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Cavalry Stetson Traditions

Updated on August 7, 2011

The Stetson Cavalry Hat - A Military Tradition

The Cavalry hat or "Cav Stetson" originated out of necessity for Civil War era troopers. It kept the rain off and provided sun protection. In the late 1960s, Lieutenant Colonel John B. Stockton of 3/17 Cav, adopted the Stetson hat to increase esprit de corps and emulate the historic Civil War look. As units deployed to Vietnam, the custom slowly spread to other units, and by the end of the conflict, nearly all Air Cav (and many ground Cav) units had adopted the Cav hat, an honored tradition that still lives today in veterans, enthusiasts, and active duty Troopers at home and abroad.

Robert Duvall as LTC Kilgore in "Apocalypse Now"
Robert Duvall as LTC Kilgore in "Apocalypse Now"

The Cavalry Stetson

Origins

The Cav Hat is an Army that was originated in early 1964 by LTC John B. Stockton (Commander of 3/17 Cavalry) at Fort Benning,Georgia. It was an unauthorized uniform item worn by air cavalrymen in Vietnam. Nearly every Cav trooper remembers the scene in "Apocalypse Now" when Robert Duvall prepared for his assault in his Stetson. The hat was adopted in an effort to increase esprit de corps in the Army's first air cavalry squadron as a means of honoring the 1876 pattern campaign hat worn by troopers long ago. Once units deployed to Vietnam , the custom slowly spread to other air cavalry units, and by the cessation of hostilities, virtually all air cav (and some ground cav) units had adopted the Cav hat, which became as famous as the huge mustaches of the pilots who wore them!

Example of a modern-day Air Cavalry Stetson
Example of a modern-day Air Cavalry Stetson

Breaking in a Stetson

Cavalry Traditions

The tradition of “Breaking in a Stetson” has various forms. Inductees into a Cavalry unit can obtain a Stetson from several different ways – you can purchase one, receive it as a gift, or even have one sponsored by members of your unit. However, you are not authorized to wear it at a unit function until it is properly “broken in”. The breaking in ceremony is similar to an initiation or rite of passage, so to speak, and builds Esprit de Corps among Cav Troopers. In the days of the mounted cavalry, many hats were made with waterproof liners, not only to keep the rain off, but also to carry water. When a horse and rider would come to a steep riverbed, the Cav Trooper, knowing that his horse always comes first, would use his Stetson to scoop water for his horse to drink.

Cav soldiers have incorporated this practice into the ‘breaking in” tradition. The new inductee holds the hat upside down, and the senior spur holders pour a mix of different alcohols into the hat.

To conduct this event properly, the senior Stetson wearers and spur holders have a couple of responsibilities: First, set the ground rules. Your new Troopers will be drinking this mix, so keep it somewhat clean. Try to refrain from throwing raw eggs, chewing tobacco, spit, or cigar ashes into it. At least try. Next, when pouring in alcohol, it should represent the Cavalry in some way. For example, “In honor of Garryowen’s tremendous sacrifices in the frozen hell that was Korea, against the massed and savage red hordes that died on regimental blades, we add that potent and devious extract known as "Soju”. Here's another example: "The Persian Gulf War taught us that with the addition of our tanks, our Bradleys, and our aircraft, we had worthy replacements for our old cavalry steeds. To salute the war, we add sand (brown sugar), and for our new dedicated workhorses, we add their lifeblood, JP-8.” (or jet fuel, substituted with grain alcohol).

Similar to many of the cav traditions, how your unit breaks in your Stetson is up to them. Some require it to be a formal occasion (i.e. dining out or dining in), but many make the “breaking in” an informal portion of the unit’s Hail and Farewell. The “hail and bail” as it is sometimes referred to, gives the chain of command an opportunity to officially greet (and introduce) the incoming soldiers and their families to the unit, as well as recognize Troopers who are departing due to PCS, ETS, or retirement. A “breaking in” can also be conducted at an informal event or location such as a unit party. The latter is sometimes a better idea, as this event can sometimes get messy. To include any more details would ruin the fun.

Yellow Enlisted Hat Cord from CavHooah.com
Yellow Enlisted Hat Cord from CavHooah.com

Hat Cords

Also known as bands, straps, knots, braids, hobbles, and keeps!

The Stetsons worn by many Cavalry soldiers all include a colored band just above the brim referred to as a cord, braid, hobble, wrap, or acorn.

The most popular color, yellow, is worn by all enlisted Cavalry soldiers.

“Legend has it” that the acorns at the end of the cords were designed to bounce off the brim of the hat to keep riders awake.

Legend also says that “in the olden days”, there were no such thing as combat patches, so the units had soldiers tie their acorns in a knot to show they were combat experienced. This is done by tying the two acorns around the hat cord. The knots are referred to as “Combat Knots.”

I claim all this to be legend because there is nothing in writing about it. It is all Cavalry Stetson tradition. Some of this dates back to the first world war, some much farther back than that. Read on…

“Dan,

I saw your post concerning combat knots on a couple of different forums and thought I’d offer you what little info I know. I’m one of those dreaded non-19D Stetson wearers. I served in the 1st Cavalry Division as an 11M for a number of years, including Desert Storm.

Although we were Infantry, our Commissioned Officers often wore unit-specific Cavalry brass (or sew on) on their collars, and our unit guidons were red and white Cavalry guidons rather than blue Infantry guidons.

Researching Cavalry Stetsons a little less than a year ago and using “combat knots” as a search term, I found an online auction selling what was described as a WWI peaked campaign hat. It was brownish in color and resembled a modern day Drill Sergeant’s hat. The auctioneer claimed it had been worn overseas by the auctioneer’s ancestor, and had been recently found in an attic. By way of establishing the authenticity of the hat, the auctioneer specifically mentioned the knots and said that the ancestor had explained when the auctioneer was a child that the knots signified combat service.

The hat itself was out of shape and looked moth-eaten, but I saw the knots that had been tied in the cord very clearly. Each cord end had been tied into a half hitch by running them under and back up behind both cords, then back forward and through the loop it had created. The half hitches were snugged together toward the little sleeve that retains the cords in the front.

As I was only looking for an example of how to tie the same knots into mine, I didn’t bother to save a copy of the images. It didn’t occur to me that I’d ever need or want to provide any verification on the subject. Unfortunately, I’m unable to find those pictures again and I haven’t found any others like them. Hope this helps you. First Team!”

The 1st Cavalry Division authorizes knots in their hat cords also, but they do not call them Combat Knots.

Here is a link to their MOI: http://www.1cda.org/cav_hat_moi.htm

To see the different hat cord colors and their associated branch, visit:

http://www.cavhooah.com/info/cavalry-traditions/st...

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