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.
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.
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
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.
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
© Copyright 1995-2004, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.
© Copyright 1995 – 2020, The Napoleon Series. Website by Effra Digital