run the gauntlet

Running the gauntlet

Running the gauntlet (alternative spellings gantlet and rarely gantlope or gantelope) is a form of physical punishment wherein a man is compelled to run between two rows — a gauntlet — of soldiers who strike him as he passes.

Roman predecessor

Fustuarium (a Latin abstraction from the Latin fustis, a branch or rod) was a Roman military form of execution by cudgeling (clubbing), the excruciating effects of which are comparable to running the gauntlet, compare also to breaking on the wheel. It could also be applied to every tenth man of a whole unit as a mode of decimation.

Post-Roman usage

A very similar military punishment found in later armies was known as "running the gauntlet." The condemned soldier was stripped to the waist and had to pass between a double row (hence also known as die Gasse, "the alley") of cudgeling or switching comrades. A subaltern walked in front of him with a blade to prevent him from running. The condemned might sometimes also be dragged through by a rope around the hands or prodded along by a pursuer. Various rules might apply, such as banning edged weapons, requiring the group to keep one foot in place, or allowing the soldier to attempt to protect his head with his hands. The punishment was not necessarily continued until death. If so, he might be finished off when unable to walk. Running the gauntlet was considered far less of a dishonor than a beating (with exposure to ridicule) on the pillory, pranger, or stocks, since one could 'take it like a man' upright and among soldiers.

In some traditions, if the condemned was able to finish the run and exit the gauntlet at the far end, his faults would be deemed paid, and he would rejoin his comrades with a clean slate. Elsewhere he was sent back through the gauntlet until death.

  • A Prussian cavalry variation was to beat the condemned with spurs instead of rods.
  • It was also common practice in the French army, especially for thieves.
  • Also used in training, notably on military cadets, as in a scene in the movie Oberst Redl.
  • There was also a naval version of the gauntlet, notably used in the Royal Navy as a punishment for minor theft. The condemned was prevented from rushing by the master-at-arms with a cutlass and pushed forward by a corporal, while being beaten with rope yarns that were plaited into so-called knittles (a word for a string; possibly sound-associated with nettles), which looked like smaller, improvised versions of the cat o' nine tails. The condemned could also receive a dozen lashes from the cat o' nine tails beforehand, so that blows received while running the gauntlet would aggravate the lacerations on his back.
  • Mild forms, not intended to cause permanent damage, have also been used on or by children.

The word gauntlet, unrelated to the French-derived word gauntlet meaning a protective glove, was probably transferred from the Swedish gatlopp ("street run") to British troops in the Thirty Years' War. Variant terms include "gantlet" and the poetic "gantelope".

The practice persisted in parts of Germany (mainly Prussia) and Austria as the Spießrutenlaufen, or pike-run, and also in Russia, until the 19th century.

In Sweden, running the gauntlet was also a civilian punishment for certain crimes until the 18th century.

Native American usage

A number of Native American tribes of the Eastern Woodlands culture area forced prisoners to run the gauntlet. The Jesuit Isaac Jogues was subject to this treatment while a prisoner of the Iroquois in 1641. He described the ordeal in a letter that appears in the book "The Jesuit Martyrs of North America" (c 1925, The Universal Knowledge Foundation, p. 163): "Before arriving (at the Iroquois Village) we met the young men of the country, in a line armed with sticks..." and that he and his fellow Frenchmen were made to walk slowly past them "for the sake of giving time to anyone who struck us."

Other European-Americans captured by Native Americans and made to run the gauntlet included John Stark, Daniel Boone, Col. William Crawford, and Simon Kenton.

See Bruce Beresford's 1991 film of Brian Moore's novel, Black Robe, as well as Stanley Kubrick's 1975 award-winning period film Barry Lyndon, based on the 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray.

Modern use

The original meanings of the phrase notwithstanding, the expression "(to run) the gauntlet" has been applied to various less-severe punishments or tests consisting of consecutive blows or tasks endured sequentially and delivered collectively, especially by colleagues such as roommates.

As these do not cause serious injuries, only bearable pain, they are sometimes eagerly anticipated by the initiate as a sign of acceptance into a more prestigious group.

The phrase running the gauntlet has also been used, informally, to express the idea of a public but painless, merely ritual humiliation such as the walk of shame. It is sometimes confused with the phrase run the gamut


College fraternity paddling, during hazing or as a punishment, may take the general form of the original "gauntlet". Common variants include having to crawl through on all fours, being made to halt in front of every paddle in exposed (bended) position, wearing only undergarments or ridiculous costume, or being smeared and soiled before and/or during.

Military custom

Similar practices are used in other initiations and rites of passage, as on pollywogs (those passing the equator for the first time includes a paddling version), or in aviation when a new pilot gets his first license. It has also been used to "Tack on" a recently promoted enlisted-man's rank insignia.


In pro-wrestling, a gauntlet match is one where a wrestler faces multiple opponents, one after another until they lose a fall.

  • In certain team sports such as lacrosse, hockey and forms of football, "the gauntlet" is also a common name for a type of drill whereby players are blocked or checked by the entire team in sequence.
  • the new term for the final 3 holes Sunday at The Players Championship at Sawgrass, including the island green 17th.


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