Greaser's WW2 Reenacting Newbie FAQ
Written: Fall 2007
Published: Dec 31, 2007
Author: Chris Guska
Here are some questions and answers that have been asked of me, or posted frequently on the WWII Reenactors Forum.
The basis of this FAQ was written in the fall of 2007 for my own unit and publication on our www.90thidpg.us At the time of its original creation it was geared specifically for the US Infantry re-enactor. Much of these questions and the answers contained herein are universal across reenacting, US, German, Russian, Italian, Romanian, Insert your favorite army here. I’ve had the gracious input of my colleagues Maurizio Piziglia and the rest of the WWII Reenactors Forum staff. If you notice a break in writing styles or voice at times – it may be some of their commentary added in.
Keep in mind, that these are my opinions and angles on these answers. You might not like them, they may not smell like roses to you, if you don’t like what you’re reading – stop.
If there are a handful of things to take away from this article, they are:
Make friends, Get a mentor (who is a friend that you can ask your basic questions of), Get a good unit who are your friends and are doing what you want to do, Enjoy yourself as this hobby is ultimately about having fun, and most importantly, don’t be afraid to use Google!
-Why do people reenact?
-What should I look for in a Unit?
-I want to start my own unit:
-What is a FARB?
-What should I buy first?
-What uniform size should I buy?
-Where do you guys get your gear?
-Where do I get the “cheapest”?
-Where do I get “insert weapon here”?
-What should I pay for “such and such weapon?”
-Where do you get blanks?
-How do blanks work?
-What is a Tactical?
-How do you guys know if you’re hit?
-Where do you guys get your information?
-How do I do research?
-I saw a photo of X, so I want to do that:
-Why don’t you use airsoft / paintball?
-What should I bring to my first event?
-I want to be an officer:
-I want to be a NCO (Sergeant or above):
-I want to be X rank:
-I’m not 16 or 18 yet, what can I do?
-There’s a ton of units in my area, how do I chose one?
-Why have a mentor?
-Should I buy US made items or are imported items ok?
-About vendor and product “reviews”.
-Why do some people say they’re reenactors or living historians?
Why do people reenact?
Everyone has their own reason. Some of the common ones are “to honor the veterans” to “live history”, to experience “what it was like” and so forth. Understanding why you are doing reenacting, and why the people around you are doing it can help you chose a unit.
What should I look for in a Unit?
If you’re getting into reenacting, don’t join the first unit you meet. There are several factors in choosing a unit you need to consider, listed below, in no particular order:
How far away are most of the unit’s events? If most of the members live within a couple hours drive, and most of the events are in the same general area, that’s a good thing. If you end up having to drive 3 to 4 hours each way to an event for every event, you might want to try and find a unit that’s more locally based. I understand that this may not hold true out in some parts of the country, I’m imparting my Midwest perspective where there are numerous units and events in the area.
What unit is portrayed? Elite vs. regular line infantry? Some people really want to do Airborne, SS, Fallschirmjager, Gebirgsjager, etc. while others want to portray the non elite and do regular infantry.
Sometimes what unit is portrayed makes a difference, while in other cases it doesn’t. This aspect is really a personal decision, but shouldn’t be the only factor in making the decision. You should look at all the other aspects and weigh their implications.
What’s an impression?
An impression is your whole uniform, equipment, personal items and research that is focused on something specific, whether it be an infantryman, mortar man, radioman, medic or fighter pilot. An impression is a focused thing; it is not a surplus store type collection of unrelated items.
What impression should I do?
Do what you are interested in and passionate about. Do not let a unit force you into doing something that you are not interested in, or do not want to do. Do what you have fun with and you will get more out of the hobby and end up staying in it longer.
How seriously does the unit take authenticity, and what kind of experience do you want. Some units have very strict standards on what is allowed and what is not allowed. Some units allow modern food and drink, coolers, camping equipment, while others only allow food in period containers and only the camping equipment you can carry on your back. Units run the full spectrum, from each extreme to somewhere in the middle. It’s something for you to ask questions about, and work with what you are comfortable with. Some people just enjoy the camaraderie of being in a unit and hanging out, so modern conveniences aren’t frowned upon, where other groups may be totally offended if you kill their “period experience” by pulling out a can of Pringles and fluorescent camp light at night.
Continuing from the Authenticity section, what is the focus of the group? Do they mainly focus on doing Tactical events, or Public Displays? Is the group geared towards interacting with the public, or just putting on an “authentic camp” doing demonstrations with little individual interaction with the public? Does the group focus on infantry, medical, heavy weapons, or have a total lack of focus?
Units can range from a handful of guys, to a full platoon. Both extremes have their own advantages and disadvantages. Small units have a lot more intimate feel, can be a tighter knit group with generally everyone being good friends. Small units have a bit more flexibility in what they can do at displays and some events. Often times small units can get lumped in with other units or attached to others at tactical events. Large units can often stand on their own at tacticals, and it’s really a neat experience to see 20-40 guys from the same unit. Large units have their own advantages, with smaller groups/squads being formed within the unit. Like minded personalities and people will group together. There’s a greater chance of meeting people like yourself, or people that you get along with well.
The personality of the group has a lot to do with your long term happiness. If you don’t have the same sense of humor and understanding as the other people in the group, there will be problems eventually. Make sure to find a group with people you get along with and have fun with. Ultimately, the hobby is about having fun, no matter what anybody says. We wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t fun. If it was all about honoring and spending time with the vets, we’d be spending all our time at the VA and retirement homes. When was the last time you were at either?
Resources of a unit is a broad topic. I’ll break it down into several sub sections.
The unit should have a broad base of general research and specific unit research. ALL of your basic questions should be able to be easily answered by someone in the unit. There should be several people that are passionate about that particular unit, and be very well versed in the history of the unit, as well as uniforms and equipment.
Be very cautious or careful about units that don’t know much or can’t tell you much about their specific unit, or the uniforms and equipment. This hobby comes down to the details, and if they don’t know the details, chances are, its new unit or they just don’t care. Both of which, you don’t really want to be associated with.
Established units should have a large base of loaner equipment, uniforms and gear. If the unit and its members have been around for any length of time, people will have accumulated excess gear. There should be gear within the unit for loan to new members, as well as weapons to loan. You shouldn’t need to have every single last item before you participate. A unit should be able to completely outfit you, so you can try reenacting out to see if it’s what you want to do, before you spend potentially thousands of dollars. Also, the unit should happily do this to check you out and see what you’re like and how you perform in displays and the field.
Drawing off the equipment section, units should have enough stuff to be able to put up a pretty respectable public display. If anything, they should be able to do a basic infantry display, of uniforms, equipment and gear.
Some units have additional capacity in what they bring out to displays, in the form of tentage, sandbags, barbed wire, equipment, weapons, rations or vehicles. How all of those things are displayed can make a difference as well. Some units go for the Surplus Store look, and just bring out everything they own, and scatter it about, while others units try and take a more natural “vignette” look, where realistic situations are set to display weapons and equipment.
Does the unit have people and weapons to field a full squad? Is there a squad automatic weapon like a 1919a4 machinegun or BAR? Do any support weapons take the field like 60mm mortars and bazookas? Is there a weapons expert in the unit that can troubleshoot or fix your weapon if you have problems? Is there someone in the unit who makes blanks? Does the unit practice tactics and field exercises? Is there an effective leadership structure? Do the NCO’s know what they’re doing? Does the Officer know what he’s doing?
Does the unit have leadership? Just because someone wears stripes or collar brass it doesn’t mean they know anything. Does the unit leadership have any actual military leadership experience? Have they been reenacting a long time and learned how to do it? Are appropriate orders given and followed? Is the leadership effective at public displays and in tacticals?
Does the unit publish event notices and maintain communications with the members?
What communications model is being used, a website, forum, yahoo group, email list, phone tree? Do you talk to people from your unit when you need something, or simply to call a friend?
Does the unit have any particularly talented members? Does someone in the group excel at making reproduction items or restorations: Paperwork, Woodwork, Weapons / Blanks, Metalworking, Paint? Everyone’s lives are improved in units that have some talented individuals who can share their skills to better the unit. Most people are interested in seeing how they can save money, yet improve their impressions.
Most importantly of all, any unit you join should give you a mentor. Basically a mentor should be at very least someone to talk to answer your basic questions. There are a lot of things that can be easily answered with a simple telephone call to a knowledgeable unit member. These people are there to help you and be your friend, they understand a lot of your basic questions as they’ve been there before and are doing exactly what you’re doing. It saves you from looking like a jackass on the reenactor forums.
Your expectations have a lot to do with what unit you chose. Whether you just want to put on a uniform and bust some blanks to live out your favorite video game, or want to freeze in a muddy hole all night and eat miscellaneous stuff out of cans each unit is different. Some units do a lot of tacticals, some only do public displays, some do training events, and others don’t. Figure out what you want to do, and try and find a group that does that, even if the guys are great and they do everything else perfect, if the unit doesn’t ultimately meet your expectations, chances are you won’t be totally happy in the long run.
I want to start my own unit:
There’s a lot to starting a unit. Look at all the issues mentioned above while asking yourself, can I address all of those issues? Can I effectively act as a NCO in the field? Can I effectively organize and maintain a unit? Learning from veteran reenactors and learning the basics is good to do in an existing unit before ever thinking of really starting a new unit.
What is a FARB?
A lot of people have spent a lot of time and more-so money on their impressions. Because they have spent so much time and money on an impression they think to be correct, they have similar expectations of other people around them. People often feel slighted that others around them “don’t care” as much as they do, and haven’t spent the time researching or money on their impression to be at the same level as them.
Sometime people that either don’t know any better or can’t afford better buy and wear uniforms or equipment that aren’t generally accepted as accurate. For example, people buy items that they think may look very close or identical to someone who hasn’t done extensive research on the individual items – like post ww2 French Army Combat boots, which appear similar to WW2 US Army 2 buckle combat boots, but upon comparison, the French army boots are significantly different.
As mentioned elsewhere, you can get into reenacting on a budget. You just have to be smart about what you buy. Some items can be had on the cheap, while others need to have money spent upfront to avoid having to purchase an item a second time.
Buy the good stuff the first time, so you don’t have to replace a piece of garbage later. Spending 80 or 90$ on a pair of bad boots, versus paying 125$ the first time for the best will save you headaches and money in the long run.
Items that you should spend the extra money on, to get the best the first time are, boots, jeep caps, garand belts, leather items.
What should I buy first?
Every unit has a list of what to buy, and in what order. They should be able to offer advice as to what to buy first. Generally, most units in my area recommend that new recruits buy their uniform and boots first. As mentioned previously, units should be able to loan equipment and weapons, if not a full kit for new potential recruits to make sure that they’re sure reenacting is for them before money is spent.
What uniform size should I buy?
Go to your local department store, Macys, Dillards, Elder Beerman, May company, Penny’s, Mens Warehouse, WHEREVER. Go into the suit section and have one of the sales clerks measure you for a suit. They should do this for free, it will tell you what size chest you are (what size jacket you need to buy), your neck measurement, your sleeve measurement, your waist measurement, the inseam of your pants; have them measure your head for a hat size as well. While you’re at it, get an accurate measure of your foot size while. Write all this stuff down – usually they have cards there at the store to write all of this down. Clothes and uniforms back in the 40’s were cut and fitted much like good suits are – not baggy. Uniforms did not come in Small, Medium, Large, X-Large, and Gigantic like they do now. They came in Jacket sizes measured in inches, shirts in neck size in inches, pants in waist x inseam, and so forth. Shoes back then had widths too… unlike today.
If you know your size exactly, you will be able to get the stuff that fits right the first time and not have to send stuff back.
More importantly, if the stuff fits you, it’ll look right – like it was supposed to look back in the day.
Where do you guys get your gear?
Units should also know what gear is of good quality and where to get it at a good price. There are a tremendous amount of resources available to get uniforms and equipment not on the internet. Don’t trust the vendors on the internet to gauge what prices really are, in most cases prices should be much less than what is listed on the net. I highly recommend buying each item ala carte rather than one of the impressions in a box “deals”. I consider it a best practice to purchase some original items of equipment, some reproduction equipment and either original or reproduction uniform items depending on your unique situation. For each impression, US, German, Russian, ect. the items that you will purchase being original or reproduction will vary greatly. Once again – it goes back to my comments on units.
Where do I get the “cheapest”?
Reenacting is inherently an expensive hobby. Gotta pay to play. Although it can be very expensive, it can be done properly and correctly on a budget. The best thing to do is to educate yourself, and find out exactly what you need, find out what options are the best for each uniform, piece of gear and equipment. A mentor or people within your unit should be able to help you find the best quality items at the best prices, or possibly even have gear for sale within the unit. Before you spend any money on anything, ask your mentor about it. This way you avoid spending money on items that are either poor quality, over priced, or that you simply don’t need. You might be pissed if you end up spending money and buying uniforms or gear that you can’t use. Buy the best quality item the first time, don’t skimp and get the cheaper alternative. Chances are it will be of lesser quality and authenticity, leaving you with the desire to replace it at a later time. It will save you money in the long run to buy the best quality boots, uniform, and gear that you can.
Where do I get “insert weapon here”?
Weapons are much like gear; your unit should be able to point you in the right direction as to where to get them. If you don’t learn anything about any of the gear that you buy, you should learn about the weapon you purchase. This is by far the most expensive part of the basic infantry kit, and piece with the biggest room to get totally hosed. Most units have a weapons expert, and they should be able to help you out.
Remember online prices are generally much higher than the true market price. Gun shows and within the reenactor community is the place to look for weapons.
If you only buy one weapon, it should be the basic rifle – US – M1 Garand, German k98, Russian 91/30, ect. That was the basic weapon of the rank and file front line infantryman. It gives you the most amount of flexibility with what you end up doing and is the easiest weapon to blank adapt and get blanks for.
What should I pay for “such and such weapon?”
Ask your unit what they are paying for their weapons. Garands and Carbines can vary from region to region, varying as much as several hundred dollars. K98’s and 91/30’s can still be had at consistent surplus prices.
Where do you get blanks?
There are a number of reputable blank suppliers selling blanks at events and on the internet. Additionally, some units have individuals who supply blanks for their unit. Check with your unit to see who they recommend. Check the “General Weapons FAQ – Who makes blanks” thread on the WWII Reenactors Forum.
Semi automatic weapons require blank adaptation, there are several articles on how to blank adapt US weapons available on the forum or elsewhere on www.90thidpg.us
What is a Tactical?
Tacticals are events that are generally closed to the public, where the focus of the event is having a “realistic” battle or tactical scenario. Tacticals generally are day long and take place on weekend. Tacticals open on Fridays usually for camping, with the hostilities beginning on Saturday morning after a safety and authenticity inspection.
Tacticals in my area cost in the $20 range to participate in. I’ve seen event fees range from $10 to $80. The battle fee covers the costs associated with having the battle, particularly the cost of insurance. Some events may have barracks, meals, and other options associated with them that drive up the basic cost, like Fort Indiantown Gap PA reenactment, or one of the Camp Roberts battles in California.
Your unit should be able to answer any further questions about tacticals before you attend one.
How do you guys know if you’re hit?
Hits are pretty much on the honor system. If you’re in heavy fire, or see someone aimed at you and a muzzle flash, chances are you’re hit, so take a hit. Its no big deal, it doesn’t hurt, just lay down where you’re at and take off your helmet for 10 minutes or until the action is over. Rules for taking hits vary from event to event. Talk with your unit about this.
Where do you guys get your information?
Books, books, books, then Photos, Veteran interviews, and other “veteran” reenactors. Just remember that great part of the fun is researching, become more knowledgeable, for yourself, for the unit and for fostering the hobby’s image.
How do I do research?
Focus! Find one goal and move towards it, as there’s far too much information out there to absorb all of it, all at once. Additionally much of the information is contradictory or only applies to certain instances. For example, the 2nd armored division wore camouflage uniforms in Normandy for a very short period of time. Other units did not wear that type of camo in the European Theater of Operations. Some units had M43 jackets when they arrived in France in June 1944, where most people believe M43 jackets did not appear till September 1944 at earliest.
Focus on your unit, and specific details from there. By moving from detail to detail, you will slowly build up the larger picture.
There is a general understanding in Reenacting and Living History that we portray the norm, rather than the exception.
If you see something in 1 photo does not give you or everyone around you justification to do it. Try and base your impression and research off of trends or well documented examples.
People can justify anything they want with a single photo, and a series of what ifs. Try and stay away from “what ifs” and if I was there, I would have done such and such.
Why don’t you use airsoft / paintball?
There are people that “reenact” with paintball and airsoft. If that’s your cup of tea, go for it! The vast majority of groups use real weapons with blanks, as that is the accepted norm, and there is reluctance to change. Both real weapons as well as airsoft/paintball have their own unique advantages and disadvantages.
What should I bring to my first event?
Bring what your unit recommends. Generally, we recommend the bare essentials, uniform, gear, an extra couple changes of socks, basic camping gear, your weapon, blanks, and some money. Bring an extra jug of water or sports drink, as water is not always available, just stash it in your car in case you need it.
No need to bring extra superfluous stuff, slowly bring out more as you come to more events and find out where your place is.
I want to be an officer:
Very few established units will allow a brand new member just to throw on some collar brass and play officer the first time they come out. If they do, it’s a cruel joke. Even if you have prior military leadership experience, the army of 1944 as well as the reenacting world is a different place. Give it some time to learn the ropes and how the community is before pinning on the collar brass. When you put on collar brass, you are seen as a go to person with the answers. It looks really dumb if you’re the guy “in charge” and you know absolutely nothing. Putting on collar brass and being clueless is an easy way to lose all respect from other units.
I want to be a NCO (Sergeant or above):
See the above comments on officers. Keep in mind that armies function on their NCOs…if there are no officers (often the case), or the officers are clueless (sometimes, but not always) – the NCO absolutely needs to know how things are really done and how to get the men to do them. Additionally the NOC should be able to teach every man in the squad his role and position and how to do it. Are you ready and capable of leading men in drill, leading men in the field, giving orders to guys you don’t even know, or know much about reenacting or the community? When you put on stripes, you are the go to guy, and you should know how to get the job done.
You are far more useful to an event coordinator or event commander if you show up with 4 privates that can play well with others, than a group with 1 staff sergeant, 1 sergeant, a corporal and a technical grade or even worse yet an officer.
Rank should be earned, not just worn for the sake of decoration and looking cool.
How about an example?
Well, I’m a radio operator therefore I feel that I should be a T5 or CPL. Go ahead and wear the rank if your unit approves it, and you really are capable of operating that radio and proficient with it, know the Morse code, know how to take down and rebuild your radio, know how to show and address the public on how your role was really performed on the field…then you have earned stripes, and can proudly wear them. Not before.
I’m not 16 or 18 yet, what can I do?
First off, there are laws that vary from state to state and area to area. These laws prohibit minors from handling or using firearms unless under very specific controlled circumstances.
Some units adhere to the laws strictly, and will not allow minors to handle weapons or participate with weapons in tacticals. Other units are more lax. BEWARE: any unit’s standard, whatever can be CANNOT, and SHOULD NOT overlook State or Federal legislations, and EVERY UNIT should absolutely have safety standards rules in place and a competent NCO in charge of having them observed in ANY CIRCUMSTANCE.
For living history displays, you don’t need to handle or carry a weapon at all times, so you can portray an infantryman, participate and interact with the public just like any other unit member.
There are non-combatant roles that can be portrayed as well, that don’t require weapons.
The time between 16 and 18 goes quickly, as well as the years up to 16. Spend this time researching and learning everything you can. Be patient; buy all the uniforms and equipment you need first, as well as personal items. Be smart about what you buy, and don’t waste your money on dumb stuff (like 8mm blank pistols). By the time you turn 18, you can have an absolutely 110% perfect kit that many guys will never have, and then purchase your rifle to round things out when you can.
Why have a mentor?
Hopefully this should be clear by this point in the FAQ – A mentor should be available to answer whatever questions you may have, someone who is just a phone call away to help make your life easier and reduce stress. 98% of the questions you will have will be able to be answered by someone in your unit with relative ease.
It will save you from buying uniforms, equipment, and weapons that are overpriced, that you may not need, or may be of poor quality.
Ultimately, a mentor will allow you to have a better impression for less money, the first time.
Should I buy US made items or are imported items ok?
Read everything you can, educate yourself as to what things should look like, how they should be constructed, find reviews and ask people. Usually someone else has been down that road before and has learned the hard way by spending their money.
Generally US made items are more expensive, but of better quality. There are a number of very good quality imported items.
Be cautious of items from the far east (Hong Kong / Singapore). There are some OK items, and there are also some very poor items, although constantly improving, it is Buyer beware. Ask and check BEFORE with experienced reenactors.
About vendor and product “reviews”.
This is no different than any other product out there. No matter if its electronics, videogames, or your new size “M for mastadonic” mackinaw jacket from Hong Kong Fooey Chop Suey. Some people write absolute bullshit reviews. Ask yourself – and the person writing the review- is this a valid and legitimate review or comparison? Does the person writing the review have an original unissued, never used item to compare it to, or do they have a used but representative example? Does this person know what the item is supposed to look like and how it is supposed to fit? Did the review contain any photographs? Did the review simply state that the vendor or item was A+ 10/10?
A good review should list the author’s name, contact information, when it was written, who the product was purchased from, when it was purchased, the purchase price, the shipping details as a very basic start. From there, the item should be compared to an original item and or other reproductions. Construction quality and materials should be discussed in addition to perceived or actual “authenticity”. Key details of the item being reviewed should be discussed. A good review will answer 95% of the questions about the item that you may have. Your remaining questions should be able to be answered by the author of the review, if not the vendor themselves. If the vendor cannot or will not answer your questions, don’t buy from them.
Why do some people say they’re reenactors or living historians?
I was going to write something, but Rollin Curtis, owner of At The Front said it best. http://www.atthefront.com/rants_LH.htm
Basically, it’s all a matter of words, deconstruct it, boil it down, and come to your own conclusion.
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