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Page Created: 15/08/2004
Last Modified: 7/05/2010
© 15/08/2004

Private Soldiers

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Servitor Gunner
The rank of Gunner originally had a higher status than the lowest in the chain of command. The descent from non-military civilian craftsman to private soldier reflects the development of artillery as a military entity. In the course of that development a range of specialists came and went.


Gunners are first mentioned in 1344, making them the third oldest continuous rank in the Army, and the oldest in Artillery.

At that time Gunners were civilians versed in the craft of gunnery and were hired with their guns when a train of Artillery was raised. The Gunner was responsible for technical matters - care and maintenance of the gun, laying and adjusting during firing. They were usually assisted by a Servitor Gunner, with others performing laborious work like clearing ground and digging tracks.

The anomaly of civilian Gunners with control over artillery began to erode in the 1600s and by 1697 Bombardiers had taken control of guns as well as mortars, and Gunners were relegated to behind Bombardiers and Petardiers in the command chain, just above the troops of line that provided unskilled manpower.

Why Gunner?
The word gun is old and its source beyond Middle English variations on gŏnne or gunne is uncertain. The most likely is Old English gonne or gunne derived from the Old Norse gunnr or gunnar. Both shortened Gunnhildr, a womens name that was either a nickname that became a general name for all seige engines, or because Gunn and Hildr both mean battle.

Gŏnner was the name for a cannoneer who operated a seige engine.

Servitor GunnerTop

In early years the Gunner was assisted by a Servitor Gunner - an attendant or assistant who performed the less technical firing and maintenance work.

By 1547 the servitor was dropped and the title of the assistant changed to Cannoneer.


Cannon means a long tube, and referred to smooth-bored muzzle-loading pieces, first recorded around 1426. A gun is a form of cannon, and Cannoneer was the name for those who handled them.


Matross was the name given to a Gunners assistant from 1639. The Matross performed the less skilled technical artillery work, such as handling the gun into position, loading and sponging out during firing. The position disappeared in 1783 when the distinction between Gunners and Matrosses was abolished.

Why Matross?
The word Matross is commonly thought to have entered English from the French matelot, meaning sailor, because tasks such as hauling drag ropes and sponging out were considered sailors work.

Matelot derives from Old French matenot, borrowed from Middle Dutch mattenoot. One possible source for mattenoot is a Latin combination that forms "bed mate - a reference to the naval habit of "hot-bedding", or rotating bunks between sailors on different watches. Another explanation uses a play on mast and the job of hauling sails.

A more robust source is Old Norse, the base language for Scandinavian and British English, and influential in German and Dutch. The Nordic mötunautr combines mata and nautr to mean "mess partner".

This accounts for the Danish matros, Dutch matroos and German Matrosen, all of which borrowed matenot around 1600 and turned it to meanings from seaman to companion or partner. That gives a clue to the meaning when introduced to Artillery - James II was King, and his mother was Anne of Denmark. It also accounts for the survival of derivatives such as "Gunners Mate" in the USA Navy.

Whatever, the origin, Matross was meant to identify the connection between the Gunner and his assistant, separate from the rest who provided the unskilled labour around the guns.


The petardier, or petardeer, was included in the train of artillery from around 1618 and ceased to be held shortly after the Regiment was formed, about 1728. A petard was a bell or cone shaped container filled with gunpowder invented in France around 1598 to breach fortifications. It was hung from a stake driven into the target and secured by a fork shaped brace.

The saying "hoist by one's own petard" refers to the unfortunate Petardier who, having survived defending fire while laying the bomb, was caught by the back-blast as he attempted his get away. Tradition has Petardiers "well fortified" with alcohol before the start of a battle. Small wonder.



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