Customs and Traditions of Rifle Regiments

It was fashionable during the early years of the 20th Century to create new Militia regiments in the image of regiments in the British Isles. The Canadian military, like the young nation as a whole, was still very closely tied to Britain. The proliferation of Highland, Scottish, and Irish regiments came from a desire for newly created units to be instantly endowed with tradition. A Rifle Regiment was a good choice to meet such a desire, as the strict definition of a Rifle Regiment was not limited solely to the weapons it employed.

In fact, Rifle Regiments – both in Canada and in Britain – were not employed in the field any differently than standard infantry regiments, but the special distinctions they were permitted were numerous and felt themselves in all aspects of regimental life away from the field.

All Imperial/Commonwealth Rifle Regiments have traced their traditions back to the original rifle units of the British Army (today embodied in The Royal Green Jackets). During the American Revolutionary War, the first rifle unit was created in the guise of the 60th Regiment of Foot. Locally raised in North America, these soldiers had seen the drawbacks inherent in wearing the traditional scarlet tunic of the British infantry, marching in rigid formations and fighting with conventional European tactics. The commanding officer of this unit (raised in 1755) clad his troops in buckskin uniforms, as well as dark green and brown clothing with black horn buttons used for camouflage purposes. His men were lightly equipped, using simple drills and open formations. Rather than rigid adherence to drills and discipline, these troops were trained in mobility, individual marksmanship (rather than volley fire), the need to be constantly alert, and concealment. The training paid off in actual engagements

Lieutenant D. Lee
Redman, 103rd Calgary Rifles
Note the black leather crossbelt with silver whistle. The tunic is also peculiar to Rifle Regiments, in dark green with five rows of braid across the front and closed with toggles rather than buttons. Cuffs and collar would have been scarlet, and for an officer below the rank of Captain, Austrian knots would also have appeared on the cuffs, in addition to the two metal “pips” on the shoulder denoting a Lieutenant. Glenbow Archives Photo NA-2362-1


In 1797, the 5th Battalion of the 60th became the first unit to adopt many of the Rifle Regiment traditions still adhered to today; they were the first to be armed with a rifle (rather than a musket), the first to wear the dark green jacket, they carried no colours into battle, and they used the buglehorn tacically to signal movements. Their drill dispensed with the rigid style of marching used in the rest of the army.

In 1800, an experimental corps of Riflemen was selected, armed with the Baker rifle. Modern tactics were taught to these men, and the lessons learned from this unit eventually equipped the Light Brigade (and later Light Division) in the Peninsular War. At a time when military discipline was often instilled by floggings and harsh discipline, the riflemen were being trained in modern concepts such as individual initiative, effective use of ground, and mobility. These ideas were truly ahead of their time; at Waterloo in 1815, for example, many British soldiers in regular line infantry regiments would still think it shameful to take cover from long range enemy fire.

By 1803, General Sir John Moore was training the men of the Light Brigade (consisting of the 43rd, 52nd and 95th Regiments of Foot). Much of what he taught is considered second nature today, and General Moore was revolutionary for his times in considering soldiers as human beings who could be trained in matters of individual initiative and self-reliance. Firm discipline under General Moore was aimed at preventing rather than punishing crime, and brutality common to line regiments was stopped. Orders were given clearly and explained to all soldiers rather than expecting blind obedience, and realistic training rather than simply drills became the norm

Again, emphasis was placed on constant alertness and readiness for action, individual marksmanship, and use of fire and movement – covering moving soldiers with effective rifle fire. As would happen in the Second World War and since, field drills were practised first on the parade ground in tight ranks and then moved to the field, where exercises in open order were directed by buglehorn and whistle. As well, the men were trained to march easy, with an eye to obtaining maximum speed with minimum fatigue.

During the Peninsular War (1808-1814), the Light Brigade carried out reconnaissance duties and took on the traditional cavalry role of covering the advance and retreat of the infantry. The Brigade carried out these duties with success; one French Marshal blamed a disproportionately high loss of his officers on the accuracy of the British riflemen’s fire. The British Army as a whole was remarkable for its marksmanship, being the only army in the Napoleonic Wars who could claim that more than half the casualties they inflicted on the enemy were the result of small arms fire. The training, and equipment (at this time the Baker Rifle), of rifle units emphasized this marksmanship.

Modern Traditions


Since the Baker Rifle of the 1800s was such a short weapon, the troops carrying them were at a disadvantage when it came to bayonet fighting an enemy armed with muskets. For this reason, Riflemen were armed with 27-1/2 inch bayonets equipped with sword handles rather than the shorter triangular bayonet that came with the infantry musket. Even after the army as a whole adopted rifles, Rifle Regiments have referred to bayonets as “swords.” The 103rd Regiment was equipped with the standard Ross Rifle and bayonet, but bayonet would have been referred to as a sword.

Officer’s, equipped with actual swords, carried lighter swords than line infantry officers, with a bugle horn replacing the Royal Cypher on the hilt.


In the 1800s, when battle formations were still linear, the Regimental Colour was still used as a rallying point for infantry battalions to form up on. Rifle Regiments, however, did not fight in standard linear formations, and so Rifle Regiments by tradition to not carry colours.

Field Music

As mentioned above, drums were not used in Rifle Regiments originally. Drums in line infantry regiments were originally used to announce evening tattoo, or call troops from barracks. Troops of the Light Division, however, were seldom assembled as formed units and usually bivouacked over a wide area. Word of mouth, the buglehorn and whistle were considered sufficient to alert them fully.

In the 20th Century, Retreat in Rifle Regiments was still sounded by buglehorn rather than beaten by drums (at least, in the Royal Green Jackets)


During the Peninsular War, Wellington ordered rifle companies to form on the left of the brigade, and it is believed this may be the origin of a Rifle Regiment’s place on the left when on parade with other units. Modern parades throughout the 20th Century usually have all units lined up in order of seniority, with senior units on the right side of the parade.

Battle Honours

Line Infantry Regiments emblazon their colours with Battle Honours, but since Rifle Regiments do not have Colours, they instead display these Honours on their cap badges. Rifle Regiments of the 1800s had no use for drums, but by 1900, regimental bands were permitted to have them, and Battle Honours have come to be emlazoned on these as well.

It may be noted that the 103rd Regiment did not have any Battle Honours in any event; those honours won by the 10th, 31st and 50th Battalions were granted long after the disbandment of the Calgary Rifles in the post-WW I reorganization of the Militia, and those honours that were awarded went directly to the perpetuating units of those CEF Battalions, including the Calgary Regiment, Calgary HIghlanders, and South Alberta Regiment.

Bugle Horns, Crossbelts and Whistles

As described above, the whistle and buglehorn came to be of great importance in tactical control of troops. Movement in extended order was difficult to control by voice alone, and the whistle came to be used. The whistles, carried on the cross belts of Sergeants and Officers, were carried throughout the 20th Century by Rifle Regiment NCOs and Officers. In ceremonial dress (which many 103rd Officers and NCOs owned), a cross belt with whistle on the front was worn (the whistle was secured by a chain, which was held in the mouth of a silver lion’s head attached to the upper portion of the cross belt.) The rear of the cross belt was a cartridge pouch. In service dress, whistles were also sometimes worn on the officer’s Sam Browne equipment, which was blackened rather than the normal brown leather worn by all other officers.

The buglehorn, known in Rifle Regiments simply as a “horn”, were used by the buglers of rifle platoons and companies, and the calls were used in the same way as bugle calls in line infantry units. By the modern era, these were not used tactically in the field but only for ceremonial. In a rifle regiment, these calls were also referred to as “horns.”


The slope arms movement (dispensed with in the Canadian Army with the adoption of the FN Rifle) was never used by Rifle Regiments as it was seen as unnecessary, fatigue inducing, and served to make a man conspicuous. Rifle Regiments instead carry arms “at the trail.” Sloping Arms was originally done by pike armed soldiers, and adopted by musket armed troops to keep the muzzle of the weapon pointed in a safe direction when on the march.

Rifle Regiments never use the command ‘attention’is, and Riflemen always “Stand Easy” to avoid fatigue. They use the special drill command “Look To Your Front” (or alternately, “Stand To Your Front”) On this precautionary command, Riflemen come to the At Ease position, and when the executive of the command is given (usually Platoon, Guard, Company, Battalion, or the name of the unit, as appropriate), they would come to Attention. Drill was done in this way to instill into all the need to be alert at all times.

Swords were rarely fixed in action by rifle regiment because the flash of their blades could give the bearers away and because it lessened the accuracy of the rifle; for that reason Rifle Regiments in the 20th Century also did not fix swords on ceremonial occasions.

The traditional role of reconnaissance or as security troops required soldiers to march fast, and occasionally at the double time. This was carried on in the 20th Century by the Rifle Regiment’s pace on parade of 140 paces per minute (line infantry march at 120 and Highland units at 112) For ceremonial march pasts, Rifle Regiments actually march in both quick and double time (actually 180 beats per minute).

Carrying rifles at the trail has been alluded to above; while marching is done with the weapon at the trail, when the troops are halted on ceremonial parades, the rifles are automatically returned to the Order Arms position without a command being given, again stressing the respect given to individual soldiers by not making them wait for drill commands while holding heavy weapons in uncomfortable positions.

The rifle was also carried in the Carry (or “Cradle”) position when on sentry duty, which leaves the rifle ready for instant use, unlike the Slope Arms used by line infantry. There has also been a March At Ease position, with the weapon slung over the right shoulder, muzzle down to protect it from rain.

Soldier with his rifle at the "trail"

Soldier with his rifle at the “trail”

Rifle carried at the “slope”

Rank and Uniforms

The position of Lance Corporal did not exist in the British Rifle Brigade, and any man paid as a Lance Corporal wore two stripes and was referred to as Corporal. Rifle Brigade NCOs also wore rank badges on one arm only, so they could not be easily seen by the enemy.

The old Rifle Regiments had a noteworthy informality; the 60th Regiment and the Rifle Brigade did not use the word “sir” on parade except when addressing the Commanding Officer, and in the mess Christian names were used for officers of all rank; in fact, badges of rank in these units was not even worn on mess uniform.

Rifle Regiments were among the first British troops to adopt camouflage methods, using green jackets and black buttons to blend in with their surroundings. The tradition continued in Rifle Regiments in the 20th Century by using black buttons (all of the same size so that missing buttons could easily be replaced, rather than line infantry uniforms with different size buttons on pockets, epaulettes, and tunic fronts) and badges (the 103rd Calgary Rifles were no exception to this). Rank badges were also in black. Many of these uniform traditions carried over to the new khaki Service Dress uniforms adopted by the Canadian Army in 1903. All leather equipment was also to be in black for Rifle Regiments, including shoes, belts, Sam Browne belts, etc.

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