Hot! Choosing A Reenacting Unit: Period

Reenactors portraying the French military as seen in four different periods

Just like the consideration of your location, another big decision that you have to make when choosing a reenacting unit comes at the very beginning: choosing what period you want to reenact. It’s an important decision, but how you come to that decision is, in many ways, even more crucial.

There are many factors to consider when choosing what period to reenact. Here are just a few:

Is there a particular period of history that holds your interest? When I got started in the hobby, I was fascinated by the Jacobite rebellions in the 1740s, and by the French and Indian War (1760s), and I did a 1740s French impression for my first 5-6 years in the hobby. Over time I’ve branched out into other periods and other centuries, but there’s still a special place in my heart for the mid-18th century. Reenacting takes a lot of passion, so if you are passionate about a specific part of history, consider focusing on that for your reenacting career. Never assume that something is too obscure, either. Marc and I reenact the Spanish Civil War, the Algerian War, and 1980s East German border control, none of which are exactly common, but there’s enough people out there for us to have a unit. If you’re coming up empty on searches for your favourite time period and you’re bound and determined to do it, start a unit yourself and drum up interest!

Are you more interested in portraying military or civilian life? Some periods are almost entirely military-focused. Most 20th century periods such as WWI, WWII, Vietnam, etc are almost entirely (if not completely) focused on the conflicts that occurred. There are a few people who tag along to those events, portraying civilians of various sorts, but they are few and far between and the opportunities are slim. If you’re hoping to do a civilian impression, I would recommend focusing on nothing later than the Civil War (1860s). On the other hand, if you’re hoping to have a more military-focused impression, then pretty much everything is open to you. Be aware that if you’re a woman, many military-focused units will be closed to you.

Would you be more interested in public events or private, reenactor-only ones? Many prospective reenactors have no idea that there are private, reenactor only events (often called tacticals or treks). They are quite uncommon in non-20th century periods, but extremely common among 20th century periods (WWII in particular). If your motivation to join the hobby has to do with educating the public, you might want to choose an earlier period such as the Civil War or Revolutionary War, where you will have more opportunities to do so. If instead you want to have an immersive, “time machine-like” experience, you might want to look into some of the 20th century periods that are more focused on private events.

Me as an American Vietnam War Correspondent. Never in a million years would I have guessed I would become a Vietnam War reenactor, but I am and it's a blast.

What is available in your area? Is the area known for a particular period of history? If you live in Gettysburg, it’s going to be wicked easy to start reenacting the Civil War. The same thing goes for Revolutionary War fans in New England, or 1812 folks in Baltimore. If you don’t want to travel far, consider focusing on a period that your area is actually known for. For portrayals of periods or conflicts that didn’t occur in your country, much less your area, check around. WWII is phenomenally popular in the US, despite the fact that not a single battle occurred here (unless you count Pearl Harbor). Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

How important is it to you to portray your period of choice? Surprisingly, your passion for the period you portray might not be as important as you think. Though I recommend that you start off with something you’re interested in, be aware that if it’s not available in your area, you may be out of luck or stuck with buying plane tickets to attend events once or twice a year. I know folks who do just that (hell, I flew to another country for an event once!), but it’s not fun. Consider stretching your wings a little bit. If you’re interested in Revolutionary War stuff, consider looking into French and Indian War or 1812. If you’re into WWI, consider looking into WWII. Don’t be afraid to try new things. I never, ever thought I’d be a WWII reenactor because I wasn’t interested in WWII, but I got into it because it offers more opportunities for women to be on the field (this is why I do Soviet) and because I knew people who could lend me gear. I’m also not all that familiar with the Algerian War, but I do it because it’s fun and because my friends do it. It’s harder to understand this when you’re just starting out, but over time, the period you portray may become second to the people you reenact with.

Do you want your family to be able to participate? There are plenty of families that reenact as a whole, but they are mostly found in the Civil War, Revolutionary War, and other pre-20th century periods. Part of this has to do with a decreased emphasis on the military aspect of the hobby, and part of this has to do with the fact that in earlier eras, women and indeed whole families often accompanied armies. It’s not impossible to bring your family along to WWI or WWII events, but it is significantly more difficult, and finding units that will accept women or participants under the age of 18 will be extremely difficult. If your family has no interest in reenacting, then you’re free to choose any period you want.

No matter what period you choose or what considerations you take into account when choosing it, reenacting is a very fun and fulfilling hobby to be a part of. I hope that you found this helpful, and that you will continue to tune in for my Choosing A Reenacting Unit post series!

Note: This advice is based entirely on the reenacting hobby as it exists in the USA. Reenacting elsewhere in the world is often quite different, so if you’re based elsewhere please take all of this with a grain of salt.

2 Comments

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  1. Great advice for the beginner IMHO. After almost thirty years in reenacting, off and on, sometimes as a vocation, but most often as an avocation all of this still holds true. It was much, much harder to find a reenacting unit or time period when I started out in 1981, and things have gotten easier. Of course, you could go into more detail, but for a “quick and dirty” I think you pretty much nailed it.

    • Yeah, I started out in 1995 and though it was getting easier then thanks to things like RevList, it was still a hundred times more difficult than it is for folks today.

      And yeah, I could have made it longer and gone into more detail, but I wanted to avoid reader exhaustion, and I figure I can go into each of these individually later.