The following is a rather long article on naval weapons from a curatorial point of view. It has references included so that the reader can follow up any information that they might find useful. The article in its entirety is available from me in pdf form at request via e-mail. This document was researched due to an interest of mine in naval swords, as I did not know much about them, only general ideas and wanted more information. I hope that you find this as interesting to read as I did to research.
The author claims copyright over material which is original and thus written by the author. All other material previously published and not in the public domain is copyright to its original author and publisher.
The eighteenth century saw many changes throughout the world. There were changes in science and philosophy. There were also changes in governments, which often led to wars and revolutions. “The eighteenth century, with its wars and revolutions, gave tremendous stimulus to the development of naval weapons”. This was a time when some of the largest sailing ships were built, along with some of the largest number of cannon carried by these ships. There was also a concerted development toward the arming of the men on board these ships, and arming them properly. The sword for naval use will be the focus of the investigation which follows and will cover both enlisted and officer’s weapons where they are able to be tracked from the seventeenth century to the early nineteenth century.
While the investigation which follows discusses naval swords as the primary focus, it may give the impression that they were the only weapons which were carried on-board ship. This is simply not the case. There were other personal weapons present on the ship. “The ship’s company were armed with pikes, boarding axes and cutlasses.” This gives a wide variety of weapons which were available to the ship’s company when the ship was engaged in combat with another.
The officers were often armed to some degree on-board naval vessels. Regulated naval vessels are being spoken about here, thus ships of navies being the prime example. In this case, the officer may or may not carry their personal sword and a firearm. This was not the case for the ship’s company, “it was only when they boarded an enemy ship or their own ship was boarded that they were issued with cutlasses, pistols, and other weapons.” Arguments as to the reason for this could be made, but the main reason was to stop mutiny, as many of those on-board were press-ganged into service.
Weapons were issued to sailors on-board the ship when the ship was to enter combat, but only if the ship was to be boarded, or if there was to be a boarding attempt made on another ship. For the most part, military naval vessels had companies of marines to repel with boarders. These boarding actions are seen in movies and they look exciting, but they were dangerous. “British sailors, armed with cutlasses, and marines firing muskets, make a hazardous attempt to board a French warship.” Falling off the ship could result in drowning or being squashed between two ships, this form of combat was not for the faint of heart. Using a sword in naval combat in general required courage. The question is which swords were carried?
“throughout the mid- to late eighteenth century, both countries lacked any type of distinctive naval axe, pike or even sword. Weapons used at sea tended to be the same as used on land.”
In the examination of naval swords the first thing is that until the regulation swords were decided, there were no distinct weapons which could be called “naval” weapons. This was the same for the sword as for other weapons such as the pike or the axe. Weapons were taken from land warfare and simply used on the sea. It was not until later that individuals got a feel for what weapons were most suited to the service that choices were made, at least by the officers; those of a lower rank rarely got a choice of weapon.
“Until the early years of the nineteenth century British Naval Officers did not have a uniform pattern of sword, but wore whatever weapons they chose. It is hardly ever possible to identify actual weapons as having been worn by Naval Officers and it is, therefore, necessary to rely principally upon portraits as a source of information. From these it is evident that for the first thirty years or so of the eighteenth century the fashion was for short curved swords of the type now usually known as hunting swords ... These were far more handy in the mélée of a battle at sea than would be the longer rapiers and military broad swords.”
The problem with this personal choice of weapon, especially in the early period where weapons were simply taken from a land warfare situation to a naval warfare situation is that the weapon was the same regardless of where it was. Archaeologically, unless the weapon was found in the wreck of a ship, there was no way of telling whether the weapon had been used on land or at sea. The only other real way of telling the use of the weapon is through the use of portraits of individuals. These gave some interesting results, but were limited in that they would only tell about those who could afford to have a portrait painted, thus the officers.
“Of all the different sword types used at sea, five variants dominated during the eighteenth century: rapiers, broadswords or basket-hilt swords, small swords, hangers and cutlasses. These styles were popular in the Royal Navy throughout the century, and influenced the weapons carried by officers of the Continental Navy during the 1770s and 1780s.”
The result was that there were certain types of weapon which dominated in these portraits more than other weapons, if general classifications are applied to the weapons. Those weapons were, as presented, the broadsword, smallsword, rapier, hangar, and cutlass. These weapons, will be discussed in the following, focussing on each weapon. The cutlass will have a separate discussion, being developed as a regulation weapon. There will be an additional weapon discussed, the spadroon, a weapon which is often disregarded, but as will be noted, most useful.
The first thing to be noted is that this will discuss both the backsword and the broadsword being that they are both straight-bladed, basket-hilted weapons which are primarily used for cutting rather than thrusting. It is, however, acknowledged that these weapons are not exactly the same and that there are curatorial differences between them. They have been addressed together under a single heading for the sake of brevity.
Based on two archaeological finds, Wolf (2005) states that, “During the mid-sixteenth century the use of broadswords at sea rose in popularity.” During this period the choice of weapon carried was up to personal preference and would continue to be so until the early nineteenth-century. What can be stated is that there was a distinct preference toward cutting weapons, as Annis (1970) supports this premise citing that both backswords and broadswords were seen at sea in the mid-eighteenth-century, they were straight bladed, one- or two-edged. It could almost be claimed that there was a clear lineage, and in some cases there is between the broadswords of the sixteenth- and those of the eighteenth-centuries, however other cutting weapons were also quite prevalent.
The smallsword was considered a gentleman’s weapon in the eighteenth-century and a weapon most suitable for settling affairs of honour. An officer was considered a gentleman so the possession of a smallsword was considered important. The smallsword was less suitable for sea use, but it was still worn by some officers. Most officers kept the smallsword for when they were on land and used another weapon for when they were on-board, most likely a hanger, though this was not the only choice. By 1750, the naval officer carried two swords, a conventional smallsword for shore and ceremony, and a double-edged cut-and-thrust military or shorter slightly curved for on board. In the earlier parts of the eighteenth century rapiers were still being carried, a hang-over from the earlier period.
Like the smallsword, the rapier was more suited to land duties rather than that of the sea. The sharp point and thrusting ability of the rapier was somewhat suited to the confined quarters of on-board, but its length certainly was not. “For a brief period, officers preferred rapiers for their dress swords,” meaning that this weapon was only worn on ceremonial occasions and those times when the wearer left the ship, it was not used in combat. By the eighteenth-century, the heyday of the rapier had well and truly passed, for most of Europe.
There are some fine examples of rapiers which are left. These are obviously not intended for use. From the 1630s, some silver-hilted rapiers were used as presentation pieces in formal ceremonies. These weapons were not supposed to be used for practical purposes as the silver hilt indicated, they were trophies and gifts. A very practical weapon was the spadroon, a weapon which sits between the smallsword and the broadsword.
“However mention should be made of the naval swords of this period [18th –century]. They were in the main adaptations of the light cavalry stirrup hilt, mounted as a rule with straight ‘spadroon’ blades, though many are to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from light cavalry sabres ... In many cases the knuckle-guards do not have the extra bowed curve in the upper part, which instead is made very broad and stout to act as a guard; naval officers, unlike the military (who were strictly forbidden to engage in hand-to-hand combat) were always in the thick of the fray when boarding an enemy ship”
The spadroon is a much maligned weapon. Many people, even those who have an interest in swords are not familiar with the spadroon. It is a weapon which is much mistaken for others as it is similar but not the same. The spadroon is a sword which exists between the smallsword and the broadsword, retaining the thrust of the smallsword and the cut of the broadsword.
The spadroon is a weapon, which most people do not know much about unless they have a particular interest in areas in which the spadroon was used. Mostly it is considered a poor-man’s smallsword or broadsword, depending on who is being spoken to. What is significant is that the beaded hilt spadroon was popular with officers into the nineteenth-century, as a personal defence weapon. This was due to its dual capacity for cut and thrust, allowing the officer not to worry about two weapons as some of them chose to have, one for on-board and the other for land duties.
“Although army officers had carried hangers since the end of the fifteenth century, it was not until the eighteenth that they became popular in the Royal Navy. A hanger was a light sabre with a single-edged blade, either curved or straight, and about 20in (50cm) long.”
The hanger is another weapon which is quite misunderstood in its form and description. The description above paints a picture of a short cutting weapon with either a straight- or curved-blade, somewhat like a short sabre. This weapon was especially suitable to on-board ship due to its length and its ability to cut. It became quite popular with seamen of all grades, but especially with officers.
“What did appear was the hanger, a weapon long established on shore. This became the badge of the professional seaman and a rather more ornate version was widely worn by officers. In Britain and America it tended to give way, about the middle of the [eighteenth] century, to rather longer weapons where officers were concerned,”
The shorter hanger was kept by the ratings and normal seamen while the officers enhanced the length of their weapons to give some advantage in a combat situation. The longevity of this weapon should be noted in that it started being carried in the fifteenth-century, and it is here noted being carried in the mid-eighteenth-century. This presents some of the popularity of the weapon.
“Seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century portraits suggest that hangers were especially popular with naval officers, presumably because shipboard conditions made longer weapons somewhat unwieldy.”
Evidence for what weapons were carried by men aboard ship is often gained through the examination of portraits of these individuals, and being military men, they carried their weapons for these portraits. Lower ranked individuals are rarely presented in these portraits as they simply would not have had the money to pay for such portraits, but it does give the historian an idea of what weapons were carried by the officer class. In this case it presents a change from the longer weapons such as the rapier and smallsword to the shorter hanger. These weapons show a lineage from their former longer weapons in the form of the hilt.
“varieties of them [hangers] also were much favoured, particularly in the 1660 – 1720 period, by naval officers for active service, forerunners of the little ceremonial midshipman’s dirk. The blades could be either straight or curved, and the form of their hilts followed as clear a line of development from the 1640s smallsword hilts, though the form was full developed by c.1550”
The interesting thing about the hilts of these weapons is that some show a development from the smallsword hilt, though their form of hilt was developed from a much earlier period. One reason for this different line of development is suggested that it would preserve the line and the form of the hilt, therefore a similar feeling of the previous weapon, at least in the hilt. The other reason is simply from an aesthetic reason, such consideration leads directly to the discussion of so-called “hunting swords”.
“Ornate hangers, frequently described today as “hunting swords” since their decoration often includes allusions to the chase, seem to have been widely adopted by officers.”
These “hunting swords” are called as such due to their decoration, alluding to some type of decoration which alludes to hunting and chasing. These weapons are of the same form as the previously-described hangers, they are just more decorated. The “hunting sword” is a form of hanger in form of the blade and also the hilt. This form of weapon remained quite popular with the officer class. The “hunting sword” continues, with the French version being longer, curved and single-edged; this weapon became popular with both sides; the group characterised by slender, slightly curved blade, single-edged, a small cross-guard, and a tapering handle. The weapon of the lower ranks was not so well-finished.
“The short, straight or curved hanger ... was usually a cheap weapon and must often have been roughly finished; mounts issued to ratings were mostly of iron protected by paint,”
The hanger of the lower ranks was not decorated like the officers’ weapon. Nor did it have the same expense in the fittings. These were serviceable weapons designed for individuals for use in combat. They were not dress weapons, as was a secondary consideration for the officers’ weapon. What are mostly seen in museums are examples of the officers’ weapon. Few of the cheaper type of hanger exist today, as they were of simple construction, some with shell guard some without, some curved some straight, the straight form was the basis for cutlass with a new hilt. This shows the development of a new weapon based on a previous weapon and one that needs consideration. The process toward the regulation weapons of both officers and the lower ranks was a process of development, and the previous weapons need to be recognised for their significant contributions.
“A cutlass is a short, broad sabre or slashing sword, with a straight or slightly curved blade sharpened on the cutting edge, and a hilt often featuring a solid cupped or basket-shaped guard. It was a common naval weapon during the early Age of Sail.”
The Wikipedia (2019) definition of the cutlass gives a very general definition and description of what a cutlass is, and also when it was used. There is more information available about this weapon to give a better idea about the weapon which is being spoken about. What will be noted is that there is some information which is repeated, and this reinforces the definition of the weapon.
“The cutlass is a heavy naval sword with a single-edged blade of medium length which is generally given a very slight curve, but may often be straight. A brass or steel simple handgrip and guard wrap around the top tang of the blade.” (Friends of the Cerberus Inc., 2019)
The definition above confines the sword to a naval sword, and this is where it was most dominantly used, however there were times when it was taken on land and used as an effective tool. One common element is that it may be straight or slightly curved, and that the handgrip was simple. In this case there is mention of it being made of steel or brass. Meckel (2019) reflects much of the same information previously presented, “The cutlass had a straight or slightly-curved blade designed both for cutting and thrusting. A large, enclosed guard shielded the swordsman's hand.” Being such a specifically-designed weapon there was purpose behind its design and this alludes to its use.
Short is Better
“Their short-bladed cutlasses did not trip or hinder these boarders as they climbed, and in the deadly fighting, the wieldy weapons seldom fouled in rigging or wreckage. Dueling seamen swung the broad, heavy blades with skull-cleaving force even at close quarters on the slippery, congested decks.”
The short weapon was perfect for what it was designed for. When climbing rigging or fighting at close-quarters, and especially below decks, a longer weapon would have hampered the wielder. The short blade of the cutlass suited the role perfectly, especially with its broad cutting blade. This blade saw use not only as a weapon of self-defence in combat but as a tool, and not only at sea but also on the land as well. Its short blade and ability to cut are its greatest assets.
“Although also used on land, the cutlass is best known as the sailor's weapon of choice. A naval side-arm, its popularity was likely because it was not only robust enough to hack through heavy ropes, canvas, and wood, but short enough to use in relatively close quarters, such as during boarding actions, in the rigging, or below decks.”
When a weapon is described, it is not only important to look at the physical characteristics of the weapon, the raw statistics and also what it was constructed from, it is also vital to look at the purpose, and thus the use of the weapon. This will tell you much about the weapon. These artefacts must be remembered not only as items of interest but tools that were used.
“The cutlass is a heavy naval sword with a single-edged blade of medium length, which is generally given a very slight curve. The blades weight is concentrated to provide a shattering blow delivered with the edge of the blade. This is a sword designed for simplistic use by a user who has had little training in fencing. Therefore, the cutlass-wielding sailor would have usually been outfought by a swordsman. Nevertheless, the weight of a cutlass blade would often be enough to sweep a lighter blade out of the way.”
The description above adds something to the previous descriptions of the weapon. It gives a description of the reason for the characteristics of the weapon. There is a reason that the weapon’s blade was heavy. A sailor who had little training had the advantage in weight of weapon rather than the skill that the officer had, so more force, the cutlass was used to strike an opponent’s weapon away and deliver a strong blow. Simply put, there was often very little training for the sailor, so the weapon was designed with this in mind and shorter so it could be used in the confines of the ship.
“Employing it effectively required less training than that required to master a rapier or small sword, and it was more effective as a close-combat weapon than a full-sized sword would be on a cramped ship.”
To truly accurately describe a weapon, more than a simple definition or simple description is required. These suffice for a simple glace to gain a precis of what the sword is about, but to truly understand the weapon, more information is required, and a deeper search, even to discover the origins of its name. This way a greater appreciation of the weapon is gained.
The etymology of the word “cutlass” is somewhat mixed with some interesting ideas about its origination. There are some theories which will be presented covering various ideas about the word’s origin to shed some light about where the word came from. This is useful as it gives some idea about what the item that it describes was actually used for.
“The Turkish form [of sword] also extended to European and America, where it became one of the multitudinous varieties of the ‘mariner’s cutlass,’ from ‘curtle-axe’ – curtus and axe.”
With regard to the “Turkish form” of sword, Burton (1987) is discussing the curved sword. He states that the cutlass falls within this particular category of weapon, further as noted, his origin of the word is related to an axe, a shortened axe to be precise, curtus being Latin for shortened. This is not the only theory about the origin of the word.
“As William Gilkerson points out in Boarders Away, the word ‘Cutlass’ comes from the Latin ‘cultellus’ or short sword. Swords can be seen in ships’ ordnance lists from 1645.” (Friends of the Cerberus Inc., 2019)
Here the word is directly related to a sword, thus a weapon. The previous related the word to a tool, an axe. In many instances it depends on what the individual would rather wish the item was related to a tool, or a weapon. In this case it is related to the Latin for short sword. In each of these cases, there has been a single proposed idea put forward for consideration. There has been little consideration of other ideas which might also be also a possibility. The great advantage that the Wikipedia has being written by many people is that there is no agenda beside the spread of knowledge, so there are multiple ideas presented.
“The word cutlass developed from a 17th-century English variation of coutelas, a 16th-century French word for a machete-like blade (the modern French for "knife", in general, is "couteau"; the word was often spelled "cuttoe" in 17th and 18th century English). The French word is itself a corruption of the Italian coltellaccio or cortelazo, meaning "large knife", a short, broad-bladed sabre popular in Italy during the 16th-century The word comes from coltello, "knife", derived ultimately from Latin cultellus meaning "small knife."
While there is a general agreement that cutellus is the origin word, the Wikipedia (2019) entry points toward the meaning as being a knife rather than a sword, thus again a tool rather than a weapon. In each case of the previous derivatives of the word, there is also the indication that this is a machete-like item, thus more inclining toward a tool rather than a weapon. This is one of those cases that it depends on the individual who holds the item as to the use of the item rather than the item itself. This is further evident in that, “In the English-speaking Caribbean, the word "cutlass" is used as a word for machete.”
Returning to the etymology of cutlass, it is likely that the older origin of the word is likely to be cutellus, rather than curtus, due to the other words which have been used to refer to the cutlass which are clear derivatives of this word. What also needs to be noted in regard to this particular item is that while it is most recognised by some as a weapon of navies, it is also known as a tool, a machete, by others. The hand that holds the item determines how the item is employed, and also to what purpose.
Searching for the etymology of a word is one thing, searching for the origins of an item is another. This is even a more challenging task when it comes to the sword as they come in so many different shapes and sizes, some of which are related to the sword which is being studied and others which are not. “The cutlass is a 17th-century descendant of the edged short sword exemplified by the medieval falchion.”
The falchion was a short, heavy-bladed cutting weapon designed for the foot-soldier and its relation in regard to its cutting ability to the cutlass, and also somewhat to its shape is clear, “a highly-specialized weapon which evolved slowly from the falchion, a medieval cutting-sword with a broad, slightly-curved, single-edged blade.” More of the consideration of this older origin will be made as this part of the investigation is presented.
“Cutlasses are famous for being used by pirates, although there is no reason to believe that Caribbean buccaneers invented them, as has occasionally been claimed.”
Buccaneers had been in existence since the seventeenth century, formed as a result of those who lost letters of marque, or who never possessed them in the first place. The cutlass as a concept had been around previous to this as has been already been presented in its medieval origins in the falchion. The weapon had been as a concept used on board ships before the buccaneers, indeed during the Venetian and Ottoman wars which had their origins in the sixteenth century and before, which continued into the seventeenth.
“Some Italian falchions of the period were clearly influenced by Venetian hilts, which leads one to suppose that falchion-type swords may have been extensively used by the Venetian fleet in its battles with the Ottomans during the seventeenth century. Because of their short length and heavy cutting edge such weapons would have been ideal in the confined space between decks.”
These falchion-type swords which are alluded to are more likely to be schiavona or a similar weapon. They are relatively short in the blade, but effective for both cut and thrusting. A sea-faring version could have further represented what is being discussed with an even shorter blade, effective for close combat and the close confines of a ship. These all imply that the origin of the cutlass was purely of offensive design. There is also the aspect that this was also a tool.
“Woodsmen and soldiers in the 17th and 18th centuries used a similar short and broad backsword called a hanger, or in German a messer, meaning "knife". Often occurring with the full tang more typical of daggers than swords in Europe, which is commonly believed to reflect a legal claim to non-weapon status, these blades may ultimately derive through the falchion (facon, falcon) from the seax.”
The cutlass had its place as a tool also. It was used as a machete and cutting tool for cutting away rigging and other impediments on board the ship. So relating its origins more to a large knife rather than a sword is also a worthy pursuit, and a legitimate origin of the cutlass. This also brings the origin of this particular bladed item further back to the seax, a large knife often carried by those who are commonly called “Vikings”.
“A falchion-type weapon with a large shell is shown being wielded by the buccaneers Lolonois and Rock Brasiliano in the frontispiece of a book by John Esquemeling called Buccaniers of America published in London in 1684. Another falchion-type naval sword ... in the Danish Royal Collection, was supposed to have been taken by Count Adler from a Turkish admiral”
What is clear is that the weapon did develop from an effective tool which was found useful also for shipboard combat situations. This was tested to its full by buccaneers and pirates alike. The same weapon was adopted by most navies due to its effectiveness. Most important is that the weapon did not exist in a vacuum and did not appear in its final form from the beginning, like all weapons, and tools, it had a process of development over time behind it.
“First cousin to the longer, lighter cavalry saber, the naval cutlass was designed for sea-fighting as the saber was adapted to land-battles. Because boarding actions were fought on the crowded decks of small vessels amid tangles of shrouds and splintered spars and struggling shipmates and foemen, Jack Tar's blade had to be short for easy control, and heavy enough to provide its own momentum in slashing.”
Many attempt to draw a clear line between those weapons which were used at sea as compared to those which were used on land. They were both swords so they instantly have a relationship which is significant. The clear evidence here is that weapons were developed for land battles before they were developed for use at sea, so evidently weapons from the land were used at sea. From this the weapons at sea were developed based on the experiences of their use. For the most part, as noted above, it was a matter of shortening the blade, while retaining the weight to provide the momentum for the cut. In some cases the weapons were clearly based on the same weapon, simply changed to suit naval service.
“The majority of officers’ fighting cutlasses were akin to the light cavalry sword of 1796, having a curved blade approximately 31in. long, a stirrup hilt with a hemispherical langet engraved with a foul anchor, a plain back piece and pommel and grip of chequered ivory.”
In some instances, it was merely the change in decoration which was the difference between an officer’s weapon, that was meant for an officer on land, as compared to that of a naval officer. It was only later when specific naval arms were developed, regulation arms, that there was a clear difference between the two, and even here, in many cases the differences were still superficial.
A regulation weapon requires a regulatory body to regulate the weapon. In this case of a weapon this requires a government or an organised military. For the cutlass, this required an organised navy. Two different navies will be examined for their regulation of cutlasses for what will become one of the most recognised forms of cutlass, and another for comparison of its history. There is a useful connection between the two in that they were once allies, then aggressors, then allies again. The first will be the Royal Navy, and the second will be the United States Navy.
“Swords were always part of the equipment of ships of war, but it is not until the last quarter of the eighteenth century that we can form an opinion of the cutlass supplied by the Royal Navy. This had a straight blade with a narrow groove on each side near the back, and an iron hilt with a circular shell and another disc the same size in the middle of the guard.”
The reason that no opinion can be formed of the cutlass previous to this one is that there was no regulation of the weapons which were supplied. This means that the weapons could be of whatever construction was preferred. That could be preferred by the captain of the ship or by the individual if weapons were selected by the individual. The weapon described is the beginnings of regulation of the cutlass, more information is available.
“The grip was of cast iron with circumfrential grooves impressed in it from the mould, and was a drive fit on to the tang. The blade was straight with a flat back and of wedge section,”
The fittings of the cutlass will be discussed in a little more detail in a later section at this point it is the form of the weapon which is the greatest concern. The grooves around the handle were designed to give the wielder some grip in the simplest fashion possible with the least parts. This weapon clearly had a straight blade as is evident from the multiple sources. The model of cutlass which is being spoken about is the definition of the naval cutlass of the Royal Navy, the 1804 Model.
“The model 1804 naval cutlass was a no-frills cut-and-thrust weapon. There was no call for sophisticated swordsmanship when fighting at close quarters or slashing away the enemy’s rigging.”
The 1804 was issued to the ship’s company not officers so there was no need for this weapon to be of “dress quality”. It was only going to be issued when battle was closed, and the fighting got close. Nobody cared what the weapon looked like so long as the weapon worked. The effectiveness of the weapon was the priority.
“issued a year before Trafalgar – is a utilitarian, straight-bladed weapon with a double disk guard and a serrated iron handle, painted black to protect against corrosion.”
This weapon was straight-bladed, not curved like some of the officers’ weapons. It was a simple weapon for simple use. The serrations on the handle were designed to give the wielder better grip when the weapon became slippery from water, sweat or blood, or whatever other liquid may fall on it. The black paint was to protect against corrosion as the entire hilt was made from the cheaper steel rather than the more expensive brass like the officers’ weapons. “Guard consisting of two discs of thin iron, sometimes known as a “figure-of-eight” guard”, this form of guard is one of the more famous, and better protecting guards created, allowing the seaman’s hand to be protected while throwing and receiving blows at close distances.
The 1804 had a simple blade, “Single-edged blade tapered to a stabbing point” allowing for both cutting and thrusting attacks. While not designed for the complex actions of swordplay designed for the smallsword, the cutlass was an effective weapon. The seaman also simply did not have the skill to use a weapon requiring such skill, hence it was a short, heavy weapon at 85.5cm (33.5in) and 1.32kg (3lb) designed for heavy cutting blows and a much less subtle form of swordplay.
While the 1804 cutlass of the Royal Navy and its predecessors could be claimed to be “blunt instruments” designed for seamen with little or no skill with a blade, they were effective. The Royal Navy cutlass was made to be robust and effective.
“the superior British cutlass, which had a straight, single-edged blade and a hilt of blackened iron. The grip was a hollow, forged-iron cylinder wrapped around a wooden core.”
At the same time, the United States Navy were struggling to find an equivalent weapon to match their former parent. The cutlass which was in use in the mid- to late-eighteenth century was simply not as effective as its Royal Navy equivalent.
“From about 1740 to 1780, the cutlass was a simple, sturdy sword with an imported blade and a crude wooden cylinder for a hilt. The single-edged blade was curved so slightly that it appeared straight at first glance.”
Clearly, to match the weapon that the Royal Navy was producing, the USN would have to find a different source for their weapons. Luckily for the historian, there is a documentable history of the process of the acquisition of this weapon to be found. Here government and private company documents of the era are an asset.
United States Navy
“The Navy's first contract with [Nathan] Starr was signed in 1799. This cutlass had a straight, one-edged blade 29 ½ inches long and 1 ½ inches wide at the hilt, with a narrow groove (called a fuller) on each side near the back edge, for balance. This weapon's overall length was 35 inches, and it had no scabbard.”
Tracking the contracts between Starr and the USN essentially results in the tracking of the developments and changes in the USN cutlass as Starr was awarded the prime contracts to produce this weapon. A few of the contracts did not go to Starr, but these were the exception more than the rule. Of the weapon itself, it must be noted that this is a very robust weapon considering its width at the hilt, and its blade length. This weapon would not have been light either. A heavy, cutting weapon is what is described, and perfectly describes what a cutlass is.
“During the first decade of the 19th century, the cutlass had a flat, slightly-curved blade clipped like a Bowie knife at the point. Including the grips and wide guard, this sword was 32 ½ inches long and was greatly superior to earlier models.”
Production quality had certainly increased since the crude beginnings of the late eighteenth-century. This weapon was certainly built and had adopted many of the ideas of the “knife” aspects of the weapon; the clipped point resembling a Bowie knife is evidence of this, along with the curve in the blade. This heavily biased the weapon toward cutting and that it was shorter meant it was slightly lighter. Another contract was awarded to Starr and he produced another model.
“In 1808, Commodore John Rodgers of the Brooklyn Navy Yard awarded Nathan Starr a contract for 2,000 cutlasses at $2.50 each. This weapon was 35 ¼ inches long with a single-edged, straight blade. The guard was made of iron, beaten to concavity and lacquered black. The grip was a maple cylinder protected from splitting by two metal rings (ferrules) clamped around the handle near its upper and lower ends.”
The weapon which is described above is more complex than the weapons which have been previously described, even though it is straight-bladed. There is more complexity in the construction however the same basic elements of the cutlass and its purpose have been maintained. There is a single-edged blade designed for cutting on a relatively short weapon. The changes in length of weapon demonstrate an experimentation to find the best length for the weapon.
Eight years later, Starr was awarded another contract. This was like a modification of the previous version of the cutlass produced. “Starr's 1816 contract called for 3,000 swords at $3.00 each. This model was like the 1808, but shorter. It was 31 ½ inches long, with a grooved, 26-inch blade.” The only thing that changed between the 1808 and the 1816 was the length of the length of the blade. Clearly the other weapon was much too long so this model shortened it.
“In 1826, Nathan Starr filled an order for 2,000 weapons at $4.25 per piece. This cutlass, 30 ¾ inches in length, possessed a curved blade with narrow fuller. With it came an iron scabbard, japanned black.”
Starr’s last contract was the 1826, which was a curved blade, and shorter than the 1816. What will be noted is that the length was not shortened all that much meaning that an optimum length for the cutlass seem to be almost achieved. This was no doubt a process of seeing the weapon in action and reading the reports of its use to decide the best method of its use.
Another design was taken by another company, which was radically different so will not be discussed in this section as it falls outside the purview of this investigation. The final model of the cutlass for the USN was made in 1917, but it never saw service. The main purpose of tracking these models of cutlass is to demonstrate that like other weapons, firearms, cannon, and other weapons, eventually all were regulated. The regulation sword is the most commonly known form of the weapon, simply because there were so many of them, but it is not the only form that was in existence, just the most common and regulated.
Many curatorial discussions of weapons focus on the fittings, the hilt and its construction, sometimes what the blade shape is and how long it is. Some of these elements have already been discussed in the developmental phase of the cutlass. These smaller elements have been deliberately left to last because often they draw more importance than they are worth; their significance is simply overstated. Not to say that they are unimportant, quite the contrary, they are important but in a scale of other things.
“Cutlasses can be divided into two types, Brass hilted and Iron hilted. The brass versions are largely confined to the years prior to the Napoleonic wars. Brass hilts were easier to make, but iron hilts were stronger in use.”
Along with the ease of construction in regard to the brass hilt, they were also more resistant to corrosion, which was a concern at sea. The other issue aside from their softness was their cost, the iron hilts were much cheaper to produce than the brass hilts, and they would put up with the punishment of combat for a longer period of time. Wars tend to decide which weapons are the most effective and which ones are not, hence the changes over the Napoleonic wars. With its advantages there is little surprise that the iron hilt remained it service for an extended period of time.
“The familiar naval cutlass, with its heavy single-edged blade and plain iron hilt, probably owes its origin to the cheap munitions hilts of the seventeenth century. This sturdy cutting weapon remained in use for a surprisingly long period, even into the present century.”
Just because a particular type of hilt construction, or a particular construction material is found to be effective, does not mean that the shape of the hilt does not change. With the use of the weapon in combat it can be found that what was assumed to be effective is not, and so changes are made to the pattern to make the weapon more effective, or for cheaper construction while maintaining the effectiveness of the hilt.
Change in Pattern
“The Naval cutlass was and is still a simple weapon, more adapted for cut than thrust. The handguard a sheet of steel had at first a scalloped edge ... In 1828 a new pattern was ordered in which the handguard was of plain steel very similar to that of the Heavy Cavalry of 1840.”
The change made to the naval cutlass in 1828 to the hilt of the weapon demonstrates a relationship between those bladed weapons found in the naval service and those in military forces on the land. In many cases there is evidence where the weapon hilt, shape, or blade was copied from a weapon in use by another service. In some instances it was simply that the whole weapon was considered to be effective so the whole weapon was copied.
Returning to the cutlass, it was not only the hilt that changed over time. Like the United States Navy version of the cutlass, the Royal Navy cutlass also went through its fair share of changes in blade. Lengths of blade changed over time: c.1804 29”, c.1858 27”, 1875 26”, 1899 28”. So as can be seen the weapon started at one length then was shortened, and then lengthened again. It was not only the length but also the shape that changed, for a short period they were curved in 1841 to 1858. What must be noted here is that while there were three different changes, the maximum change was 2” (5cm), not all that much. Focussing on these elements, and those of the minutiae of the hilt, misses the bigger picture of how the weapon developed and was used in the hand of those who used them; not seeing the forest for the trees.
Following naval swords before the introduction of the regulation sword is difficult due to the allowance of officer’s to select their own, by personal preference. There were many different types of sword available, even if these were limited to military service weapons, though this made things a little easier. “With the introduction of regulation hilts toward the end of the eighteenth century, the development of naval swords can be followed fairly precisely.” This allows the historian to follow the naval sword through at least its carriage, if not use in the naval service, however this is not where the story begins, it begins with the officers having the choice.
“At the beginning of the nineteenth century Naval officers wore what swords they pleased, generally the straight shell-hilted sword worn by most officers in the Army.”
The prevalence for wearing weapons worn by the army is simply due to the presence of swords in the army in all sections of it. They were also found to be the most suitable. Further, there was a great variety to choose from. The simple design chosen by many naval officers reflects the conditions and requirements of the weapon on-board the naval vessel. The prevalence of the land warfare design on the sword was also to persist even into the regulation weapon as will be noted later in the discussion. This individuality of choice of the officer class was clearly not extended to the normal seamen, they were issued weapons on requirement, but this choice was not to last.
“The individuality of British and American naval officers, in their personal choice of weapons within the formal framework of a disciplined service, largely came to an end. [in 19th]”
Even in the late eighteenth-century the beginnings of the regulation of side-arms for the officer class were being seen. There was a clear limitation beginning to be felt amongst this class in the choice of weapons taken amongst the officers. Indeed, by 1790 the choice was reduced to: the smallsword; Infantry Officer’s sword with a long-straight blade either single or double-edged, and a guard and knuckle guard both ornamented with five balls; infantry hanger but with straight blade; or a hanger based on the 1796 light cavalry sword with a short heavy curved blade, usually having two grooves, no real pommel but a back piece running round to the guard in a continuous curve.
The reduction in choice of weapon, along with the selection being made from weapons already being issued, marked a distinct trend toward uniformity in the naval service. This uniformity in weapons made weapons easier to mass produce as uniformity is easier to control. This uniformity was not only present in the Royal Navy, but was also present in the United States Navy in this period, and leads directly toward the production of regulation patterns, based on weapons which were already being used by land forces.
“a degree of uniformity beginning to appear in both countries towards the end of our period [eighteenth-century] which led eventually to the introduction of regulation patterns.”
Weapons do not just appear from nowhere, they all have an origin. In the case of the naval weapons, they came from weapons of land warfare. This was evident by the various different weapons that were worn by officers before the regulation officer’s sword was considered; straight infantry swords and cavalry swords were worn at sea, the cavalry swords being curved. There is little surprise that weapons from the land arm of the military were used, as they were available, and it meant that the weapons did not have to be developed from scratch. It did lead to an army influence on the naval designs.
Army Influence in Design
The development of weapons for use at sea took some time, and for an extended period of time weapons from the land were simply used at sea. “From 1793 to 1815 the first weapons developed exclusively for use at sea appeared in both the British and American navies.” These weapons were developed based upon land models, though not without influence from the army.
“In spite of the growth of independent naval services which were relatively free of Army control ... Army styles exercised considerable influence over both navies.”
Even though the navy was independent from the army, and in the case of the Royal Navy was arguably stronger, the army still exerted considerable influence over the development of weapons. This is, no doubt, because the weapons that were primarily available were those of the army, thus land models. So, “the sword ... like the axe and the pike, evolved from land models.” It should be noted that these swords were not the same as the land models, just as the other weapons were not. Certain elements of design were adapted because they suited what was required of the weapon for naval service. The cavalry sword had the greatest influence over the naval sword.
“Cavalry swords have exercised considerable influence over naval weapons in many countries and neither Britain nor America has been an exception. The stirrup hilt, popular in British naval circles from the late 1790s, was taken from a cavalry origin, together with the slightly curved blade with its single broad fuller.”
The stirrup hilt gave the hand the best position and protection. The curved blade allowed for the greatest cutting ability for its length, allowing for a slightly longer weapon while still maintaining an overall shorter weapon, reinforced by the single broad fuller for a stronger cutting blade; each one of these being an asset to a weapon being used in a naval situation. The French also noted the advantages of the cavalry sword to the naval service and used a similar design based on a cavalry sword.
“The extremely elegant and light swords carried by the French naval officers were based on a light cavalry design and had neo-classical hilts. The grip is of square section, usually of wood, and the guard is a very formalized stirrup hilt with a long pommel.”
The formalisation of the officer’s sword in the regulation officer’s sword was a step in uniformity. It was also a step toward the professionalization of the naval service. A regulation weapon for all of the officers along with the uniforms gave the naval service a professional appearance, and ensured that all of the weapons that were being used were of a standard manufacture because the weapons could then be produced by manufacturers employed by the navy. This simple change and its effects are often understated.
“In 1805 the Admiralty issued the first regulation sword for officers and continued to modify the cutlass of the enlisted man as they strove to develop a more efficient weapon.”
According to Wolfe (2005) this Order set the first regulation sword for officers, and also sought to improve the cutlass which was issued for enlisted men. This was a large step which the investigation has been indicating toward previously in the form of a regulation officer’s sword. A weapon of standard manufacture issued to individuals of a particular rank. The design of the weapon, in its ornamentation, was different depending on the rank of the officer.
“The order of 4th August, 1805, refers to two patterns of swords, the ornamented sword for Flag Officers, Captains and Commanders and the plain sword for Lieutenants and Midshipmen.”
The weapon that that was put in place by this order needs to be given some detail so it is recognised as the discussion progresses, and as it is a historically-significant weapon. As has been indicated previously, the naval weapons were all developed based on land models. The officers’ weapons were developed based on cavalry weapons and the 1805 regulation naval officer’s sword was no different. The regulation sword for naval officers of 1805 was copied from the 1796 light cavalry sword.
The 1805 was based on the 1796 due to the preference for officers to carry these weapons due to their use in naval engagements. The construction of the weapon was dependent on the rank hence, the “sword-blade was straight and usually grooved. It was sometimes engraved and blued.” The engraving and bluing on the blade was likely for the higher ranked officer rather than the lower ranked officer.
In regard to hilts, from portraits stirrup hilts were usual though knuckle bows found, different ornamentation depending on rank. The stirrup hilt goes toward revealing the weapon’s cavalry origin being that this type of hilt is common on cavalry weapons, the knuckle bow is less complex and is likely found on those officers of a lower rank along with the lesser ornamentation.
Other regulation officer’s swords were issued, but this is a weapon of some significance being one of the first. It marked the beginnings of a truly professional navy at the issuing of the Admiralty Order 1805. From here with the issuing of personal weapons rather than having choice, the Royal Navy made a statement that it was a professional navy, and a force to be reckoned with.
Like other weapons which have been discussed in this investigation, it is most useful to examine the parts used in the construction of the regulation officer’s sword. This allows comparison with other weapons which have been discussed. Unlike the cutlass which was a weapon for enlisted men, this sword was made for officers, so more attention was paid to its construction.
“Naval swords always had gilt-bronze hilts, which would not be ruined by salt water: for officers above the rank of lieutenant, there were ivory grips, while lieutenants and warrant-officers had grips of black sharkskin.”
The cutlass had a hilt which was made of steel or iron and then was painted black to prevent corrosion. Even the handle, aside from the core which was wooden, was cast in iron or steel and painted. Much more care and attention was paid to the officers’ weapon. There was further fine touches on the weapon the higher the rank of the officer, as noted by the mountings mentioned above. This is quite different from the cutlass, as the officer’s sword was a personal weapon, not one that was issued at the beginning of an engagement.
Also, unlike the blades of the cutlasses which were made at the same manufacturer as the hilt, “both [US and Britain] imported the great majority of their blades from Germany.” There was a great deal more care taken with the officer’s weapon. This was because the officer was considered an investment in time and training, a considerable one at that. There was also the notion that the officer was considered a gentleman and this still held some of its classical notions, hence the officer’s weapon was an investment in the individual who carried it.
There were two categories of swords which were carried aboard naval vessels during the period from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century, those for the seamen or ratings, and those for the officers. In the beginning of this period, the weapons were up to personal preference, and availability, as to what weapon would be available, and also carried. During this period the navies gradually progressed toward being more professional in nature and the arrangement of the carrying of personal side-arms changed. Weapons which were carried by the more organised land forces were chosen by officers for carriage, while the seamen still carried what weapons were available.
In the end of the period it was recognised that a regulation weapon was required for both officers and seamen, and this weapon was based on weapons which were available at the time. In the case of the rating’s weapon, this was based on a weapon which had seen its own development over time and then was further developed for organised naval use. The officer’s weapon, on the other hand, was based on a weapon which was carried on the land, and then made more suitable for carriage on the sea. The difference in the construction of these two weapons marks the difference in rank and also the expenditure placed in the preparation of these two individuals.
While both weapons were effective for their purposes, they were two poles apart in regard to construction and expenditure. On the one hand, the officer’s weapon was decorated so that the weapon would not look out of place in a ceremonial parade. Unlike the officer on land, the officer on the sea was likely to see face-to-face contact with the enemy and expect to defend himself, thus the weapon had to be serviceable as well. On the other, the rating’s weapon was built based on what would make the weapon cheap but maintain its effectiveness even with the reduction in price. The cutlass was a workhorse because it was also used as a tool as well for cutting away rigging in an emergency. A comparative study between these two weapons still reveals the common aim, of an effective weapon, even if there was a different result.
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Burton, R. (1987) The Book of the Sword, Dover Publications Inc., Mineola
Coe, M. (et. al.) (1996) Swords and Hilt Weapons, Prion Books Ltd, London
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Meckel, R. (2019) “The Cutlass Carved its Niche in Our Navy's Annals” in Uniforms of the US Navy: Swords, https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/u/uniforms-usnavy/swords.html [Accessed 26/9/2019]
Oakeshott, E. (2012) European Weapons and Armour: From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge
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Wilkinson-Latham, J. (1971) British Cut and Thrust Weapons, Newton Abbot : David and Charles, Devon
 Annis, P.W.G. (1970) Naval Swords: British and American Naval Edged Weapons, 1660 – 1815, Arms and Armour Press, London, p10
 May, W.E. and Kennard, A. N. (1972) Naval Swords and Firearms, National Maritime Museum, HMSO, London, p.12
 Grant, R. (2009) Warrior: A Visual History of the Fighting Man, DK Publishing, New York, p.184
 ibid, p.182
 Wolfe, S. (2005) Naval Edged Weapons: in the Age of Fighting Sail 1775-1865, Chatham Publishing, London, p.6
 May and Kennard (1972), p.2
 Wolfe (2005), p.19
 ibid, p.21
 Annis (1970), p.13
 ibid, p.10
 May and Kennard (1972), p.2
 Wolfe (2005), p.21
 Coe, M. (et. al.) (1996) Swords and Hilt Weapons, Prion Books Ltd, London, p.94
Oakeshott, E. (2012) European Weapons and Armour: From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, p.258
 Annis (1970), p.14
 Wolfe (2005), p.24
 Annis (1970), p.10
 Coe (et. al.) (1996), p.102
 Oakeshott (2012), p.252
 Annis (1970), p.12
 ibid, p.12
 ibid, p.12
 ibid, p.12
 Meckel, R. (2019) “The Cutlass Carved its Niche in Our Navy's Annals” in Uniforms of the US Navy: Swords, https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/u/uniforms-usnavy/swords.html [Accessed 26/9/2019]
 Wikipedia (2019)
 Friends of the Cerberus Inc. (2019)
 Wikipedia (2019)
 Burton, R. (1987) The Book of the Sword, Dover Publications Inc., Mineola, p.140
 Friends of the Cerberus Inc. (2019)
 Wikipedia (2019)
 Meckel (2019)
 Wikipedia (2019)
 Coe (et. al.) (1996), p.78
 Wikipedia (2019)
 Coe, et. al. (1996), p.78
 Meckel (2019)
 Wilkinson-Latham, J. (1971) British Cut and Thrust Weapons, Newton Abbot : David and Charles, Devon, p.64
 May and Kennard (1972), p.13
 Wikinson-Latham (1971), p.69
 Grant (2009), p.184
 Holmes, R. (ed) (2010) Weapon: A Visual History of Arms and Armour, Dorling Kindersley, London, p.182
 ibid, p.182
 Grant (2009), p.185
 Holmes (2010), p.182
 Meckel (2019)
 Friends of the Cerberus Inc. (2019)
 Coe (et. al.) (1996), p.94
 Ffoulkes, C. and Hopkinson, E. C. (1968) Sword, Lance & Bayonet: A Record of Arms of the British Army and Navy (2nd Edition), Arms and Armour Press, London, p.84
 May and Kennard (1972), p.13
 ibid, p.13
 Coe (et. al.) (1996), p.94
 Ffoulkes and Hopkinson (1968), p.83
 Annis (1970), p.10
 May and Kennard (1972), p.2
 Annis (1970), p.9
 ibid, p.13
 Wolfe (2005), p.7
 Annis (1970), p.11
 Wolfe (2005), p.16
 Annis (1970), p.13
 Coe (et. al.) (1996), p.94
 Wolfe (2005), p.7
 May and Kennard (1972), p.4
 Annis (1970), p.14
 May and Kennard (1972), p.4
 ibid, p.4
 Oakeshott (2012), p.258
 Annis (1970), p.11