This practice appeared NOT to have been common in the twentieth century, with long-ranged, and "repeating" weapons. But prior to the nineteenth century, it was apparently a form of surrender.

What would cause soldiers to "ground arms" (throw their weapons to the ground) as opposed to using other forms of surrender such as raising a white flag?

At what level was the decision made to "ground arms?" Did private soldiers do this individually, or did the commanding officer shout, "ground arms," to his soldiers while he surrendered to the opposing commander?

Were there "conventions" to protect soldiers who had "grounded arms" from slaughter? Did the practice of "grounding arms" work like a "fair catch" in (American) football?

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    Is there something I'm missing? Dropping ones weapons seems to be a fairly universal act of capitulation. It's the first thing the police request of an armed suspect, for instance, and most surrenders result shortly in weapon confiscation anyway. To answer what level the decision is made, the wikipedia page on surrender should help (the answer is pretty much at any level). I would have though the reason soldiers surrender would have been obvious. Does surrender work like a fair catch? Only if you're lucky.
    – Nathan
    Commented May 7, 2013 at 14:25
  • @Nathan Cooper: The original version of my title was, "what protocols were involved in "grounding arms." In the question, I said, "APPARENTLY it was a form of surrender" because I was only 90% sure. So even IF soldiers were surrendering by "grounding arms," what were the protocols involved?
    – Tom Au
    Commented May 7, 2013 at 14:30
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    Hague (II) convention: "To kill or wound an enemy who, having laid down arms, or having no longer means of defence, has surrendered at discretion". So laying down weapons is always necessary (but maybe not sufficient) to unconditional surrender, does that help?
    – Nathan
    Commented May 7, 2013 at 14:43
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    @NathanCooper: Your comments are helpful. You might consider putting them in the form of an answer.
    – Tom Au
    Commented May 7, 2013 at 15:20
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    @TomAu I'll attend to it asap. I might even make it coherent.
    – Nathan
    Commented May 7, 2013 at 22:28

1 Answer 1


The Hague (II) convention: "To kill or wound an enemy who, having laid down arms, or having no longer means of defence, has surrendered at discretion".

"Grounding arms", dropping weapons, is consistent with unconditional surrender rather than any other form of limited capitulation (a bilateral legal act, when discussion under truce would be required). It seems soldiers would only communicate an intent to surrender by throwing weapons down if they were unconditionally surrendering.

The decision to surrender can be made at any level and the responsibility to ensure voluntary disarmament, necessary for unconditional surrender as we see in the Hague conventions, belongs to the person offering the surrender. If you look in US Army regulations: "Capitulations ... Once settled, they must be scrupulously observed by both parties.". This (US interpretation of the customs of surrender) clearly communicates that it is the duty of the soldiers to abide by the surrender and, of course, for the surrender of multiple soldiers commands to "ground arms" would be required.

Wikipedia says: "A white flag or handkerchief is a common symbol of surrender, as is the gesture of raising one's hands empty and open above one's head. When a tank commander is surrendering, the tank's turret should be turned opposite the direction of the opposing forces". A method of surrendering is not specified by the Laws of War (The white flag is, but has other uses) and is probably decided on the ground by people trying not to get shot. Grounding weapons lacks clarity (when compared to raising hands, for example), even more so when concealed by cover, and is probably avoided as the sole communication of surrender by common sense rather than protocol.

Interestingly enough, in theatres of war where we can't rely on common sense, natural communication etc. to display intent to surrender, these protocols are defined and dropping weapons is discouraged as vague and inconclusive.

Manual on International Law applied to military aircraft: "Rocking the aircraft’s wings, lowering the landing gear and other signals (such as flashing of navigational lights or jettisoning of weapons) are sometimes cited as indications of an intent to surrender, but they cannot be regarded as conclusive evidence, since there may be other reasons for the activity in question. Moreover, when air and missile combat is conducted beyond visual range, as frequently happens in modern warfare, such gestures are futile. Consequently, only an appropriate radio communication — duly transmitted to the enemy, preferably on an ICAO distress frequency — may be deemed an effective message of surrender in over-the-horizon aerial encounters."

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