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What 18th Century Naval Warfare Can Teach Us About Personal Protection [And Day-to-Day Life] by Mark Hatmaker

Shipshape and Bristol fashion.”

Have you heard the phrase?

If so, have you pondered what it means?

Well, whether you answered yay or nay allow me to lay out a little history behind that phrase, the pragmatic wisdom that fostered it and along the way roll out a few more vintage nautical terms, quote some Rudyard Kipling and bring it right back to combat training and, if you can believe it, we streamline our lives in ways Marie Kondo never pondered.

Back to our opening phrase: “Shipshape and Bristol fashion.”

I’m sure we all have a handle on the first half of that nautical proverb: Shipshape.

To be in shipshape, is exactly that, a ship that is properly prepared and good to go. It means an extensive review of supplies, a thorough examination of structure, standing rigging, running rigging, and all the extensive necessities required to keep a land mammal [man] alive in the precarious environment of the Seven Seas.

Shipshape, got it. 

Now how about that Bristol fashion portion of the maxim?

The town of Bristol has been a vital English seaport for over a thousand years. The town itself does not sit directly upon the sea but is founded on the estuaries of the River Avon where it widens into the Bristol Channel. 

What makes Bristol standout in our maxim is that perversely, for such a vital port it has one of the most variable tidal flows than any other port in the world. This tidal change can vary by as much as 30 feet in a cycle. 

The problem was addressed in 1803 with the construction of a Floating Harbor.

Pre-Floating harbor this magnitude of tidal change would leave harbored ships literally high-and-dry, that is beached. To make a harbored ship Bristol fashion was to take extra pains in their construction and maintenance to ensure they could endure the rigors of being beached and careened [titled] on a regular basis, and to take exceeding care that all cargo was securely fashioned.

Now we see the positive and negative aspects of the nautical proverb, to make something “Shipshape and Bristol fashion” is to be very very squared away [another nautical phrase by the way.]

Anything declared not shipshape or up to Bristol fashion, well, it was an insult and probably a rightful declaration that you simply weren’t ready.

I’m sure we can already see the connection between being sea-worthy and prepared in the personal protection or daily life aspect. 

Prepared is prepared.

Not prepared, well…

Advising one to be prepared, while the proper sentiment, is less useful than “how” to be prepared.” Let’s look to another nautical reference for an excellent step in the right direction.

This is from Rudyard Kipling’s novel of men-at-sea Captains Courageous.

There's good and just reason for ivry rope aboard, or else 'twould be overboard. D'ye follow me?”

Our lesson here is only stow what is needed. Only supply what will be used. All else is s#@! In the way.

When the wind is Force 9 on the Beaufort Scale and the seas are rolling high, you need exactly what you need when you need it at ready-hand. If it’s not of easy access when it is needed right when it is needed it is the same as not having it at all. 

If something is in the way of you getting a ready hand on what is needed, that pause between you and what should have been jettisoned long ago could spell the difference between life and death.

In the personal protection scheme of things, ask yourself how often you train the “cool” ornamental tactics with low-return on reality compared to how often you drill the must-have go-tos.

Look around your home, how much is must-have go-to items and how much are artifacts of dying or dead interests?

Use Kipling’s lesson to inform your personal inventory.

There's good and just reason for ivry rope aboard, or else 'twould be overboard. D'ye follow me?”

So, to be “Shipshape and Bristol fashion” it is wise to conduct a personal inventory of what is vital, useful, necessary and of true value. 

But is that enough? 

Is it enough to merely possess what is needed?

Another nautical term: Scale the Shot.

To “scale the shot” referred to removing the patina of rust from the surface of metal cannonballs. The salt-infused sea air could speed this process and the buildup on the cannonballs could impede trajectory, velocity, accuracy, and shot distance.

To “scale the shot” in the everyday value of the word would be to ensure that we do not merely possess “all the right gear” or know “all the best moves.”

Anyone can buy proper kit; it doesn’t mean they know how to use it or that it’s in proper condition.

Anyone can “know” all the “right moves” but if they have not been drilled, scaled on a regular basis what you think you know and what you are able to demonstrate you know may be the difference between a wasted fired rusty cannonball and a perfectly calibrated shot.

If we don’t drill our tactics on a regular basis they will rust.

If we don’t use our domestic artifacts on a regular basis they will rust and dust.

We don’t necessarily need to “find the joy” in our artifacts in the Marie Kondo sense so much as to use the nautical wisdom of utility and regular use.

Let’s close out with another nugget of nautical lexicography: Scandalize,

Yeah, that word is familiar. 

In the nautical sense, to scandalize was to “leave a sail partly set or to set a sail in an unusual manner.”

In landlubber terms, to half-ass it.

There is not place in a shipshape or Bristol fashion enterprise, be that enterprise a life, a training regimen, your living space, or an actual ship for sloppiness or unpreparedness.

If you’ve got the sails, set them right.

If you know the tactics, do them the justice they warrant in the drilling.

If you’ve put the oh, so necessary roof over the head of you and your loved ones, why would you do less than due diligence in its upkeep.

There was another use of the word “scandalize” in the days of fighting sail. When a ship was at anchor the sails would sometimes be set askew purposefully. When this was done it was to signal to other vessels that the crew was in mourning for a lost crewman. 

To scandalize in this sense was a sign of respect.

To scandalize in any other sense in our training, domicile, or life in general is to show that we are in mourning for our dead ambition to be shipshape and Bristol fashion.

[For more Rough& Tumble history, Indigenous Ability hacks, and for pragmatic applications of old school tactics historically accurate and viciously verified see our RAW Subscription Service.]


  1. What a fantastic article. Bravo. Thanks for the kick in the breeches.


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