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Arms Drill for Volunteer Militia in the Old Northwest
R. E. van Patten

This article will hopefully clarify the question of whether the frontier militia units of the Old Northwest in 1812 carried their arms on the left or the right shoulder. Note: The author wishes to make clear that he is talking in this article about militia in Ohio, in 1812 only, and that the use of drill manuals may have been different elsewhere and in the later years of the war.

A document usually referred to as Duane's Handbook for Riflemen was published by the politically influential Philadelphia newspaperman William Duane beginning ca. 1812 with the first of three editions. The first edition was apparently fraught with errors as noted extensively in the 2nd edition of 1813. Should Duane's handbook be used for modern-day reenactment units in the Old Northwest? Probably not, for the reasons set out below.

The Controversial William Duane--friend to Jefferson

Duane was a man of very checkered background. He was disinherited by his mother when he married a Protestant woman while engaged in learning the printing trade during a stay in Ireland. He subsequently moved to India where he prospered with a newspaper published in Calcutta. He was politically active and incurred the wrath of the British, was arrested and deported, and his property seized. He returned briefly to England in an unsuccessful attempt to undo the penalties levied against him and then emigrated to Philadelphia working as the editor of a newspaper called the Aurora. He became heavily involved in the election of Thomas Jefferson, for whom he remained a staunch supporter and political crony.

After the Jefferson's election to the presidency, Duane moved to Washington, D.C., in expectation, fruitless as it turned out, of gaining profitable government contracts for printing and stationery. In the meanwhile, he became an outspoken enemy of Madison and Monroe and in recognition of his support Jefferson awarded him the rank of lieutenant colonel of Rifles in July 1808 and thereafter tried to raise public subscriptions to get Duane out of debt.
Duane served as Adjutant General of the U.S. Army during the War of 1812. The post of adjutant general is one in which the incumbent's primary responsibility is the maintenance of personnel records. It is a post that neither confers the rank of general nor has any line (combat) responsibilities.

During his career, Duane wrote several books that have been described as of "indifferent merit," including his Handbook for Riflemen (1813). In this work, he mandated that rifled muskets must be carried on the right in the position called "advance arms." Anyone who has ever carried a rifled or smoothbore musket of 1812 vintage in this position for more than ten minutes knows that it is very uncomfortable. Mercifully, Duane did allow that carrying the rifle on the left shoulder in the manner of the infantry was permissible when the rifleman became too fatigued to carry it at advance arms or trail arms. In another concession to ergonomics and established drill, Duane noted that when exercising with infantry the riflemen should load from cartridges, not powder horns (as he otherwise mandated).

Duane's Handbook for Riflemen is an amazing document when one considers Duane's lack of military experience. Parts read very much like von Steuben's Blue Book (the standard manual for training used during the American Revolution), but other parts reveal a total ignorance of the physics of smoothbore versus rifled muskets, and some of the book reads in the manner of a War College course on the conduct of troops in various tactical or strategic threat situations! Quite obviously, much of this publication is abstracted from other sources. In one astounding section, Duane asserted that the rifleman was never to carry his weapon unloaded. In this writer's opinion, Duane probably did not write most of this book but assigned the job to some subordinate officer who was overcome by the power and fragrance of Duane's political connections and who put together a hodgepodge that satisfied Duane. The copies of the book printed for Duane in Philadelphia and carry no endorsement from any arm of the military or government.

The only rifle regiment in which Duane could have served in the period ca. 1808 was the 1st U.S. Rifle Regiment. The 1st U.S. Rifles was established by an Act of Congress in April 1808. It was commanded by Alexander Smyth from 1808 until 1812, and Smyth wrote a rifle manual during this period in command. The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th U.S. Rifle regiments were not established until 1814 and all were disbanded in 1821 (per Heitman). This apparent lack of faith in rifle troops probably reflects the fact that in 1821 the Army was commencing a wholesale conversion to percussion lock weapons around that time and the Congress was busy gutting the army. The Springfield Armory, for example, did not start production of rifled muskets until 1847. Gardner does not list Duane as having been in command at that time or at any time up to 1821. The Dictionary of American Biography identifies him as second in command of "the United States Regiment of Riflemen" during the period 1808-1810.

Winfield Scott's Manual

The standardized manual published by the War Department immediately after the war was created by Major General Winfield Scott, and was originally written and used in training by Scott during the War of 1812. It was entitled Rules and Regulations for the Field Exercise and Manoeuvers of the Infantry, compiled and adapted to the organization of the Army of the United States, agreeably to a resolve of the Congress.

Winfield Scott was no inexperienced armchair soldier or political toady. Many military historians call him the greatest American battlefield general of all time. He served with distinction for five decades from the War of 1812, notably at the Battle of Chippewa (where his well drilled brigade caused the British commander to exclaim "Those are Regulars, by God!") and in the Niagara campaigns and is probably the only field grade officer ever personally to lead a bayonet charge. He was therefore highly respected by his colleagues as well as by those at the highest levels of power in the country. He was a diplomat trusted by the many presidents he served and was a hardened veteran combat commander. He served brilliantly in the Mexican War (1846-47) making an amphibious attack on Veracruz and in leading his small and vastly outnumbered army in an assault on Mexico City in what has been called the most astonishing feat of arms in military history.

According to Johnson, Scott himself did not like Duane's handbook, characterizing it as being "radically defective" and the basis of Scott's own training manual in 1813 was Alexander Smyth's abridgement of the 1791 French manual Reglement (Regulation). Since Smyth's manual of arms calls for rifle troops to carry the firelock at support arms when on parade or advancing in a gun or skirmish line it is clear that the weapons would have been ordinarily carried at (left) shoulder arms.

Scott's postwar work apparently superseded Duane's and around 1815 it was adopted as the standard of discipline in the U.S. Army. Several of the state legislatures adopted the Exercises prescribed in this work and directed their use by the militia.

Some militia commanders complained that Scott's work, usually called Gen. Scott's Infantry Exercise was unnecessarily complex for their use as well as being too expensive. In order to make the material more accessible and affordable, a gentleman by the name of Paracletes Potter was selected and given the task of abstracting an abridged and simplified version for the instruction of militiamen in their ordinary duties.

Potter's Abridgement of Scott's Handbook

The 2nd edition of this version of Scott's work is titled The Infantry Exercise of the United States Army Abridged for the use of the United States Militia (notice the similarity in title to the parent document).

Adoption of Potter's abridged version was approved by the Vice President of the United States and was immediately favorably reviewed by Major General Tallmadge of the New York militia and approved by the Governor of New York as well as by the Adjutant General of Connecticut. Thousands of copies of this book were printed and even today original copies of it are not uncommon on the rare book market.

Critics have stated unequivocally that whatever rules of discipline and instruction were used by the regulars were certainly used by the militia simultaneously. In this context it is interesting to note that Lewis points out that the first government contract of rifles specifically destined for the use of the various state militia was not issued until 1814. Add to this the fact that General Scott saw fit to commission a special edition of his Exercises specifically for the militia and the thoughtful reader will conclude that whatever was being imposed from on high took a considerable period to trickle down to the level of the state militia. How long it took to percolate to the level of frontiersmen in volunteer rifle militia units is surely a matter of speculation.

Drill and Regulations in the Old Northwest

During the early stage of the war, the only regular rifle regiment in action was the 1st (Regiment of Riflemen) which was garrisoned at Sackets Harbor, New York. The 1st did not see action until September 21, 1812 under the leadership of Captain Benjamin Forsyth in an attack against the British outpost at Ganoque on the St. Lawrence River. By this time in autumn 1812, most Ohio volunteer militiamen were on their way homeward with their six-month enlistments expired. Throughout the war, the 1st's area of operations was along the New York frontier, not in the Old Northwest.

In view of these facts, it is clear that there was no impetus whatsoever, owing to the presence of regular troops, to encourage or compel the use of Duane's drill among the frontier volunteer militia in the Old Northwest. At this time in the course of the war most officers were either using von Steuben's Blue Book, Smyth's abridgement of Le Reglement, Duane's Handbook (where he had the power to compel it) and incorporating ideas from the articles on the Napoleonic campaigns appearing in the National Intelligencer. Indeed, the United States Military Academy has provided the author with the drill for rendering the saber salute in the 1812 period and it is taken directly from the French.

On the issue of on which shoulder the firelock was to be carried by militia in the immediate post-war era it is only necessary to consult Part II of the abridged work of Potter, page 21, on which the following is written:

"The men being assembled on the parade ground at ordered arms, the first sergeant will give these words of command:

1. Attention.
2. Shoulder -- Arms.
One word and two motions
First motion.
Raise the firelock with the right hand to the left shoulder, placing the left hand under the butt.
Second Motion.
Let the right hand fall to the right side."

The position of the soldier at left shoulder arms is illustrated in Plate III. Fig 1 & 2 in the Appendix. It is interesting to note that the soldier used in this illustration wears a uniform similar to that worn by the 1st US Light Infantry.


From the foregoing it is seen that the conduct of a reenactment unit representing an 1812 rifle company in 1812 would be authentic in carrying the firelock on the left shoulder and to conduct all manual of arms drill in accordance with von Steuben, as mandated by Ohio law, and to load from paper cartridges. This practice is reinforced by the fact that, for safety reasons, most contemporary reenactment event organizers commonly discourage the use of powder horns in tactical engagements.

Likewise, close order drills would be conducted with von Steuben as was also mandated by the Ohio Militia Law of the period. In cases in which von Steuben is silent on a given matter of drill, it would be reasonable to consult Smyth's version of Le Reglement in order to compare and contrast it with von Steuben and to be prepared to drill with regular units taking into account their differences. In appropriate cases, The Infantry Exercise Abridged and/or the practices recommended by the National Park Service could be used as a guide and reference. Duane's handbook should not be used.


Abstracts of the Acts of Congress, 16. Act of April 12, 1808; Thomas Jefferson, President - To raise, in addition. . . 1 regiment of riflemen.

Wayne R. Austerman, "This Excellent & Gallant Rifle Corps; The Model 1803 Harpers Ferry in Service." Man at Arms, Vol. 3, No.4, July/August 1981.

Robert W. D. Ball, Springfield Armory Shoulder Weapons 1795-1968. Norfolk, VA: Antique Trader Books, 1997.

Dictionary of American Biography. Vol. III. New York: Charles Scribner Son's, 1946:467-8.

William Duane, Hand Book for Infantry: Containing the First Principles of Military Discipline. Philadelphia: The Author, 1812.

William Duane, Hand Book for Riflemen. Philadelphia: The Author, 1812 (first edition) and 1813 (2nd edition).

John S. D. Eisenhower, The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Charles Kitchell Gardner, Dictionary of All Officers, Who Have Been Commissioned, or Have Been Appointed and Served, In the Army of the United States. . . New York: G. P. Putnam and Co., 1853:15.

Francis Bernard Heitman, Historical Register of the United States Army from Its Organization. . ., vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: National Tribune, 1890:72-73.

Timothy D. Johnson. David Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN. Personal communication.

B. R. Lewis, "Early U.S. Military Riflemen: Their Arms and Equipment." The American Rifleman, December 1958:30-33.

John K. Mahon, The War of 1812. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1972.

P. Potter, The Infantry Exercise of the United States Army Abridged for the use of the Militia of the United States. 2nd ed. P. Potter: Philadelphia, 1817.

Col. Alexander Smyth, Regulations for the Field Exercise, Maneuvers, and Conduct of Infantry of the United States; Drawn and Adapted to the Organization of the Militia and the Regular Troops. New York: Anthoney Finey, and Whiting and Watson, 1812.

Captain R. E. van Patten is Officer Commanding, Steele's Rifles - 1812 based in Bellbrook, Ohio. He has written previously for the Journal on War of 1812 rifles and on the 1812 U.S. campaign in the Old Northwest under General William Hull.

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