South African Artillery Traditions


Gunners are particularly fortunate in enjoying an almost worldwide tradition of service to the Gun that welds them into a unique body of men and women –proud to be GUNNERS, and part of the Gunner Fraternity.

It is commonly accepted that the forerunners of today’s Gunners were not soldiers at all.  For well over a century, by reason of origin and characteristics, the artillery developed as something of a distinct entity, almost a separate force, and hence Gunners have been regarded, even in this day and age, as somewhat different from the ordinary soldier.

Rightly so, for they serve the GUN, equipment that provides firepower above and beyond the capacity of all other weapons, in all weathers, twenty-four hours per day if necessary, to dominate a battlefield such as no other weapon can do.

The gunners who fought at Crecy on 26 August 1346 (the first fully recorded use of guns – then called Bombards) are the same stamp of men as those South African gunners who fought and died in Flanders in 1916-18, in East Africa and Palestine in 1915-18, in East Africa, North Africa and Italy during 1940-45 and in Angola in the late 1970s and 1980s.

As a result of their traditions, gunners have over the ages developed a feeling of superiority, and correctly so, for they serve the Gun to which Louis XV gave the proud title of “Ultima Ratio Regis” (the Last Argument of a King), an inscription borne on his orders on all French guns. And Joseph Stalin of the USSR referred to his guns as The Gods of War.

The first permanent force of gunners, a master gunner and 12 paid gunners were appointed at the Tower of London in the 1400s. It was their duty to look after the equipment and to train certain partly paid civilians in the art of gunnery.  The traditions that Gunners hold dear began to form from this early date and have spread to many countries throughout the world.


Right of the Line

The excellent work achieved by the gunners in the war between the French and the English in 1742 – 1748 led to their acceptance as part of the large brotherhood of the army, a more material gesture being the granting of the privilege in 1756 of taking that ancient post of honour – the right of the line on all parades. This tradition has survived to the present day in most armies of what was the former Commonwealth.

This no doubt came about the old practice of the guns always coming into action on the right of the infantry battalions, the latter always forming up for battle with the senior battalion or cavalry unit on the right and thus having more claim to the support of the guns.


The soldiers who man a gun are often called a ‘gun crew’ or even ‘team’. A crew is a ship’s company and a team is a set of animals harnessed together. The original company of artillery was not a company at all but a pool of trained ‘gunners’. When required for any service be it in a fortress, field army or fixed coast battery NCOs and men were detached from the company, hence the correct artillery term ‘detachment’.

G5 155mm Gun/Howitzer Deteachment in Action


The rank bombardier is purely a gunner rank and was created in 1686. Holders of this rank worked directly under the fire workers (fire masters assistants) in specialised duty with mortars. The word corporal was an artillery rank until 1920, coming below sergeant and above bombardier (the rank of mattress was abolished in 1783). The rank of Lance Bombardier came into use with the disappearance of the Corporal as an artillery rank.

Limber Gunners

The Limber Gunner was a member of a gun detachment whose special duty was the care and cleanliness of the gun.  Such men took an almost holy pride in their work and the competition in a battery for the cleanest gun was intense.  They were almost specialists at cleaning guns.  The limber gunner disappeared from the SA Artillery in 1939.  From about the same date members of the SANDF, Armscor and other companies that rendered significant service to the South African Artillery were at various times honoured by their appointment as Limber Gunners, entitled as all Gunners do, to wear an Artillery tie on Fridays.

Artillery Motto

By 1882, and in spite of occasional periods of unpopularity, the artillery could claim a glorious and long record of battle honours. Each unit wore its own individual battle honours, but these had become so numerous that in 1883 the word “UBIQUE” (Everywhere) was granted to replace them.  At the same time, the privilege of bearing the motto “QUO FAS ET GLORIA DUCUNT” (Whither Right and Glory lead) was granted.  The gun, probably a 9-pdr, was a design of one used at Waterloo and has remained the gunner symbol and cap badge all over the world in countries of many different nationalities.

The motto of the South African Artillery is PRIMUS INCEDERE EXIRE ULTIMUS, meaning ‘First In and Last Out’, an inspired motto produced in 1976, but the cap badge (approved but never manufactured) also bears the battle honour, UBIQUE.  Resulting from the uniquely South African regimental tradition, a number of artillery units have their own cap badges and mottos.

The Piece

Guns were collectively known as Ordnance, and cannon individually were thus called “Pieces of Ordnance” – hence the word “piece” as applied to the gun today.

In the South African Artillery, the ordnance is collectively known as Launchers owing to guns, mortars and rocket launchers that the gunners serve.

Spiking the Guns

This is a Gunner term for rendering guns useless to an enemy when it has proved utterly impossible to save them. It refers to the old method of driving a spike or wedge into the touchhole or vent so that the gun could not be fired and was thus completely neutralised. Today it implies destroying a gun by other means.

Naming the Guns

Guns were originally named individually and according to size after all kinds of monsters. Mortars, first recorded in 1495, were used extensively by the artillery, the word “mortar” being derived from the German “meerthier”, meaning seabeast.  Heavy guns (bombards) in Germany gave way as early as 1385 to lighter ones mounted on wood and supported on a fork or hood, hence the word Hakenbüsche (corrupted by the English to Hackbutt, Hagbush and finally to Harquebus).  A later improvement was the fitting of a stock to the piece, the whole small enough to be carried by hand.  Thus the rifle was a development of the gun and not vice versa, as might be supposed.  Another example is the word “Howitzer” from the German Haubitze, which came into use about 1750.

Pride in the Guns

Gunners take great pride in themselves, their drill and their guns and this was the case even in the 1500’s when the gunners were not so popular with members of the other arms. The infantrymen were of the opinion that the gunner was conceited and gave himself airs, those of a superior person moving in higher spheres.  At the time gunners had an evil reputation all over Europe for profane swearing, a failing attributed to his commerce with “infernal substances”, but the real reason was probably due to the fact that being less perfectly organised he was less amenable to discipline.  Nevertheless, gunners took great pride in themselves and their guns.  There was, for instance (as there is today) a definite drill laid down for working the guns in action, with thirteen words of command for the wielding of ladle and sponge.  A gun detachment consisted of three men – the gunner, his mate (mattross) and an odd-job man who gave general assistance and the number of little refinements in their drill showed that artillerymen took great pride in themselves.  Thus withdrawal of the least quantity of powder with the ladle after loading was esteemed a “foul fault for a gunner to commit” while the spilling of even a few grains on the ground was severely reprobated “it being a thing uncomely for a gunnery to trample powder under his feet”.  Lastly, every gunner was exhorted to “set forth himself with as comely a posture and grace as he can, for agility and comely carriage in handling the ladle and sponge doth give great content to standers by”.  The last and greatest honour that could be accorded an artilleryman was to be buried ‘over the metal’, on a gun carriage.

The Gun Park

Ownership of such a powerful weapon as a Gun was the prerogative of the King and from the late 1300s, the practise grew of storing the Royal guns in some secure and guarded park when they were not in use. Hence the term Gun Park.  Because of the veneration with which the guns are treated, the gun park is always regarded by gunners as the “holy of holies”, to be kept as clean and tidy as the guns themselves, as befitting the resting place of the Colours.  It is much the same as a parade ground, which is considered to be a sacred place.  In days of old when a unit re-assembled after a battle to call the roll and count the dead, a hollow square was formed.  The dead were placed within the square and it was therefore not used as a thoroughfare.  Today the parade ground represents the square and is treated as Hallowed Ground.  In one South African Unit (CFA), the Gun Park is used for the unit’s annual Birthday Church Service.

Artillery Colours

Traditionally the Colours of the artillery have been its guns. This is now interpreted as including any piece of artillery or guided weapon launcher.  It is impractical to accord the guns as Colours on non-ceremonial occasions but they are nevertheless treated with reverence, dignity and respect.  Sitting or standing on the trail, decorating them for social occasions or leaving them unguarded in public are practices not tolerated by Gunners.  The gun is thus treated with veneration and respect.  It is cleaned, polished, oiled and looked after with care.  No effort is too much in the duty of maintaining the gun, even in the heat of battle the gunner will maintain it and keep it clean, for to him the gun is the symbol of his superiority over all other corps in the Service.

South African gunner units continue to treat the gun with respect it deserves and while some regard it as their colour, others such as 4 and 14 Artillery Regiments, 1 Locating Regiment, Transvaalse Staats Artillerie and 18 Light Regiment have, in fact, been presented with colours.  Natal Field Artillery was awarded a King’s colour.

Trooping the Colour

When Gunners had ordnance such as 13-pdrs, 18-pdrs, and the ubiquitous 25-pdr, or more fully “Ordnance QF 88-mm gun/howitzer”, it was a simple matter to dress it for ceremonial occasions, with snow-white drag ropes, picks and shovels scraped and varnished, aiming posts painted and brass work gleaming. Its replacement, the old 5.5-inch medium gun or 140-mm as it later became known, did not lend itself to these refinements.  So when they received the Freedom of Benoni in August 1981, 7 Medium Regiment (since disestablished) draped an artillery flag over the breech of each gun.  This was immediately accepted and became standard practice when their guns were on a ceremonial parade.

Trooping the Colour, in this case, a beautifully restored 13-pdr and limber, was actually performed with full Ceremonial livery on the Grand Parade, Cape Town, by the Cape Field Artillery, the infantry drill having been amended to allow for a larger Colour party and for the fact that the gun could not be trooped “through” the ranks. This received full approval of Army Headquarters and was accepted as the standard drill.

Corps Colours

The traditional colours of the artillery are Guardsman Red and Oxford Blue. The significance of this choice is not known but the earliest record of their use in gunner dress is in the inventory for the clothing of a “trayne” dated 1662.  In Flanders in 1699 gunners were dressed in crimson coats faced with blue, wearing (in reverse order of prominence) the colours that have been retained until today.

Regimental Colours

At some time before the 1930s provincial helmet flashes in distinctive colours were allocated to Active Citizen Force units. Cape Field Artillery’s colours were gold and orange and Natal Field Artillery colours were green and blue while those of Transvaal Horse Artillery were silver and red. Today CFA wear a lanyard of scarlet and blue, the traditional colour of their mess kit, whilst NFA wear a red and blue lanyard and THA wear a white plaited lanyard. One or two other units wore blue and yellow, colours that were introduced into the Corps in the 1960s and have since, generally, disappeared. The Corps lanyard of today is Guardsman Red and Oxford Blue with a much smaller yellow stripe between the two major colours.

The Number One and his Rammer

Warrant officers of Cape Field Artillery each carry a ceremonial 25-pdr (88 mm) rammer as instead of the usual pace stick as a reminder of this practice of chiding a member of a gun detachment who failed to perform a duty satisfactorily. It stems from the days when the unit operated with smooth bore field and coast guns.  They were swabbed out with a wet sponge after each round fired in order to extinguish any smouldering powder remaining in the bore.  As an additional precaution one man placed his thumb over the vent when the gun was rammed to prevent the rush of air causing any remaining small spark to flare up and ignite the new powder charge.  This action was known as “serving the vent”.  If the gunner failed to perform this duty he received the attention of the rammer.  The practice of carrying a rammer has been adopted by the Regimental Sergeant Majors, Wing Sergeant Majors and Battery Sergeant Majors.  All other artillery warrant officers, when on parade, will carry rammers in steed of pace-sticks.  THA Warrant Officers carry a riding crop.


As a result of the dangerous nature of early gunpowder, strict discipline had to be applied to try and prevent accidents. Early gunners were notorious for their poor discipline, away from their guns, but this gradually changed over the years and it is now true to say that discipline in gunner units is traditional and is maintained strictly.  A tradition peculiar to gunners is that they never walk but always run, elbows bent and arms held against the chest, it is the way gunners take up the gun, by means of handspikes, to move the gun from one position to another.  It is an artillery unique drill that ensures that all gunners, at all times, are reminded that they serve the gun

Black Badge

All over the world it will generally be found that gunner officers and warrant-officers wear black or bronze cap and collar badges. This is a symbol of the days when gunners were allowed to wear wooden or leather buttons because the gun powder, when fired, continually blackened their brass buttons and badges.  The grenade collar badge is also international and is worn by most artillery forces throughout the world.  The detail varies from country to country but the basic design is still the grenade.  South African gunners wear silver in common with the rest of the SANDF but some units, CFA and CGA as example continue to wear brass buttons while Regiment Vaalrivier wear black grenades.  In the volunteer units that existed prior to Union in 1910, it was a general principle that officers wore gilt badges and accoutrements and other ranks wore silver.  This arrangement is retained to a degree in THA where officers wear a black badge, NCOs wear silver and gunners wear a bronze beret badge.  All ranks of CFA wear bronze beret badges.  This caused much annoyance in the 1960s to a former Commandant General who insisted that it should be brass, but who admitted defeat after two almost disastrous confrontations with the regimental commander.  The cap badges had erroneously been issued by QMG in bronze the unit decided they should remain.  This tradition was adopted by some regular units like SA Army Arty Fmn HQ and 4 Arty Regt to wear blackened cap badges.

The Gunner and The Horse

Since the early days of artillery, gunners relied on horses, although civilian drivers and hired horses were used to pull the guns until the formation in 1806 of the corps of Royal Artillery Drivers, which became part of the Royal Artillery after 1815. South African Artillery was always mounted and the last horses were used in the SA Artillery just before the outbreak of the Second World War.  Because the artillery stayed a mounted corps to the last, many South African traditions are attributed to this fact, such as, the wearing of the Sam Browne belt by officers and warrant officers (some units continue to wear swords too), the wearing of a leather belt by NCO’s who only started to wear webbing during the last World War, the sword knot hangs free and use of the phrase “Wagon Lines” instead of a more modern term.  In addition undress blues are worn by some units where the jacket is cut in cavalry style while CFA’s dress regulations include wearing of overalls instead of trousers.  They and THA also order “mount” and “dismount” instead of “embus and debus” for the same reason.  Similarity the Transvaal Horse Artillery and the Natal Field Artillery continue even today to wear Box spurs with their undress blues and mess kit, a tradition that seems to have been dropped by CFA who, apart from being Coast and Field gunners, were also for a number of years trained as horse artillery.


South African gunner officers began the practice in 1972 of gathering socially once a month and this soon became referred to as a Tiddler, the code name for a Quick Fire Plan. This is now accepted as part of South African Gunner tradition.

Mess Traditions

It is in Gunner Messes (some regiments use the American term ‘Club’) that a number of traditions and quiffs are to be seen, such as that of 4 Artillery Regiment who display their Regimental Colour during formal dinners as from 1983. On these occasions, they also place on the table before the most senior and junior Regular Force Officer respectively, a model 6 pdr and 9 pdr.  (6 pdr for most snr off and 9 pdr for mosr jnr off).  Gunners hammer the table by hand instead of indicating applause by clapping.  In THA jugs of beer are also passed around the table after dinner and they also serve beer at breakfast the morning after a Mess evening.  In both CFA and THA, newly joined or commissioned officers must purchase a beer mug on which is inscribe their name and date of commission or joining.  These always remain in the Mess.  In THA, however, the mug must be pewter and must have a glass bottom.  On the passing away of an officer, the bottom is broken with a special boot.  THA light an “eternal flame” before diners at formal Mess dinners may sit.  CFA always toast the unit by name, a practice they started in 1960, a few days after the unit was renamed ‘Regiment Tygerberg’, in order that their true name should not be forgotten.  Four years later they were re-named Cape Field Artillery but the toast continues to this day.  In 4 Artillery Regiment a practice, which has spread to other units, was commenced some few years ago of toasting “THE GUNS”.  On their formal Mess nights Regular Force warrant officers and NCOs provide a detachment to bring a gun into action before the dinner.  The gun remains at the entrance to the Mess until the end of the evening.  It is also a tradition that the longest serving gunner (irrespective rank seniority) will toast the most junior gunner.

Artillery Flash

The well-known zigzag of the gunner symbolises thunder and lightning, perhaps emanating as a result of the noise and flash of a gun, but also having a bearing on the story of St Barbara, the patron saint of all artillerymen. Although apparently removed from the Church Calendar in 1969 for lack of proper evidence of sainthood, she nevertheless remains the patron Saint of artillerymen and feast day occurs annually on 4 December. Her saint day is celebrated with much ceremony in Germany, France and Switzerland, in the Ukraine and Palestine and possibly many other countries. The French set aside a whole week for festivities and at Basel in Switzerland after a day of celebration and gun drill by the National Artillery Association of Basel City, founded in 1834, members fire 23 rounds from a 75 mm field gun of 1905 vintage at 18h15, where-after they drink to the health of Saint Barbara. In the Ukraine potato dumplings are boiled in oil on her feast day and the Palestinian Christians go further and prepare a sticky pudding called Burbara. South African Gunners have no tradition of celebrating Saint Barbara’s feast day but about 1982 Col Lionel Crook, then chairman of the Gunners’ Association, Western Province Branch, felt that the Saint Day was rather a good reason to have a party. And so the Branch has held a function on the Friday nearest to 4 December every year since then. It is now held in alternative years in the NCOs Mess of CFA and CGA.

Gunner’s Inauguration

It is tradition to initiate new gunners on successful completion of a Launcher Course. If a member is qualified on more than one launcher he/she will be inaugurated on all other launcher(s) because every launcher has its own unique inauguration.

For the 120 mm M5 Mortar (Cape Cobra) members will consume “Cape Cobra Venom” a mixture consisting of Timjan and Aloe Powder.

For the 127 mm Multiple Rocket Launcher (Bateleur), members will consume “Chindungu”, a Portuguese phrase meaning “Extreme Hot”, a mixture consisting of Crushed Red Chillies, Vinegar and Sugar. During the Angola war the predecessor of the Bateleur, the Valkiri, was given the nickname “Chindungu” by UNITA with the meaning “the red pepper that bites”, from there the tradition was carried over to the Bateleur.

After consuming these mixtures the initiated members will shout out loud “Once a gunner always a gunner”.

For the 155 mm GV5 gun (Leopard) and 155 mm GV6 gun (Rhino) members will kneel on both knees and his/her head is then dipped into a bucket filled with “Cordite water”. The cordite water is saved from the launcher position, after every shot the breech and chamber is cleaned with water into a bucket, from their cordite is mixed with the water.  After being dipped in the cordite water the initiated member will shout out loud   “Once a gunner always a gunner”.

After this initiation new members have the right to be called “Gunner”.

Toast to the Sergeant Major

This tradition starts in early 2000 (2004). It is used during two occasions, namely when a warrant officer is promoted or when the warrant officers are gathered. Zambucca is served for the toast.  The following is applicable; blue – WO2, white – WO1, red – RSM (MWO) green reserved for a brigade WO and black – Formation Warrant officer.  Blue symbolise “Blougat” newly promoted member of all WO ranks, White is neutral, Red symbolises the previous colour of the RSM’s rank, Green symbolise the previous colour of the Brigade/Group WO’s rank and Black symbolise the previous colour of the Command/division WO’s rank.  When gathered the each WO present will take a tot glass with his/her applicable colour and toast “To Sergeant Majors”.  When officers or any other sergeant major, from another formation or service, are invited to join the toast, they will be served with white Zambucca.

Saint Barbara

Barbara was the daughter of Dioscuros, a very wealthy heathen of Nicomedia. He built a tower in which he kept the young and beautiful Barbara jealously secluded so that no man should behold her beauty. In her enforced solitude she gave herself to prayer and study. Many princes asked for her hand in marriage but she refused them all. After refusing her father’s choice he went down into the town to see the work on which his men were busy, and he thereafter left for a lengthy visit to another country. Barbara descended from the tower to see the bath-house he was constructing. She noted that it had only two windows. So she commanded the workmen to make a third window and she defaced the idols her father worshipped, placing the sign of the cross on them. When her father at last returned he was enraged to find the three windows, which Barbara informed him represented the Holy Trinity. He dragged her before the Prefect of the Province and denounced her. She was beaten until her body was all bloody and was then thrown into prison. Led later through the streets she was again beaten and brought before a judge who ordered her to be beheaded. Her enraged father, merciless to the last, took her up a mountain and slew her with his sword. As Dioscuros descended a fearful tempest arose with thunder and lightning, and fire fell upon the cruel man and consumed him utterly …so that nothing of his body but only ashes remained. Saint Barbara is invoked against fire, thunder and lightning, accidents arising from explosion by gunpowder and against death by artillery. Whatever you do, avoid expressing any opinion of Saint Barbara during a thunderstorm!

Artillery Marches and Songs

The only registered South African Artillery Regimental marches are as follows:

  • The South African Artillery Corps – “Vuurmonde” by Composed by Soeterdijk and arranged by Wijburg.
  • Cape Field Artillery – “The Voice of the Guns” Composed and arranged by Alford.

Code of Conduct for Artillery Soldiers

“The status now conferred on me, as an Artillery Soldier, carries a special responsibility and demands of me a special sense of duty.

I will therefore be held accountable by law and code for the manner in which I carry out my duty.

As an Artillery Soldier I solemnly take the following pledge:

I will at all times:

        • apply the Three Golden Rules of the Artillery which are:
          • do an independent check on all technical work.
          • think and plan in advance.
          • ensure that simultaneous actions take place.
        • have a sense of urgency.
        • protect my launcher at the risk of my own life.
        • ensure that all Artillery equipment remains serviceable and maintained according to doctrine.
        • ensure that Artillery teamwork is done professionally to enhance comradeship and the sharing of Artillery common goals and values.
        • ensure that my physical fitness is up to standard as required for an Artillery Soldier.
        • obey and apply the SA Army Code of Conduct.


Lanyards on the Right Shoulder

“Why do Gunners wear lanyards on the right shoulder and not on the left?” The Gunners and the cavalry were the first to wear lanyards on the left shoulder, with jack-knife on the end and housed in the top shoulder pocket.  The blade was used to cut horses loose and a spike on the knife was for removing stones from horse’s hooves.  Recruits unskilled in rifle drill were apt, when ordering arms from slope, to disarrange the lanyard as the rifle passed down the left shoulder.  It also shifted the bandolier.  In 1924 the lanyard and bandolier were transferred to the right shoulder, and on the right it has since remained, but bandoliers had to be altered by the saddler if so to be worn.  This change was not adopted.


Swords appear to have been developed from the knife between 1500 and 1100 BC. It was originally regarded as a sacred object hence the drill of bringing the hilt to the face, to symbolically kiss it, after drawing or before sheathing it.

South African Army Officers always wore a sword, however, in 1974 both the Sam Browne belt and sword were written out of dress regulations when the new loosely cut uniform jacket was introduced into the SADF.  Some Reserve Force Regiments have retained the Sam Browne Belt and the Sword as part of their dress regulations.

Honorary Appointments

The appointment of Honorary Colonels/Captains is an established tradition in the SANDF. Any prominent citizen of RSA interested in the preparedness and well-being of the SANDF and of a unit in particular, may be appointed as its Honorary Colonel, or in the case of the SA Navy, it’s Honorary Captain.  Such a person need not necessarily have any military experience.  Although an Honorary Colonel/Captain need not have to satisfy the medical and standard profile requirements, his/her physical bearing and appearance must be of such a nature that whilst in uniform he/she will maintain a good image of the SANDF.  The appointment of Honorary Colonels/Captains is a tradition that needs to be continued.  The term “Honorary Colonel/Captain” refers to a titular appointment and not a rank.

Prepared and Submitted by:

CWO J. Niemand

Warrant Officer of the SA Army Artillery Formation