Gunfire: The history of the traditional Christmas Army drink

Watch: How to make a Gunfire cocktail.

What is Gunfire?

Gunfire, beyond the definition of a repeated sound of the firing of guns, is a tea drink steeped in history that accompanies many military traditions and ceremonies.

It is a mixture of tea and a splash of rum and, while the details of its precise origins are uncertain, the drink was thought to have been first concocted by British Army soldiers in the 1890s – with many other traditions around the drink later arising during the First World War.

There are some variations of the ingredients – but in its most widely accepted and purest form, it is simple – black tea and a splash of rum.

The history and traditions of the Gunfire drink

There's no definitive story as to how the drink originally came about, as mentioned above.

It is thought, however, that it began as a form of a morale boost in the 1890s, served to the lower ranks before a morning battle – hence the rise of one subsequent tradition of serving the drink before first light – with rum added to cold or tepid black tea, perhaps as a way of warming up to stir the fire in the belly and liven the senses before an attack.

Traditions grew around the drink on the back of this, and gunfire became a form of Dutch courage to stir morale, with officers and non-commissioned officers serving the drink to lower ranks, not only before battles but for ceremonies and commemorations – such as celebrations before a Passing Out parade.

Later, it became a British Army tradition to mark Christmas Day, with officers serving Gunfire to soldiers in their beds, especially if they are deployed over the festive season.

Image ID: 2HXH5MF: Good cognac with bottle in old wooden distillery. Glass of bourbon with ice in an old distillery (Picture: Jacek Nowak / Alamy Stock Photo).
Rum is one of the ingredients of Gunfire (Picture: Jacek Nowak / Alamy Stock Photo).

Different regiments have different traditions

The Royal Tank Regiment serves up one drink of Gunfire on Cambrai Day – marking the anniversary of the first battle involving the large-scale use of tanks in warfare at Cambrai in France.

The Queen's Royal Hussars, the most senior armoured regiment in the British Army which formed in 1993 from an amalgamation of the Queen's Own Hussars and the Queen's Royal Irish Hussars, serves up Gunfire to mark the 1854 Battle of Balaclava on Balaclava Day. The regiment also marks St Patrick's Day with a sip of Gunfire.

The Royal Dragoon Guards serve up a version of Gunfire on St Patrick’s Day but made with whiskey not rum.

Some of those British Army traditions have spread overseas to other nations.

Australians and New Zealanders, for instance, mark Anzac Day with Gunfire, know as a 'Gunfire Breakfast' – on those countries' national days of remembrance commemorating those who served and died in all wars and conflicts, with origins in honouring those who died in the Gallipoli Campaign.

During the First World War, a gunfire breakfast is thought to have included biscuits and jam, tinny corned beef, served with coffee and a splash of rum or condensed milk. It was often consumed in darkness and, due to fears that fires, smoke or even steaming drinks would give away positions to the enemy, it was not served hot.

Traditional Gunfire Drink Recipe

How do you make gunfire? It's a simple recipe …

Gunfire consists of one cup of black tea, not necessarily a hot cup of tea, with one shot of rum – stirred in the cup.

  • 1 cup of hot, black tea
  • 1 shot of rum

There are references to variations over time, such as a splash of condensed milk and there are even some references to the drink at one time containing gunpowder, but there is little evidence to support the use of that ingredient.

Ritual And Tradition

In modern times, the Armed Forces, like the rest of a well-balanced society, encourages personnel to adopt a lifestyle which optimises their health and well-being, including a sensible approach to alcohol.

But the odd tipple for purposes of tradition and ritual are still very much a part of military life.

Brigadier John Donnelly, a former Army Director of Personal Services, has said: "There is a certain amount of ritual around drinking in the Forces: we toast the Queen; fines for breaches of etiquette are normally alcohol based; and our tradition of serving 'Gunfire' (tea and rum) to soldiers at Christmas dates back to World War I."


Anyone concerned about their own drinking, or who wants to support family and friends who are drinking, can call the confidential National Drinkline. 

Drinkaware strategic partnerships with the Ministry of Defence and other organisations working to reduce harm from alcohol misuse and to promote healthier lifestyles within the Armed Forces.

For help or support, anyone can call the confidential National Drinkline phoneline 0300 1231110 – Mon-Fri 9am-8pm, weekends 11am-4pm.

    Related topics

    Join Our Newsletter


    Amazing view from RAF Voyager supporting Typhoons from XI Squadron

    Gurkha recruits face chemical attack test in most arduous training to date

    Veterans wear long-awaited Nuclear Test Medals in public for first time