Roman Basic Training v Modern British Army Basic training

A common phrase used during my days as a crow at Depot Para in Aldershot was “Train Hard, Fight easy” and from research, the Romans were no different.

From studying the Roman Army you can see where the British Army adopted its training and doctrine.

The first training objective for all new recruits is how to march as a body of men. The historian Vegetius tells us that it was seen as of greatest importance to the Roman army that its soldiers could march at speed in formation.

Any army which would be split up by stragglers at the back or soldiers trundling along at differing speeds would be vulnerable to attack.

Those who have attended one of my bootcamps will understand why you were required to pass a selection process before being considered.

Fom day one of recruit training the Roman soldier was trained to march in line at the same pace and to keep the army a compact fighting unit on the move.

One of the Romans most famous formations was the Tortoise (testudo). Testudo is the Latin word for “tortoise”.

The soldiers in front and sides interlocked their shields. The soldiers in the back lines placed their shields over their heads to form a protective “shell” over top of the men.

For this, we are told by Vegetius, during the summer months the soldiers were to be marched twenty Roman miles (18.4 miles/29.6 km), which had to be completed in five hours.

In the British Army we call this a TAB Tactical Advance to Battle.

Vegetius mentions running, long and high jump and carrying heavy packs.

During the summer swimming was also a part of training. If their camp was near the sea, a lake or river, every recruit was made to swim.

Next in line, after the training for marching and fitness, came the training of handling weapons. The correc use of the gladius and scutum.

For this they primarily used wickerwork shields and wooden swords. Both the shields and the swords were made to standards which made them twice as heavy as the original weapons. Evidently it was thought, that if a soldier could fight with these heavy dummy weapons, he would be twice as effective with the proper ones.

Train hard, fight easy

Dummy weapons were at first employed against heavy wooden stakes, about six foot high, rather than against fellow soldiers. Against these wooden stakes the soldier trained the various moves, strikes and counter-strikes with the sword.

Only once the recruits was deemed able enough in fighting against the stakes, were they assigned in pairs to train in individual combat.

This more advanced stage of combat training was called armatura, an expression which first was used in the gladiatorial schools, which proves that some of the methods used in training soldiers was indeed borrowed from the training techniques of gladiators.

The weapons used in the armatura were, though still of wood, of the same, or similar weight as the original service weapons.

Weapons training was deemed of such importance that weapons instructors generally received double rations, whereas soldiers who didn’t achieve adequate standards received inferior rations until they had proven in the presence of a high-ranking officer that they had attained the demanded standard. (inferior rations: Vegetius states that their wheat rations were substituted with barley)

After completing the initial training with the sword, the recruit was to master the use of the spear, the pilum. For this the wooden stakes were put to use again as targets. The pilum used for practice was, once again, twice the weight of the regular weapon.

The Modern day army being live firing tests.

Vegetius notes that weapons training was given such importance that in some places roofed riding schools and drill halls were built to allow for training to continue throughout the winter.

Like my time at Depot Para, Physical conditioning and skill at arms was the bread and butter of soldiering. Without getying to grips with them you would not last long or be able to progress forward.

The Roman Army recruits were progressively trained to a high standard as you can see from the following. The British Army are no different.

Roman army training objectives.



Cutting down trees

Carrying heavy packs

Vaulting onto horses–mounting and dismounting from both the right and the left with their weapons drawn or holding their pila. Wooden horses were used until the recruits became proficient. Then real horses were used

Running in full armor

Digging defensive ditches

Erecting ramparts and palisades

Other camp construction activities

Taking care of equipment

Erecting tents

Giving first aid

British Army training objectives

Attestation (a formal ceremony to join the British Army), kit issue, administration, Drill calling out the time until you pass off the parade square at week 4. weapons training and Exercise Icebreaker (teaching Exercise) – your first night in the field. Exercise first fence.

Military skils aptitude tests.




Military Swim Test.

Nuclear and biological warfare

Progressive physical development. Running, upper body conditioning and Tabbing. ( running and fast walking with equipment.

Basic wales

Introduction to blank Firing at section, Platoon and company level.

Training cast how to TAB in South Africa.

Advanced Wales

Bringing it all together with Live Firing at section, Platoon and company level.

My final training test on Salisbury plan 1989 not knowing back then I would be back 30 years later advising on 1917.

Physical tests P company

The Author during his early Basic training day in Depot Para Aldershot.

Training of conscripts during the Boulogne camp 1805

“Dear Father and Mother  I am writing these lines to find out how you are, hoping that like me you are well for the time being.

We have drill twice a day. I have arrived in Boulogne, and as for the victuals it’s very dear The English come and say hello every day, they’ve done for six of our men but they’ve lost two ships.”  

This letter, dated November 28th, 1805, from Private Joseph Goupil of the 46th Infantry Regiment to his parents, neatly sums up what everyday life was like for the men stationed in the coastal camps. From the summer of 1803 to 1805, the temporary camps were transformed into permanent military installations which acted as army training and instruction centres.

Three intakes of conscripts from Years IX, X and XI were trained there, representing 30,000 men a year, plus 60,000 in Year XII. The camps also gave men who had served longer an opportunity to improve their skills.

Not many soldiers have left a detailed account of the experience of their first months of army life. Although some memoirs talk of the induction period,  they pass quickly over the time spent in training.

When they do so, it is often to say that conditions seemed “a bit harsh” to begin with, “among old soldiers who stank”.   But the descriptions are often mixed with fond nostalgia, as with the story of Marbot and his moustache.  

Many recruits mention intensive training, but within a few weeks they had learnt the drills and how to handle a musket.  

The discovery of soldiering, and the instruction that came with it, was not always easy for conscripts, especially as their army life was often involuntary rather than chosen.

The training of recruits started the day after their arrival at the regiment, once they had been issued their kit.


Napoleon believed that simply bringing men together was not enough to “turn them into soldiers; only drill, instruction and skill truly do that.”  So conscripts joining a regiment did not become soldiers until they had been given strict instruction and rigorous training.

For the Emperor and his contemporaries, it took three months for an infantryman to become effective in battle,  and rather longer for a cavalryman: the minimum instruction time for them was four to five months.  

At Boulogne they had two years to perfect their skills. The formal framework for instruction during the Empire was established under the Consulate.

The overhaul of the existing system was based on the decree of 1 Vendémiaire Year XII (September 24th, 1803), which reorganised the regiments and the general framework of the army. It instituted the regimental depot as the headquarters of the regiment and the place where soldiers were trained, under the command of a major.  

Second-in-command of the regiment, this officer was responsible for keeping the depot in good military, administrative and financial order, and for training recruits. He appointed the instructing officer (a battalion or squadron commander or captain), who in turn commanded NCOs (sergeants and corporals) and private-instructors. Commanding officers were responsible for deciding soldiers’ timetables, which led to considerable differences between regiments.

Instructors had a whole set of official ordinances to help them organise their training of recruits. Inherited from the 18th century, these regulations were the last links in a long chain going back to the Enlightenment.  

They marked the triumph of the Prussian spirit in the French army: precise manoeuvres and automatic movements ensured that soldiers in battle would not have to think.

For many officers who had emerged during the Revolution or early Consulate, Boulogne was an opportunity to get to grips with the Rules and Regulations for the Field Exercise and Manoeuvres of the Infantry of August 1st, 1791, and to brush up their soldiering skills. From the Revolutionary Wars onward, the 1791 were subject to critical review and adapted to the realities of warfare.  

Much thought was given to their suitability during the Boulogne Camp, not least by General Meunier, who started to revise them. The resumption of hostilities put an end to these endeavours, however, and the 1791remained in effect throughout the Empire period.

At Boulogne, marshals’ instructions emphasized the importance of these manoeuvres and insisted on strict compliance with the rules and regulations.  The manuals for both infantry and cavalry approached their subject matter in the same way. Recruits were initially trained individually in the School of the Soldier.

For infantry, this meant marching drill, arms drill and basic movements. For cavalry, it covered seat on the horse, work on the longe, work mounted, singly and by squadron, and at the gallop. These drills were then performed in increasingly large groups. In the School of the Platoon, the same material was applied to basic groups while introducing formations and “manual exercises”, or musket drill.

The School of the Battalion or Squadron focused on formations and their manoeuvres. The final stage consisted of full regimental manoeuvres (in columns and lines, plus the transition to battle order), and brigade movements.

During initial instruction, new recruits were drilled three or four times a day. One reason was to fill their time in order to prevent morale-sapping boredom. In the absence of gymnastics, forced marches of 30 to 40 kilometres in full battle order were also designed to harden up recruits as quickly as possible and prepare them for the rigours and hardship of military life on campaign.

After a few days’ instruction, the most able or the quickest to grasp the drills were sorted from the rest.

The former became first-class recruits, the latter second class, or even third class for the least able. The first-class recruits would drill only once or twice a day, while those in the second and third class would continue to have three intensive sessions. To encourage third-class recruits to make progress, they were deprived of “the honour of doing service”. They were assigned to all the chores, “without the same preventing them from attending drill”, until they were sufficiently well-drilled to move up to second class.  

Instruction was based entirely on the endless and systematic repetition of simple movements that every soldier could learn. Combat in the 19th century was structured to the extreme: soldiers were merely a fragment of space, a piece in the line. They had to unlearn their individuality and their own movements in order to take their place in the column and rank.

That is why position was the first thing conscripts were taught. They learnt how to stand in rank without moving for 15 minutes, then how to march in step in order to perform basic manoeuvres.

In 1806 General Duhesme drew a number of conclusions about infantry rules and regulations from his experience at Boulogne. In particular, he criticised the over-mechanical approach of the Prussian school, adopted to excess in France.

“Recruits were tormented for six months”, he wrote, “their chests often damaged in order to teach them the first position, how to march in step and how to bear arms; every morning the poor devils were kept motionless or in awkward positions for two or three hours at a time, enough to put off even those keenest on the military life.”  

It is not hard to imagine the suffering of conscripts that lies behind that observation. They had to repeat the drills over and over again in order to achieve the perfect movements or ideal positions prescribed in the manual. Jean-Baptiste Boisson, writing in 1809, recounts how “horrific training” began the day after his arrival at 

2nd Light Infantry Regiment. “The NCOs allowed us hardly any respite. We had to repeat the ‘Attention’ and ‘At ease’ positions a hundred times.” He goes on: “We had to learn the march step, two feet in length from one heel to the other, seventy-six paces per minute; that’s what the sergeant kept yelling at us. We were also initiated into the mysteries of the oblique step”.  

The instruction concerned not only positions but also movements, first singly, then in increasingly large groups. Soldiers had to move together precisely and quickly, and so had to relearn how to march the army way. “The men are told a thousand times to stretch the calf, to skim the ground with the foot. They have to learn the balancing step, which makes them clumsier than before.

A recruit who has often journeyed several hundred leagues to join his regiment may be supposed to have some idea of how to march.”  The principle was that as the infantry rarely became involved in bayonet fighting, the line had to hold. So everyone had to march together in order to create a mass effect that would sap the enemy’s morale and break them.  

These constant drills, not very different from dance steps, transformed the body, developing the musculature and giving soldiers an erect posture, unlike any other, that would remain with them for life.  But when evening came, as Jean-Baptiste Boisson admitted, “we were done in”.

The second stage of instruction was learning how to use the 1777-pattern musket. This involved bending the future combatant’s will to the weapon that would become his constant companion and the guarantor of his conduct on the battlefield.

The principal purpose of these drills was to automate movements. There was no time to think in the heat of battle: soldiers had to load and fire their weapons automatically.

The first drills – marching and mounting guard – were conducted with the weapon unloaded. It was heavy on the arms for young men unused to handling a musket nearly five-foot-long (over six with the bayonet) and weighing nearly ten pounds. Montesquiou-Fezensac, who joined the 59th Line Regiment in 1804, recounts that once he had settled into his barracks at the camp in Montreuil, he started to “learn the drill”, which he found “rather hard, the musket seeming heavy for lack of practice”.

 The barrack-room was where the recruits learnt how to take care of their weapon (along with much else, like ranks, and how to behave, and chores, and how to maintain their uniform). They had to learn how to assemble and disassemble it, and the name of each part. This drill, which had to be performed within a reasonable time, was of paramount importance for the soldier. He was responsible for his weapon, and especially for ensuring that it worked properly in all weathers.

Only when the soldier had mastered his musket, including during foot drills, did he learn how to shoot. Loading was performed on 12 commands and with 18 movements.

The solider had to be able to load as quickly as possible, and also be familiar with the faster reloading procedures used in battle. For the instructors, constant repetition of these movements was needed in order to perfectly assimilate them.

Napoleon, like many army instructors, insisted on the absolute need for soldiers to know how to shoot, even if not always in harmony with their comrades. Shooting drills were frequent in the coastal camps, both at targets and in more or less large-scale formation.  Although many conscripts were familiar with firearms, some confessed to being shaken, on their first drill, by the noise of so many detonations.  

A painful process

One might think, reading the authors of memoirs, that induction into the regiment was an educational experience, and that it made French soldiers superior to their opponents. However, the image conveyed by legend did not tell the whole story.

During those first few weeks in the regiment, everything combined to make the new recruits lose their bearings and their identity. In addition, the instructors responsible for knocking the conscripts into shape were often veterans with better martial than educational skills, and an already well-developed esprit de corps.

The following extract is taken from the book, “Waterloo, The French perspective”, by Andrew W. Field:

Corporal Canler was only seventeen years old when he fought at Waterloo, though he had volunteered for the army four years before. He was in the 28th de ligne, the second regiment in Bourgeois brigade. He also gives us an exciting account of the attack:

“Soon there was a terrible duet executed by these two batteries that were composed of nearly two hundred guns; the balls, bombs and shells, passed whistling over our heads. After a half hour wait, Marshal Ney gave the order to attack and to take by assault the English battery; three beats on the drum sufficed to get the corps ready to march; we were formed up in colonne-serrée par bataillon; I remembered that adjutant-major Hubant, charged with forming the divisions, an old soldier who had taken part in all the campaigns of the Empire, was preoccupied and very pale. Finally, the columns were formed. Général Drouet d’Erlon took position in the middle of his army corps, and with a strong and clear voice pronounced these few words: ‘Today it is necessary to vanquish or die!’

The cry of “Vive l’Empereur!” left all our mouths in reply to this short speech, and, with ‘forme au bras’ [ordered arms], to the sound of drums beating the charge, the columns moved off and directed themselves towards the English guns without firing a single musket shot.”

As they advanced the Grand Battery continued to fire over their heads at the few, obscure targets that were available. Although the columns were in dead ground to some of the allied guns for part of their advance, the amount and accuracy of the enemy’s fire inevitably increased as they slowly climbed the gradual slope, and casualties began to fall more frequently.

Lieutenant Martin :
“Death crept up on us from every side; entire ranks disappeared under the caseshot, but nothing was able to stop our march; it continued with the same order as before, with the same précision. The dead were immediately replaced by those who followed; the ranks, although becoming fewer, remained in good order.”

Despite the increasing casualties as more allied guns came into play, the French soldiers marched on.

The skills acquired after two years of drill truly came into their. The pace of instruction accelerated from 1806. By the end of the Empire, with the machinery of conscription running full tilt, recruits did not always have time to get properly acclimatized to the business of soldiering. Some were thrown into battle without uniform, hardly knowing how to manoeuvre or handle their musket. Nevertheless, the esprit de corps forged in the camp at Boulogne lasted throughout the Empire and beyond, deep into the 19th century, enshrined in memoirs which helped to create and perpetuate the imperial myth.

Vist PB Military Technical Adviser Facebook for more

Theatrical Firearms Explained.

In the wake of the tragic events on the set of Rust, team PB thought it best write a short blog to highlight the difference between theatrical firearms, live rounds, blank rounds and SBR UTM (silent blank rounds ultimate training munitions)

Theatrical firearms (prop gun)

The term “prop gun” or Theatrical firearm includes a variety of weapons, including nonfunctioning or nonpractical weapons, like cap guns, BB guns, top venting blanks and fake guns constructed of wood, plastic or rubber. Soft and hard rubber are primarily used by stunt performer’s when carrying out hard demanding falls.

The term also can mean real weapons modified to fire only blank cartridges, in the UK we call them section 5 firearms or practical weapons and if fired at close range they can cause serious injuries and potentially kill if not closely monitored by proficient firearms professionals. 

How theatrical weapons work

When filming with semi- and fully automatic weapons like the AK47 or M4 that are gas-operated, which means the combustion gas from firing a round is what reloads the weapon, the barrel typically has a mechanism called a “restrictor.”

Restrictors function similarly to the blank-firing adapters (BFAs) used in the military which are deliberately coloured Yellow or Red for identification, except for the film world where the device is internal, rather than attached to the exterior of the muzzle.

Theatrical weapons have the restrictor down the barrel to conceal the fact that it is a blank firing weapon.

Devices like BFAs or restrictors do two things: they help prevent debris from escaping from the barrel through the muzzle when a blank round is fired and they help the weapon chamber another round by preventing the combustion gases from fully escaping the barrel.

But weapons that are not gas-operated, like revolvers, bolt operated rifles and muskets don’t require a restrictor to help chamber another round. Which means there is no physical barrier between the blank round fired and whatever the weapon is pointed at.

The image below demonstrates the amount of flash from a futuristic weapon which was actually a Colt revolver with plastic mouldings built around. Note the amount of flash.

Live rounds

A live round or cartridge is ammunition fed into the barrel of a fully functioning weapon that comprises of several parts: 

  • The casing (sometimes called a shell)
  • Propellant material (gunpowder) inside the shell
  • The percussion cap or percussion primer on the bottom of the cartridge. (Where the firing pin strikes)
  • The actual projectile (bullet) itself

The bullet is the part of the cartridge that flies out of the gun towards the target.

Blank rounds

Blanks are shell casings loaded with gunpowder. They lack the deadly bullet point, which is usually replaced with cotton or paper wadding.

When blanks are discharged, they create the sound of gunfire, and the gunpowder combusts, causing a muzzle flash. The force of firing a section 5 firearms provides the actor with real recoil and case ejection.

SBR UTM (silent blank rounds ultimate training munitions)

UTM’s Silent Blank Rounds (SBR) cycles the firearm, which provides realistic recoil and weapon function, including bolt or slide lock-back, yet with no noise or projectile.

With the silent blank rounds the piston is solid, when it’s driven forward the gas can’t escape, so the cartridge is silent with no flash. This action allows the cycling of the firearm in an enclosed space without concerns around noise or injury.

UTM’s pistol conversions prevent a live round from fully seating inside the barrel so incapable of firing a live round

Their blank weapon conversions for rifles feature an off-set firing pin, enabling the weapon to only shoot UTM’s rim-fire blank training ammunition.

Silent Blank rounds are ideal for close-up shots to the body or camera and can be fired directly at the head without any danger to the actor.

Live rounds are to never be on set at any stage.

Set protocols 

The use of firearms on set is subject to stringent safety standards. Specialists such as who provide weapons for use on film sets and advise on their safe use. 

Before weapons leave the armoury they’re test fired, cleaned and inspected. The weapon serial numbers are sent to the police authority who over sees all theatrical weapons used in the UK film and TV indindustry.

Every weapon on set must be accounted for and it is the armourers responsibility to know every weapon be it non practical or practical while on set. 

When on set and not required the practical weapons are concealed and constantly manned by the armourer until required.

Before being issued weapons a safety brief and training is provided highlighting important features of the weapon and the importance of trigger and muzzle discipline. 

Strikeback 2019

A demonstration of the danger a blank round can do is provided by firing a blank round into an orange or apple to provide a visual demonstration on the effects to skin. 

Before shooting a scene,  rehearsals are mostly carried  out ‘dry’ which means no blanks are loaded in the weapon.

Dry rehearsals Strikeback 2018

Ear and eye protection will be offered to crew within the set area and the armourers will ensure saftey distances for firing in close proximity are observed along with limiting the chances of hot ejected cases bouncing back to hit the actors. 

Strikeback 2018

Once ready to shoot the armourer will show weapons are clear to the actor and show him the blank rounds before being loaded.

Once the working parts are released forward and a round is chambered the safety catch is applied and the armourer will announce ‘Weapons Hot’ to everyone on set. 

If at any time the armourer observes something they feel is not safe before and during the shoot they will step in and stop everything until any safety issue is resolved. 

If a weapon misfires during the shoot the actor is instructed to simply play out the action until the director shouts cut then simply raise their hand and with the weapons barrel pointing towards the floor and the armourers will clear and inspect the weapon. 

If the weapon needs to be fired off for safety reasons, such as a black powder musket or test fired,  the armourer will notify all cast and crew by shouting ‘ fire in the hole’ before firing in a safe direction. 

Cast, stunts and extras are all instructed on the importance of not playing with weapons during breaks, leaving a weapon unattended or walking off set without handing it back to the armourer. 

Once filming has finished all weapons are accounted for and serials checked against their lists before being packed up and taken back to a secure location, cleaned ready for the next day.

Training Bootcamps

Most productions will invest and provide weapons and tactics training to everyone participating in the action scenes involving weapons.

1917 bootcamp 2019

Military Technical Advisers along with armourers will assess and train for what is required in the script to a high standard and preferably two to three days before the action is to take place.

Cast training for strikeback and Wrath of Man

Anyone deemed unsafe or not confident around weapons will be issued a non firing weapon. 

Bootcamps ensures everyone is fully briefed and confident in weapon handling and safety protocols beforehand which then only requires a ‘remind and revise’ before going on set. 

Theatrical firearms courses 

I have touched on such courses in the past and frequently asked if I run my own course. 

I run production financed training for the specific roles required for the production who hire my services to train cast, stunts and supporting artists who are paid to learn for the required role.

Room clearance drills.

There are numerous courses out there some good some over hyped and some very bad. Some lay claim being on their course will ensure you are picked for action roles over those who have not.

Some issue certificates as proof of attendance which are waved under an armourer and advisers nose to demand or stake claim to forgoing any training and being picked first to fire weapons.

Such claims are solely a sales pitch and untrue.

The following hurdles only apply.

1. The Director choses the look he requires. 

2.  The Armourer and the military advisor will assess and decide who is safe and able to fire a blank weapon on set.

3. Armourers weapons and procedures may be different to what your course provider taught you.

Allways remember. The armourers weapons so its their rules.

Such courses are a ‘nice to have’ and will help you better understand weapon safety but they will not turn you into an overnight expert nor will they bag you your big break. Skill fade will factor in once you leave a course no matter how long it lasts. 

No firearms courses are recognised by any governing body or production. No armourer or military advisor will accept firearms certificates or even previous military qualifications as an insurance of safety on set.

Finger on the trigger punishment during a bootcamp.

To end this blog,  armorers and military advisors teach and allways remind you the “three golden rules” of weapon handling, and it’s the same on a range as it is on a film or set. 

1. You always treat a weapon be it real or plastic as if it’s loaded.

2.  You never point a gun at another person.

3.  You always keep your finger off the trigger until you’re absolutely ready to fire. 

PB Military Technical Adviser for film and tv Ltd

Exciting Opportunities in the Film and TV industry

Team PB have more opportunities for the right people. (Open to Ex Armed Forces based in the UK only)

As more productions are gearing up the requirements for the company have increased so more quality Military Technical Advisers are required on the team.

1. Must have good availability.

2. Willing to travel world wide and for prolonged periods.

3. Physically fit (no pie eaters).

4. Ability to communicate and be respectful to others.

5. Good work ethics. 

Please read link for an insight to the job.

If you think you have what it takes send your CV and a current photograph to

Good luck.

IMDB “Paul Biddiss – IMDb”



Operation Dingo

Operation Dingo was not only the Fireforce concept writ large but the prototype for all the major Rhodesian airborne attacks on the external bases of Rhodesian African nationalist insurgents in the neighbouring territories of Mozambique and Zambia until such operations ceased in late 1979.

Fireforce as a military concept is a “vertical envelopment” of the enemy, with the 20mm cannon being the principle weapon of attack, mounted in an Alouette III K-Car, flown by the air force commander, with the army commander on board directing his ground troops deployed from G-Cars (Alouette III troop-carrying gunships and latterly Bell “Hueys” in 1979) and parachuted from DC-3 Dakotas. In support would be propeller-driven ground-attack aircraft and on call would be Canberra bombers, Hawker Hunter and Vampire jets.

On 23 November 1977, the Rhodesian Air Force and 184 SAS and Rhodesian Light Infantry paratroopers attacked 10,000 Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army cadres based at ‘New Farm’, Chimoio, 90 kilometres inside Mozambique. Two days later, the same force attacked 4,000 guerrillas at Tembué, another ZANLA base, over 200 kilometres inside Mozambique, north of Tete on the Zambezi River.

Estimates of ZANLA losses vary wildly; however, a figure exceeding 6,000 casualties is realistic. The Rhodesians suffered two dead, eight wounded and lost one aircraft. It would produce the biggest SAS-led external battle of the Rhodesian bush war.

Making a ghillie suit for a few seconds shot.

You see it for a few seconds on episode seven on Strike Back, but the hand made Ghillie suit took the Military Technical Adviser of the show two weeks to complete during filming the second block and while on recces for the third block of the series.

Was it worth it for just a few seconds in frame when production could have simply bought one off the shelf? A big fat yes!

Strike Back ep 7 season 8

First some History

Gille is a Scots Gaelic word for a young man or older boy who works as an outdoor servant. “Ghillie” is a mis-spelling. The term “ghillie suit” may be a reference to Gille Dubh the “Dark Lad” or “Black Lad”, a Earth spirit who is clothed in leaves and moss in Scottish mythology.[1]

The Lovat Scouts, a Scottish Highland regiment formed by Simon Fraser, 14th Lord Lovat during the Second Boer War, is the first known military unit to use ghillie suits and in 1916 went on to become the British Army’s first sniper unit.[2][3] The Lovat Scouts were initially recruited from Scottish Highland estate workers, especially professional stalkers and gamekeepers.[4]

Similar sniper outfits in the Australian Army are nicknamed “yowie suit”, named for their resemblance to the Yowie, a mythical hominid similar to the Yeti and Bigfoot which is said to live in the Australian wilderness.[5]

  • Cut a large (~2’x5′) rectangle out of a burlap sack. Make a cut along the upper or lower seam so that the burlap material is ready to be loosened. Sit down, anchor the sides of the burlap with your two heels, and start pulling out the burlap fibers that are running horizontal to you.
  • Pull out enough horizontal fabric until the remaining vertical fabric is roughly the same length as the horizontal fabric you’ve already pulled out.
  • When it is, take a scissor and cut the fibers off from the sack.
  • Place these along with the rest of the fibers you’ve shorn from the sack.
  • Shoot to get your burlap strands about 7″ to 14″ in length.
  • This is tbe most time consuming part of the job.

Dye the burlap the color of your surroundings. Identify greens, browns, even greys in the environment in which you’ll be using the ghillie suit and match them with specific dye colors. Follow the instructions on the dye packets for staining the jute strands.

Once the jute strands are dyed, run them through cold water until the water starts coming out clear. Set the strands out to dry in the sun.

Grab about 10 or so strands of jute, clump them together, and then tie them to the mesh netting using a simple overhand knot. Remember to choose 3 or 4 colors that are prevalent in the environment you’ll be using your ghillie suit in.

Bald spots are where there’s insufficient coverage, making the suit look less realistic. Pick your ghillie suit up, lightly wave it in the air, and set it back down again. Add necessary clumps of jute to any bald spots. Particularly the arms

I then moved on to the rifle

End result.

The two weeks graft was worth it and i think Dan Macpherson thought so too. After wrap I asked costume if I could keep the suit and they kindly agreed.

You might just see it again very soon in a feature😉

PB, out.

                       Who was the Military Adviser on that?

In this most recent blog I have decided to touch on the tricky subject of all things regarding military authenticity in the movie and TV industry. Surprisingly, despite the production team having a military technical advisor on board, “things will not be 100% authentically correct every time. “Penny wise and pound foolish” Bear this phrase in mind when reading the rest of my blog but also remember its a drama and not a documentary so sit back and chill.

“Filmmakers are under more pressure than ever to make sure military tactics and equipment are depicted realistically on-screen, and experienced advisers can make the difference” wrote Nick Goundry for last year

What we do

Production will often hire a technical advisor to ensure that a complicated area is portrayed as accurately as possible in the production. Similarly, a period movie may include one or more historians of the period, or eyewitnesses if possible, for the same purpose.

Technical advisers typically answer to the director and Line Producers. Their expertise adds realism both to the acting and to the setting of a movie. Some advisors for military movies have been known to run miniature boot camps to give actors a first-hand experience of a military setting. Boot camps additionally help provide the basics so when the camera rolls only a quick remind and revise is required. So less takes, less time and as we all know. Time is money!

To be a technical adviser you do not have to know every aspect of warfare, military history or have taken out several enemy bunkers armed with just a wooden spoon. What you do need is the ability to research your subject thoroughly, honestly and have that all important art of diplomacy. There is more to it than that, but I will reserve that explanation for another time.

I have made no secret during media interviews that advising in any capacity is 60% research and 40% your experience articulated to the Director, actor, stunt coordinator and supporting actors.

You can only offer advice; you cannot demand it’s taken. The Director will have the last call and he may have a set look or visual dramatic effect he wants to portray and its known as ‘artistic license‘ and artistic license will always win over realism if the story arc dictates it. Get a thick skin or get out of the advising business if you cant handle it as you wont change it.

The Seven Ps during the early stages.

Movie or TV production preparations can take anything from six months to a year before the camera starts rolling. In most cases costume, art and prop departments are approached long before a technical advisor and although other departments are very experienced in their field, not all are subject matter experts (SME’S) on military jargon and Google image takes a pounding in the search for the right look, but without really knowing what they are looking for.

In an ideal world a Military Adviser (MA) should be brought in as early into pre-production as possible. An MA’s knowledge (tactfully delivered so not to offend) can save departments a lot of time and money from the offset, bringing the desired look as close to reality as possible from the very start, with communication at the very beginning and at all levels to avoid embarrassing mistakes that film critics and tabloids crave to exploit for headlines.

The wrong flags or medal, a beret worn like a helicopter landing pad on an actor’s head or even a WW2 fighter aircraft painted in the wrong markings for the year might seem trivial, but can make all the difference with the end product and can avoid fuelling critics looking for page space.

Don’t Shoot the MA.

”Who was the Military Adviser on that?” is one line commonly trotted out on social media and blogs when mistakes are highlighted but don’t be so quick to shoot the adviser.

Contrary to popular belief, and from my experience so far, Military Technical Advisers are not always approached by production during the early preparation stage of a film or TV program as much as you would think. Unfortunately it’s an all too common mistake and only identified once it’s too late and the budget on props and costumes have already been spent.

Most people with a service background or those who regularly attend historical re-enactment events are quick to critique any production with Military content and no Film or TV program are exempt and unfortunately it’s the MA who gets it in the neck most the time from those less experienced in the industry.

Before I started in the film industry I was the very same, pointing out inaccuracies until I had my first real taste as a full time Military Adviser on War and Peace for the BBC.

I was brought in with only a few days to learn Napoleonic warfare and put together a structured safe training program fit for purpose, before jetting off to Lithuania.

Once I landed in Lithuania I had a day for my own prep then straight into a seven day intensive Boot camp for 200 extras for the winter scenes. When time permitted I attempted to liaise with all the various departments, but it was obvious all the preparation work and fittings had already been done months in advance with very little I could do or add to change things.

Thankfully the team on War and Peace were mostly on their game and they had consulted a Historical adviser for all the costumes and medals, but that’s not always been the case. Once I was brought in the day before a scene was due to be filmed and it was the first time I had met the director or been able to train the actors with the supporting cast on set, just minutes before the cameras rolled!

These are not the droids you are looking for.
Set etiquette, diplomacy, and respect for the work and effort of each department is a skill in itself which must be mastered if you are to survive as a Military Technical Adviser. The ability to muster the force with the director comes in handy too!

Stepping on other department’s toes, strutting on set with a big ego, a reenactment head or a Regimental Sergeant Majors approach to every situation, while shouting and screaming from the roof tops will not get you far and you will have a short lived career.

You have to remember most people within the relevant departments have no service history and will not respond or tolerate it.

A few Classic Examples.

On one production scene I spent most of the 12 hour shoot correcting berets which had obviously been taken straight out of the hire company laundry bag and just pulled over the heads of cast in the changing room, with no attempt at shaping them a few days before. When I asked why this had happened I was simply told the hire company wanted them returned in the same state.

All I could do was to keep re-dressing the actor’s berets whilst teaching them what actions were required only to have to repeat the process minutes after. It was a very frustrating and repetitive day.

It’s not the costume departments fault of course as most of them would not know how or why there is a need to shape military headdress. However, on rare occasions I have had time with the costume department in advance and managed to convince them to allow me to take the berets out for a few days before a shoot and shape them to the respective heads during a boot camp.

This allowed the costume department to concentrate on other matters and I could correct how the actors would react to a given situation as well as answer all the other departments’ questions being fired at me during the day.

However. For all those beret shaping ranters out there would you tell these gentlemen their berets are not shaped or worn correctly?

Possibly they had better things to be worried about! Food for thought.

Some battles I have won and just this one example of adopting a diplomatic approach during prep, saved time, energy and the ongoing berets saga. Much like the SLR v SA80 debaters. Other such battles I have lost and could only suck it up and grit my teeth. A very thick skin helps as it can be like banging your head against a brick wall at times.

Other examples, such as the configuration of soldier’s equipment, can also be an issue overlooked by departments not fully in the know.

On one production I had been required to step in at the last minute and change all the 58 pattern webbing belts to depict the units realistically for how they would wear them. For example the difference in equipment from an SAS soldier to a line infantry unit where an SAS soldier’s equipment and weapons would be more personalised and not standardised as a line unit.

The Props department were being led by a Google image they had been sent by a ‘Historian’ thinking the men in the picture were SAS troopers. Until I pointed out the unit was a light infantry regiment. Turned out the Historian had never served in the military so had no idea on how servicemen adapt issued equipment.

Current in-service unit insignia, badges, medals and flags are another gray area and sometime due to copy write laws productions are not always permitted to use these in films due to restrictions imposed by the MOD or DOD, so close alternatives have to be designed and made from scratch. I expect that more than half of you reading this never knew that!

There are also situations when heads of departments looking at savings feel they only need a technical adviser to train actors for a few hours then are no longer required during filming so to save money. This has proved to be counter productive as there is no one to correct obvious mistakes on set.

The actors and background are just that, actors. They are not soldiers and would not remember a few days training. So an experienced adviser should always be on set to remind, revise and be on hand for any questions.

From experience most Directors and Assistant Directors (AD) will not know the rank order of saluting or the difference from a Major to a corporal or unit trades when placing supporting actors in the background to act their respective roles.

I have been on set during filming with up to 500 supporting cast and I can find myself running from one group to the other correcting the obvious mistakes AD’s have made which would never have be noticed had I not been on set.

Again it’s not an AD’s fault, they are not to know and I only have two pair of eyes so something’s will be missed. It’s inevitable. However, Here are just a few howlers I have managed to correct on time.

1. A Russian private soldier shouting orders at a KGB Officer and giving the Private a British Army Salute.

2. A US Airforce Major General on guard and saluting an Airman First class as the Major General raises the barrier for him. .

3. A French prisoner of war given a sword and musket to walk past the camera with his captors when he’s supposed to be a prisoner.

4. A Royal Marine SGT who’s supposed to be part of a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) walking about with just a fire extinguisher and no weapon or webbing during an incident in a hostile situation.

5. Fingers on triggers and missing magazines ( that old chest nut)

6. A US soldier from the 80’s sporting a UK issued diamond Jubilee medal.

7. Soldiers about to run in front of a firing friendly heavy machine gun during a big firefight scene. (Not only dangerous but would have been a very costly re-set)

8. Everyone trying to hold their issued weapon like they have been on lone Survivor ( but it’s a musket you plonker)

The edit stage in post production is one great example where an adviser is not consulted. Taken from Rambo 2 where the hero fires a 66 LAW from inside a helicopter. The first we see a 66 as he arms it to fire.

The close up shot its changed to the hand and triggergrip of an RPG

In the final shot after firing its back to a 66

Had an adviser been consulted he could have pointed it out, plus the fact the poor guys in the back are going to get a face full of backblast.

These are just the belt and braces mistakes and I could expand further, but by now I’m sure you get the picture. An adviser on set is a one man ‘Billy No Mates’ department who supports all departments and cannot be everywhere all of the time, but when they are there they will do their best to get as much right as possible within the constraints mentioned above.

Military Technical Advisers brought in early are a good spend and pay dividend when the cameras roll and on the cutting room floor. There is work still to be done to ensure that military advisers are brought onto productions from the beginning as a standard procedure and to do away with the penny wise and pound foolish attitude towards MA’s.

If you do see me on set don’t forget to give me a hug. Unless your from 3 Para Morters!

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