Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

 


Getting the Point: Some Functional Aspects of the 1796 British Heavy Cavalry Sword

 

By Martin Read

The famous, and famously derided, British 1796 pattern heavy cavalry sword was a direct copy of the sword of the Austrian heavy cavalry dating to 1775. In contemporary and near contemporary accounts by serving officers it received poor reviews, particularly when compared to the equivalent French swords. Much criticism centred on its unwieldy nature and lack of performance when used to execute a thrust. Certainly this sword was not an elegant weapon, but in this article I will attempt to rehabilitate its reputation to some extent.

Hatchet Point

As Manufactured
(Hatchet Point)

Under the tutelage of the cavalry officer John Gaspard Le Marchant (later to be killed leading a brigade of British heavy cavalry to victory at Salamanca) the British cavalry were prescribed a method of sword fighting where the cut was emphasised above the thrust. This method had some advantages which were thought to outweigh the fact that cuts tend to be less fatal than thrusts. The cut is a more instinctive blow than a thrust, and in melees the average cavalryman will tend to cut even if his sword is more suited to the thrust. Also cuts can be directed to any part of the body, whereas thrusts must be delivered to the torso or head if they are to have a reasonable chance of striking home. Lastly an enemy incapacitated by a cut to a limb, particularly an arm, is as useless in battle as if he had been killed. Given that the cut was the preferred method of sword fighting in the British cavalry, then it would be logical that swords optimised for cutting should be adopted, which is indeed what happened.

The finest design for a cutting sword is undoubtedly a well-curved blade. Such a blade allows the wielder to cut with a slicing action, where the blade's edge is drawn across the target with an effect similar, if you will excuse the unpleasant comparison, to that of a bacon-slicer. This is true of the 1796 British Light

Asymmetrically 
                Sharpened Point

Asymmetrically
Sharpened Point
Cavalry sabre designed by Le Marchant and, in a more extreme form, in those swords of Eastern manufacture such as the Turkish shamshir. Straight swords may also cut, though the cut or hack, in this case is similar to that of an axe biting into wood and is directly dependent for its effect on the weight of the blade and the position of its centre of balance. It would follow that all cavalry dependant on using the cut should be equipped with curved swords. Indeed this type of sword was supplied to the British Light Dragoons, why then were the "heavies" given a straight sword? I think the answer lies in the conservatism of both the British and Austrian military establishments, as heavy cavalry had always used straight swords, then they should continue doing so. This certainly ignored the fact that the swords previously used by heavy cavalry had been designed both for cutting and thrusting. The search for the purity of logical thought within procurement committees is ever futile.

Having said this, if you want a straight sword optimised for cutting then the 1796 pattern is well designed. The sword has a broad straight blade some 35 inches long with a thickened back, though the blade nearest the point is sharpened on both sides. All swords have a compromise between manoeuvrability and weight of blade - or to be precise the position of the point of balance along the blade, the closer to the tip this position is the more forceful is the blow. Undoubtedly the 1796 sword sacrificed some handiness in favour of a forceful cut. Thus it was not a blade for fencing finesse but it was a formidable cutting machine. The sword-point as manufactured was relatively blunt in outline often being described as hatchet-like. This shape of sword-point is also found in traditional Japanese swords, though, being less broad of blade, the shape is less of an impediment to thrusting. As in the case of the 1796 pattern, the Japanese swords were essentially hacking weapons (they are not sufficiently curved to slice) and the tip's shape in both cases is designed to give strength to the end of the sword in the event of a cutting blow encountering a hard object such as dense bone or metal. Due to the 1796 sword's broadness this type of point would be very poor at piercing heavy clothing or rolled cloaks, making a thrust a largely unprofitable exercise.

I would like now to make some personal observations. There appears to be a curious gap in the available literature relating to the British 1796 pattern heavy cavalry sword. As I have outlined much has been made of the unsuitability of this sword for making the thrust. However, it is recorded that its rather blunt "hatchet point" was modified into a "spear point" by grinding down both edges of the blade to bring the tip to the mid line in order to allow a thrust to be made. This was apparently carried out in a less than complete or uniform way at regimental level at a late date (1814-15).

I became suspicious that this was not the complete story during a visit to the

Spear Point

Spear Point
Scots Greys Museum in Edinburgh Castle. Here the sword of the famous Sargent Ewart is displayed alongside the French Eagle he captured at Waterloo. I was surprised at the acute point to this sword. It was not modified into the spear point, but looked to me as though it had been ground down only on the underside of the blade at the tip to produce a point more suited to thrusting. This opinion was later confirmed for me in a rather surprising location - the Municipal Museum of the Portuguese town of Lagos. In this rather quirky museum they have a display of four British 1796 pattern heavy cavalry swords. Of these, one had an unmodified "as manufactured" tip with a blunt hatchet point, two others had been modified in the same manner as Sgt. Ewart's sword (unfortunately the fourth sword had its point hidden from view). Seeing an unmodified blade directly alongside two others that had been sharpened at the tip was very enlightening.

This type of modification to enable the thrust to be more effectively delivered has a number of advantages over the spear point. First, the sword is essentially one edged and has a thickened "back" to the blade - this back is the blade's axis of greatest strength, and keeping the tip in alignment to this thickened part of the cross-section would ensure the likelihood of the blade snapping when used to thrust was kept to a minimum. Second, the sword was criticised as being somewhat short, the grinding down to a spear point unavoidably leads to a sword which is about one inch shorter than its original length, grinding only one side of the tip, in contrast, leads to no shortening. Third, when held in the charge en terce, that is pointed in front at full stretch with the sharpened side of the blade uppermost, the blade with an asymmetric point when encountering clothing or flesh will tend to be pulled into the target. A sword with a spear point would tend, if not landing squarely in the centre of the target, to skitter off causing only a glancing blow.

It seems strange that this fairly obvious modification has not been commented on in the literature, or at least in the literature I have read.

In conclusion, the 1796 Heavy Dragoon sword was a weapon designed as a specialised cutting implement, a task it performed very well. However, in use it is apparent that its lack of ability to execute a thrust was found to be limiting. As a result of this perceived limitation a number of methods of modifying the sword-point seem to have been carried out, probably at the regimental level, in order that the thrust could be made. The result of these modifications was a more flexible and effective weapon. A fact to which those French soldiers, both infantry and cavalry, at the receiving end of the charge of the British heavy cavalry brigades on the field of Waterloo could testify.

Bibliography

Fletcher, Ian. Galloping at Everything; The British Cavalry in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo, 1808-15: A Reappraisal Staplehurst : Spellmount; 1999.

Noble, Duncan. "Cut or Thust; Testing the Great Sword Debate" Military Illustrated; July, 1998. Pp 37-39

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