The rope-tensioned wooden snare drum was the primary instrument of the British field musician during the War of 1812. Each British line infantry battalion was authorised two drummers per company, which were grouped together under the direction of the drum major. The importance of the snare drum within the regimental command and control structure was such that when formed as a body, the field musicians of a line infantry regiment were always referred to as a corps of drums, even when fifers and buglers were included in their numbers. The drums themselves, emblazoned with the unit’s crest, were treasures of the regiment second only to the regimental colours in importance, and the loss of drums to the enemy in battle was considered a disgrace.
The side snare drum originated in the Middle East. Known to the Arabs as ‘naggura’ or ‘taburak’, these were small, wooden-shelled instruments whose dual animal skin heads were tensioned by ropes. They were introduced in Europe as a result of the Crusades, by noblemen who seized upon the Saracen custom of having a drummer in their personal retinue. By the early nineteenth century, these instruments had evolved into a shape and design familiar today. British military drums of the period were made up of wooden shells, covered with calfskin heads and tensioned by means of linen ropes and sliding leather ears. The distinctive sound of the snare drum was provided by animal-gut snares affixed to the bottom of the shell, and tensioned by a simple metal ‘J’-hook.
British drums were somewhat larger than those used today, usually measuring within a range of 16 x 16 or 16 x 18 inches, although slightly smaller examples are known to exist. Military drums were contracted from civilian suppliers by the Board of Ordnance according to approved patterns, and issued to regiments as part of their arms and equipment, although many regiments purchased theirs privately. According to the Royal Warrant of 1768 (which remained in effect with regards to drums up to the 1812 period), drums were to be emblazoned with a field of the regimental facing colour on the front, upon which only a crown, the monarch’s cipher and the regimental number were to be painted. Despite this, there is ample evidence to show that many regiments ignored orders and painted their drum shells and hoops with a bewildering variety of colours and designs, although certain motifs such as the British monarchical coat of arms were common.
Brass drums were also used by the British army, though to an uncertain degree. Brass drums were thought to be more robust than wooden ones, and were considered to have a better tone, although the associated polishing and maintenance must have been the bane of the drummers who played them. Their introduction perhaps stemmed from the war against France and her allies, most of whom used brass drums. During the Peninsular War, the drummers of the British 34th Regiment are known to have used the brass drums of the French 34eme Regiment de Ligne, taken as trophies when the British regiment defeated and captured its French counterpart in battle. Although wooden drums remained regulation and continued to be issued to regiments throughout the period, certain units may have purchased brass drums privately. Acquired from private sources, brass drums were more expensive than the regulation wooden drums, and not used as frequently. There is some evidence to suggest that a few regiments in Canada used these instruments. The Nova Scotia Fencibles are known to have done so, as a brass drum emblazoned with the province’s coat of arms has survived in remarkable condition, and is currently housed in the collection of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. However, it is unclear how widespread the use of brass drums was in the British army during this time, and it is interesting to note that the overwhelming majority of documented military drums that survive from the period are of the wooden-shelled variety.