Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

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Cavalry Combat and the Sword: Sword Design, Provision, and Use in the British Cavalry of the Napoleonic Era. 

By Martin Read

A number of general works on Napoleonic history, and indeed some older more specialised military histories, indicate that the use by heavy cavalry of a straight thrusting sword, and by light cavalry of a curved cutting sword, was merely a matter of convention or fashion.  Though a definite streak of conservatism did exist relating to the provision of sword types, these assertions are far from the truth.  Throughout the Nineteenth Century a heated controversy ran through European, and particularly British, military circles as to whether a sword optimised for thrusting or one optimised for cutting was the best type to issue to mounted troops.   Though British records of this controversy are most numerous for the Nineteenth Century the origins of conflict over this issue are considerably earlier, dating from the adoption of the light cavalry ethos in the armies of Western Europe.

The historical origins of the two forms of sword are quite distinct.  The straight thrusting sword can be traced back to the straight two edged sword of war of Mediaeval times.  Originally a cut and thrust sword, the adoption of plate armour led to specialised thrusting forms being produced.  Typically these had a long narrow blade stiffened by a diamond cross-section or a medial rib.  These swords eventually evolved into the ultimate thrusting weapon the rapier.  Though used in war the true rapier was really a civilian phenomenon, it being recognised by most authorities that the soldier in combat required a more robust weapon.  Therefore, alongside the rapier there always existed broader-bladed, slightly shorter weapons, which could be used to thrust and had sufficient weight of blade to cut.  This type of sword had many minor variations and names but was known in the English Civil War as a “good stiff tuck”.  During the 18th century the rapier shrank in size to produce the civilian “small-sword”.  While from an even earlier date the straight military sword tended, because of the lessening use of armour and the universality of asymmetric hand guards (knucklebows), to adopt a single edged blade with a thickened back (a “back-sword”).

The evolution of the curved sabre seems to derive from two sources.  Firstly, there was a tradition of heavy bladed, single edged, cutting swords in Western Europe dating back to the Mediaeval falchion (possibly back as far as the seax of the Germanic tribes), which had evolved into the lighter “hanger” form by about 1600.  Secondly, and probably more importantly, was influence deriving from the East.  The Eurasian steppe seems to be the birthplace of the true sabre, and use of this form of relatively light slashing weapon moved from east to west in Europe over time[1].   The Byzantines and Russians were using sabres by 1200 at the very latest, and its use was introduced, or re-introduced, to Central Europe by various steppe peoples, such as the Cumans, fleeing troubles further east.  The appearance of the Mongols, and later the Ottoman Turks, in Europe must have reinforced these influences leading to more widespread use of the sabre.   Whilst Central and Eastern Europe saw widespread usage of sabres in mounted warfare from relatively early times, the cavalry of Western Europe saw only minor use of curved swords before the gradual adoption of light cavalry during the course of the 18th century, in the case of Britain particularly after 1750.[2]   

 

 

Notes:

[1] The history and typology of swords in Mediaeval Eastern Europe is a poorly developed field.  The pagan Magyars certainly used sabres, and some continued use of curved swords throughout the Middle Ages is highly probable, though the dominance of Western European straight swords following the conversion of Hungary is well attested.

[2] The first French regiment of hussars was raised in 1692; numbers of these cavalrymen were gradually increased but didn’t achieve really significant levels until the 1740s (totalling seven regiments in 1745).  Britain lagged behind in the development of light cavalry, short-lived experiments in the 1740s led to the first permanent establishments of light cavalry in the 1750s. The earlier forms of light cavalry found in Western Europe, such as stradiots, jinetes, hobilars or ‘Border Horse’, had been gradually lost over the course of the 17th Century when the wearing of armour was progressively reduced and “the horse” became increasingly undifferentiated  (though differentiation between “the horse” and dragoons was rigorous).  These troops seem to have had no direct influence on later light cavalry types.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2003

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