The evolution of the police uniform is a fascinating aspect of policing history. The developments in uniform style, design, and purpose are intriguing reflections of a changing and progressive profession. Despite the changes overtime one accruement has remained an integral and enduring part of the police uniform – the baton. In the hands of a trained officer, the baton has proven to be an effective and versatile offensive, defensive, and escort tool. Offering both protection and control capabilities the baton has remained an important symbol of a proud profession and has earned a rightful place in the annals of law enforcement history.
The police baton can trace its origins to the 27BC Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus (Gaius Octavious – Great nephew to Julius Caesar). During this era the first non-military civilian police force was formed known as the “Vigiles Urbani” (Watchmen of the City), or “Cohortes Vigilum” (Cohorts of the watchmen). Initially formed of ex-slaves and freemen, this paramilitary police force served as a night watch auxiliary to supplement the military day watch Urban Cohort.
Protected by chain mail body armor “Hamata” and armed with a short sword and club, their insipient night watch duty with club might very well have coined the term “night stick.” Eventually, the Vigiles would assume a full time day-night police and fire watch service across the empire.
An early Watch and Ward system later developed in thirteenth century England. This Watch and Ward was an attempt to establish a police system in the large towns throughout England. Manned by citizen house holders the Watches were charged with fire watch, and peace keeping duties.
One early watch reference appears during the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685). The Watchmen of London at that time were appointed by the King and supposedly supervised their districts only once every 24 hours. Dubbed “Charlies” in jestful reference to his majesty’s police force, the Charlies were sometimes ridiculed as being poorly equipped, untrained, and less than effective.
Interestingly, an early critical account to these watchmen suggests an early reference to the baton. Describing the Charlies as being decrepit old fellows, they were said to be armed only with a staff which some, for lack of bodily strength, could scarcely lift.
Despite the critical reference, the Charley’s staff likely served an important service. By today’s standards, such a staff may appear to be rather unassuming. However, considering the military emphasis on the pike, and the quarter staff of the time, the staff served as a practical weapon as well an important visible symbol of the Charley’s authority.
In 1737 King George II enacted the 10th Elizabethan Act in an attempt to improve upon and regulate a night watch within the City of London. Crime was rampant and the night watch was considered to be a matter of great importance for the preservation of the inhabitants and their properties. Not only did the King authorize the City Common Council to create a night watch, but he also permitted taxes to be collected to pay for the service.
The night watchmen were authorized to apprehend all night-walkers, male factors, rogues, Vega bonds, and disorderly persons whom they found disturbing the public peace, or whom they suspected of evil designs. More than likely, the night watch character of a staff-like accruement might have further contributed to the origin of the night stick moniker.
By 1777 innovations in policing began to emerge, and King George III enacted the 14th Act, that detailed the actual number of watchmen, their wages, and how they were to be armed and accommodated. The act listed rattles, lanterns, and “staves” as authorized watch equipment. It remains apparent by these accounts that by this time, the staff of the early Charlies had evolved into the stave of these later watchmen. The baton, in essence, had firmly established itself as a bona fide policing provision.
By the early 1800’s old methods of law enforcement were unable to compete with the increased and more complex criminal problems associated with England’s industrialized society. Like many of England’s 19th century cities, London was reeling from the ill-effects of the industrial revolution, and was considered the most crime-ridden city in the Western World. The failure of the watch system to curb the social disorder pressed the desire for a radical policing reform – The Metropolitan Police Act of 1829.
Under this act London’s police were reorganized into a regulated uniformed civilian police force that would ultimately set the stage for policing to emerge as a respected and honored profession. Called “Peelers” after their founder British Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel, these early uniformed police pioneers were equipped with a rattle, and a hard wood baton stamped “Police Office.”
Eventually, the smaller wooden truncheon was introduced. Throughout the Victorian era the truncheon was commonly carried in a leather case worn from a uniform waist belt. Often, the case was equipped with a top piece or cover which completely encased the weapon. This non-threatening holstered appearance promoted the principle that a quiet determined manner had more effect than violent action. Although less intimidating in appearance, the truncheon proved a formidable and respected police weapon. A period reference for the proper swing of the instrument was termed a “fan.”
The traditional wooden baton sported a leather lanyard that was attached as a loop between the handle and barrel areas. This lanyard was an important feature for enhancing baton control. The lanyard’s proper length was determined by hanging the loop around either side of the thumb, and allowing the baton to dangle just below the bottom edge of the open hand.
During use, the lanyard loop was positioned around the thumb. Depending upon the preference of the carrier, the lanyard was then placed over either side of the hand before being griped. This allowed for a controlled grip, yet prevented the carrier from becoming snared during a confrontation. By releasing one’s grip, a quick release could easily be attained if the situation necessitated it.
Early police manuals taught three basic baton grips. A “two handed grip” positioned each hand at opposite ends of the baton. A “short grip” placed the baton barrel firmly against the underside of the forearm. A “Long grip” utilized the baton as an extension of the arm. Each method allowed for a variety of blocking and striking techniques. Utilizing the strength of the wrist and forearm, striking blows could be delivered short, quick, and accurate. More importantly, the force of the blows could be regulated.
Police officers were often trained in utilizing the baton in “move-along” and “come along” techniques. The difference between the two types of techniques meant the difference in the amount of control being exerted upon a subject. In the absence of handcuffs, techniques of utilizing the baton and lanyard as a temporary restraining device were also practiced. The issue of control was a crucial element in learning the management of the weapon. Its deployment could serve as a deterrent or become a matter of life or death. Officers who carried the baton knew it might become necessary to wield it in earnest.
Developing police technology has continued to offer an impressive array of baton related products dubbed night sticks, batons, truncheons, and clubs. Various lengths and purpose dubbed day-sticks, night-sticks, and riot-sticks. Revered as a uniformed standard, batons developed as ornate hand turned presentation pieces. Adorned with silk cord and tassels they remain a fancied and impressive accruement for the dress uniform at formal occasions. Not surprisingly, advancing technology has not diminished the baton’s reputation as a highly regarded police weapon. It has remained throughout the ages, an enduring icon of the policing service.
Lieutenant Jonathan Anderson is the Office Historian with the Onondaga County (NY) Sheriff’s Office. He is the author of several books including “The History of the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office.”