Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): Gearing Up For War

This is the fourth in my series of blogs on panels at Ravencon I’m NOT doing.  For further explanation, see my earlier blog here.


This panel is described in the (still just a draft) write-up as “Depending on the time period, terrain, and the nature of the fight, you’re going to need different kinds of kit. We’ll discuss how human beings prepare for battle physically and mentally — and what that says about their society.” I really feel under-qualified for the topic of mental and physical preparation, and I don’t even want to touch the one about what these preparations “say about society” (talk about a land mine for those of us who try to maintain politically neutral public faces!).

But discussing military kit? That I can do, if only from the perspective of a military history buff who’s done enough research into this topic to know (at one time) what people were supposed to receive in a few historic kits by heart. (Okay, so, um, my focus was the history of the US Sailing Navy, but sailors needed kits, too!  And it has been a while since I last studied this, so don’t test me; I probably can’t recite everything from memory, any more)

Now, one of the things to remember is that, until the last century or so, a soldier’s “kit” was largely theoretical. Some bureaucrat somewhere would write up a list of what was supposed to be in a soldier’s kit and set a budget (usually below what was actually needed) for obtaining these supplies; some lesser bureaucrat elsewhere would receive the money to put these kits together, skim some of it off the top, and then toss it down the chain. Each toss down the chain to the next layer of government usually meant less money for each kit, to the point that soldiers and sailors rarely received much the kit they were assigned.

But, for the sake of our sanity, let’s talk about what was SUPPOSED to be issued to soldiers and sailors throughout the various eras we have records for… and we have records, in some cases, dating back to Roman times.  Sometimes the government paid for these kits, sometimes the soldier or sailor were responsible for paying for these things themselves; sometimes the kit was required to fit a uniform standard and design, and sometimes the soldier or sailor (or, especially, feudal lords\knights) could customize or fit themselves out on their own, and sometimes some things were provided and you had to pay for others.  Usually, the only ‘advantage’ of paying for your own kit is the ability to customize things.

Regardless, whether you were a Roman Soldier or a member of the modern military, there are several things which are common to every soldier’s (or sailor’s) kits:

Some form of weaponry.  Whether that’s swords, spears, bows and arrows, or firearms, you would get a weapon (sometimes more than one).  At times in history, the weapons would not actually be issued with the kit, but handed out right before battle; regardless a weapon of some type should be considered part of the kit.

Body armor.  Note that this isn’t always a part of your kit; early Roman infantry soldiers wore none to increase speed and ease of movement (and as a cost-cutting measure), though later on various different types of armor were developed and issued.  Sailors from the Napoleanic era certainly didn’t wear armor into battle (though Spanish officers sometimes did).  Frequently, armor was something the soldier would have to pay for out of his own pocket (or get docked out of his pay), as it often had to be custom-fit to the person wearing it.  Today, soldiers are usually issued body armor (bulletproof vests) as part of their kit, though occasionally soldiers may purchase “civilian” gear if the issued equipment is defective or insufficient and replacement gear is slow to arrive (this is technically not permitted in the US Army, but the rule has been relaxed and\or ignored at various times of crisis).

An “entrenching tool” (aka, a shovel) were part of most soldiers kits (though not most sailors, as you obviously aren’t going to be digging through your wooden ship’s decking; in its place, however, sailors were issued tools for splicing rope or similar Naval tasks).  A soldier needed his shovel to be able to dig out camp latrines, dig in temporary fortifications and trenches, and more.  Plus, they could work as a backup weapon in a pinch.

Usually, soldiers were also issued clothing.  This could be something as simple as basic livery to go over your armor, or multiple types of uniform for use in different times of the year and on different occasions.  This can include not just the obvious uniform pieces, but also things like socks, shoes, underwear, belts, etc.

A water containment device (whether that’s a waterskin, a canteen, or something else).

Cooking gear of some sort.  You might not have the tools for gourmet cooking on hand, but some way to build a fire and hold food over that fire is quite handy.  You also need some method of eating food given to you, so a bowl for soups and stews, a spoon, a knife, a fork if they’ve been invented… that kind of thing.

An axe or saw for cutting wood.  Because you need some way of getting fuel for those cooking fires.

A satchel\backpack\bag of some kind.  Because you’ve got a lot of gear you need to carry around.

Bedding.  This could be anything from just a simple blanket to a full-on kit for a tent, a sleeping bag, a rain tarp, and more.  The most original bit of bedding kit I recall is from the American Civil War, where soldiers were each issued HALF of a two-person tent; if your buddy lost his gear, you were out of luck.

Frequently, sewing supplies were a part of a soldier’s kit.  Soldiers and sailors were responsible for the maintenance of their clothing, so having a needle and thread were handy.  Plus, it gave you something to do in your downtime.  Macramé may popularly be thought to have its origins in the fringe work of arabic carpets, and in modern times is often stereotypically found in some hippie peacenik fashions, but making it was an extremely popular hobby among 17th, 18th, and 19th century sailors.

Finally, most soldiers starting out get a small supply of consumables — some hard tack biscuits or similar emergency rations, a half-a pint of rum a day (usually watered down into grog on shipboard), gunpowder when needed to support a black powder weapon, oils for maintaining equipment, soaps for keeping clean, etc.  How regularly these consumables were replaced (or whether they were replaced at all) varied from army to army.

Specific parts of the military might get special items, as well.  For example, if you were in the horse cavalry, you’d probably get special gear for your horse (while I know this is true, I’m fuzzy on the particulars of what would be issued).  Scouts might be issued some form of looking glass (binoculars, special sights, etc.).  Etc.

Of course, even if the military provides all of that, there were still things soldiers and sailors loved to add to their kit whenever possible.  Games (such as chess sets), cards, small musical instruments, and other material designed for entertainment were often more of a necessity than the shovels, cooking gear, and spare underwear, but rarely would any government service give them to their soldiers for free.

And if you’re a writer, you may need to add a few more unusual items to the kit, depending on genre.  I mean, if you’re writing a sword and sorcery, any magical characters may require certain components for ammo.  In certain science fiction universes (think Star Trek), some sort of portable sensor (think tricorder) would likely be a part of your kit.  That sort of thing.

As a writer, you may never need to let your readers know everything that’s in your fictional character’s kit, but it’s generally a good idea to keep track of the resources your character has as a writer.  Otherwise, you might wind up in a situation where your character has a ridiculous number of little-used items (like, say, Bat Shark-Repellant) that can turn the whole thing into a joke.  And it’s a good idea to get some idea of how much a soldier can store on themselves — it’s probably more than you think, but less than you want — while composing your characters’ kits.

Of course, like every other bit of writing advice you might receive, it’s not a hard and fast rule.  After all, the 1960s Batman is still a popular cultural icon, Bat Shark-Repellant and all…

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