4-F: Unfit for Service because of your Teeth?

Rejected Due to lack of four front teeth 4-F or 4FMany civilians as well as military personnel are familiar with the term 4-F (also called 4F).  4-F is a classification given to a new U.S. military registrant indicating that he or she is “not acceptable for service in the Armed Forces” due to medical, dental, or other reasons.

Most people do not know that the term 4-F (or 4F) originated in the Civil War and was used to disqualify army recruits who did not have four front teeth with which to tear open gunpowder packages.

History of the term 4F or 4-F

The term 4F or 4-F started in the Civil War.  As both Confederate and Union soldiers were being recruited, there were very few medical or dental reasons for rejection.  Quite simply, the battery of tests and screening tools available today simply did not exist back then.

Photo of Union Soldiers in Civil War and they each had their four front teeth and were not 4F nor 4-F

Photograph of Union Soldiers in the Civil War. On enlisting, they were not classified as 4-F since they had at least four front teeth. Source unknown.

It was noted, however, that in order to properly load a rifle quickly, the gun powder cartridge needed to be ripped open with the teeth. Molars and premolars in the back of the mouth were not sufficient for this task. Only the incisors and canine teeth in the front could be utilized.

Photo of Civil War Dentist evaluating a soldiers teeth to see if he is 4F or 4-F

Civil War Dentist examines a soldier’s teeth. Courtesy Association of Army Dentistry, San Antonio, TX.

Back then, routine dental care did not exist, and many people in their late teens and 20s were missing several teeth. If a recruit could not open the gun powder cartridge with his teeth, he would not be able to reload quickly, placing himself and his fellow soldiers at greater risk.

So, while evaluating new registrants, a dental exam was performed to see if each young man had at least four front teeth. The dentist would examine the young man and evaluate the front teeth (or lack thereof). Those young men without four front teeth were disqualified and not permitted to enlist.

Naturally, a “code” was needed to designate why the registrant was unfit for service. So someone (presumably a Union Officer) came up with:

4-F (lacks 4 Front Teeth)

And from that point forward, the term 4-F was used in this manner.

Use of 4-F in the Military Today

Photo of four front teeth 4F or 4-F and this patient could serve in Army in Civil War

Front teeth of a military patient of mine. He could have served in the Civil War and would not be assigned 4F or 4-F.

After the Civil War, the term 4-F (4F) continued to be used to disqualify possible recruits for medical, dental, or other health reasons.  As time progressed and more was learned about medicine and dentistry, new screening criteria was developed.  In addition, with the development of new rifle technology, one no longer needed four front teeth to efficiently fire and re-load a rifle.  So the “four front teeth” criteria was eliminated.  The term 4-F was used by the Selective Service System extensively in World War II and that is when it entered the vocabulary of most Americans.

As a general dentist in private practice, I have the privilege of treating all types of members of the Armed Services. Frequently I have to examine a patient and complete a Pre-Deployment Dental Screening Form and certify that the patient has no acute dental problems that would interfere with his/her ability to serve in the military. I feel honored to have this privilege and I take this responsibility quite seriously.  As of this day, I have yet to see a patient about to deploy without at least 4 front teeth. But if so, it would not disqualify them from service. But I hope I never see that!

Comments

  1. brandon angel says:

    Loved article.posted too Reddit!

  2. Is that photo of a civil war dentist real? The tie doesn’t seem right.

    • Mike,

      I am a dentist and blogger, not a civil war historian. However, I researched the 4-F myth and confirmed it through several sources. Regarding the Civil War photo, the photo was printed in the alumni magazine of my dental school. They sourced it coming from the Association of Army Dentistry. Can I say with 100% certainty that the photo is from the Civil War? No. But based upon my sources, I would say we’re at 99%.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Nicholas Calcaterra DDS

  3. Interesting article. I stumbled upon it as I am missing 4 front teeth at 30 years old and am trying desperately to find a permanent solution that I can afford as I’m unemployed and uninsured right now….

  4. This was an interesting read, but I find it highly suspect. Can you cite any sources, preferably any Army (or military) manual that backs up the claims in your post?

    • Brian,
      I consulted numerous sources but none of them are military manuals. Off the top of my head, the book Excruciating History of Dentistry talks about this. This website (http://www.sswt.com/history.htm) talks about the teeth requirement in the Civil war but not the term 4f. My alma mater SUNY Buffalo Dental also wrote an article about this.
      So, either this is a massive conspiracy, or some/all of this is true. It is up to you to decide. But again, I used several sources to confirm this before I wrote it.

  5. My godfather was Dr. James L. Murphy and in WW-2 he was a dental officer at Barksdale Army Airfield in Shreveport. One day he had an edentulous Master Sergeant pass through the required exam line. He immediately offered to make sure this senior NCO had a new set of proper dentures but the Master Sarge vehemently rejected the idea. Later my godfather ran into the M/Sgt in the messhalls, who delighted in demonstrating to Dr. Murphy that he could easily masticate a steak.

    I did two years in the Navy, 1974-76, all with the USMC. I only examined one edentulous patient, a corporal who had finally been put in full dentures after many heroic efforts to save his teeth.

    Marines had to be Class one dental to go to Sea School (to serve in ships usually as gunners) or Embassy School. I had many class II and even Class III (could blow up at any moment -in theory non- deployable yet here they were in a hostile fire zone, in some cases) marine patients plead with me to certify them as class one… (“Doc, I PROMISE I’ll get me teeth fixed as soon as I get back from Embassy School…”) … But I never did.

    • Griff,
      Thanks for your comments. It is always fun hearing dental military stories. One of my instructors in dental school was a dentist in the Army and went to Vietnam. Told me some very interesting stories and he saw some crazy stuff!
      Thank you for serving our country.

  6. mrcorbina says:

    Well that’s annoying, it only posted one line from my comment! Let me try again…

    As I said, I, too, was highly suspicious of the 4-F story, for several reasons I won’t bore you with. :o) So I turned to my go-to word-and-phrase-origin guy, etymologist, author, and prolific columnist Evan Morris. This guy knows his stuff, and really does his research. And I’m afraid he agrees the story is “utter claptrap”, in spite of your otherwise trustworthy sources. Here’s his take: http://www.word-detective.com/2007/06/4-f/

    Chances are that the sources you quoted sourced their information from another source that got it from another source that… well, you get the idea. This is a very common occurrence in the Age of the Internet, and is the reason so many of these inaccurate stories persist. Most of you reading this have probably been exposed to equally false stories about the origin of “the whole nine yards”, and “raining cats and dogs”, etc. I encourage you to dig around Mr. Morris’ website — it’s wonderfully fascinating and enlightening! :o)

    • Thanks for the insightful commentary and link.

      The Word Detective certainly puts a strong case together that this is not true. But he doesn’t prove it without a doubt. In that vein, of the several sources I consulted – I do not believe any of them could prove without a doubt that 4-f originated this way. So who really knows where the truth lies.

  7. I googled “military dental requirements muzzle loading” and it took me straight to the Army Medical branch (AMED) history. It states that in the muzzle loading era the troops had to have enough teeth to bite open a paper cartridge. This history is very interesting. They did not even commission a dental officer until 1911. Prior to that they had a few contract dentists (wore officer uniforms, but no rank) – mostly a few stewards with dental training and some dentists who served as stewards.

    • Griff,
      Very interesting. So this proves without much doubt the requirement that enough teeth be present to open the cartridge. Many have posted here with doubts on this story. So while the term 4-F and its relationship to teeth is still questionable (at least for those people who are posting with doubts), this info should definitely give a bit more weight to the validity of this story.

      • I have been to Jeffersonville, Vt., and shot in their primitive biathlon twice, 14 years ago; and one thing I learned was that paper cartridges keep you out of trouble with a muzzle loader. You don’t have to remember your powder flask or powder horn! Even in a match people get excited and forget the powder. At that point the shooter is done until someone with a “worm” can get that dead ball out. Many muzzle loading rifles and muskets recovered from battlefields were stuffed nearly to the muzzle with balls and charges packed over the first “no powder” load.

  8. Willem Steenkamp says:

    I only came across the above a little late, but I send this comment in support of Dr Calcaterra. I am a gun collector, and can assure everyone that unless an infantryman of the muzzle-loading era had opposing front teeth the army wojld have had to issue him with a pair of nail scissors! A paper cartridge consists of a paper cylinder with a ball at one end. The drill would be to tear open the cylinder with your teeth, pour the powder down the barrel, shove down the paper as a makeshift wad and then follow it with the ball. Naturally all this fell away with the introduction of self-contained rounds with brass cartridge-cases, which started happening in the early 1860s. But the army is a peculiar beast – once it has done something for a few years that “something” tends to become an institution … I remember reading in the 1960s in the long-gone but much-mourned Argosy magazine that in fact the question of missing front teeth went back to the Revolutionary War, which would not surprise me,because the same problem would have existed then. The same article stated (on what authority I don’t remember) that by the 1940s – and probably earlier – recruits with missing or buck teeth were not classified as 4-F but were automatically posted to the artillery, the signals, the military police or elsewhere. Regarding institutionalisation – up to the 1970s in the South African Army, the crew of an artillery piece always had one man kneeling behind the gun’s trails. Then a new field piece came into service and its manning was one of the matters looked at. It was found that the man behind the trails dated back to pre-mechanisation daysof the mid-1930s – his main task had been to take care of the gun-horses!

  9. Andrew Miller says:

    I did not know that having front teeth was such an important thing because of gunpowder.
    Great article learned something new today.

    • My Grandfather was a scientist and was in the Navy during WWII. In his older years he drank a lot of Colt 45 and always yelled at at us grandkids calling us 4F draft dodgers. Always wondered where it came from. Thank you for this!

      Kirk Forrest

      • Griff Murphey DDS says:

        The selective service deferments all had numbers. For example, if you were a college student, you had a 2S. If you were on active duty in the armed forces or in certain stages with ROTC on contract you had a 1D. I suspect these codes were established in WW-1 but clearly there was some provenance behind 4F.

  10. Michael Case says:

    4F, now that is a great code for someone who is missing front teeth.

Trackbacks

  1. […] 3. In the American Civil War, soldiers were required to have at least four opposing front teeth so that they could open a gunpowder pouch. Some draftees had their front teeth removed to avoid service. – Source […]

  2. […] 3. In the American Civil War, soldiers were required to have at least four opposing front teeth so that they could open a gunpowder pouch. Some draftees had their front teeth removed to avoid service. – Source […]

  3. […] 3. In the American Civil War, soldiers were required to have at least four opposing front teeth so that they could open a gunpowder pouch. Some draftees had their front teeth removed to avoid service. – Source […]

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