Army Spurs: A Brief History

The Order of the Spurs is a custom of the Cavalry Division of the United States Army that tracks all the way back to the medieval days of knights and fair maidens. The aspiring knight was required to perform a worthy deed in a tournament or on the battlefield to gain knighthood, or “win his spurs,” contrary to movies and even many books that portray the sword and sometimes the horse or armor as symbols of knighthood.  A knight in disgrace would have his spurs cut off in the ultimate act of degradation, so not only did a knight have to earn his spurts, he had to keep them as well.

history of army spursPrior to the Revolutionary War, horses were the primary source of mobility for militia units. The performance of the mounted militia was sporadic, depending upon training and experience, as well as the quality of weapons and horses. To top it off, much of the terrain that battles were fought on was hilly and heavily wooded, and the supply of horses was limited.  All of these factors discouraged the formation of a larger, more organized cavalry like those found in Europe; however, in spite of the challenges, the value of a permanent mounted force was clear.  On December 12, 1776, the Continental Congress authorized the 1st Regiment of Light Dragoons, or “mounted warriors,” and the United States Calvary was conceived.

Troopers have earned their spurs, carrying on the tradition started by their medieval brothers, since the Calvary’s earliest days. Initially, new troopers, marked by a horse with a shaved tail, underwent extensive training and earned their spurs only when they had mastered using a sabre while on horseback.  Modern spur rides consist of meeting a set criteria and successfully completing a series of events that challenge soldiers mentally and physically.

These exercises are designed to evaluate a soldier’s abilities in leadership, technical and tactical expertise, teamwork under intense stress and fatigue, and to demonstrate principles such as never leaving a fellow soldier behind. Soldiers typically complete a written examination as well, covering the history of the United States Cavalry and the histories of their respective units.  Spur rides also include reciting historical material from memory, such as the cavalry’s tradition poem, Fiddler’s Green.  A trooper is issued the Silver Spur upon passing all testing phases, and receives the Gold Spur for combat. Induction into the Order of the Spur is a highly-sought-after honor.

New spur holders are presented with their hard-earned spurs at a ceremonial dinner called the Spur Dinner, including traditional activities such as honoring lost comrades, roll call of the successful candidates, and, according to the 1st Cavalry Division’s publication “Welcome Trooper,” a ceremonial punch called a grog.

The United States Department of the Army classifies the Order of the Spur as an official Army tradition and mandates that each cavalry unit commander set induction regulations as well as cavalry dress code. While details may vary from unit to unit, every trooper is fitted with the traditional Stetson and a set of spurs. Spurs are worn in pairs at low quarters, and single soldiers wear the rowels of their spurs pointed up, while married soldier wear their rowels pointed down.

The United States Cavalry primarily uses mechanized “horses” now, but the time-honored traditions of this elite group have remained grounded in history and excellence. I would love to hear from any of you who are members of the Order of the Spurs.  What was your experience earning your spurs?

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3 thoughts on “Army Spurs: A Brief History”

  1. This is quite possibly one of the most interesting stories of Military tradition that I’ve come across so far. I had no idea about the historical significance of knights and the true value of earning, let alone keeping, their spurs. Nor did I realize that this tradition was so important within the Army. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about the infamous grog though!

  2. One of the things I would have really liked to accomplish in my career, but didn’t, was to earn my spurs and Stetson. I never had the chance to serve in a Cavalry unit, but if I did, it would have been awesome. Thanks for explaining everything so well.

    Chuck

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