Fifes are an ancient instrument, referred to in Europe as the 'Schweize Pfeife', or Swiss flute. Fifes have been in use by armies(in its modern form) since the 16th century. Fifes originally accompanied companies of men providing music on the march, usually songs from home. Drums have always had a military role going far back into history.
The rise of the modern army begins in the late 16th and evolves throughout the 18th century. Drilling to precise and increasingly complicated geometric movements, armies adapted and trained drummers and fifers to signal preparatory alerts and execution signals as well as times of days for the troops. It became customary for each company of 100 or so men to be assigned 2 fifers and 2 drummers to sound signals, hours and alarms, as well as play popular music on the march. This pattern was also practiced in the U.S. services from the Revolutionary War up until the late 19th Century. When the companies of a Regiment or Battalion were gathered together, it was customary to assemble the fifes and drums from all the companies into a 'band' to march at the head of the column on parade. When a regimental military band (woodwinds and brass) were also present, the fifes and drums marched at the head, followed by the military band. This is still the custom with British Regimental bands. To this day, the drum major's preparatory command to move a British Army band is, "Band and Drums...". This is referring back to the segregation of the fifes and drums as a separate entity from a military band.
Fifes have always been an infantry musical instrument. The infantry used the side drums (snare/field, long drum/tenor drum and the bass drum). When detached to the companies, the drummers used only side drums. Cavalry and Dragoon (mounted infantry) units never used them. The last American military service to use fifes routinely in formations were the U.S. Marines, who finally dropped them around 1890. The British Army still uses them.
Also of ancillary interest is the little known fact that the origins of the oboe in European music rises from the oboe's equivalent role to the infantry fife as the 'band of music' for Dragoon regiments. The earliest oboes were based on the Turkish 'Zurna' of the Janissary bands. A Dragoon regiment of the British Army might have a mounted band of 6 oboes and a pair of kettle drums (exclusively used by horse-mounted units). Trumpeters were also assigned to companies as signaling musicians. The earliest oboes had a larger reed than the modern instrument, and thus produced a louder sound. A close approximation of the sound of a cavalry military band of the early 18th century can be heard in the well-known PBS 'Masterpiece Theater' theme, composed by Mouret for Trumpets, oboes, strings and kettle drums.
Rope tension snare and bass drums are tightened by the use of tugs or ears that apply pressure to the rope, that pressure is transferred to the heads when the rope compresses the counter hoops causing them to move slightly closer together. Drum heads can be made of calf skin or modern plastic heads as made by many drum manufacturers.
The drums are beaten using two sticks. Visual effects may be created by flourishes of the drum sticks; for example, bass drummers may wave the sticks about in a flourish while the snare drummers roll (or when the beating leaves sufficient time to flourish).
Most fife and drum corps march in parades, perform concerts in festivals and state fairs, and expositions. Some fife and drum corps focus on interpreting a specific time period and spend some time portraying field musicians of the era at living history events.
The typical uniforms of the Ancient Fife and Drum Corps is a representation of some Revolutionary War American military uniform. Often you'll see tricorn hats, waistcoats, knickers or knee breeches, ruffled cuffs, neck stocks, buckled shoes. More recently, American Civil War uniforms have risen in prominence. These uniforms do not have to be historically accurate in look or composition to be worn by an ancient fife and drum corps, they merely have to reflect the historical feeling of an era, though many corps do wear authentic reproduction uniforms.
Ancient fifers and drummers gather at conventions called musters, which may include a parade and concerts featuring the various participating corps. There are many musters hosted by many corps, the largest Ancient Fife and Drum Muster is in Deep River, CT, U.S.A., on the third Saturday every July. The Deep River muster made the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest muster in 1976.