The fife, most accurately described, is any cylindrically bored transverse flute, usually in one piece (but sometimes two), usually somewhat longer than the piccolo and having only six fingerholes with no keys. It is intended and usually used for outdoor music, often connected with the military, and sometimes for signal purposes with or without field drum and other fifes of the same pitch. Flute, and in particular the band flute, properly speaking, best refers to any (nineteenth- or early-twentieth-century) transverse flute, in at least two sections, most often conical bore, and equipped with one or more keys of any system. It is usually in a flat key and intended for use in wind ensembles composed mostly of transposing instruments, including, of course, the flute band consisting exclusively of such flutes with percussion. The following example will confirm that no amount of similar analysis may convince the fifer, flutist, or manufacturer that either instrument should be called the other.
Sales catalogs present an interesting array of varying nomenclature. For example, the catalog of Julius Heinrich Zimmermann (Leipzig, ca. 1899) shows on page 140 conical bore "Piccolo- Flöten" in C, D-flat, and E-flat, with from one to seven keys. Page 152 then offers "Trommelpfeifen oder Querpfeifen in B" with one or five keys and two sections, plus a "Militärtrommelpfeife in B" without keys and apparently in one piece ("einem Stück.") Other than being "in B"--that is, in English, nominally B-flat--which may mean A-flat, perhaps the keyed "pfeifen" are considered to be fifes because of a cylindrical bore, which is not mentioned. Oddly enough a conical bore is more likely in this Germanic case, and supports the view that confusing nomenclature was not necessarily confusing to the users or of concern to the listeners.
Misleading flute nomenclature sometimes found its way into early-nineteenth-century American brass band scores. A splendid example, in the Library's holdings, is the "Hero's Quickstep," published in Elias Howe Jr.'s First Part of the Musician's Companion (Boston, 1844). It is scored for ophicleide, trombone, cornopean (cornet) in A-flat, valved trumpet in A-flat, bugle (meaning keyed bugle) in B-flat, and "fife in B-flat," which is transposed as an A-flat instrument to sound a minor sixth above written pitch. The "fife" surely indicates a band flute in A-flat with at least one key. In the score it has the typical function of the optional piccolo, doubling the lead part (mostly the bugle) an octave or two above. Technically, a keyless fife could and might well have been tried or used in a rural setting, as has been done experimentally in period-instrument performance of the piece. However, "fife" in this case surely does not mean fife, for without the crucial added one key (E-flat, D-sharp), it is quite unsatisfactory to play and hear in company with those brasswinds or any other chromatic instruments.