Royal Navy Field Gun. A lesson in incredible teamwork, motivation, commitment and missing fingers.

20121230-191744.jpgBack in about 1989 I went on a rugby tour to play against a Royal Navy Field Gun Team in Portsmouth.

Some of our team (Whitchurch Hospital Cardiff RFC) were on sabbatical from the Royal Navy and gave the following stern advice the evening before the game, “watch out for the Field Gun players with missing fingers…….they have no sense of fear and are absolutely committed to winning”. “Whatever you do, don’t pick a fight with them!”

This was obviously expressed in slightly more colourful language at 10pm in the bar, and I’ll leave it up to your imagination as to what was actually said.

Imagine my joy the next day to discover my opposite number had a missing finger on his right hand (and some missing teeth, but that’s pretty routine for the front row). He wasn’t the most technically effective Tighthead Prop I’ve ever played against, but probably the strongest and liveliest. I can’t actually remember who won the game, but we certainly lost the post match ‘entertainment’ by several nautical miles.

I never managed to sum up the courage to ask my opposite number why he was missing a finger, but this is the story that was told by my Royal Navy teammates…….. Before you read on have a look at this video of the Field Gun event from the Royal Tournament in 1999.

Field Gun has a remarkable history well worth reading about, going back to the siege of Ladysmith during the Boer War in 1900. The competition developed from this and involved two teams of 18 Royal Navy personnel transporting a field gun plus ammunition carriage around an obstacle course. That sounds reasonable until you actually see it in action.

With 900 pound gun barrels and other chunks of metal flying through the air and crashing together it is terrifying. It is an incredible thing to watch in terms of the individual skills, commitment and how they all fit together perfectly as a team to deliver the end result.

Back to the missing finger. The story goes that during one of the ‘runs’ of the assembled field gun it wasn’t unknown for a pin that secures the wheel on the axle to go missing. To avoid losing the race one of the highly committed team members would insert a finger into the pin hole, keep the wheel on the axle and get the team across the line to victory. The inevitable action of metal + finger + metal + frantic movement = bye-bye finger.

This of course could have been an urban myth. There was no YouTube in 1989 for me to check, though having recently  found this video of Field Gun training I’m quite glad I didn’t see what I was about to face. I reckon you could very easily lose a finger, or sustain any number of other dreadful injuries during just about any part of the exercise. The story did however make for excellent motivation and keep me on my toes throughout the rugby game.

Field Gun doesn’t exist nowadays in the Royal Tournament format shown in the 1999 video. I’m not sure of the reasons why, but defence cuts have been suggested and I bet health and safety probably had something to do with it.

As an example of astonishing levels of teamwork, motivation, commitment (and missing fingers) Field Gun is an incredible example. I’m not sure how you would replicate any of this in the current climate, or in non-military organisations, but it’s worth thinking about.

One final thought. Imagine Field Gun as an Olympic sport?  An interesting alternative to beach volleyball…

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Fear can be a great motivator, it worked for me.
  2. The smallest action within a team activity can have a big impact on the overall result. A dropped axle pin could result in losing a wheel, the race and a finger.
  3. People will do astonishing things if they are highly motivated and committed to the team objectives.

Links to videos of Field Gun: 1999 Royal Tournament Field Gun Competition. This is an astonishing spectacle. Amazing teamwork. Portsmouth Action Field Gun Team Recruitment video 2010. Field Gun Interviews. Described as the most dangerous team sport in the world. The training looks terrifying.

Photo source: BBC TV picture.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

18 Responses

  1. Louise

    You’ve just reminded me that when I was at school we had to do this with a mini cannon. It was exhausting but such fun. I think I still have the medal somewhere I got for being on the winning team!

  2. Chris kirman

    Watched the competition many times when competing myself in the Inter Service Skill at Arms Competition at the Royal Tournament. Excellent entertainment and always got audience participation. After our own events we used the Field Gun bar to drink and relax. My wife was introduced to Pusser’s Rum in the bar when she came to visit with my 2 year old son. She asked for white wine and got a double rum. She was addicted for life.

  3. Was involved with manchester youth field gun crew for quite a number of years/ I would say the best years of enjoyment doing something, and watching young lads compete in THE toughest team sport in the world was fantastic, you cannot praise the bravery enough, or their spirit.

    1. Alex Howard

      Terry, could you get in touch as I would not want the northern gunners to be left out as I develop the youth foundation for the sport. I intend to host a youth field gun council in the spring to kick things off. Cheers Alex

  4. Alex Howard

    Terry, command field gun was considered to have died in 1999 and since then the sport has been dominated by flat runs run by amateur teams. The shift was the change from the athletes (serving sailors drafted to the team) being professional to the sport becoming wholly amateur; yet another unique facet of the sport. I intend to change that! I am in the process of making the sport professional once more as I can see no other way of getting ‘command’ back where it belongs. There’s not just one mountain to climb but many. I am also developing governance and the youth foundation for the sport. I would welcome enquiries form anyone and particularly if you feel you could contribute or were part of the Manchester or Bolton Youth teams. Burning…….

  5. Russ Coulthard

    19 years since we last run, we are mates for life a special brotherhood that now extends to the rival crews we ran against. We have a great get together every Army Navy rugby match

  6. Gaz

    A great article… and I’m even in the video from the last run… with all fingers… just… was a great loss to the Navy and a spectacle of the likes we will never see again. BZ.

  7. Jim

    RAF have still got the Red Arrows! The Army have plenty of bands and horses!
    This was the only decent PR the navy ever had! Despite the great leadership training!

    Gone forever! Thanks Mr Blair.

  8. I was a medic at RNB (Portsmouth) and often had the task of repairing field gunners. they would come in “Broken” Fingers, ankles, you name it. but the words would be “strap It up Doc I’m running tonight”.. the first was a request. but you cant run with that! “Strap it up Doc I’m running tonight”. second time was not a request.. Go for wisdom not valour. Do not go for best of three. You would strap it up. He would say thank you and go on his way and he would run that night.. Field gun is not a sport it is a religion. I knew a guy that would try for selection every year. to get fit he would punch a senior rate for which he would be sentenced to Detention. Quarters. that was a hard regime.. he would come out of there really fit for his selection exam.. It was a sad sad day that these contest between the bases died. even if it did make it easier for us medics.. Of course The Royal Tournament at earls Court was one of the best recruiting forces ever.

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