history, new military technologies have often outpaced tactics.
From the mid 1800s, infantry massed together for command and
control purposes became increasingly exposed to accurate and
concentrated firepower from new weapons such as muskets with
rifled barrels and machine guns. By the Second World War tactics
had evolved to defeat these technologies. Tactical command was
decentralized and soldiers dispersed into small groups.
the Second World War, primarily armed with bolt action rifles,
were generally not trained to shoot on the move at long
ranges. At shorter ranges firing was generally from the hip.
Very late in the war British infantry manuals outlined a method
for firing the rifle form the shoulder on the move, but there is
no photographic evidence of it being done. When fired on,
soldiers found cover and returned aimed fire. This was
accomplished by securing the rifle stock in the shoulder and
bringing the sights level with the eyes (as shown at right). It
was not practical to move from place to place with the rifle in
this position, and thus soldiers had to find a balance between
mobility and bringing the weapon to bear quickly.
of semi-automatic rifles during the war brought about changes in
tactics, including the ability to return fire immediately upon
taking enemy fire, but British, Canadian and other Commonwealth
troops did not receive "self-loading" or semi-automatic weapons
until after 1945.
armed with assault rifles, maximize their increased firepower by
using “ready” positions in which the weapon can be quickly
transitioned from movement to aimed fire. Canadian individual
battle drills with the FN C1A1 (the semi-automatic rifle that
equipped the Army from the late 1950s to the late 1980s)
actually called for the soldier to fire two rounds from the hip
as the first reaction to enemy contact. In other words, unlike
in the Second World War, they were expected to shoot on the
In “low-ready” position the butt of the rifle is in the
shoulder, both hands are in a firing position, and the muzzle of
the rifle is pointed down. At right, Canadians carry the C7A2
rifle on "patrol slings" which enable the weapon to be held in
the low ready position.
In a “high-ready”
position the weapon is still under the arm and both hands grasp
the weapon under control, but the muzzle is pointed up.
Both styles of
carry permit the rifle to be quickly brought level with the eyes
so the weapon can be aimed and fired, or fired instinctively
without aiming if the situation demands it.
Images of ready carry are so common today that when film-makers
or artists depict Second World War soldiers doing the same
thing, mainstream audiences might not even notice.
For discerning audiences, though, it can be jarring, and the
inappropriate use of modern "tactical" weapons carry has crept
into Second World War reenactment as well.
So how did soldiers in the Second World War actually carry their weapons
in action, then?
One of the best discussions of how soldiers in
World War II actually carried their weapons weapons is on the webpage of
the 90th Infantry Division Preservation Group. The excellent work of
Charles McFarlane and Mike Ellis is highly recommended and
can be found here. British, Canadian and German sources also
reinforce the conclusions of the 90th.
Positions Utilized in Training
Soldiers in the Second World War required extensive training, including
two to four months of common, or 'basic', training followed by
additional instruction in a specific trade – infantry, armour,
artillery, etc. It was here that soldiers learned to handle weapons,
first by doing ceremonial style drill and later by using them in the
All the major armies in the Second World War
taught variations on these various weapons drills into individual
soldiers. While they were not used in a tactical sense, as in the 19th
Century when weapons had to be muzzle-loaded and fired as a unit, the
drills still helped soldiers learn teamwork and shaped individuals into
a greater cohesive unit. The drills were not used in battle, but many of
them became 'muscle memory' and clearly influenced how troops carried
their weapons, both in action and when at rest.
Order arms is a resting position used in
parade ground drill, but it's possible that this created muscle memory
that affected how soldiers stood with their weapons in casual or
Above, British soldiers
of the Guards Armoured Division on parade in Berlin in 1945.
The rifles are properly held in the Order Arms position.
Below, a Canadian soldier at rest. The rifle rests on the
ground, butt first, taking the weight off of the soldier's
body, while one hand holds it upright. His finger are kept
clear of the muzzle.
one-hand balance was used in a number of situations,
with the rifle carried in one hand at the point of
balance. This is commonly seen in photos of all
nationalities, and worth noting the Commonwealth armies
actually taught it as a drill command called Trail Arms
for use on long marches– and in infantry units with
Rifle Regiment traditions was even used to march past
the inspecting officer on ceremonial parades.
The Germans actually made great use of the trail
position in combat situations, and had a specific drill
movement – HINLEGEN, or lay down – that taught
the soldier how to take cover when carrying the weapon
in one hand. The website at dererstezug.com makes a
number of good points about the trail carry. All Germans
were taught to be right handed, and so photos show the
weapon invariably carried in the right hand. The
Hinlegen drill further reinforced the notion of the
dominant hand. Carrying the rifle at the trail is
comfortable and allows the soldier to swing the opposite
arm. Many assault rifles after the war were manufactured
with carrying handles at the point of balance. Most
importantly the bolt action rifles weren't expected to
be needed instantly. The infantry squad in the Second
World War depended on the firepower of the light machine
gun, and there was usually no perceived need for the
riflemen to carry the weapon “at the ready."
soldier at left is clearly in a field situation and
finds it comfortable to carry the rifle at the point of
balance in one hand.
German troops were trained to carry their
weapons 'at the trail' in combat areas, which made it easier to go to
ground when fired on (Hinlegen).
Troops were not trained to fire on the move in the Second World War, but
if fired on to get to cover and return aimed fire.
Another basic command taught was Sling Arms
which was the hanging of the weapon on the body with a carrying strap
("sling"). For drill purposes, the rifle was carried over a specific
shoulder with the other arm free. In the field, the weapon might be
slung on either shoulder or across the back. In the photo above, the
soldier has slung the weapon to keep his hands free so he can assist a
Slope Arms was the usually method for
soldiers to carry the weapon on formal parades. It was used in the First
World War on route marches, which were a common method of getting formed
units from place to place. In the Second World War, long administrative
moves were usually done by TCVs (Troop Carrying Vehicles) and shorter
marches were done with the troops dispersed in "Ack Ack" formation
(alternating colums on the road) and with weapons slung.
The 90th Division site notes that the
"Port Arms" position became muscle memory, particularly for American
troops, and is often seen in photos taken away from the drill ground as
it was both familiar, and a natural position for carrying the weapon.
Commonwealth soldiers are most often seen with a variation on Port Arms
when in combat zones.
These GIs, photographed in a combat zone,
carry weapons at the Port Arms
Positions Developed In Common Use
A number of carrying positions either evolved naturally in combat or
were taught. All carrying techniques were a trade-off between mobility
and ease of bringing the weapon to bear.
A natural evolution of the Port Arms was
what the 90th Division website calls a "low port arms" - the weapon is
carried loosely at
hip level, as shown by these Americans in the Normandy bocage.
U.S. troops demonstrated the "low port
troops in Groningen in April 1945 (left) and in Normandy in
the summer of 1944 (right). These soldiers carry the weapons
in a relaxed two-hand carry that probably naturally evolved
from the Port Arms. The weapon is held horizontally at hip
level. The weapon could be quickly fired from the hip,
without using the sights, a practice known as snap-shooting.
British infantry in Geilenkirchen,
soldier at right carries his rifle at the low port. This was one of the
seen weapons carries in contemporary training and battle photos and film
From the famous photo of Major David
Currie at St. Lambert sur Dives in the summer of 1944. These infantrymen
The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada carry the weapon at the
low port. This means of carrying the weapon
was comfortable, and provided the user with the ability to quickly bring
it up to either fire or use the bayonet.
Soldiers in the Second World War did NOT put the butt of the weapon into
the shoulder, as is done today, unless they were delivering
aimed fire with the rifle.
The closest method of carriage to the modern
ready carry is identified by the 90th Division page as the under-arm
hang, where the weapon is carried in both hands, generally at hip level,
with the muzzle at about 45 degrees from the horizontal. The weapon
could be brought to bear quickly, but since this carry was more
fatiguing than others it would have been used only when contact was
It can't be emphasized enough that Second
World War shooters were not trained to shoot on the move, which
ultimately affected the way they carried their weapons. We know that
"snap shooting" was sometimes taught, which was considered the
best way to quickly bring a weapon to bear at close range and fire
instinctively. However, the evidence shows that the weapon was not
carried with the butt in the shoulder in modern fashion, but at a 'low
port arms' position. The article below from a wartime journal mentions
the disadvantage of shooting from the hip (inaccuracy) which is balanced
against the greater speed of bringing the weapon to bear. The
illustration shows the snap-shooter carrying the weapon at a low port
arms, not with the butt in the shoulder.
Der Erste Zug
notes that the Germans also trained to do snap shooting (which they
called Hüftschuss), a point blank shot from the hip. This was
only done at extreme close quarters, as the bolt action rifle was
considered useless when fired without aiming, and the Hüftschuss
put the rifle in position to follow up with a bayonet thrust.
The 47th (London) Division of the British Army
developed a rigorous set of tactical drills they called Battle Drill.
The system was developed in the UK in 1942 and spread to the Canadian
Army by The Calgary Highlanders who were stationed nearby. A look at the
so-called Battle Drill Bible shows references to weapons carriage in
combat conditions. A two-handed carry was prescribed, and photos suggest
the most common method was a low style port arms with the ability to
These pictures show British and Canadians in
training and in the combat zone, note that even when about to assault a
house, the rifle is carried in a low port position and not put into the
The parade ground stance of Order Arms was not
done with loaded weapons. In the field, where weapons were of necessity
loaded, soldiers often cradled them under the arm for informal carriage,
letting the body and equipment bear some of the weight and keeping the
muzzle under tighter control. The Germans found this position also
permitted for quick transition to the Hüftschuss or snap shot.
(left) and German (right) soldiers using the cradle carry.
Smaller weapons like the M-1 Carbine, MP40, or
Sten machine carbine could be comfortably carried in one hand, leaving
the other hand free.
Soldiers in combat generally used methods that
worked regardless of what they were taught. The 90th Division page
suggests the Americans discouraged use of the low port in training since
holding the weapon horizontally was forbidden to maximize safety. GIs in
combat did it anyway, because it was comfortable and effective. All of
which is another reason not to believe the modern ready carries would
have been widely used. Modern weapons with pistol grips and patrol
slings are made for such a carry, the longer, heavier bolt action rifles
of World War II were not, nor did their training or tactics require them
to be carried in such a manner.
What They Didn't Do
The use of modern
weapons carriage has crept into many types of representations of wartime
infantry, including reenactment, film and television shows, etc. A Canadian
Heritage Minute depicting the D-Day landing, from which the screenshot
above comes, is an emotionally charged, historically accurate
presentation – marred only by the anachronistic weapons carriage that an
enthusiastic director or military advisor incorrectly suggested.
Soldiers in Hacksaw Ridge using the
anachronistic weapons carry, with the butt of the weapon in the
Soldiers simply didn't carry their weapons in
the Second World War the way soldiers to today, because they weren't
trained to, had no reason to, and wouldn't have found it intuitive.
Much of the information in this article is
also found in the YouTube video below: