The phrase is from Rudyard Kipling’s The Drums of the Fore and Aft, 1889. A British regiment is facing an Afghan army:

[T]he lower end of the valley appeared to be filled by an army in position—real and actual regiments attired in red coats, and—of this there was no doubt—firing Martini-Henry bullets which cut up the ground a hundred yards in front of the leading company. Over that pock-marked ground the Regiment had to pass, and it opened the ball with a general and profound courtesy to the piping pickets; ducking in perfect time, as though it had been brazed on a rod.

I understand “piping pickets” is figurative language meaning the Afghan soldiers firing at the British. But what, in the literal sense, would a piping picket be?

I suppose piping means pipe-playing, figuratively meaning shooting. Then my best interpretation is that picket (see Merriam-Webster) refers to a detached group of soldiers guarding an army from surprise (Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries says guarding a military base). The reason I’m not entirely satisfied by this is that I don’t think lines of infantrymen at the head of an army engaging the enemy can properly be called a picket, and actual guarding pickets would most likely not play pipes.

A picket may also be people standing or marching in protest, but I cannot see how these would fit.

So is there anything that “piping pickets” literally refers to?


2 Answers 2


In a French version of the book, "piping pickets" is translated as "whistling bullets".

This translation can possibly be explained as follow:

  • picket bullets are solid base pointed bullets normally cast at home in a gang mold.
  • piping is producing a high-pitched or piercing tone.
  • Is the French version available online? Coud you share the link?
    – Jacinto
    Jan 8, 2016 at 18:36
  • @jacinto - It seems that it's no more available on the web :(
    – Graffito
    Jan 8, 2016 at 22:28

Apparently, "piping" here means "whistling." Consider:

boatswain's pipe

a high-pitched whistle used by a boatswain for giving signals.


A lot like the sound made by a flying bullet, no?

The pickets, I'm afraid, are just the pickets: as in "a soldier or detachment of soldiers placed on a line forward of a position to warn against an enemy advance."


  • Are you suggesting that the Afghan outliers were whistling, and the British were responding to them? I'm afraid Graffito is correct. Dec 1, 2015 at 23:27

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