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. 

The Training of British Cavalry in Swordsmanship

By Martin Read

At the time that Le Marchant was noting the poor quality and design of British cavalry swords the level of swordsmanship shown by the average trooper was also making an unfavourable impression.  This was highlighted by the disparaging remark an Austrian officer made to him that British sword fighting was “entertaining” but reminded him of a “farmer chopping wood.”  Unlike the infantry and artillery the British cavalry did not have a uniform weapons drill.  Whilst sword use could not be codified as easily as the more mechanical procedures of loading and firing smallarms or cannon, it was apparent that the cavalry would benefit from a rigorous and universally applied system of practical training in swordsmanship.

Current with his development of the new sword, and of equal or greater importance, Le Marchant wrote a manual of mounted swordsmanship.  This was published, in 1796, as the “Rules and Regulations of the Sword Exercise of the Cavalry.”[15]  There was a considerable body of previous work in a broadly similar vein in existence in the form of fencing manuals and also tracts intended as advice for officers on the employment and training of cavalry, which often included some instruction in the use of weapons.  Indeed as far back as the early Seventeenth Century there were a number of manuals of this sort published in English, including John Cruso’s influential “Militarie Instructions for the Cavallerie.”[16] However, the new manual, unlike previous ‘advisory’ publications, had the enormous advantage of being enforced within the army as a corpus of officially prescribed regulations.  Indeed, this work had the effect of producing a minor renaissance in British swordsmanship treatises.  In 1798 C. Rowarth published a manual that effectively transposed Le Marchant’s work for use on foot (The Art of Defence On Foot with Broadsword and Sabre); exercises for the ‘Hungarian and Highland broadsword’ and naval cutlass were published within the following two decades, both of these being the work of the famed fencing master Harry Angelo.[17] 

As has been mentioned previously Le Marchant had a decided preference for the use of the cut and this is reflected in his sword exercise.   He considered the thrust as of very limited use in combat with a mounted foeman.   There was only one way of delivering a thrust, with the sword-point punched directly at the target.  This, in Le Marchant’s estimation, would allow an agile trooper to anticipate the thrust in order dodge or parry it.  If the defending swordsman managed to get inside the guard of the thrusting trooper the tables would be quickly turned and, as the original attacker would be unable to block, he would be lucky to escape without receiving a debilitating wound.  It is worth noting that the delivery of a thrust in fencing on foot involves considerable movement from the legs and feet to make it effective.  A mounted man in melee combat does not have this mobility; he is wholly reliant on the extension of the arm and a degree of leaning from the waist to enable him to execute a thrust.  This is a considerable handicap, whereas the technique, and facility, in delivering a cut does not greatly differ whether mounted or on foot.

Against enemy cavalry the manual prescribed six offensive cuts and eight guards for defence.   The cuts were to be aimed towards the left ear of an opponent, the first was forehand cut diagonally downward, the second the same but backhanded, the third was diagonally upward on the forehand and the fourth the corresponding backhand motion.  The fifth and sixth were horizontal cuts on the forehand and backhand respectively.  The guards included an initial position from which the others, or indeed a cut, could be easily effected; this was with the sword in tierce held horizontally, point somewhat to the fore, at the level of the trooper’s eyes.  Next were left and right protect, horse nearside and offside protect, then two guards designed to protect the bridle arm and sword arm, and finally a guard where the sword was held crossways above the head to protect from downward slashes.

Great emphasis was laid on the cut being executed using the flexing of fingers and wrist with additional movement only from the shoulder, the arm being held straight.  This ensured the greatest reach for the stroke, but more importantly ensured that the elbow was not exposed.  It was considered that a bent elbow was particularly vulnerable, being outside the protection of blade and guard, to a cut that could be administered by an enemy at negligible risk to himself.  Only against infantry could a cut with a bent elbow be employed with no danger to the trooper.  The manual also included a number of points (thrusts) which could be used against infantry.  It was also allowed that the thrust could be used to great effect, and without hazard, against a fleeing enemy cavalryman.  Additionally the regulations described a parry employing the back of the blade to be used against infantry bayonet thrusts.  Considerable weight was placed on the correct use of the sword knot to prevent accidental loss of a weapon in the heat of combat.  Le Marchant recommended that only the final 6 inches of the sword blade be fully sharpened.  This was both to impress on the trooper where the optimal part of the blade for cutting was located and also to limit the difficulties of extraction of the sword which could result if a substantial length of blade became locked in the body of an enemy.

The cavalry trooper was initially taught the sword exercise on foot, facing a target painted on a wall.  Troopers executed cuts and parries in unison on being given specific commands.  Sequences of attacks and defences were built up with fluglemen (experienced swordsmen acting as demonstrators) setting an example of style for the others to imitate.  Once the drill was mastered on foot it was transposed to horseback, initially executed with the horse at a slow walk before the pace was incrementally increased.  The use of a number of physical targets supplemented mere swiping at air to give the cavalryman experience of cutting against resistance as well as improving both weapon skills and the necessary levels of horsemanship to make these effective.  These targets included the ‘edge post,’ consisting of a willow wand set vertically on a stand, and also a turnip similarly mounted (in the latter case the target presumably provided food for man or beast afterward).  The height of the target could be easily adjusted on the specially constructed wooden support.   A further training method – running the ring – was also used; this was particularly good for improving the cavalryman’s control of his mount.  A ring of varying diameter (the smaller the ring the more difficult the exercise) was mounted on a form of miniature gibbet at a variable height.  The trooper charged the target at high speed aiming to thrust his sword point into the ring.  The ring had a line of finite length attached to it, which would pay out until it reached a stop.  If the trooper had not managed to bring his horse from a gallop to a complete halt before this happened his sword might be ignominiously twitched from his hand.  Effective though it was this was not a wholly new concept, an almost identical method is illustrated in Cruso’s early 17th century cavalry manual but here it was for the training of the fully armoured horseman in the use of the (already outmoded) heavy knightly lance.

Finally, the troopers’ training included placing them in various simulated combat situations which they were expected to react to with a degree of initiative; this was intended to oblige them to “think for themselves and act independently of each other; which on service are inestimable qualities.”  Thus Le Marchant’s training was not intended to produce sword-wielding automata but to promote the technical skill, self-confidence and freedom to use initiative, which make fighting men truly effective.  In many ways this is an exact parallel of the contemporary training of British infantry in skirmishing and other light infantry tactics.




[15] Rules and Regulations of the Sword Exercise of the Cavalry, Adjutant Generals Office, 1st December 1796.

[16] Cruso, John. Militarie Instructions for the Cavallerie (Cambridge, 1632).

[17] ) Henry “Harry” Angelo was the master of a very fashionable fencing school or salon; he taught more than one of King George III’s sons the “noble art.”



Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2003


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