By Jim Tate
To quote the English philosopher Dr. Samuel Johnson, “I would have a man great in great things and elegant in little things.” This essay deals with one of those little things that we should be doing elegantly.
In the reenacting world everyone says they know how to double ranks. But if everyone knows this basis move, why is it that commanders are so reluctant to use it? If truth be known, the practice of two ranks turning to the right and doubling into four abreast is a much neglected skill in the reenacting world. This article endeavors to explain this maneuver and show how any company can be comfortable and accomplished in this movement.
The army manuals of the time are surprisingly vague on the art of doubling. In Casey’s manual, it is described in the School of the Soldier (Lesson III para. 362-364). This paragraph doubles a single rank into two ranks. However, it only says the even numbered men will turn to the right, and step quickly to the right side of the odd numbered man in front of them.
Casey’s Manual treats doubling from two ranks into a column of four abreast in the School of the Company (Lesson Fourth Article I. para. 137- 143). Again, there is little detail describing how the even numbered men move to the right of their odd numbered partners. The only reference to this action is to refer to School of the Soldier (S.S. para. 363). Gilham’s Manual is virtually word-for-word the same as Casey’s Manual on these maneuvers.
Given that the principal drill manuals of the era provide little detail on how to double the ranks, I am offering my interpretation of the practical means of doubling and undoubling. This interpretation is based on over a decade of reenacting experience in ranks and several years of modern close order drill.
The most common Reenactor method to double ranks is to have the even numbered men attempt to double in one overly large step, only to lose their balance and stumble against their comrades. It looks awkward and is executed in a sloppy manner. Veteran soldiers who were performing this maneuver several times a day would have proceeded in a very direct and efficient manner. I believe there is a more realistic way to double and undouble ranks.
The process of doubling can be broken down into 2 steps.
Step 1: At the command “Right Face”; the front-rank soldiers execute a right face in place. At the same time the rear rank turns to the right and takes a ½ step to their right. This half step opens the distance between the ranks enough to allow for the #2 men to move along side their #1 partner.
Step 2: The #2 soldiers (both front and rear rank) take a sidestep to their right and a step forward along side their #1 partner.
The end result is a rank of four men. From the left of this rank you have the front rank #1, the front rank #2, the rear rank #1 and the rear rank #2. The execution should be effortless and unrushed as befits well-drilled, regular army soldiers.
To undouble the column and return to the line formation is a 3-step process.
Step 1: At the command “Front” the #1 men turn in place to their left. The #2 men (both front and rear) turn to their left and at the same time take a half step to their left. This half step places them in the place of their line position and slightly behind their #1 partner.
Step 2: The #2 men take a step forward to fill the gap between the #1 men.
Step 3: The entire rear rank takes a step forward to close on the front rank to the proper 13 inch spacing. Failure to perform Step 3 will place the rear rank too far behind the front rank to shoot safely over their shoulders.
A left face would be accomplished in a similar fashion with the men turning to the left. The rear rank will always take a half step to the rear (for a left face, the half step would be to their left) to open a space for the #1 men to double along side their #2 partner.
The drill manuals never explained what would happen during an actual battle when the unit took casualties. As the ranks closed the casualty gaps to either the left or right, the numbering of the files would obviously change. Either the unit would have to regularly re-count itself or an expedient method would have to be used to efficiently change from line to column and back to line formation.
I suspect the companies used a “ripple down” action in the heat of battle. After casualties had caused a break down in the original numbering system; the soldiers could still perform their maneuvers. The numbering of the soldiers could be accomplished by simply facing to the right.
At the command “Right Face”, the first set of four comrades in battle would be able to recognize from their relative positions which numbers they were. If you turn right and only the 1st sergeant is in front of you, you must be a #1, you would stand still. The man behind the #1 must be a #2. He would double to his right. The second set of 4 comrades takes their cue from the set in front of them. The third set of 4 waits for the second set to double and then takes their doubling action. All the rear rank men should know whether they are in the front or rear rank! They would automatically take the half step to their right as they faced to the right.
The effect is a succession of doubling actions by each set of 4 soldiers. It is not very neat or uniform, but it gets the column formed in a very quick order. After the column is formed each man knows from his position his number.
This “ripple down” action can be used to expedite the counting process. Just command “Right Face” and the men will set their number as the doubling action progresses down the column.
The only caution I would give to officers in using this ripple down action is to pause a few seconds before moving the column forward. Allow the ripple down action to reach the end of the column before marching off. This delay avoids the confusion of men trying to determine their numbers as they are marching.
I must reiterate that nothing in any manual (the principal drill manuals are Casey’s and Gilham’s) provides this detail. However, common sense and practical ergonomic knowledge would lead one to suspect that this method was probably used in the army units.
You are encouraged to try and practice this method, and especially the “ripple down” technique, until it is second nature for all the men in your unit.