In between Sabre and Epee on March 7th we stole some time to talk about how the military sword has evolved in the modern world. These swords are the cousins of the weapons we carry, and although their modern use is largely ceremonial, it was not that long ago that they were used in combat. The notes below cover the presentation:
Introduction – Lieutenant Colonel Walter G. Green III, USAF (ret)
The role of the military sword as a combat weapon – in the United States swords were carried by officers in the Army up through the Spanish American War. The cavalry carried swords until they were finally withdrawn from service in 1934. The last mounted charge of the US cavalry was by the 26th Cavalry Philippine Scouts at Morong in the retreat to Bataan in 1942, and it was made with pistols, routing a Japanese force.
Military swords came in three basic types: Officers swords, Noncommissioned Officers swords, and Enlisted swords. All cavalrymen carried swords up to 1934. Up through the Civil War artillerymen (who did not have rifles or muskets), engineers (a specialized tool variant), and musicians (their only weapon) had swords.
Swords in the US Army came in a great variety of patterns – general officers, staff officers, infantry, heavy cavalry, light cavalry, dragoons, horse artillery, foot artillery, engineers, medical staff, militia staff officers, and militia infantry officers. The variety is even greater in other armies – in the British Army individual regiments often had their own pattern of sword.
Today the sword serves three primary purposes. It is primarily a mark of authority and status for officers and non-commissioned officers. It is commonly used in ceremonial roles. And there is still a remnant of battlefield use – if you watch video of the Trooping of the Color on the Queen’s birthday you will see cavalry officers of the Household Cavalry (the Life Guards and Blues and Royals) waving their sabres about. It is not aimless movement; they are using the sabre to give commands to the formation of horse and men as they parade.
Standardization of military swords is a fairly recent development. In the Revolutionary War to as late as Civil War individual officers of the Army and Navy carried weapons selected by personal choice. Post-Civil War there was a large surplus of swords from the war resulting in standardized issue of old patterns for many years after (and eventually some of those patterns becoming what is carried today.
A look at the sword’s anatomy – we can divide the sword into sword, scabbard, and accessories. The parts of the sword include parts that are familiar to us as fencers:
Grip – a capstan rivet that secures the pommel; the grip with a metal backstrap, ending with a ferrule. The guard typically consists of the protective knuckle bow with branches and a short quillon.
Blade – divided into the forte and foible with true and false cutting edges, an unsharpened ricasso at the base of the blade, a fuller, and decorative engraving.
The scabbard has its own parts – the throat into which the blade is inserted, upper and middle bands which hold carrying rings to suspend the sword from the sword belt, and a drag at the tip to protect the tip of the scabbard.
The key accessories are the sword belt, one of the most famous variety of which is the Sam Browne belt, designed in the 1800s as a system to hold sword and pistol by an Indian Army officer who had lost his left arm. The sword typically has a hanger with hook and chains or straps to secure the scabbard to the belt. The sword itself has a sword knot, leather or gilt cord, that is used to secure the weapon to the hand so that it is not easily lost in combat.
The US Navy Officer’s Sword – Cadet Senior Chief Petty Officer Joey Moore (NJROTC)
There have only two models of the Navy officers sword – current model 1852 is oldest US military sword in continuous use. Its predecessor was the model 1841. Prior to that Navy officers carried whatever model sword they wished or could obtain. The model 1852 has served as the model for other US services – the US Revenue Cutter Service and the US Coast Guard, which carries a very similar model to this day.
Note that Navy Cutlasses were the first standard issue US military sword. The cutlass is a short, cutting sword, originally issued to Sailors and Petty Officers for hand to hand combat in boarding actions. The model 1808 was the first with an order for 2000 cutlasses. For many years models were standardized when an order was placed for a single ship when insufficient numbers were available in the supply system. The Cutlass was declared obsolete in 1949. Today the Cutlass Model 1860 has been revived for ceremonial wear by Chief Petty Officers and training use.
Structure of the officer’s sword and its symbolism – the pommel is called a Phrygian helmet, a type of helmet used in ancient Thrace, Dacia, Magna Graecia and throughout the Hellenistic world until well into the Roman period. The grip was originally wood covered by fish skin; it is now plastic. Dolphin heads adorn the top of the knuckle bow and the end of the quillon. The upper surface of the guard is ornamented with leaves, possibly oak, a traditional military symbol, and with a scroll with USN.
- Today ceremonial – originally male officers wore swords for dress, female officers did not – Chief Petty Officers optionally wear a cutlass Model 1861 for ceremonies.
- Carried in combat through the Civil War – naval hand to hand combat in boarding actions continued into the Civil War, US gunboats on the China station carried cutlasses until World War II
Navy swords were carried in combat through the Civil War – naval hand to hand combat in boarding actions continued into the Civil War, and US gunboats on the China station carried cutlasses until World War II . Today sword use is ceremonial. Originally only male officers wore swords for in dress uniforms; female officers now may carry a sword.
The Marine Corps Officers Sabre – Colonel Len Blasiol USMC (ret)
Officers of the Marine Corps came home in 1805 from the First War with the Barbary Pirates of the Mediterranean Coast of North Africa with both a well deserved reputation for courage and the ability to carry our difficult, daring operations but also with a new sword, the North African scimitar. The US Marine Corps was not the only country and service to adapt the scimitar as a standard weapon. It looks dangerous and has that rakish feel to it that is instantly appealing. Napoleon adopted the curved scimitar for the Mameluks of the Guard after the Egyptian campaign in 1801-1802. The pattern was also widely adopted in England. General Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon’s eventual nemesis in Spain and at Waterloo also carried a sword of this pattern.
This is the oldest US military sword design in use today in virtually unchanged form from its adoption. It was officially adopted in 1825 although portraits of Marine officers show that the weapon was carried before that date. The Mameluke hilt weapon was carried up to 1859, when a decision was made to provide Marine officers with a sturdier Army pattern officer’s sword. It was returned to service in 1875 after a campaign of popular demand by the officer corps.
Marine officers receive their swords directly out of training (as opposed to the Navy where the sword is optional until promotion to Lieutenant Commander). There is even a specialized measuring sword used to size the sword so that it is of correct length for the officer’s height.
The Marine Officer’s sword is used for ceremonial purposes ranging from full dress parades to weddings and cutting the cake at the Marine Corps annual birthday celebration, the Marine Corps Ball. There is a manual that prescribes in detail the correct ceremony for each occasion (we have a copy generously donated by Len in the Salle’s library).
The Army/Air Force Officer’s Sword – Lieutenant Colonel Walter G. Green III, USAF (ret)
We have already noted the wide range of Army pattern swords carried over the years in the Introduction. Some of these were excellent weapons, some were frankly poorly designed, but there were a lot of them. The current sword is the Model 1908 Officers Sabre, the first sword adopted for dress wear by all officers regardless of branch or function. Compared to the Civil War vintage cavalry sabres, this is light weapon with a relatively thin blade, but was widely viewed as an improvement over its immediate predecessor which was viewed as decidedly flimsy.
The Model 1908 was short-lived as a weapon to carry to the field, although it continues to this day as the Army’s dress sabre. In 1913 the ultimate US Army sabre, the Model 1913, designed by Lieutenant George Patton of the Army Mounted Service School at Fort Riley in Kansas, supplanted it for use in the field by the cavalry, even for officers. A well designed thrusting weapon, the Model 1913 was carried for combat until sabres were withdrawn for the US cavalry in 1934.
The Model 1908 is also the Air Force officers sword, although its use is generally restricted to commanders of base and command honor guards. When the Air Force was established as separate service there was a realization that swords do not have much utility aboard aircraft, and swords were not established as a standard item of dress. The Air Force’s history as the Army Air Corps led to adoption of the Army sabre for this specialized ceremonial role.
The Air Force Academy Cadet Sword – Cadet Senior Chief Petty Officer Joey Moore (NJROTC)
Carried by Cadet Officers of the Corps of Cadets. When the Academy was first established, pictures do not show a cadet sword in use, and the Academy historian was unable to identify when the sword was introduced.
The design of this straight blade, double-edged sword with a straight cross guard stretches back into the early 1800s. It was first a foot officers sword and then carried by officers of the militia up through the Civil War. West Point adopted the basic pattern for its cadet officers in approximately 1872 with modifications in the design in 1922. At some time after the Academy was opened in 1959, the West Point cadets word was modified and adopted for Air Force Academy use.
Note that unlike Navy JROTC, Air Force ROTC and JROTC cadet officers do not carry swords
The British Model 1912 Cavalry Officers Sword – Lieutenant Colonel Walter Green (Legion of Frontiersmen)
The last British combat sword, it follows the basic design of the Model 1908 Cavalry Sword for enlisted personnel with a long straight blade, a practical guard, and a grip optimized for thrusting. The enlisted troopers’ model may have been the first sword to used plastic in its construction with a grip made of dermatite, an early plastic.
British military sword guards tend to be more ornate than the American swords. Although this is a utilitarian weapon the guard features the honeysuckle design used in the model 1896 cavalry officers sword.
This sword was used in combat in World War I by the British Cavalry in a number of actions in Palestine and on the Western Front. The charge of the 5th Dragoon Guards in August 1918 was one of the most successful, leading to the capture of a railroad train, along with assorted artillery and German infantry.
The Model 1912 is still in use as a ceremonial weapon. It is interesting that the ultimate weapon of the British cavalry and the ultimate weapon of the US cavalry were very similar thrusting weapons.