Weapons Carriage in the Second World War

Throughout 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.

Infantrymen in 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.

The introduction 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.

The Modern Weapons Carry

Today's infantry, 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 move.

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 field.

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

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 informal settings.

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.

Trail Arms
The 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."
Below, the 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.

Sling Arms

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 wounded comrade. 

Slope Arms
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.

Port Arms

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 arms" carry.

Canadian 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 most commonly
seen weapons carries in contemporary training and battle photos and film footage.

From the famous photo of Major David Currie at St. Lambert sur Dives in the summer of 1944. These infantrymen of
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 imminent.

Snap Shooting

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.

The website 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 snap shoot.

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 shoulder.

Cradle Carry

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.

Canadian (left) and German (right) soldiers using the cradle carry.

One Hand 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.


Whatever Works

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 shoulder.

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:



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