Drums of World War Two


Slingerland Rolling Bomber set


If you were listening to the radio on December 7, 1941, you might have heard the exciting Big Band sound of Glenn Miller’s number one hit, “Chattanooga Choo Choo”. You might have heard the great swinging rhythm of Miller’s drummer Maurice Purtill pounding out the beat to that song on his Slingerland Radio King drums. And you might also have heard that radio broadcast interrupted by the news that the Japanese had just attacked Pearl Harbor. World War Two was about to begin and it would drastically change the American way of life. It would also change how musical instruments, especially drums, would be manufactured for the next few years.

During the difficult years of World War Two, Americans were called upon to do their part for the war effort. Because an incredible amount of resources was needed to conduct the war, vital materials such as food, gasoline, metal and rubber had to be rationed. American manufacturers quickly converted their factories in order to produce military equipment. Auto makers were no longer able to build cars and were soon churning out trucks, tanks, and airplanes. Even musical instrument manufacturers like C.G. Conn of Elkhart, Indiana were producing components for military use such as, aircraft altimeters, bomb sights, and tank components.

In June 1942, after being at war for over six months, The U.S. Government issued “General Limitation Order L-37”, which ordered musical instrument companies to curtail the manufacture of their products. With materials essential to the war effort becoming scarce, companies were ordered to limit the amount of critical materials used to produce musical instruments to no more than ten percent of their total weight. This order prompted drum manufacturers like Slingerland, Gretsch, Ludwig, Leedy, W.F.L. and others to design and build drums using very few metal parts. This resulted in some very unique and beautiful drums.

The typical five piece drum set of 1941 consisted of over seventy-five metal lugs, eight heavy brass hoops, five brass cymbals and numerous holders and stands. That’s a lot of metal! Drum designers went to work and came up with some very creative solutions to the problem of building drums with very few metal parts.

The Slingerland Banjo and Drum Company met this challenge by introducing their “Rolling Bomber” drums. These beautiful drums were made with hand carved rosewood or walnut lugs, along with maple hoops and solid wood snare strainers. Floor toms were suspended on wooden legs. These new Rolling Bombers were fully tunable and the snare drums were built around the famous Radio King solid maple shells. Bass drums and tom toms were made from three ply mahogany and poplar shells with heavy maple reinforcing rings.

In order to meet Uncle Sam’s wartime demands, the W.F.L. (William F. Ludwig) drum factory in Chicago, the design engineers came up with a unique internal tensioning system, most likely inspired by the L&S "Master Model" drums of the 1930’s. Constructed mostly of maple parts, the new W.F.L. “Victorious” drums were tuned by turning a series of tension rods from outside the drum. This caused wooden rings to be pushed against the heads, increasing the tension. Maple lugs were fastened to the hoops and shell with wood screws and very simple metal snare strainers were employed. W.F.L. offered snare drum stands, high hat stands, and even foot pedals made almost entirely from wood! The company’s sales brochure stated that “You help yourself AND your country when you purchase W.F.L. Victorious drums and outfits, built to conform to Government regulations.” The listed price of their five-piece, pearl finished “Commando” set was $230, while the four-piece “Liberator” sold for about $165.

In 1941, the Leedy Drum Company and the Ludwig & Ludwig Drum Company were both owned by C.G. Conn. The two drum divisions operated under one roof, resulting in drums which were quite similar in design. Named after a type of battleship, Leedy offered their “Dreadnought” line of drums, while Ludwig & Ludwig were producing the patriotically named “Victory” models. The instruments utilized hard wood lugs, three ply shells, maple hoops, and wooden stands. Older simple metal strainers were used as well as some wooden strainers. The huge maple hoops and long rounded lugs gave the Victory drums an almost “cartoon-like” appearance. Unlike Slingerland’s Rolling Bomber drums and W.F.L.’s Victorious models, the tom toms made by both Ludwig & Ludwig and Leedy had tacked-on bottom heads which could not be tuned.


1940’s Leedy Dreadnought


The Gretsch Drum Company also manufactured small amounts of drum sets during the war and they were quite similar in design to those of Leedy and Ludwig & Ludwig. The Gretsch “Defender” drums had very thin maple shells and solid maple center mounted lugs through which long tension rods passed. The lugs were often painted silver. With the accent on simplicity, Gretsch used long rounded lugs on their bass drums and snare drums. Tom tom lugs were made by simply cutting these larger lugs in half!


1943 Gretsch Defender set (Left) Ludwig & Ludwig Victory snare drum (Right)


The drums of World War Two were offered in several finishes. Most were available in pearl and sparkle finishes as well as two-tone or solid lacquer finishes known as “Duco”. All metal parts were nickel plated. Typical drum sizes offered were 14x26 and 14x28 bass drums with tom toms in sizes 7x11, 9x13, 12x14 and 16x16. Snare drums were usually available in the 7x14 or 8x14 sizes.

With victories in Europe and the Pacific, the tides of war had turned in favor of the Allies and drum production restrictions began to loosen. In October of 1944, Slingerland sent a letter out to their distributors that said, “We have just received release from the War Production Board to use all material we have on hand to manufacture pre-war drums.”  The letter went on to say that “We cannot sell accessories separately, and no complete drum outfits….We must put pearl inlaid wood hoops on tom toms, using pre-war hardware.”

Because of the transition from pre-war drum manufacturing to the restrictive wartime production of 1942-1945, it was only natural that odd drum shell and hardware combinations occurred. As parts supplies were depleted, more and more wooden components were used. The same holds true for drums sold immediately after the war. They were often composed of a combination of older parts and some newly manufactured pieces. Towards the end of the war and into 1947, Slingerland had replaced their brass “cloud” badge with one fashioned from aluminum.

On May 10, 1945 the U.S. Government revoked the L-37 law and drum manufacturers were able to return to the pre-war methods of making drums. However, metals and other essential materials were still in short supply and it would be another year or so before production would return to normal.

Due to the limited number of drums produced during World War Two, along with their somewhat fragile nature, relatively few examples have survived. However, Slingerland appears to have produced more than any other company and many of their Rolling Bomber drums can still be found today. The drums of World War Two are highly prized by collectors and players alike. Modern drummers like Jay Bellerose (Robert Plant & Allison Kraus, Ray LaMontagne) often use these old wartime kits because of their unique sound and appearance.  The combination of wooden lugs, shells and hoops produces some very warm, organic sounds. The “Achiile’s Heel” of the Rolling Bomber drums would be its wooden lugs. The original, seventy year old wooden lugs are prone to breaking under higher tension. While this is not really a problem with tom toms and bass drums, the higher tension usually required of the snare drum lugs can cause them to shatter.

The drums of World War Two were truly unique and today, surviving examples serve as a reminder of American ingenuity at a time when U.S. manufacturers were called upon to do extraordinary things to aid the war effort.  These beautiful, hand-made wooden instruments look and sound like no others and seventy years later, they are still creating some incredible music.

For more information on drums of World War Two visit: http://www.coopersvintagedrums.com/war%20effort.htm


W.F.L. bass pedal