The British 1796 Pattern Light Cavalry Sword
By Martin Read
In contrast to the high levels of criticism directed at the 1796 heavy cavalry sword, the sword adopted at the same time for the British light cavalry received more appreciative contemporary comment. In the estimation of a number of modern experts this sword is possibly the finest cutting sword ever manufactured in quantity. However, not all contemporary accounts were favourable and, as in the case of the heavy cavalry sword, fault was found in its inability to execute the thrust.
In the late Eighteenth Century the British army showed an increasing desire to standardise equipment, this resulted in 1788 in the introduction of swords for the cavalry of two standard forms, one for the light cavalry the other for the heavy. During the Low Countries campaign (1793-95) under the Duke of York both swords were found to be seriously wanting in performance. The heavy cavalry sword, in particular, reputedly posed as great a menace to its wielder as to the enemy. Serving in the cavalry in this campaign was John Gaspard Le Marchant, a man, perhaps unusual for an officer of cavalry, possessed of a keen and scientific mind. Fortunately he was also well connected, and his various sound proposals for the improvement of the British cavalry force were subsequently implemented, at least in part. Included in these improvements was his design for a new cavalry sword. Le Marchant was an accomplished swordsman and horseman, and was acutely aware of the practicalities of mounted combat. He was, therefore, very well qualified to design an effective, practical and efficient sword for cavalry use. The sword he designed in collaboration with the Birmingham cutler Henry Osborne was adopted, with a slightly increased blade length, for the British light cavalry as the Pattern 1796. It is recorded that Le Marchant wished that his curved cutting sword be universally adopted, but it was decided that the heavy cavalry should have a straight sword based on an Austrian model (discussed elsewhere).
The P1796 sword designed by Le Marchant was, unsurprisingly as he was a strong advocate of the cut in mounted swordsmanship, a dedicated slashing weapon. It had a broad blade with a pronounced curve (diverging almost 3 inches from the straight), with a single broad but shallow fuller. The blade was 33 inches in length (measured from hilt to tip in a straight line) and was broader near the tip than at the junction with the hilt, a feature which apparently evoked complaints from French officers who witnessed the wounds inflicted by the P1796 sword. As troopers were taught to cut only with the distal portion of the blade often only the final 6 to 8 inches of the blade were honed to full sharpness. The hilt was of a new design for the British army, with a rivet passing through the tang of the blade, the wooden grip and two ears projecting from the iron backpiece of the hilt - uniting the whole in a very solid fashion. This construction was identical to that used in the P1796 heavy cavalry sword and was ultimately of Austrian inspiration. The grip was of leather-covered ribbed wood and was made so as to be full close to the crossguard and in the centre of the hand, narrower towards the other extremity, before it curved forward so as to follow the line of the pommel part of the backpiece. The hand was protected by a stirrup shaped single bar knucklebow of iron. A continuation of the knucklebow formed a forward projecting (often downward curved) quillon ending in a downturned rounded finial. Projections of the Knucklebow/quillon formed two broad flat “D” shaped langets, which bracketed both sides of the shoulder of the blade. The scabbard was of iron or steel, with wooden lining strips, a removable throat plate (for ease of repair) and two rings for suspension from a waist belt.
Troopers’ swords vary in some minor details, such as the width of the knucklebow and the size and shape of the langets and were subjected to some modifications in service. Officers’ weapons, however, show a far greater range of variation. Troopers’ swords average 2lbs 2oz in weight, those of officers being lighter by a number of ounces. The swords purchased privately by officers could be highly decorated with gilded hilts and blued blades (some being German imports), and scabbards were sometimes of non-standard construction. Some exceptionally ornate examples survive with a lion mask adorning the pommel (similar to that of the infantry flank officers’ sabre of 1803). Grips were often bound with brass, silver or silver-gilt wire, and ivory grips are known. Some officers’ swords do not have ears projecting from the backpiece of the hilt and therefore do not benefit from the increased solidity of the riveting together of the hilt and blade.
Despite the sword’s obvious unsuitability for use in the thrust some attempts were made to increase its efficiency in this regard. The back of the blade, for the distance between the termination of the fuller and the tip, was sometimes ground down to increase the acuteness of the point. Officers’ swords were often made with the grip set at an angle to the shoulder of the blade, similar to that seen in modern fencing epees; this had the effect of bringing the blade tip into line with the axis of the grip, which made accurate thrusting easier. This may, however, have altered the dynamics of delivering a cut giving a marginally poorer performance.
Many examples of this sword have had the langets removed as being of no utility. No doubt trapping an opponent’s blade was difficult to achieve, and if effected tended to render ones own sword as useless as that of the enemy.
The particular sword illustrated has a number of interesting features. Despite apparently being a plain trooper’s sword, at 1lb 14oz, it is lighter than most. It displays the modification of the tip described earlier, the final few inches of the blade’s back does not follow the curve of the rest of the blade, being slightly flatter as a result of being ground down to achieve a more acute point. The scabbard shows the marks of having been compressed in a vice, visible to the right of the lower suspension mount, a common if crude way of preventing a sword rattling in its scabbard.
Overall the sword, in contrast to its heavy cavalry counterpart which has huge presence but could never be described as aesthetically pleasing, is very handsome in a Spartan way. Function dictates form as in most “design classics”, the broad sweep of the blade joined to the reverse curve of the grip and the simple hilt combine to create a harmonious whole. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then John Le Marchant must have been most flattered when the Prussian military, whose cavalry force enjoyed a high reputation (even in defeat), adopted his sword in 1811.
Fletcher, Ian. Galloping at Everything; The British Cavalry in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo, 1808-15: A Reappraisal. Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount, 1999.
Haythornthwaite, Philip. British Cavalryman, 1792-1815. London, Osprey, 1994.
Morgan, John D. "The British Heavy Cavalry Trooper's Pattern 1796 Sword" Classic Arms and Militaria In three parts: Vol.8 issue no.1, pp 22-25, Jan/Feb 2001. Vol.8.issue no.2, pp 26-29, March/April 2001. Vol.8.issue no.3, pp 30-33, May/June 2001.
Noble, Duncan. Cut or Thrust; Testing the Great Sword Debate. Military Illustrated, 122, pp 37-39, July 1998.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2001
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