Thursday, December 13, 2012

The History of "Maggies Drawers" by Hap Rocketto

I recently emailed a few questions to Hap Rocketto, noted shooting historian and "Adjutant to the Stars". One of them was, where the term "Maggies Drawers" came from. Here, in it's entirety is his reply for your viewing pleasure.


As you so well know from your days at the Recruit Depot the term Maggie’s Drawers refers to the red flag waved vigorously across the face of the target to signify a complete miss of the target during practice.

This is not to say you saw any, just noticed them on other shooter’s firing points.

Captain Allen Cameron, USN, was the executive officer of the Naval Underwater Sound Laboratory located at Fort Trumbull in New London, Connecticut when I was a senior in high school. The Captain, a pretty serious rifle shooter, got me started in high power and then supported my habit with a service grade M1 from the Lab’s armory and as much Twin Cities 54 .30-06 ball ammunition as I could carry away.

He arranged for me to shoot my first real high power match, which happened to be on the 15th Infantry range at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in 1967. Those were the waning days of the old V target and marking and scoring shots was different than it is now. After you shot the target was pulled, marked, and pushed up. The pit crew would then indicate the location of your shot by holding a white disc on a long pole over the shot and fluttering it. A specific placement and movement of the paddle would then indicate the value. A white paddle whipped across the target from three to six o’clock was a V; the same paddle pumped from six to the center of the bull was a five. The white paddle moved like the five, but on the right edge of the frame was a four and on the left a trey.

Since then the target has changed to the decimal bull and the marking system has been revised several times. Flags are no longer used, being replaced by value panels and chalk boards. However, one term from the flag days has held on with a tenacity that is indicative of the strong traditions of the high power community. If a shooter had the misfortune of firing a miss a red flag was waved across the front of the target. The flag is commonly known as “Maggie’s Drawers” giving us the term now generally used to refer to a miss. Although recently I heard that, because they now use red value panels to indicate a miss a Maggie’s Drawers has begun to become referred to as a “meatball.”

The term Maggie’s Drawers seems to be based on, as many things are in the military, a bawdy song. Prior to The Great War there was an old music hall song entitled The Old Red Flannel Drawers That Maggie Wore which became bowdlerized, as things tend to be by the troops, into something less delicate than might have been sung in vaudeville in the United States or in British music Halls of the day? Below you will find a variant.

The Old Red Flannel Drawers That Maggie Wore

On the night that Maggie died
she called me to her side
and gave me those good old flannels

They were tattered, they were torn,
'Round the asshole they were worn.
Those old red flannel drawers that Maggie wore.

When she stooped to fix her shoe
You could see her ring-dang-doo
Those old red flannel drawers that Maggie wore.

When she stooped to fix her lace
You could see the promised place
Those old red flannel drawers that Maggie wore.

When she stooped to fix her garter
You could see her red tomato
Those old red flannel drawers that Maggie wore.

When she threw them in the sea
They came floating back to me
Those old red flannel drawers that Maggie wore.

While I have no definitive proof that this is the origin of the term I feel it is as rational and as reasonable a source as any. As I have not heard of a competing story I feel pretty comfortable supporting this Etymology of the term.

Target marking is an essential procedure on rifle ranges in all military organizations and there appears to be some sort of commonality in the signals across national boundaries. Perhaps this is a legacy of the organized international shooting movement that has been a fixture since the International Shooting Union, now International Shooting Sports Federation, was created 1907.

With that in mind a target marking tale related by a World War I British infantryman makes some sense. For most of the war the zigzag lines of the combatant’s trenches were just a few hundred yards apart and any readily observable activity quite often drew fire from the opposing side. One muddy spring day the young soldier noted the blade of a shovel and the top of a helmet pop up at regular intervals from the German trench as a Hun was trying to make things either more safe or comfortable in his ditch. Beckoning over his sergeant, who in turn called over their officer, the trio of Tommys watched and timed the regular movement while the rest of the squad carefully positioned themselves behind sandbags; magazines loaded, safeties off, and rifles aimed at a spot just above the spoil that was building up in front of the trench.

After a little bit all was ready and when the shovel and helmet next burst into view the command for independent rapid fire was quickly given and a swarm of .303 bullets were sent buzzing on their way toward the German trench. Magazines empty the British solders dropped quickly behind their parapet, reloaded, and waited while their officer peered through his trench periscope across No Man’s Land at the bullet pock marked section of German trench. The breeze blew away the gun smoke and the smell of cordite revealing the Hun’s shovel thrust straight into the air, it then was vigorously waved back and forth from left to right, the universal symbol of a miss. After spending 72 hours, 51 of which it was raining, waist deep in mud and water the strain of combat was broken for an instant and the riflemen broke into a raucous laughter at the spunk of the German.

For my part I have probably seen more “Maggie’s Drawers” than most competitors. You see my wife’s name is Margaret, Maggie to some, and her bureau is filled with them.

I thought you might like to see this poem by James Stockton, a gunner with C Co., 5thTank Battalion, 5thMarDiv on Iwo Jima.

Maggie’s Drawers

A hundred Marines sat on the line,

Rapid fire, and all was fine.

The rifles cracked, Bull's Eyes, we know;

Down came the targets, now they'll show.

White spotters adorned targets left and right,

Looked like snow, a pretty sight.

But Wait!!!! What's that where I shot?

Not a single one! . . . not one white spot.

I look for black ones 'round the "bull,"

No luck there either, I feel a chill.

They start the disks, white for bulls,

None for mine . . . there they were still.

A single pole rose o'er the butts

Waved back and forth, like in a rut.

A red flag waving, a miss of course,

And that red flag is "Maggie's Drawers."

Suddenly a commotion is heard on line,

I thought, "My coach, and it's my time."

But a good-lookin' dame comes down the track:

                                   "My name is Maggie — and I wants 'em back."


Gorobei Suzuki said...

Great stuff! Thanks for posting all this!


Anonymous said...

I heard the origin was a cavalry soldier named McGee wearing the issued reds and not able to hit a target, but as time passed, the troopers changed the name to Maggie!

Anonymous said...

I grew up hearing my father sing this song, although many of the verses are foreign to me. Maybe he made up his own lyrics, but who knows. His included....
They were full of shit and cheese,
They were baggy to the knees,
Oh, them ole red drawers that Maggie wore.
When she hung 'em on the line,
the sun refused to shine,
On them ole red drawers that Maggie wore.

He grew up in northeast Arkansas in the tiny town of Armorel.

Moe said...

Ahhh, the great military traditional songs. Love them. Thanks for some history.

rws1443 said...

When competing at camp Perry in the 50's, The story I was told,young lady that like to hang out at West Point. Went down to the pits one day were shooting and when someone shot a complete miss Maggie offer her bloomers to be tied to the flag staff to be waived in front of the target. Thus Maggie drawers. Good story !!

Anonymous said...

Great stories, ALL!

Now, at Talladega and starting at Petrarca Range at Camp Perry, we'll now use "electronic" targets. All electronic--no need for duty in the butts!

Oh--the humanity! Have they no decency?

Me likes the "Good Old Days" with Maggie's Drawers!