Richard Henry

Ditsong National Museum of Military History

Date: 19 June 2019



My father Andrew John Henry was the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) of West Park, later Sandton Commando from 1964 -1981.  While I was growing up I occasionally saw him on unit parades with a wooden stick tucked under his left arm when calling:  GET ON PARADE!  I never knew what this stick was for.

The SADF taught the incorrect method

The term Military Precisionis often used when events happen seamlessly.  But behind the military precision is much practice.  Like every other white male I was called up to my two years full time National Service, starting on 11 January 1979.  I was at first posted to 11 Commando in Kimberley and three weeks later transferred to 2 South African Infantry Battalion Group at Walvis Bay. In all the basic training and drill and square bashing,never did I see the pace stick used.  The corporal instructors gave order like, afmarsjeer, regs om, rig of die linker flank,voorwaarts mars.Never was there any instruction of how big a step was to be taken or how many paces per minute were to be taken. This seemed to rely on the speed the instructor calling out the pace – links, regs, links, regs.  One would get used to the pace of the instructor and his unique drill instructions.  The drill standard was high and feet and arms were always in unison.  The houding (bearing) was well taught and the soldiers were proud of their training and believed the instructor when he told them they were the best squad ever.  I always thought that when halting, and dressing to the right was called, there was always an unnecessary amount of shuffling to the left before the command eyes front was given. The other occurrence which concerned me was the concertina effect of the squad stretching out and then compressing as the taller men at the head of the squad step out and then were ordered to step shorter.   To ensure that everyone reacted to each command at the same time, a member of the squad was designated to call out the time; ONE (pause) two three – ONE. We were only to move on the ONE. The pause before the two three was supposed to be about two seconds, but it was always hurried. Not once were we drilled in English.

At the end of our first year we prepared for a trooping of the Regimental Colour.  RSM Smit had the battalion on the parade ground to practice. For the first time English commands were used which led to chaos.  He wanted the timing of the moves to slow down.  He insisted that we call out the beat of a drum, BOOM- chick chick –BOOM with the troops acting on the BOOM only.    Just when we had us all working to the same timing, the band which was going to lead the parade arrived, and their BOOM chick chick BOOM was different to what we had been practicing.  We soon adjusted to the band and the parade went off very well.  All this change of pace and step would be unnecessary if drill instructors were taught using a pace stick.

History of the pace stick

The Roman legions set a specific speed of march and step distance for different conditions.  Under good summer conditions the legion was expected to cover a distance of 20 miles in five hours using the common step. If ordered to march with the full step they were expected to cover 24 miles in the same period of time.  These orders and step size helped commanders estimate the time of arrival of a legion so that they could plan an attack, defence or retreat.

In the British Army the Royal Regiment of Artillery lay claim to be the originator of the pace stick. They used a stick to ensure the correct distance between guns during battle.

The 1824 book entitled FieldExercise and Evolution of the Armymentions on page 11 under Stepping Out– “on the word Step Out the recruit must be taught to lengthen his step to 33 inches and when the command Quick Step is given the pace of 30 inches can be resumed”.  This proves that the British Army were using defined paces of different lengths in drill instruction in 1824.

The 1866, Arms & Equipment of the British Army on page 21 states “Pace Sticks are to last for 10 years.  Captains of companies are to provide one pace stick per company”. The table on the same page lists the articles which are to be provided for very battalion of infantry, Rifles included.  “Pace sticks – 5, in addition to the 1 per company”.  The cost is down as 7 shillings 6 pence and the mass as 1lb 7 ounces.

The Pace Stick described

The pace stick is a training instrument to ensure all soldiers take the same measured step distance and maintain the correct distance between ranks . The correct pace length is necessary not only for parade ground work but also to reduce fatigue on long marches. It looks like a giant drafting compass, similar to those which are used at school to draw on the blackboard. It consists of two pieces of wood (Maple, Ash wood or Malacca) ranging from 36 to 44 inches long depending on one’s choice and hinged at the apex. My father’s pace stick is measured at 36 inches (914mm). The wood tapers from the apex to the shoes at the bottom. The shoes are normally highly polished brass. A brass gauge marked with the following inch sizes: 12, 21, 24, 27, 30, 33 and 40 is set with a brass thumb screw. When set open at one of the sizes (30 inches for instance for quick march) the distance between the open legs of the stick at the shoes is 30 inches. When the pace stick is closed the gauge lies neatly with a slot in one of the legs and the thumb screw lock the two legs together.  The pace stick comes in black, medium oak, dark oak, light oak, and rose wood. Pace sticks are humidity resistant and long lasting.  In some regiments it is common to distinguish appointments and ranks by the colour of the pace stick. The darker the wood, the more senior, the rank. The RSM chooses a colour close to black.

Who use the pace stick?

The pace stick is carried by warrant officers and non-commissioned officer drill instructors in British and British Commonwealth armed forces as a symbol of authority and to aid military drill. Normally only the Regimental Sergeant Major is allowed to carry a pace stick off the parade ground.  

How is the pace stick carried when closed?

The pace stick is held under the left armpit by pressure of the upper arm on the rib cage, at the point of balance, parallel to the ground.  The shoes are to the rear. The retaining thumb screw must be uppermost. The head of the stick is held between the thumb and forefinger of the left hand. The fingers of the left hand are extended with the index finger running parallel with the stick and the tip of the middle finger in line with the head end of the stick.  The right arm is kept at the side. At the march the right arm is swung.

Pacing out a distance

The stick is opened and set at the required distance. The front leg (the shoe) of the stick is held vertical and rested on the ground in line with and 2cm to the right of the toe of the right boot. On command Quick March the instructor steps off with the left foot. He simultaneously swings the rear leg of the stick forward by twisting with the fingers and thumb and rotating the free leg outwards and forward. The swinging shoe must be placed on the ground straight in front of the shoe already on the ground and in time with the pace.  Much practice is needed to become proficient.

What are the various set distances on the pace stick used for?

12 inches          To regulate he distance between heels of boots when standing at ease.

21 inches          The distance between ranks when stood in closed order

24 inches          The distance between files, also the width on one man when leaving a blank file

27 inches          The distance the inside rank must step (from standard 30 inches) when wheeling

30 inches          This is the regulation pace for both quick and slow march

33 inches          The distance the outside rank must step (stepping out) when wheeling

40 inches          The regulation pace for double march

Marching speeds

Most armies have various speeds of march but as the pace stick use is most common in British and British Commonwealth countries, these speeds will be discussed. The British Army 1935 standard called for 70 paces per minute for Slow Time.  This speed is mostly for ceremonial use, at funeral marches and when the unit’s Colour is marched out in front of the troops at trooping the Colour parades.  The standard marching speed Quick Time or Quick March is used on most occasions on parade or when moving soldiers in a squad from one location to another.  The speed of Quick Time is 120 paces per minute. It there is a need to quickly get troops to their required position Double Time is used. This is at 180 paces per minute and with a 40 inch (1m) step.  This is a run.   Instructors are taught these speeds by using a metronome, which produces an audible click at regular set intervals – such as 120 beats per minute.

On large parades marching columns are often lead by military bands.  These bands also use metronomes to ensure a constant and regular beat. The normal speed of a military band is 108 paces per minute and pipe band (bagpipes) at 110 paces per minute.

Getting the military precision just right

How does the military marching column pass the saluting base for the dignitary to take the salute at exactly the correct time?   The RSM, when planning the parade paces out the distance from the start line to the salute base.  As an example let us say this is 3 550 m.  That equates to 4 408 standard 30 inch pace (760mm).  Now the soldiers will be led by a pipe band and they march at 110 paces per minute.  That equates to 40 minutes and four seconds.  The parade order specifies that the salute will be taken at 11H00.  The RSM will then ensure that the command Quick Time March will be given at precisely 10H19 and 56 seconds.  From this example is obvious that if the band plays at a quicker or slower speed than the 110 paces per minute or if the soldier takes smaller or larger paces than the regulation 30 inches, then the column will either be late or early and that is not how the military works.


I have seen images of The South African National Defence Force should training with the pace stick. Let us hope that this transforms in a standardized pace and speed for all drill within the SANDF.



Torrens, H, Maj General            Field Exercise and Evolutions of The Army 1824   William                                                            Clowes, London, reprinted by The Naval & Military Press

Walther, J (Ed)                          Arms & Equipment of the British Army, 1866, reprinted by Greenhill                                           Books, London, 1986


Wikipedia                                 Pace stick   sourced 19/6/2019

Forces Network                        Pace Sticking: What is it Really All About   sourced 15/6/2019

Canadian Department of National Defence Military History Heritage Manual chapter 6 Pace Stick and Cane Drill

                                                sourced 18 June 2019

Kopstein, J                                Marching Speeds in Altissimo Recordings 29 November 2012   sourced 5 June 2109