Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

Best of Series Award

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

Sword Types and Their Use: Form and Function in Sword Design

By Martin Read

The physics of the operation of the two types of sword is of direct relevance to how they were used in battle.  The curve of a sabre, if it is pronounced enough, allows a slicing blow to be delivered.  When the edge of the blade of such as sword encounters a target it moves into and across the surface of the target simultaneously.  The lateral movement of the blade within the target multiplies the effect of the blow.   In contrast when a straight sword used to cut, it delivers a hacking blow like an axe biting into wood.  The relative efficiency of the two types of cut can be illustrated by the outcome of using a carving knife to chop at a cooked joint of meat or using the same knife to slice in the normal manner.

There are a number of important results of this phenomenon on sword characteristics.  A sword which is curved enough to allow the greatest cutting efficiency will of necessity be too curved to allow the thrust to be made with any appreciable accuracy or effect.  If a straight sword is to have any usefulness in cutting, because it has no slicing ability, it has to have a blade of reasonable weight and a point of balance well to the front of the hilt (there is a good reason why an axe has its weight and cutting edge at the end of a long handle).  The relatively light bladed rapier, despite portrayals of the Three Musketeers, if used to cut would not usually produce disabling wounds on a person wearing reasonably stout clothing.   It is evident that swords with a slight curvature tend to display a performance which is sub-optimal in both methods of use, being too straight to slice effectively whilst their curvature renders accurate thrusting more difficult.  Any advantage of being adaptable, though mediocre in any one method of use, is difficult to quantify.

In addition to the mechanics of the blade action there are a number of other qualities that distinguish curved and straight swords.  Because a curved sword is not directly reliant on weight of blade to give it a cutting ability it can be relatively lighter and handier than a straight cut and thrust sword.  Curvature also gives a sword relatively greater manoeuvrability length for length.  The curve allows the sword to be moved tightly across the body from side to side, a great advantage for a cavalryman with a horse’s head and neck in front of him.  The curved sword also has an advantage that in the heat of close combat a cut is a far more instinctive blow than a thrust, so that a sword optimised for cutting will be more effective in the hands of the average trooper.  The straight thrusting sword also possesses a number of advantages.  If faced with an armoured foe the thrust is the only sword blow likely to result in decisive wounds[3].  The thrust is also the only blow to which the forward movement of the horse can be directly applied.  When charging the straight thrusting sword was held in tierce, with the sword pointing directly ahead, the elbow almost straight, the hand relatively high and the blade point a little lower than the hilt, most importantly the thumb was braced and the wrist locked.  With this grip the forward momentum of the charging horse powers the thrust, a little like the use of the couched lance; the cavalryman merely aims his weapon.  The force of such a thrust could be awesome, and if landing accurately would kill an opponent almost instantly.  However, using a sword to thrust, particularly when moving at high speed, had its own potential for disaster - that of being unable to easily withdraw the weapon from the body of ones enemy.  A sword used by cavalry in the American Civil War was not nicknamed the “wrist-breaker” without reason.




[3] This only applies to a fully armoured man, such as a 17th century cuirassier, the Napoleonic cuirassier was open to cuts to the face, throat, neck, arms and legs.  Wounds to the limbs might not be immediately fatal but would be disabling.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2003


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