-Col. Sam Hughes’, MacAdam Shield Shovel, During The First World War.

The MacAdam Shield-Shovel, also known as the Hughes Shovel, was an item of Canadian infantry equipment designed at the beginning of the First World War. It was conceived and patented by Sam Hughes, the Canadian minister for the Department of Militia and Defence in 1913, for use as an instrument which held the combined function to operate as a spade and a shield from which soldiers could securely fire from at enemy positions and advantageously not be targeted in return.[1] However, the implement was first suggested by Ena MacAdam, Hughes’ personal secretary, after she witnessed Swiss soldiers constructing frontline fortifications in France.[2]

The MacAdam Shield-Shovel.

The MacAdam Shield-Shovel.

Description: The MacAdam shield-shovel resembled the standard portable infantry spade of its day in both size and shape. Its design however required it to prevent the penetration of, or at the very least deflect, enemy gunfire. As a result of this condition, heavier than usual steel was used in the construction of the blade; it measured at three-sixteenths of an inch thick.[3]Heavy steel was also used to make the shovel’s detachable handle which measured four feet in length. Unique to the shield-shovel was the inclusion of a 3.5 by 2 inch sight-hole in the blade.[4] In total, the MacAdam shield- shovel weighed 5 pounds 4 ounces.[5].

Col. Sam Hughes and officers examining MacAdam Shovel used as a target. © University of Victoria Libraries, Special Collections, William Okell Holden Dodds fonds, #SC345

Col. Sam Hughes and officers examining MacAdam Shovel used as a target. © University of Victoria Libraries, Special Collections, William Okell Holden Dodds fonds, #SC345

Performance: In 1914, 25,000 shield-shovels were ordered and shipped to Europe for use by the 1st Canadian Division.[6] Preliminary tests however revealed the unfortunate conclusion that the shovel’s blade was incapable of stopping the penetration of gunfire even from the smallest of enemy calibre arms. Its value as a digging tool was also questioned as soldiers commented against the shovel’s weight, its inability to be easily carried, and the fact that the blade was poor for shovelling loose soil as it contained a large sight-hole. With such a reputation, several high ranking Canadian and British military officials refused to press the instrument into service. With these developments, an executive order was eventually issued for the shovels to be reduced to scrap. A total sum of $1,400 was recovered in the salvage; a figure far less than the original contract price which tagged each MacAdam shield-shovel at $1.35.[7] Despite being condemned by the military, a small following of Canadian snipers continued to use the shovel. Aware of the tool’s limitations, they generally preferred to use them in a collective series for added protection.[8] The MacAdam Shield-Shovel currently stands in Canadian First World War historiography as an invention which was poorly conceived given that its intended purpose was never fully realized. Understanding that the shield-shovel was likely one of many in a series of squandered government war expenditures is often additionally difficult to accept. Given all this, however, one historian is of the opinion that the MacAdam Shield Shovel must be recognized for what he feels it represents: a serious attempt to improve the well-being of Canadian troops.[9] Others feel the device is simply indicative of Sir Sam Hughes’ greed and arrogance which often put his own well-being ahead that of his troops. [10] Modeled on a Swiss invention this device was intended to be used as both a shield and a shovel. Patented in the name of one of Sir Sam Hughes private secretaries it was a complete failure in every respect. The handle was to short, the shovel to dull to dig with, the hole in the blade was to low to shoot through unless mounted on a low pile of dirt and worst of all it was not bullet proof. The entire shipment of 22,000 shovels witch had cost the government over $29,000 was sold off as scrap in 1917 for $1,400. [11]


  1. Desmond Morton, Marching to Armageddon: Canadians and the Great War 1914-1919 (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys Limited, 1989), p.8.
  2. Ronald G. Haycock, Sam Hughes: The Public Career of a Controversial Canadian, 1885-1916 (Toronto: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1986), 234.
  3. Bill Rawling, Surviving Trench War-fare: Technology and the Canadian Corps, 1914-1918 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), p.18.
  4. Rawling, Surviving Trench War-fare, p.18.
  5. Rawling, Surviving Trench War-fare, p.18.
  6. Kenneth Radley, We Lead Others Follow: first Canadian Division, p.43.
  7. Desmond Morton, When Your Numbers Up, p.33.
  8. Morton, When Your Numbers Up, p.135.
  9. Rawling, Surviving Trench Warfare, p.18.
  10. Berton, Pierre. Vimy, p.17.
  11. Canadian Military Heritage Project, Canada’s Role in World War I.

For further reading see:

Canada’s CEF First Contingent, Binoculars, Shovels & Housewives, 1914 Purchase Scandal.   http://wp.me/p55eja-iF




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