Wellington at Waterloo 1815, collection of the National Army Museum, London
Home > Blog > Military hats past and present

Military hats past and present

Wellington at Waterloo 1815, collection of the National Army Museum, London
Wellington at Waterloo, lithograph by Robert Alexander Hillingford, 1815 (c). National Army Museum, London

This issue of Insignia Insights highlights unique military hats of past and present. Forage caps, baseball style caps, sun hats and winter toques are just some items among the many uniform insignia TrimTag supplies. Looking into to their origins, we discover a lot about military uniforms dating from the Regency era of two hundred years ago.

During the Napoleonic Wars, both sides wore military hats and insignia for both practical purposes and pomp. Some hats even became heroic and lifesaving at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo (main image).

Hats from the past have changed, but some continue playing practical and ceremonial roles. Like most military uniforms, headwear designs have to do with soldiers’ duties. Read on to learn the origins of a forage cap, and when a soldier would wear a shako cap. And, discover what fearsome headdress is still worn today by different Canadian Armed Forces units as part of their ceremonial dress kitbag.

Horses and undress forage caps of Wellington’s 33rd

Forage Cap 33rd Regiment 1812 Calderdale Museum
Photo: Forage Cap, 1812, courtesy Calderdale Museum

A forage cap has something to do with British forces horses.

Originally, forage caps were invented specifically for the cavalry, who had to spend considerable time gathering food for their horses – known as forage. The term became applied to all “undress” uniform caps.


Undress uniforms were worn doing ‘fatigues’ duty. Duties could include cooking, cleaning, or foraging for food or fuel. The Duke of Wellington’s 33rd Regiment of Foot began wearing forage hats in 1812.

A forage hat is made of comfortable knit wool, felted for warmth and waterproofing. A pompom closed the top and made the hat flop over or flatten out. The regimental number 33 is embroidered in red on the contrasting white band in this example from the Calderdale Museum.

Today’s toque or peaked forage cap?

The Oxford Dictionary defines a toque as a close-fitting knitted hat, often with a tassel or pom-pom on the crown’. One might think a knit toque would be today’s close Canadian relative of forage hats for the military, but it is not. The CAF dress manual describes what a peaked uniform forage cap is, and how it is to be worn:

Forage Cap. An undress peaked cap which may be worn with army full and undress uniforms. Originally designed for casual and fatigue wear in the field (“foraging”).

CAF, Dress Instructions, Technical Definitions

Today, peaked service or forage caps with regiment insignia are part of undress uniforms. Knit toques without pompoms, are part of winter undress uniforms. Recently, baseball style caps have been added for summer. The Canadian Army, Navy and Air Force, RCMP and many Canadian police, fire and EMS services have all three types of hats in their kit.

Casual military hats & Covid-19 duties

Surprisingly, some CAF units wear casual ‘street wear’ items such as peaked baseball-style caps, toques and fleece hoodies. It has to do with their duties.

Five Canadian Ranger Patrol Groups are part-time army reservists. Wearing a traditional red ‘hoodie’, a baseball hat or toque is part of their distinctive military uniform issued in 2016 (shown in sketch). A red raincoat, and winter outer jacket makes their uniform better suited to their duties carried out in remote, northern and coastal areas.

Joining together earlier this year, 3 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group and reservists from both the Canadian Army and Royal Canadian Navy formed Task Force (TF) Lakehead. Their mission was to assist with the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to remote communities in Northwestern Ontario.

…with TF LAKEHEAD we get to apply our skills in our own backyard – helping our neighbours, friends, family and fellow citizens of Northwestern Ontario.”

 – Lieutenant Commander Nathanael Moulson, Army, Navy Reservists team up to fight COVID-19, CAF, March 25, 2021.

How shako military caps were life savers

Military hat proved to be a lucky soldier's Shako cap from Battle of Waterloo
Photo: Shako cap, courtesy Calderdale Museum
Replica military hat a peaked shako cap of the33rdfoot reenactment group like that worn by British 33rd Regiment of Foot infantry at the Battle of Waterloo
Photo: courtesy the33rdfoot via Instagram

Back two hundred years, when out on a campaign, a British soldier had to wear and carry his own kit. Infantry wore a tall black felt shako cap with a leather peak when on parade, marching or in combat. Their forage caps were usually carried rolled up inside the top. This was a practical and affordable way to give extra protection to the head when in close battle. Turns out, shako caps could save a soldier in a couple other ways.

The image at left shows an 1812 Pattern ‘Belgic’ shako cap. It has a bugle horn badge, the insignia of Light Infantry. It belonged to Ensign James Howard, a junior officer in the 33rd Regiment of Foot. At the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, his 18th birthday, a French musket ball shot through the crown, leaving a perfectly visible hole.

I had a very narrow escape that day, a ball passed through my cap and must have been within the eighth of an inch of my head.  — Ensign Howard wrote about his experience.

Shako caps worn by other companies had a large ‘universal’ plate, stamped with the regimental number and the royal cypher ‘G R’ of King George. These large brass insignia plates sometimes acted as a lifesaving shield by deflecting enemy fire.

Replica Regency-era fatigues and combat uniforms from 1812-1816 are worn by The33rdFoot, a period re-enactment group. On parade and for demos they wear red jackets with white or grey breeches. Their shako hats (above, right) with and without an oilskin, are like those worn by private soldiers at the Battle of Waterloo.

Extravagant Headdress of the CAF Ceremonial Guard

This summer, CAF Ceremonial Guards are hopefully resuming the ceremonial changing-of-the-guard. It is a continuing Parliament Hill tradition in Ottawa which began in 1959.

It is modeled on the ceremony at Buckingham Palace, which is performed by the Grenadier Guards. They are among the most famous regiments of the British Army recognizable in striking red and black uniforms with black bearskin hats. This uniform dates from 1815, and came with their regiment’s new name.

Copying the idea of a fearsome fur headdress came after defeating Napoleon’s elite Imperial Guards who wore them. Bearskins were not practical military hats. Instead, this extravagant headgear made the Imperial Guard infantry look taller and more intimidating.

To honour their part in this victory, the British 1st Regiment of Foot Guards had their uniforms redesigned to incorporate a bearskin headdress, replacing their peaked cap (“shako”). They were also renamed the “First or Grenadier Regiment of Foot Guards”.


Parading on Parliament Hill is a summer jobs of college and university students who are reservists in the Canadian Forces. The guardsmen and women are drawn from two regiments: the Canadian Grenadier Guards and the Governor General’s Foot Guards. The former are based in Montreal, and the Canadian Militia’s oldest infantry regiment established in 1859. Created in 1872, the latter are Canada’s senior reserve infantry regiment.

Today’s changing of the guard is purely symbolic. We give it a hat’s off because the bearskin headdress uniquely connects French, British and Canadian military history.

“If you arrive on the lawn of Parliament Hill by 9:45 a.m., you can hear an audio presentation in English and French that explains the symbolism, history and proceedings of the ceremony.


Modern military hats for dress, mess, service and ceremony

“High standards of dress, deportment, and grooming are universally recognized as marks of a well-trained, disciplined and professional force.

CAF dress instructions

As you might expect, describing Canada’s current military garb reveals close connections to Britain. Military hat designs modernize over time, but some old styles remain in use for practical and symbolic reasons. Understanding history, along with uniform definitions supplied by the National Defense Clothing and Dress Committee (NDCDC) helps clear it up.

Military hats now include baseball styles like this Ottawa Fire Service baseball cap ©Trimtag Trading Inc.g

Trimtag supplies caps, hats, toques and all types of uniform insignia

Forage caps, baseball style hats (shown), sun hats, and winter toques are just some of Trimtag uniform insignia products. As well, we proudly supply cap badges, service medals, ribbon bars for dress and mess uniforms. We work with many organizations, including RCMP, CBSA, along with first responders Fire, EMS and Police services across Canada. Ask us how we can help with your uniform insignia today.