Frequently Asked Questions about the Lowly and Peculiar Piling Swivel
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.
Henry Reed, "Naming of Parts," lines 712
Henry Reed's much-anthologized poem of World War II,
"Naming of Parts,"
concerns a British sergeant-instructor delivering a lecture to his green recruits on the
various parts of a rifle. The progression of these lessons is as amusing as they are impeccably
English: beginning with proper cleaning of the weapon; succeeded by the grocery-list naming of
parts; to be followed the next day by 'what to do after firing.' Conspicuously missing is a
lesson in actual firing. Reed based the poem on his experiences in the Royal Army
Ordnance Corps from 1941-42. Early in the conflict, the British troops are under-equipped and
poorly supplied: they haven't even been issued shoulder slings to carry their rifles. (The
U.S. Lend-Lease Act was not passed until March of 1941, and would supply Britain with
ammunition and armament). Most of the parts named in the lesson should be more or less
familiar: the sling (with corresponding upper and lower swivels);
the safety-catch; the bolt, the breech, and the cocking-piece. (Here is a
helpful explanation of the action
of Enfield rifles.) Even the enigmatic
"point of balance" is mechanically self-explanatory. The N.C.O. narrating the poem,
however, is forced to demonstrate using an older,
outmoded rifle: his model retains the superfluous piling swivel.
What's a piling swivel?
A piling swivel (called a stacking swivel in the United States, or Aufstellbügel in Germany) is
a metal, C-shaped bracket, mounted on the nosecap toward the end of a rifle barrel, just behind the bayonet mount
The piling swivel is no. 47, center right.
What was the piling swivel used for?
The introduction of firearms to warfare eventually must have necessitated the question,
"What do I do with my harquebus/musket/rifle when I'm not using it?" The answer to this was the
"piling of arms." Anyone who has seen a movie about the Napoleonic campaigns or the American
Revolution may remember seeing soldiers' weapons neatly stacked together into a teepee shape,
bayonets crossed at the peak. Armies stacked (or "piled") their rifles while they were at rest, keeping
them clean with their finicky actions above the mud of the battlefield, ready to be grabbed up at a moment's notice
from the American Civil War, photographed by Mathew Brady, circa 1864-65). Early firearms were hooked together by
the ramrod or bayonet. On more modern rifles a piling or "stacking" swivel, attached high on the
barrel, facilitated the making of a "pile" by allowing two or three rifles to interlock while another
was leaned against them.
Stacking rifles at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, 1957.
How, exactly, does one "pile" arms?
Chapter four of the 1935 British
Manual of Elementary Drill (All Arms)
(London: His Majesty's Stationary Office, 1935: 55-56) instructs:
67. Piling and unpiling of arms.
1. Piling Arms.
The front rank will turn about, placing the butts of their rifles between their feet.
The odd numbers will turn the magazines of their rifles towards the right flank of the squad,
the even numbers towards the left flank of the squad, at the same time the rear rank will take
a pace forward, turning the magazines of their rifles to the rear.
The odd numbers of the front rank will seize the rifles of the even numbers with the
left hand crossing the muzzles, magazines turned outwards, at the same time raising the
piling swivels with the forefinger and thumb of both hands.
The even numbers of the front rank will resume the position of attention.
The even numbers of the rear rank will incline their muzzles to the front and place their
rifles under their right arms, guards uppermost, at the same time seizing the piling swivel
with the forefinger and thumb of the left hand. They will then link swivels through the
crossed muzzles of the front rank, lower the butts to the ground, placing them six inches
to the right of and in line with their right toes.
The odd numbers of the rear rank, and supernumerary rank (if any), will place their rifles
perpendicularly against the pile nearest to them and resume the position of attention.
Ranks will step back one pace and turn to the right flank of the squad, i.e. the front rank
turns to the left and the rear rank to the right.
i. If ranks have been changed the squad, etc. will be renumbered before arms are piled.
ii. If piling arms on parade the command FallOut will be given after StandClear. On again
falling in the men will place themselves as they stood before falling out.
2. Unpiling Arms.
Ranks will turn inwards and take a pace forward.
The whole will seize their rifles at the band with the right hand.
The whole will incline their butts inwards until the swivels become unlinked, and return to
the order, at the same time the original left-hand man of the front rank will raise his
disengaged arm to an angle of 135 degrees, the rear rank looking in his direction.
Taking the time from the original left-hand man of the front rank, who will cut his hand
to his side, the front rank will turn about and the rear rank will turn their head and eyes
to the front and take a pace to the rear.
(Chapter four, incidentally, also contains instructions for the
command. See also
Infantry Drill Regulations
from Tactics & Technique of Infantry, Basic, 1942 .)
Souvenir postcard of stacked arms at Camp Dodge, Iowa, 1919.
Which in our case we have not got?
The feature of a piling swivel was discontinued from the standard-issue British rifle after the
Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE)
Number One Mark III
during the latter years of World War I. The rationale for the swivel's retirement were the
cost, time and labor saved by its elimination, but also the accelerating tactics of modern warfare,
whereby soldiers in the trenches could no longer afford the luxury of storing their weapons in a neat,
interlocked stack or "pile," nor the time to untangle them. Inclusion resumed following the
first World War, before finally being dropped altogether in the late 1930's.
Because the sergeant's rifle in
"Naming of Parts"
boasts a piling swivel, but his recruits "have not got," it can be surmised the
instructor is using a model No1 MkIII or older, while his men possess the newer, redesigned
Rifle Number Four,
which was not fully under production until 1941. (It could also be argued from the text of the poem
that they haven't yet been issued their weapons, at all.) Still, usage of the piling swivel varied among
the different services, even from soldier to soldier, who could install or remove the part as needed.
Perhaps Reed's desire was simply to draw attention to the fact that the instructor's rifle is meant
only for drilling, while the recruits' are actually intended to be wielded in combat. Today,
enthusiasts of the Lee Enfield and other historic rifles may fit a piling swivel onto models for
which it was never more than a provision, for detail, accuracy, and a collector's sense of completion.
And, despite the fact that the pace and practice of war have far outdistanced the utility of piling arms,
modern infantry drill manuals still retain parade exercises like the one reproduced above.
Henry Reed's piling swivel is a small but pivotal footnote to English literature and the history of
warfare. It owes its existence to the rigorous discipline and mechanical drilling of soldiers,
dating back to even to ancient times, when the legions of Rome precisely piled spears outside their
tents. Mr. Reed seems to have had more than some disdain for such rehearsing and regulation.
"Naming of Parts"
is not an anti-war poem, per se. "It is not a bitter satire or protest poem, but a short parody"
(Peter Childs, The Twentieth Century in Poetry: A Critical Survey. London: Routledge, 1999, 120).
Reed isn't reporting on the deaths of his comrades
from the front lines, or protesting the dehumanizing effects of modern warfare.
Rather, "Naming of Parts" and the other Lessons of the War are lyric "pro-Henry" poems,
in which Reed can continue to mimic the sergeants-instructor of his basic training, where he
must have witnessed the butchering of his beloved mother tongue on a daily basis. Imagine
ordering a poet to concentrate his considerable talents on the rote memorization of rifle parts,
or to limit himself to a handful of nouns for describing a landscape. The duelling voices in the poems, as
Vernon Scannell notes, represent the 'divided self
of the gentle, creative man compelled to adopt the role of the fighter,' in an environment of
'sexual longing and deprivation.' Reed ingeniously discloses to the reader where his loyalties really lie,
gaily turning each dull lecture into a lesson
about love and sex, relentlessly asserting his superiority in the killing fields of simile,
turn-of-phrase, and double-entendre.
The simple piling swivel endures as a metaphor for Reed himself
a Hardy scholar, journalist, and homosexual who finds himself unwittingly called up for military service.
Although he ultimately withdrew to
and contributed to the war effort's vital codebreaking, as a lowly private daydreaming through
his instruction on the parade ground he must have felt a certain sympathy for that small,
impotent apparatus for which no one any longer had any use.
Many thanks to Professor Charles R. "Skip" Stratton, author of
Enfield Rifle Research
for responding to my frequent questions about the curious career of the piling swivel.
More Piling of Arms:
| M-1 stacking swivel in Jaws (YouTube)
| Racks & Stacks
The Search to Properly Pile Arms