The Evolution of Swords
John Wilkinson Latham
& Robert Wilkinson Latham
The 18th century heralded the beginning of the equipment of armies to regulation and the documentation of the various patterns of weapons, uniforms and accoutrements. It is probable that the first orders regarding swords came at least a century before, but they were couched in such general terms that they could not be regarded as firm regulations of the exact type or pattern carried.
The forerunners of the regulation armies were without doubt those of Prussia and France and by about 1705, the forces of other European countries had followed suit. The vagueness of these regulations devoid of drawings meant that commanding officers and manufacturers interpreted them widely and in differing ways making the end products as diverse as they had previously been.
In Britain in 1822 many new regulations were promulgated under George IV and in these the descriptions were written in a far less ambiguous way. Actual examples of the swords were lodged at the Tower of London and each was sealed with the mark of the Board of Ordnance. These ‘sealed’ patterns were made available to the manufacturers who could then see the exact style of the hilt, blade and scabbard. These examples were moved in the mid 19th century to the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield and lodged in their famous ‘Pattern Room’ (Now part of the Royal Armouries in Leeds, UK)
However, the large variety of patterns within individual armies meant that existing styles were copied and adapted by others nations, so there are often marked similarities between say a British sword and one of a certain German State and of course an even closer similarity between British Swords and those carried by the forces of Commonwealth countries.
Most armies had differing patterns for officers, other ranks and special weaponry for Pioneers, musicians, officer cadets, engineers and quasi- military forces such as police. In Germany, even firemen had swords!
The predominant user of the sword in armies of the of the late 18th and 19th centuries was the cavalry, foot soldiers having slowly given up the short curved bladed hanger leaving only officers and senior non commissioned officers with swords.
By the closing years of the 18th Century, the armies of Europe all followed a similar structure with their cavalry divided into Heavy and Light. The weapon of the Light Cavalry was the sabre, a broad bladed single edged weapon with a curved cutting edge and a simple hilt consisting of pommel, grip and cross guard which gave little hand protection. To afford added hand protection, the cross guard was extended and bent around as a bow and joining the pommel at the top of the sword. This became known as the knuckle bow or (because of the shape) the stirrup hilt. There were, even in the early days of regulation, individualists and they added to this simple guard with extra bars for even greater protection.
The heavy cavalry, larger men on bigger horses, tended to have straight bladed swords with a basket style guard. The basket hilt, familiar today on the Scottish broadsword, was used by the German lands knecht troops in the early 16th century and was the favoured weapon adopted by the mounted troops of Cromwell and the opposing Royalists in the 17th century. By the beginning of the 19th century, it had become the sole preserve of the Scottish sword. The cramped basket style was, later in the century, dispensed with by highland officers on active service and replaced with a simple cross hilt of regimental pattern.
Infantry and later cavalry swords now had in place of the basket hilt, a bowl or knuckle bow made from separate bars or of pierced sheet metal and the best example of these are the 3 bar hilt of the British 1822 Light Cavalry Sword which is still in use today by The Royal Artillery, The Royal Logistics Corps and The Army Air Corps, the ‘Gothic’ hilt infantry sword of 1822 which was carried up until 1895 by many branches of the British Army and in a different finish is still carried by The Rifles and The Brigade of Guards.
After the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny during the 1850’s, the sword became less important to the Infantry Officer whose primary weapon was the revolver. For the Cavalry, however. It was still a primary weapon and was carried in conjunction with the carbine, revolver and for certain regiments, the lance.
In 1853, after many hundreds of years, the distinction between the swords of the British Light Cavalry and Heavy Cavalry came to an end with the issue of the 1853 Trooper’s sword, a cut and thrust weapon. It was of a new design with solid tang and a three bar guard similar to the officer’s sword of 1822. In 1864 a similar sword followed with a solid guard pierced with a Maltese Cross pattern which gave further protection. This pattern was again ‘tinkered’ with in 1882 with disastrous results. Regrettably the quality of the blades was extremely poor and many of these swords which had been made abroad because of cost, failed in the campaign in Egypt in 1882-1884. This failure in military supplies from boots to bayonets and swords to cartridges prompted an enquiry and a War Office Committee to investigate. As a result of deliberations and consultations, the committee failed to produce anything that was novel and the pattern of cavalry sword of 1885 and 1890 are virtually the same in appearance.
However in the opening years of the 20th century some serious thought was given to the cavalry sword in Britain and after trials and deliberations the 1908 sword was produced and although disliked by Edward VII was approved. The officer’s version followed in 1912. It has been described by most authorities as the most perfect military sword ever designed, but it came too late to have much effect on the fields of France in 1914-1918.
The only other main change in the 19th century was for Infantry officers and those carrying the infantry sword. In 1892, their gilt Gothic hilt sword was ordered a straight ‘dumbbell’ blade with only the last few inches sharpened. In 1895, the gilt hilt was replaced by a sheet metal one with piercing, ornamentation and cipher. In 1897 came the final change, more a sartorial tinker than redesign, when the inside of the guard was ordered to be lapped over or turned down to avoid the guard chaffing the uniform!
This sword has, except for change in cipher, been in use ever since and is till made today. The 1912 Cavalry sword is still the current pattern as is the much older pattern 1822 three bar hilted sword.
The Royal Navy sword has undergone small changes since 1827, mainly in blade shape which was regularised in 1846 and finally in 1929, while the sword of the Royal Air Force has remained the same, except for cipher change, since its official adoption in 1925.
John Wilkinson Latham
& Robert Wilkinson Latham
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