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. 

Sword Types and Their Use Sword Shape and Combat

By Martin Read

It is evident that the two types of sword described have properties suited to different combat situations.  In cavalry versus cavalry combat the straight thrusting sword is most useful in a formal charge, especially at the first clash, whereas the curved sabre comes into its own in the confusion of a cavalry melee following a charge.   The straight sword, as well as being used to harness the forward momentum of horse and rider to lethal effect, was regarded as having an enhanced intimidatory effect on the enemy.  The sight of ranks of men charging with levelled pointing swords was considered a more frightening prospect for the enemy than the same number of men waving curved sabres.   In contrast when groups of horsemen engaged in melee the pace of the horse was slow, usually merely a walk, so that no advantage was gained from momentum.  Also there was a great deal of circling and tight pivoting of meleeing riders and horses.  The resulting effect being that the individual cavalryman constantly had to shift his sword from side to side to meet ever changing threats and targets.  In this type of conflict the greater manoeuvrability of the curved sword was at a particular premium.

Against infantry neither sword offers any particular advantage in regard to combat with well-motivated foot soldiers drawn up in a defensive formation.  However, because of the greater reach of the majority of thrusting swords, this sword type would have some advantage over the sabre when dealing with unprepared or disordered infantry.

The best illustration of the differing usage of the straight and curved sword in combat is made by reference to cavalrymen who routinely used both; these are the original hussars[4], both Hungarian and Polish-Lithuanian.  The two types of hussar were very similar, developed as they were from the light cavalry traditions of the Western Balkans, up to the fall of the Kingdom of Hungary to the Turks.  Thereafter the Polish hussar became more heavily armoured and used in a shock role, and the Hungarian hussar lost his armour and embraced a famed place in irregular warfare.  It was the latter type which was the ancestor of the hussars and other light cavalry of Western Europe, though the Polish hussar could be seen to have been instrumental in the retention of the cavalry lance until its widespread readoption in the Napoleonic period.  Both forms of hussar carried a curved sabre hung from a waist belt and additionally a long straight thrusting sword (palasz or koncerz in Polish) attached to the left side of the horse’s saddle.   The Polish hussar would use his thrusting sword if obliged to charge after his lance had been broken; if he was involved in a melee or was fighting in a less ordered formation he would rely on his sabre.  The Hungarian hussar used his swords in a similar manner and some of the earliest French hussars, as was described by a contemporary witness, retained this method of fighting:

The arms of the hussars are a large curved sabre…it is for sabring right and left, and for striking high to low.  Some, in addition to the sabre carry a long thin sword which they do not carry at their sides but rather place it along the sides of their horses from the breast to crupper… (these) they use to spit the enemy;… when they employ them, they rest the butt against the knee.[5]

It can be seen from their use of both types of sword that the early hussars were well aware of each weapon’s differing advantages in particular forms of combat. 

The early hussars were usually drawn from a military and social elite; they often provided their own equipment and had an inborn pride in their martial prowess.   However, the more prosaic needs of the large armies of Western Europe largely precluded the maintenance of dual-armed cavalrymen so that the type of sword used by a cavalry trooper reflected the primary role of his unit.  Heavy cavalry, who existed for the close order battlefield charge, were equipped with straight thrusting swords, the light cavalry, whose major function was in the provision of piquets, scouting, screening the movements of armies and other forms of the petite guerre were given curved sabres. 

 

 

Notes:

[4] The origin of the word hussar is more probably from the South Slavic “gussar” meaning bandit, itself perhaps deriving from the Latin cursarius of the same meaning, than from the Hungarian term for the number twenty (husz).

[5] Père Daniel (R P Daniel). Histoire de la Milice Française (Paris 1721).

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2003

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