The History of the Rifle Brigade

It’s generally accepted that the Tyrolean Schützen (rifle brigade), which still exist today, were first formed during the Tyrolean freedom wars fought by Andreas Hofer and his militia at the beginning of the 19th century. However, this isn’t completely historically accurate. The Tyrolean “Landlibell” law passed by Emperor Maximillian in 1511, could also be regarded as the reason for the creation of the Schützen. This law stated that Tyroleans be allowed to bear arms in defence of their own state.

Rifle Brigade Mayrhofen

©Beckna Photo

Created by Elisabeth Frontull

The history

Officially, Mayrhofen’s Schützenkompanie has existed since 1857, therefore this year marks the celebration of its 160th anniversary. However, the Schützen existed in Mayrhofen long before 1857, there are just no surviving records from the first half of the 19th century. 

The ranks of the Tyrolean Schützen

Similar to military rankings, a Schützen brigade includes riflemen, engineers and officers as well “Jungschützen” (junior riflemen). Officers are divided into the ranks of lieutenant, first lieutenant, captain or major (battalion commander, regiment commander or “Bundesmajor”). There is also the rank of officer cadet who, despite not yet being an officer, still wears an ostrich feather in his hat.  


Why is there such a strict hierarchy? 


The rifle brigade is, in the broadest sense, still a military unit, although nowadays the military aspect takes a back seat. The armed defence of the state no longer falls under the remit of the Schützen, and instead they are focussed on the “defence” of the tradition, culture and religion of Tyrol. However, the hierarchical structure of the Schützen has remained intact. 

That said, rifle brigades are now associations and, as such, have democratic structures. The chairman, vice-chairman, secretary, treasurer etc. are elected every 3 years at the committee meeting, as are the upper ranks of the brigade (officer, captain, lieutenant, officer cadet).

The feather in the hat

©Beckna Photo

The Ziller Valley is not exactly blessed with many ostriches! So, why do the officers display an ostrich feather in their hats. Brigade Captain Gerhard Biller explains that the ostrich feathers first appeared in the hats of the Ziller Valley Schützen at the beginning of the 20th century. They were introduced to mark the 100-year anniversary of the Schützen which was celebrated in Innsbruck in 1909. According to sources, the Rainer Singers from the Ziller Valley brought the feathers back with them from one of their tours, and they the Schützen began to wear them in their hats. The ostrich feather became officially incorporated into the officer uniforms after the Second World War. The lower-ranking Schützen wear two chicken feathers or black cock feathers in their hat. Schützen officers can also be distinguished because of the sabre sword they sometimes carry. Otherwise, the Schützen display no badge of rank on their uniform. Therefore, when a Schütze is in uniform but not wearing his hat, it is impossible to tell whether he is a rifleman, an engineer or an officer. 

A Schützen captain’s orders

The captain is in command of the whole brigade, and so must have a suitably commanding voice. The most important orders and tasks of the captain are marshalling the brigade, giving orders as to which position the rifles should be held in (on the shoulder, presented, at the feet), giving the command when and where to march, officially informing the presider of an event of the reason for the march and, of course, the command “General de Charge” (firing of shots as a salute). The formal commands of the captain are similar to military drill commands, for example, “Attention! Shoulder arms, present arms, look right, at ease, fire, right turn, left turn, quick march, halt.


Festival of the riffle brigade in Mayrhofen