Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

 

Light Cavalry Sabers the French Army

By Marc

 

As a follow-up to my  “ Le sabre de officier Supèrieur à la Hussarde Consulat” article I want to go a little bit deeper into the matter of the sabers carried by Napoleon’s Light Cavalry officers.

I will describe in this article some models that are from roughly the same era as the saber that I described in my previous article. As I already mentioned in that article there were hardly any rules for the design and the choice of Light Cavalry officer’s sabers. There are however some common similarities such as the use of copper for the scabbards, the choice of certain types of saber grips, and the use of silver on the sabers.

I said in my previous article that a hussar officer presumably used the saber described there. However, I need to mention that a simpler version of this type of saber was also used by  by officers in the line chasseurs-à-cheval regiments. You can identify hussar sabers by the “picture” of a hussar on horseback that was engraved on the blade accompanied by the text “Vivat Hussar”. This was common on most hussar sabers but not always done.

I would like to illustrate the difficulty of cataloging the hussar and chasseurs-à-cheval sabers with an example. As most Napoleon buffs know, one of the most famous memoirs from the era are the memoirs of Baron Marcellin de Marbot, an officer who served as Colonel of the 23rd Chasseurs-à-Cheval and later the 7th Hussars.  In one of the early copies of these memoirs there is a portrait of Marbot on which he carries a beautifully crafted saber ( Sabre de luxe à la Hongroise ). My first idea was that this was a “fantasy” saber, but after some reflection, it made me think that it could be a truthful depiction of Marbot’s real saber and it confirmed to me how difficult it us to catalogue these types of sabers. I have two reasons to think that the saber is a correct depiction of Marbot’s saber:

1.      Because the saber on the portrait is a saber that corresponds with the sort of saber worn by an officer of Marbot’s rank (Colonel of the 23rd Chasseurs-à-Cheval).

2.      Because a saber like this one is in the collection of the Paris Musée de L’Armée ( Les Invalides).

Of course Marbot was a colonel and aide-de-camps of several Marshals of the Empire for a long time. As a marshal’s aide, he presumably had several beautiful dress uniforms and sabers in his possession, including the exquisite dolman and pelisse that are on display at the Musée de L’Armée (in the same display case as the saber). My point is that a superior officer in the Hussars or Chasseurs-à-Cheval both had the same choice of sabers and that Marbot in fact could have kept the same sabers when he transferred from the 23rd Chasseurs to the 7th Hussars. Marbot came from a wealthy family. His father was a general as Marbot himself would be after the Napoleonic Wars. This story could become so much more interesting if we assume that Marbot’s saber was originally his father’s saber, but this can not be confirmed. The fact remains that the saber in the possession of the Musée de L’Armée is of an exquisite quality.

As I said,  I will now elaborate on some types of sabers used by the officers of Napoleon’s light cavalry, in particular by the hussars and chasseurs-à-Cheval. I mention these two branches of the light cavalry specifically because the other branches: line lancers, Mamelukes, Guard Chasseurs-à-Cheval and Guard Lancers used other types.

The following designations are the ones used in saber collector’s circles. The different types of sabers are divided into four major groups.

1)      Sabre à la Hongroise

2)      Sabre à la cavalerie légère

3)      Sabre de garde perlée

4)      Sabre de garde Allemande

These groups could be combined into one saber, for instance a “sabre à la garde Allemande garde perlée” had a square hilt pommel and a hilt guard decorated with small metal pearls.

1.      Sabre à la Hongroise: This saber was derived from the Hungarian sabers that were adopted by many European armies in the mid 18th Century. It usually had a wooden scabbard covered with leather and copper. It had a hilt with one branch and an extension on both sides (langets) that were designed to put the saber and scabbard into a correct position when the saber was inserted.

2.      Sabre de cavalerie légère: While this name actually means light cavalry saber (so one could conclude that it comprises all light cavalry sabers) it is used only for sabers that have metal scabbards with a three branches brass hilt, the most famous models being the An IX and AN XIII. This group of sabers was usually less luxurious and therefore mostly used by the enlisted troopers of the Light Cavalry.

3.      Sabre de garde perlée: the pearl-like “buttons” on its hilt can identify this type of saber. Scabbards were usually made out of wood partially covered by copper and sometimes leather too. This type of saber was already in use amongst the officers of the Ancien Régime.

4.      Sabre à la garde Allemande: Can be identified by its straight hilt guard and square hilt pommel (pommeau). It usually had a blade à la Montmorency. This is a blade with a double “blood groove”, often with engravings in gold. This type of saber was very popular amongst superior officers and was therefore usually very luxuriously crafted. Scabbards were sometimes covered with sheet silver or gold and adorned with the most beautiful engravings.

All models had curved blades as opposite to the Heavy Cavalry sabers that were straight bladed. They were also lighter and differently balanced than Heavy Cavalry sabers. There could be inscriptions and engravings on all models and all styles but the garde perlée’s and the Allemande –models were usually the most luxuriously crafted.

Also used, as noted in one of my previous articles, that some officers brought Mameluk sabers back with them after Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign and that these sabers became fashionable in the French army, especially with the light cavalry officers. They were also popular  with the the British officers of the era.

Saber manufacturers: To conclude I would like to mention a few of the most famous manufacturers that were specialized in sabers. The most famous one is Nicolas Boutet of Versailles. From this shop came the Sabres d’honneur distributed by Napoleon and it was were many superior officers ordered their sabers. This shop also played a major part in the manufacturing of the Guard sabers. Other well know manufacturers in the vicinity of Paris are Duc, Manceau, Montigny,Dupont and Coullier and in the rest of France and the Empire you had Berger in Strasbourg, Spot and Goze in Metz and Coulaux in Klingenthal.

To conclude this article here are some pictures. I would like to stress that sabers were made by hand in the Napoleonic era so no two sabers are exactly the same.

Feel free to e-mail me if you have questions or comments. I hope that this article shed some light on the subject.

Click on any thumbnail image for a larger view.


(Left to right)

  1. Sabre à la Hongroise: The Blade
  2. Sabre à la Hongroise: The Hilt
  3. Sabre à la Hongroise: Blades Detail
  4. Sabre à la Hongroise: Scabbard Detail
  5.  

 

  1. Sabre de officier de cavalerie légère: Hilt and sword knot
  2. Sabre de officer cavalerie légère: Sword and scabbard
  3. Sabre de garde perlée: Hilt
  4. Sabre de garde Allemande: Hilt
 


 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2001

 

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