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An Introductory History of the Bugle From its Early Origins to the Present Day

In the late part of the 18th century and early part of the 19th century attempts were made to make both the trumpet and bugle into chromatic instruments. One such attempt was the slide trumpet. Some historians attribute the invention to England. A French version appears around 1840. A description of the instrument follows:

“It was basically the natural trumpet of its period except that the bend joining the middle pipe and the bellpipe was made in the form of a U-slide which could be pushed out towards the player by means of a rod with a touch-piece lying under the second and third fingers of the right hand and automatically closed again by a spring.”

Another early attempt was the keyed trumpet and keyed bugle. The keyed trumpet is about 40 centimeters long and is held in a horizontal plane. The best way to think of these instruments is as almost a hybrid of a saxophone and a natural trumpet. There are a number of keys (between five and nine) placed around the instrument and the pitch is raised or lowered by opening any combination. The tone is produced with a metal mouthpiece as with any other brass horn. Both Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) and Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) wrote concertos for the keyed trumpet and their works were the hallmarks of the literature for the trumpet. The invention of the keyed trumpet is attributed to Anton Weidinger of Vienna in 1801. Weidinger was a court trumpeter who was employed as a military trumpeter and theater musician, for whom Haydn wrote his concerto.

Keyed Trumpets

The keyed bugle was essentially the same as the keyed trumpet but with the bugle’s distinctive conical shape. The keyed bugle was made originally in England and became known to the public through the works of Richard Willis (17?-1830), an arranger, composer and performer. The first patent was made by Joseph Halliday (dates unknown) in 1811. Halliday named his new instrument the Royal Kent bugle in honor of the Duke of Kent. His patent called for five keys and the instrument made its way to the United States with Willis when he was appointed bandmaster of the United States Military Academy Band at West Point, New York.

Keyed Bugles
Eben Flagg, musician with the Boston Brigade Band in the 1850s, holding a keyed bugle

Two performers on the keyed bugle worth mentioning are Francis Johnson (1792-1844) and Edward (Ned) Kendall (1808-1861).

Francis Johnson

Johnson was a talented black bandleader who played many instruments including the keyed bugle. He also composed music for his band which played for parades, military drills, and balls in Philadelphia. One of his compositions was The Bugle Quickstep, no doubt written with the instrument in mind. The most important keyed bugle performer in the United States was Ned Kendall. He started performing on the instrument around 1830, continuing the work begun by Willis. Kendall perfected greater skill in playing and helped spread the popularity of the keyed bugle. His solo skills were in high demand and he performed widely with a leading vocalist of the time, Miss Anna Stone.

Edward “Ned” Kendall

Another performer on the keyed bugle was the bugler at West Point, Louis Benz, who was the post bugler for forty years from 1830-1870. Photographs survive of Benz with keyed bugles.

Louis Benz

Around the 1840s, while the keyed bugle was still popular, the development of valved brass instruments began to appear in the United States. This was the next step in making the trumpet and bugle chromatic instruments, and the development is highlighted in the story of the virtuoso instrumental piece called Wood Up Quickstep, composed in 1835 by John Holloway (dates unknown). Many tales of the origin of the piece exist but according to Holloway it came to him while walking on the Common in Boston. The piece became closely associated with Ned Kendall. Despite the invention of the valved cornet, Kendall continued to play the keyed bugle all his life. He took part in a famous contest with himself on the keyed bugle, playing against Patrick Gilmore on the valved cornet in December of 1856 in Salem, MA. The contest, which consisted of the rival soloists playing sections of Wood Up Quickstep after each other, ended in a tie of virtuosity for both men. However, it sounded the death knell for the keyed bugle and the rise of the valved cornet.

In 1855 a chromatic piston attachment was patented by Henry Distin and then adapted to the bugle by British Army Major James Lawson, the Director of the Royal Artillery Bugle Band. Major Lawson also increased the number of bugles in his band from sixteen to twenty four, thus making it the largest bugle corps as well as the first to use piston bugles.

During World War I, the Bersag Horn became popular with English marching and military bands, mainly because it was easier to play and it gave more variety than the ordinary military bugle. The Bersag Horn was brass and finished with a single valve lowering the pitch a fourth, and came in different sizes, all in the key of B flat.

Keyed bugle and Bersag Horn

Bugles have also been popular outside the military. They have been used to sound dinner calls on passenger ships and formations at prisons. In the late 19th century, bugles were incorporated into bicycle clubs as a way to signal directions and make others aware of the cyclists’ presence. Soon the clubs adopted the military signals into their trips. See and download a manual for cyclists at

Bicycle Bugles

Bugle calls have even found their way into sporting events. The familiar “First Call” and “Charge” are often heard at race tracks and baseball games. The American Legion, Boy Scouts, and many fraternal organizations also adopted military bugle calls. The VFW and American Legion organized and sponsored drum and bugle corps after WWI, and these corps eventually evolved into the drum and bugle corps we know today.

In summary, since Biblical times, bugles and trumpets were used as an effective way to communicate over long distances. Hence, it was natural that they were adopted for military use. Historical records tell of great battles heralded by trumpet blasts. During the time of the Napoleonic Wars, these signals or calls were written down in the infantry manuals of the day. As the American military came into existence, French bugle calls were borrowed for use in the US infantry and cavalry. The importance of signal instruments in the US military was evidenced by the adoption of the trumpet as a symbol for mounted rifles in the early 19th century, and of the bugle as a symbol for infantry during the Civil War.

American Eagle Drum and Bugle Corps

Bugles have been manufactured in various sizes, from pocket-sized bugles to long, ceremonial instruments. Regulation or “pattern” bugles, many of which are on display in museums throughout the country, have been specified in the US Quartermaster regulations. The most common of these regulation bugles is the M1892 US pattern bugle. Every American bugle manufactured today is based on this pattern.

Although the zenith of bugle use was in the Civil War, the instrument continued to be used in the United States military as a signal instrument until the invention of radios. The bugle was used up to the Vietnam War and buglers still trained to sound calls. However, today the bugle is mostly an instrument used only in ceremonial settings, and it is rare when a musician uses a valveless bugle or signal trumpet to sound calls. Most bugle calls are sounded today on trumpets or cornets.

For more information and History Visit:
Evolution of the Bugle by Scooter Pirtle

An excellent website on the history and evolution of the bugle. The website has articles on the history of bugle from the 18th century up through their use today in modern drum and bugle corps. Really terrific information!

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