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A swagger stick (lat: vitis) is a short stick or riding crop usually carried by a uniformed person as a symbol of authority. A swagger stick is shorter than a staff or cane, and is usually made from rattan.
In the Roman army a form of swagger stick, then called a vitis, was a distinction of rank carried by a centurion and used to direct military drill and manoeuvres, or to administer physical punishment. Introduced at about the time of the Punic Wars, this was a vine wood staff, hence the name, of about 0.9m (3 feet) in length. It is often prominently featured on sepulchral monuments for dead or missing centurions as a sign of their status. Such monuments show the cudgel in a variety of forms - sometimes straight with a rounded top, sometimes knotted, and sometimes sinuous.
Tacitus recounts how one centurion earned the nickname Cedo Alteram ("give me another!") for repeatedly breaking his vitis on the back of a miles gregarius and calling for a replacement. This practice resulted in mutiny (14 AD) and the troops cited, amongst other complaints, harsh corporal punishments as a reason for their revolt.
United Kingdom armed forces
In the British Army prior to World War I swagger sticks were carried by all other ranks when off duty, as part of their walking out uniform. The stick took the form of a short cane of polished wood, with an ornamented metal head of regimental pattern. The usual custom was for the private soldier or NCO to carry the stick tucked under his arm. Cavalrymen carried a small riding cane instead of the swagger stick of infantry and other branches. This practice was restricted to the army and Royal Marines, and was never imitated by the other services. Uniforms are no longer worn by army personnel when off duty and the swagger stick has accordingly become obsolete.
In the British Army and other militaries following the Commonwealth traditions, some commissioned officers used to carry swagger sticks when in uniform, whilst some Warrant Officers and Senior NCOs may carry pace sticks instead. Cavalry officers will often carry a riding crop rather than a swagger stick, in deference to their mounted traditions. In some Irish regiments in the British army, such as the Irish Guards, officers carry a blackthorn walking stick, based on the shillelagh. In the Royal Tank Regiment, officers carry an 'ash plant' or walking stick instead, in reference to World War I tank attacks, when officers would prepare lines of advance by testing the ground's firmness and suitability for tanks.
United States armed forces
Swagger sticks were once in vogue in the United States Marine Corps, starting as an informal accessory carried by officers in the late 19th century. In 1915, it gained official approval as recruiters were encouraged to carry them to improve public image. This tradition grew when Marines deployed for World War I encountered European officers carrying swagger sticks, leading to an entry in the uniform regulations in 1922 authorizing enlisted Marines to carry them as well. The usage died down in the 1930s and 40s, excepting China Marines, and came back into vogue with a 1952 regulation encouraging them, reaching a peak from 1956 to 1960 when Commandant Randolph M. Pate encouraged use. While stressing the need for uniforms to be simple and rugged, with no need for gimmicks and gadgets, General Pate commented:
There is one item of equipment about which I have a definite opinion. It is the swagger stick. It shall remain an optional item of interference. If you feel the need of it, carry it…
However, his successor, David M. Shoup, quickly discouraged their use:
..."the swagger stick symbolized elitist affectation, and it reminded him of some unpleasant experiences he had had in China.” He had seen British officers toss money at Chinese men and then strike them with their swagger sticks as they picked up the coins off the ground. Few Marines carried the swagger stick after that.
Few, if any, contemporary officers feel the need to carry a swagger stick, and it has no official sanction in any branch.
General William J. Livsey, who was the Commanding General of the Eighth United States Army in South Korea from 1984 to 1987 publicly carried a swagger stick that was carved from wood collected at the Korean Demilitarized Zone Axe Murder Incident poplar tree.
- "Woordenboek Latijn-Nederlands", red H. Pinkster, Amsterdan University Press, 1998
- D'Amato, Raffaele. Roman Centurions 753-31 BC. pp. 38–39. ISBN 978-1-84908-541-0.
- Tacitus, Annales I 23.
- Carman, W.Y (1977). A Dictionary of Military Uniform. Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 125. ISBN 0-684-15130-8.
- Fletcher, David (1984). Landships: British Tanks in the First World War. HMSO. p. 25. ISBN 0-11-290409-2.
- Borsh, Fred L.; Robert F. Dorr (2009-03-16). "Swagger stick reached its zenith in the 1950s". Marine Corps Times (Gannett Company). pp. p38. Retrieved 2009-03-10. (subscription required)
- See under the GENERAL GEORGE S. PATTON, JR. section