Critical and biographical information on Henry Reed, World War II British poet, critic, translator, and radio dramatist — author of "Naming of Parts"
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Frequently Asked Questions about the Lowly and Peculiar Piling Swivel

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
          Which in our case we have not got.
                                                                             — Henry Reed, "Naming of Parts," lines 7—12


Henry Reed's much-anthologized poem of World War II, "Naming of Parts," concerns a British sergeant-instructor delivering a lecture to his green recruits on the various parts of a rifle. The progression of these lessons is as amusing as they are impeccably English: beginning with proper cleaning of the weapon; succeeded by the grocery-list naming of parts; to be followed the next day by 'what to do after firing.' Conspicuously missing is a lesson in actual firing. Reed based the poem on his experiences in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps from 1941-42. Early in the conflict, the British troops are under-equipped and poorly supplied: they haven't even been issued shoulder slings to carry their rifles. (The U.S. Lend-Lease Act was not passed until March of 1941, and would supply Britain with crucial weapons, ammunition and armament). Most of the parts named in the lesson should be more or less familiar: the sling (with corresponding upper and lower swivels); the safety-catch; the bolt, the breech, and the cocking-piece. (Here is a helpful explanation of the action of Enfield rifles.) Even the enigmatic "point of balance" is mechanically self-explanatory. The N.C.O. narrating the poem, however, is forced to demonstrate using an older, outmoded rifle: his model retains the superfluous piling swivel.

What's a piling swivel?

A piling swivel (called a stacking swivel in the United States, or Aufstellbügel in Germany) is a metal, C-shaped bracket, mounted on the nosecap toward the end of a rifle barrel, just behind the bayonet mount (photographs).

Rifle diagram
The piling swivel is no. 47, center right.

What was the piling swivel used for?

The introduction of firearms to warfare eventually must have necessitated the question, "What do I do with my harquebus/musket/rifle when I'm not using it?" The answer to this was the "piling of arms." Anyone who has seen a movie about the Napoleonic campaigns or the American Revolution may remember seeing soldiers' weapons neatly stacked together into a teepee shape, bayonets crossed at the peak. Armies stacked (or "piled") their rifles while they were at rest, keeping them clean with their finicky actions above the mud of the battlefield, ready to be grabbed up at a moment's notice (example of stacked rifles from the American Civil War, photographed by Mathew Brady, circa 1864-65). Early firearms were hooked together by the ramrod or bayonet. On more modern rifles a piling or "stacking" swivel, attached high on the barrel, facilitated the making of a "pile" by allowing two or three rifles to interlock while another was leaned against them.

Stacking rifles
Stacking rifles at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, 1957.

How, exactly, does one "pile" arms?

Chapter four of the 1935 British Manual of Elementary Drill (All Arms) (London: His Majesty's Stationary Office, 1935: 55-56) instructs:

67. Piling and unpiling of arms.

1. Piling Arms.

Pile Arms—One.
The front rank will turn about, placing the butts of their rifles between their feet. The odd numbers will turn the magazines of their rifles towards the right flank of the squad, the even numbers towards the left flank of the squad, at the same time the rear rank will take a pace forward, turning the magazines of their rifles to the rear.

The odd numbers of the front rank will seize the rifles of the even numbers with the left hand crossing the muzzles, magazines turned outwards, at the same time raising the piling swivels with the forefinger and thumb of both hands.

The even numbers of the front rank will resume the position of attention.

The even numbers of the rear rank will incline their muzzles to the front and place their rifles under their right arms, guards uppermost, at the same time seizing the piling swivel with the forefinger and thumb of the left hand. They will then link swivels through the crossed muzzles of the front rank, lower the butts to the ground, placing them six inches to the right of and in line with their right toes.

The odd numbers of the rear rank, and supernumerary rank (if any), will place their rifles perpendicularly against the pile nearest to them and resume the position of attention.

Ranks will step back one pace and turn to the right flank of the squad, i.e. the front rank turns to the left and the rear rank to the right.

i. If ranks have been changed the squad, etc. will be renumbered before arms are piled.

ii. If piling arms on parade the command Fall—Out will be given after Stand—Clear. On again falling in the men will place themselves as they stood before falling out.

2. Unpiling Arms.

Ranks will turn inwards and take a pace forward.

Unpile Arms—One.
The whole will seize their rifles at the band with the right hand.

The whole will incline their butts inwards until the swivels become unlinked, and return to the order, at the same time the original left-hand man of the front rank will raise his disengaged arm to an angle of 135 degrees, the rear rank looking in his direction.

Taking the time from the original left-hand man of the front rank, who will cut his hand to his side, the front rank will turn about and the rear rank will turn their head and eyes to the front and take a pace to the rear.

(Chapter four, incidentally, also contains instructions for the "Ease—Springs!" command. See also Infantry Drill Regulations from Tactics & Technique of Infantry, Basic, 1942 .)

Souvenir postcard of stacked arms at Camp Dodge, Iowa, 1919.

Which in our case we have not got?

The feature of a piling swivel was discontinued from the standard-issue British rifle after the Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) Number One Mark III during the latter years of World War I. The rationale for the swivel's retirement were the cost, time and labor saved by its elimination, but also the accelerating tactics of modern warfare, whereby soldiers in the trenches could no longer afford the luxury of storing their weapons in a neat, interlocked stack or "pile," nor the time to untangle them. Inclusion resumed following the first World War, before finally being dropped altogether in the late 1930's.

Because the sergeant's rifle in "Naming of Parts" boasts a piling swivel, but his recruits "have not got," it can be surmised the instructor is using a model No1 MkIII or older, while his men possess the newer, redesigned Rifle Number Four, which was not fully under production until 1941. (It could also be argued from the text of the poem that they haven't yet been issued their weapons, at all.) Still, usage of the piling swivel varied among the different services, even from soldier to soldier, who could install or remove the part as needed. Perhaps Reed's desire was simply to draw attention to the fact that the instructor's rifle is meant only for drilling, while the recruits' are actually intended to be wielded in combat. Today, enthusiasts of the Lee Enfield and other historic rifles may fit a piling swivel onto models for which it was never more than a provision, for detail, accuracy, and a collector's sense of completion. And, despite the fact that the pace and practice of war have far outdistanced the utility of piling arms, modern infantry drill manuals still retain parade exercises like the one reproduced above.


Henry Reed's piling swivel is a small but pivotal footnote to English literature and the history of warfare. It owes its existence to the rigorous discipline and mechanical drilling of soldiers, dating back to even to ancient times, when the legions of Rome precisely piled spears outside their tents. Mr. Reed seems to have had more than some disdain for such rehearsing and regulation. "Naming of Parts" is not an anti-war poem, per se. "It is not a bitter satire or protest poem, but a short parody" (Peter Childs, The Twentieth Century in Poetry: A Critical Survey. London: Routledge, 1999, 120). Reed isn't reporting on the deaths of his comrades from the front lines, or protesting the dehumanizing effects of modern warfare. Rather, "Naming of Parts" and the other Lessons of the War are lyric "pro-Henry" poems, in which Reed can continue to mimic the sergeants-instructor of his basic training, where he must have witnessed the butchering of his beloved mother tongue on a daily basis. Imagine ordering a poet to concentrate his considerable talents on the rote memorization of rifle parts, or to limit himself to a handful of nouns for describing a landscape. The duelling voices in the poems, as Vernon Scannell notes, represent the 'divided self of the gentle, creative man compelled to adopt the role of the fighter,' in an environment of 'sexual longing and deprivation.' Reed ingeniously discloses to the reader where his loyalties really lie, gaily turning each dull lecture into a lesson about love and sex, relentlessly asserting his superiority in the killing fields of simile, turn-of-phrase, and double-entendre.

The simple piling swivel endures as a metaphor for Reed himself — a Hardy scholar, journalist, and homosexual — who finds himself unwittingly called up for military service. Although he ultimately withdrew to Bletchley Park and contributed to the war effort's vital codebreaking, as a lowly private daydreaming through his instruction on the parade ground he must have felt a certain sympathy for that small, impotent apparatus for which no one any longer had any use.

Many thanks to Professor Charles R. "Skip" Stratton, author of Enfield Rifle Research, for responding to my frequent questions about the curious career of the piling swivel.

More Piling of Arms:
Google imagesM-1 stacking swivel in Jaws (YouTube)Racks & Stacks
The Search to Properly Pile Arms



Page last modified: 01 October 2016