The elaborate activity known as exhibition drill within the United States is quite unique in its execution. It evolved out of a want to push the envelope when it comes to Drill and Ceremony (shortened to D&C) competitions. For many decades, militaries all over the world have held D&C competitions, even down to the academy cadet level. The United States was no different, with the tradition possibly originating from Prussian General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, who is credited with teaching D&C to American troops at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War. However, it was only within the last century that competitions took on a more flashy or exhibition flare, with both armed and unarmed portions. The reasons for this could be many, but the author speculates that it has to do with D&C becoming less important on the battlefield and more of a measure of a unit’s discipline in the rear. For example, doing exhibition drill in the 1800s would probably be met with stern disappointment, because this was still the age where actual battles were won and lost due to a unit’s ability to maneuver in formation on a battlefield.
Today exhibition drill teams exist at every level from High School JROTC programs, Collegiate level ROTC programs, Military ceremonial units such as the Marine Corps’ Silent Drill Platoon, and even professional performance teams such as New Guard America. One of their performances is shared below.
But back to origins. The general beginnings of what we now know to be called “exhibition” drill are claimed to be a cadet unit called “Pershings Rifles” still active today at a university in Nebraska. Whether or not this cadet unit performed anything near to what would be labeled as exhibition, the research isn’t very clear. But the general consensus is that modern exhibition drill really took off in the years following the Vietnam War, growing to a huge network today.
However, before the Pershing Rifles, there was Hajji Sherif/الحاج شريف (normally colloquially as Hadji Cheriff). This name was most likely a stage name or something an American audience could easily pronounce. The first part, Hadji/Hajji is indicative of this man making the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca, and the second part Cheriff/Sherif, means “Noble” in Arabic. Although Sherif might have been apart of the man’s name, it really doesn’t give us much as to his family name, what part of the MENA region he was from, etc…
This video clip that was copyrighted by Thomas Edison in 1899 (he also had another clip of Hajji Sherif performing a dance at the inventor’s studio) specifically label Sherif as the “Arabian” Gun Twirler and recorded at what is believed to be the Midway Plaisance during during the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, taking place in Chicago. It shows Sherif effortlessly spinning what appears to be a muzzleloading Model 1855 Springfield .58 Caliber rifle.
The only other known video (described earlier) of him is also online-
But in this short movie that would have been aired or published as a silent movie, we see exactly what goes on today on exhibition drill decks across the United States. As the drill website, The Nationals notes–
[He is performing] a basic aerial toss (two, 1-1/2 over-hand thrown from the firing hammer) and also an over the shoulder technique with a rather remarkable display of over-the-head drill (OTH), and ends right after an under the leg inverted spin.
This film’s description from the Library of Congress reads as such–
A bearded man performs a rifle twirling act on a stage with a painted backdrop of a city street corner. He wears a white turban and a dark two-piece costume of tunic and baggy pants that narrow at the knees; perhaps the costume of an Arab infantryman. The tricks he performs include throwing the spinning rifle in the air and catching it; twirling the gun in front of him, above his head, behind his back, to the side of his torso, and under his leg; and twirling the rifle as he switches hands.From Edison films catalog: An interesting exhibit by Hadji Cheriff, of the original Midway Plaisance. Twirls his rifle over shoulder, behind back, under leg, both hands and one hand. 50 feet. $7.50.
50 feet is in reference to the overall physical length of the roll if you were to purchase it for $7.50 at the time of the short’s airing at the turn of the century in 1899.
But what else do we know of Hajji Sherif, and what is he doing? We have this description of him from IMDb–
Hadj Cheriff was both an Arabian knife juggler and an acrobat. He had little to do with filmmaking of any sort, as his debut was in the 1894 Edison short film “Hadj Cheriff” which features him performing part of his act in Edison’s Black Maria studio. Cheriff later appeared in another Edison film, “Arabian Gun Twirler” from 1899. These two shorts are apparently the only films he took part in; thus, Cheriff remained a minor part in filmmaking.
We have these references in The History of Conversion to Islam in the United States Vol II, which suggest that Sherif was a circus performer, and might have been Egyptian, and even a Sufi. Some Sufi religious orders are quite known for various practices that put them in a trance-like state, most famously the Whirling Dervishes but they number very little even in Turkey. From the book-
In 1890 we also have a clipping from a circus advertisement that clearly lists him as a “Gun Juggler”–
New York Clipper, July 19, 1890, pp. 291, 294, 295, 301, 304…. Hadji Cheriff, Arabian gun juggler
The real question that I think is important to answer as researchers is where did Hajji Sherif get the idea of twirling an unloaded rifle to entertain a crowd? One body of thought is that it might have come from his Sufi roots (if he was Sufi to begin with). Another distant train of thought is that it might be related to Yowla/اليولة, which is a traditional dance routine practiced in the Gulf Countries today, but can be traced back many years. Although not often using full-size rifles (imitation ones are used), and often using swords, there could be a connection. An important here is that traditional Yowla puts much more emphasis on the dance rather than skill with the rifle. The third option is that Sherif came up with the idea on his own of course.
Traditional Yowla performance-
This is an example of Yowla with muzzleloaders today, similar to what Sherif would have had-