and learn to dance (maneuver) together. The company captain is the guy who will do the heavy lifting in planning and executing regular, high value company drills. Expect that of him.

So what goes into a good drill? How long should it be? Do we dress in our uniforms? Do we carry knapsacks? Do we shoot? Who does what? Is there shade tree classroom instruction to go along with the marching drill?  How many repetitions do you practice key company maneuvers? Is drill just for the privates in the ranks?

Through two decades of participation at every level from private to captain, here’s my answers to those questions in another “McBride’s Top Ten List,” this time for planning and executing a worthwhile and enjoyable one-morning company drill.

New officers and NCOs can’t be expected to perform their combat leadership duties in our reenactment battles until they’ve had rehearsal time. The point being: Drills are not just for privates. I’ve been honored to serve as our company captain, and have endured the fear of suddenly drawing a blank when expected to deliver a maneuver order, right that second. You sure don’t want to draw that blank during a battle with other companies on both your flanks, a time when failure to deliver the correct order will mess up not just your own company, but those on either side of your men. Such “senior moments” are a new captain’s nightmare, and mean that captains need drill practice even more than privates.

Before the Drill Date:

One: Schedule a company drill a month before every major maximum effort reenactment.

Reach every member by phone – live voice to live ear – not just voice mail, text messages, emails, or Facebook post. The danged computer and cell phone texts have taken over our lives, and words on a screen fall short of words spoken in one’s ear. Get your NCOs calling the troops using a phone tree system where no one guy has to call more than two or three others and then report back to his senior. Be sure each man is asked if he needs a ride to drill.

Captains, send your lieutenant and NCOs, but not the privates, an e-mail or text with the schedule for the morning. Let the anticipation of the privates guessing “what’s next” work in your favor. Battles are unpredictable, let your drill plan be so also. That said, I always start and end a drill morning with movement, with really drilling as a company. More on that later.

Captains, include your lieutenant and sergeants, even your corporals, in your plans before you all arrive at the drill location. Call each lieutenant and NCO and chat with him about the upcoming drill and how important it is that he attend, because he will have a job to perform.

Two: Wear the uniform as it will be worn at the next reenactment. For Rebs that can mean anything from early war battle-shirts, to shell jackets, to frock coats. Be specific in your uniforms expectations. For Yanks, the options might include cold weather great coats, frock coats, sacks or shells, plus knapsacks.

I confess that here in Texas in summer, our company does sometimes drill in shirtsleeves, even though we never fight reenactment battles in shirtsleeves. I also confess that we often have first-timers drilling in blue jeans and modern shoes, but we strive to put them in loaner coats and period hats or kepis, not letting them wear ball caps or modern cowboy hats during their first drill.

If your next reenactment includes a march wearing knapsacks and blanket rolls, wear them during at least half the morning drill. Even a lightly-loaded knapsack reveals to the wearer what the burden feels like on their shoulders and what strap and packing adjustments need to be made before a real long march or vigorous battle in “heavy marching order.”

The Morning of Drill:

Three: Start no later than 9 a.m. Even if members will be driving an hour or more, start early. Starting at 8 or 8:30 a.m. is even better. Insist the lieutenants and NCO’s arrive 30 minutes early so you can huddle together and review everyone’s job assignment for the morning.

The first sergeant or ranking NCO forms the company at the announced starting time. Don’t loiter around the cars shooting the breeze. Officers and NCOs should model promptness by getting ‘coutered up and ready to form the company at the stated hour.

Four: Stress weapon safety and heat safety:  As soon as you form the company and size by height, inspect all arms and check that each man has a full canteen. No one starts drill without a full canteen.

Don’t skip or rush through a thorough weapon inspection. I’m amazed at how often some long-time member will show up at drill with a musket uncleaned since the last reenactment he attended.

The Actual Drill

Five: The first sergeant or ranking NCO leads the formed and inspected company through a review of the Manual of Arms and “stacking arms” before the captain takes direct command of the drill.

Some companies pull new recruits aside for a Manual of Arms tutorial by an NCO. That’s a good idea if it can be done before the company forms. Otherwise, I recommend leaving new recruits in the front rank next to a corporal or high private who will tutor them as things go along.

Six: The captain briefly addresses the company while muskets are stacked. He welcomes every man and introduces any first-timers. The captain then leads the first session of the School of the Company marching and maneuvering drill. The captain leads the entire first marching drill session which should last 20-30 minutes, starting with basic evolutions. Every maneuver practiced should be repeated at least six times during the morning drill. Repetition is absolutely key to memory. Repeat, and repeat and repeat. Six times. Six times. A smart captain has a notecard with the maneuver commands listed in the order he plans to do them.

Seven: Stack arms and take a 10-minute break. Drink water. The lieutenant or first sergeant leads the second 30-40 minute session of drill. He starts with one more repeat of the same evolutions the captain led the company through before the break.

The first sergeant or ranking NCO then instructs/reviews the company on the steps of musket loading and firing. Again, weapons safety is stressed, especially rear-rank foot placement and musket barrel placement.

I waffle on firing powder at morning drills, even when discharging weapons is allowed at the drill location. It means men have to clean muskets an extra time at home, and face it, powder and priming caps are expensive. Our company goes “bang” more often than we actually fire black powder cartridges at drill.  The exception is when new recruits are attending their first drill, we do fire powder if at all possible. New guys want to experience firing a musket. It’s one of the best hooks we have to encourage them to return.

Eight: Stack arms again and conduct a shade-tree class on topics like musket cleaning, making a blanket sandwich to stay warm, making hardtack, knapsack packing, essential cooking tinware, acceptable uniform variations, and best sources for uniforms and gear.  These informal, but planned, classes are really valuable to the new recruits and less experienced members. Ask  veteran members to conduct the classes. Being asked to teach will also help maintain the interest of the grizzled old “high privates.”

Regarding musket stacking: Be sure and rotate the positions of each four men who stack arms together, so each guy gets a shot at being the front-rank #2 man who does most of the work.

Nine: After a 30-40 minute class, the captain leads the company in a third 20-30 minute drill session on the field. Afterwards, stack arms again and take another break, during which the captain reviews upcoming events on the company calendar. Finally, the captain leads a fourth and drill 20-30 minute drill session, going through every evolution practiced earlier.
Make sure the second sergeant and first sergeant switch positions for at least one of the drill sessions.

Nine point five: Every now and then do something unexpected at drill. Spicing up a routine drill with a surprise is a treat for everyone.

Our company has greatly enjoyed the occasional bayonet drill, both by the manual, which is sort of a fencing drill, and sometimes actually stabbing a stuffed cloth sack hanging from a tripod.

We also sometimes practice prone loading and passing muskets from rear-rank man to the front-rank man who shoots for both of them, while the rear-rankers load.

Ten: Dismiss the men after three to four hours. Go somewhere for lunch together. A four-hour gathering should include two hours of actual, on your feet, in formation drill, whether marching, firing, or skirmishing.  A three-hour morning should include 90 minutes of actual drill.

I understand that 90-120 minutes of on-your-feet drilling is a long time, even with breaks. It will be a stretch for some older men (including me), some fatter men (including me), and for men with desk jobs who don’t jog, walk, or even mow their lawn regularly (Not me. Reenacting is important enough to me that I make myself exercise, mainly so I can stay fit enough to keep reenacting.) That’s OK. Our hobby has a necessary personal fitness standard that we  should not allow to slip backwards. If two hours of physical exertion at a morning drill deters an out-of-shape reenactor from coming back, honestly, not much has been lost. You didn’t need that guy because he would crap out during a reenactment.

Conclusion: Drill, drill, drill. I know it’s a cliché, but besides being our skill-building times, drills are also team-building times when we forge friendships among men with the same interests in history, camping, and things military. Drills really are the foundation of our reenacting clubs. So don’t overlook putting drills on your calendars, and when you do have a morning drill, don’t dog it. Make it a well-planned, vigorous morning. The men will like that and want to do it again next month.

-By Phil McBride