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Holton's Regulation and Legionnaire Bugles

By Ken Drobnak
Curatorial Assistant

Note: Click on any image to see an enlargement.

Frank Holton & Co. (Chicago and Elkhorn, Wisconsin) began the manufacture of both brass and silver-plated bugles, approved by the United States Army for military use, during the second decade of the twentieth century. Valveless soprano bugles in G were among the first produced. These bugles could only play pitches in the G-natural harmonic series and were used to sound Reveille, as well as other traditional bugle signals that had been based on this same pattern of pitches since the time of the ancient Romans.

After World War I, decommissioned buglers returned to the United States with the desire to continue playing their instruments. As a result, the American Legion, V.F.W. and Boy Scouts formed local drum and bugle corps. Competitions were soon organized and sponsored by these groups, which also determined the types of instruments that would be allowed for use in such events.

Soprano Bugle

NMM 14012.  Soprano bugle in G attributed to Frank Holton & Co., Chicago, ca. 1910-1918
Side view of soprano bugle
Plaque on bugle Tuning slide Indication of where to draw tuning slide to put bugle into key of F

NMM 14012. Soprano bugle in G (HP) attributed to Frank Holton & Co., Chicago, ca. 1910-1918. No serial number. Tuning slide to F. Government Regulation model 10. Inscriptions:  L.P. SLIDES 7/8 INCHES / LONGER EACH SIDE / O.S. ONLY and GOV'T / MODEL / BUGLE / H.P. Ex coll.: Frank Holton Company Reference Collection. Gift of Conn-Selmer, Inc., Elkhart, Indiana, 2008.


The first instruments used in competitions were the same valveless bugles used in the military. However, technical progress and the players' desire to play notes beyond that of the harmonic series led to new types of bugles in the 1920s and 1930s. An instrument that produced a darker tone quality but had the same playable range as the soprano bugle was the tenor bugle. To accomplish this, a horizontal piston valve was added. When the valve was depressed, the instrument was lengthened to lower the fundamental pitch a perfect fourth to D. The American Legion and other groups that sponsored drum and bugle competitions required a locking mechanism on these valves so that these bugles could not produce diatonic patterns, but only play notes on the G harmonic series or the D harmonic series. Drum and bugle corps were, however, allowed to march with some instruments pitched in G and some pitched in D.

In deference to the traditional design of the soprano bugle, the valve was placed on a plane horizontal to the bellpipe so it could not easily be seen. In the 1930s, Holton's valved bugles were advertised as the "Legionnaire" models. "Regulation" bugle models were constructed in the traditional, valveless design.

Tenor Bugle

NMM 14010.  Tenor bugle in G/D attributed to Frank Holton & Co., Elkhorn, Wisconsin, 1936
Side view of tenor bugle
Inscription on bugle Piston valve Detail of valve cap

NMM 14010. Tenor bugle in G/D (LP) attributed to Frank Holton & Co., Elkhorn, 1936. Serial no. 119783. Legionnaire Piston Bugle model 254. Inscriptions: TENOR / LEGIONNAIRE / PISTON BUGLE and OK / 00115-36. Ex coll.: Frank Holton Company Reference Collection. Gift of Conn-Selmer, Inc., 2008.


Holton and other manufacturers continued to develop additional bugle models. Experiments were conducted that involved altering the taper of the bore to a more conical proportion, which resulted in a darker tone quality; changing the fundamental harmonic series of instruments to pitches other than G; and, creating bass instruments in the lower range. New instruments included the French horn bugle, baritone bugle, bass-baritone bugle and contrabass bugle. In the 1950s, some of these instruments were pitched in C, with a piston valve to G. Instruments pitched in B-flat, with piston valve to F, had been available from most manufacturers on special order since the 1930s.

French Horn Bugle

NMM 13964.  French horn bugle in B-flat/F by Frank Holton & Co., Elkhorn, Wisconsin, 1957
Side view of French horn bugle
Plaque on bugle Piston valve

NMM 13964. French horn bugle in B-flat/F by Frank Holton & Co., Elkhorn, 1957. Serial no. 304452. Prototype model 363. Inscription: Frank Holton & Co. / 361 / ELKHORN,WIS. / U. S. A. Ex coll.: Frank Holton Company Reference Collection. Gift of Conn-Selmer, Inc., 2008.


Baritone Bugle

NMM 13955.  Baritone bugle in G/D by Frank Holton & Co., Elkhorn, Wisconsin, 1936
Plaque on bugle

NMM 13955. Baritone bugle in G/D (LP) by Frank Holton & Co., Elkhorn, 1936. Serial no. 118830. Model 258. Inscription: The / Legionnaire / Made By / Frank Holton & Co. / Elkhorn, Wis. and BARITONE / LEGIONNAIRE / PISTON BUGLE. Ex coll.: Frank Holton Company Reference Collection. Gift of Conn-Selmer, Inc., 2008.


As drum and bugle corps grew in popularity, competition became rampant and individual corps began experimenting with instrument design. Often, manufacturers would design prototype instruments for individual organizations and incorporate ideas from others into their own products. In the 1950s, one such development was the rotary valve, which could be designed to lower the fundamental pitch a semitone or a whole tone, although the semitone design was the most common. The spring in the interior of the Holton rotary valve provided the necessary tension to move the valve back to a closed position.

The American Legion and other governing organizations eventually allowed locking devices to be removed from bugles for competition, which enabled these bugles to play notes in diatonic and chromatic patterns. Competing drum and bugle corps eventually banded together to form “Drum Corps International,” still quite popular today and more commonly known as D.C.I.

Bass-Baritone Bugle

NMM 13950.  Bass-baritone bugle in G/D by Frank Holton & Co., Elkhorn, Wisconsin, 1959
Top of bass-baritone bugle
Bottom of bugle
Side view of bass-baritone bugle

Bell inscription
Piston valve
Rotary valve lever
Rotary valve interior

NMM 13950. Bass-baritone bugle in G/D by Frank Holton & Co., Elkhorn, 1959. Serial no. 319193. Model 368. Inscription: Frank Holton & Co. / 368 / Elkhorn, Wis. / U. S. A. Ex coll.: Frank Holton Company Reference Collection. Gift of Conn-Selmer, Inc., 2008.


Contrabass Bugle

NMM 13945.  Contrabass bugle in C/G by Frank Holton & Co., Elkhorn, Wisconsin, 1962
Top of contrabass bugle
Bottom of contrabass bugle
Side view of contrabass bugle

Piston valve
Rotary valve interior
Rotary valve interior

NMM 13945. Contrabass bugle in C/G by Frank Holton & Co., Elkhorn, 1962. Serial no. 354353. Experimental model for Ludwig. Attached tag inscription: G-D / Contra-Bass / Bugle / Experimental / for Ludwig Drum / Keep. MI. Although the attached tag indicates that this instrument was to be pitched in G with a piston valve to D, a playing test determined that it is built on the C harmonic series, with the piston valve lowering the fundamental a perfect fourth to G. The sounding length of the instrument also matches a fundamental of C. Ex coll.: Frank Holton Company Reference Collection. Gift of Conn-Selmer, Inc., 2008.

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