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Brian Wolfe

Let's Talk British Swords

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British Swords Spoken Here.

 

For some time now it has been my intention to write several posts regarding the British sword, keeping them as brief as possible, I think shorter posts are best.  Please feel free to leave comments as well as your opinions; this is intended to be a learning exercise, for me as much as I intend it to be for you.  It should be stated straight away that I am not an expert on swords, their identification, history or their use; just an obsessive enthusiast.

 

My background is in martial arts which includes the proper use of the Japanese Katana in the style of the 1650’s which involves, for lack of a better term, the “quick draw”.  This involves drawing your weapon and making an upward strike, left to right, or horizontal cut again left to right. After which you are going to block your opponent’s sword strike provided either you or your antagonist are still “alive”.  Of course no one is actually “fighting” or sparing in this form of practise. This form is called Iaito.  The other form I studied is called Toyama Ryu and is sparing with dull steel blades, actually we used wooden swords called a Bokken.  You can check out a good video on YouTube under Toyama Ryu.  It is a lot harder than it looks when you are on the Dojo floor in front of your Sensi and the class.  Yes the white belts always seem to back up a lot; really makes you work hard to “kill” the little buggers. 

 

The other sword form I studied was European fencing with an Epee. The word epee basically means “sword” and is the heaviest of the three swords used in the sport; the three swords are, foil, epee and sabre.  The foil and the epee are thrusting weapons only and only a hit with the tip counts.  The sabre scores with either the point or the edge of the weapon just like the real sabres of old.  A word of warning; I started fencing far too late in life (mid 30s) and today my right knee (forward knee if you are right handed) gives me a lot of trouble.

 

My point for giving my credentials is that I do know something about swords and their use, not just some of the history that I have read in books.  From Japanese sword use I learned the cut or slash and from Western style fencing I learned how to “give point” or the thrust. I chose the epee as it was the closest thing to using a British small sword of the mid to late 1700’s. Both systems taught me how to block or parry an opponent’s sword.

 

My intended range of my posts will be from around 1796 to 1912, which takes in the Battle of Waterloo up to the last Pattern developed, the 1912 Officer’s Cavalry Sabre.  Anything older such as medieval broad swords is just too expensive to own and I like to own what I study. If you like the older sword reproductions then two thumbs up from me but they are just not within my interest range.  I may also talk about other swords from different parts of the world in giving examples of parallel sword development, evolution if you will, in different countries at approximately the same time period.  In these cases I may have to use pictures from books as well as photos from books of swords I have yet to acquire. I’ll always give credit to the book and the author.

 

So If I have not frightened you off or bored you to tears let’s talk British swords.

 

Regards

Brian

 

Part of my collection is pictured below.

 

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Were British Cavalry Swords Substandard?

 

 

With the ending of the Napoleonic era (1815) peace settled over the island of England, but not over the whole of the Empire itself.  Many, if not most, historians will tell you there were numerous “small wars” flaring up keeping the British military busy putting out the flames before they turned into infernos.  With this era, the mid 1800’s, there came the Bayonet and Sword Scandals.  I covered the Bayonet Scandal in a resent blog but left the talk of swords, cavalry swords in particular, for discussion in this area of the forum.  I would say that the Indian Rebellion or Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 saw more use of cavalry and therefore cavalry sabres than had been seen since the Battle of Waterloo at the end of the Napoleonic Wars mentioned above.

 

Before we go any further I feel I must state why I am referring to this period in the long history of India as a “mutiny” and not a war of independence or a general rebellion of the Indian people as a whole against the British Raj.  While the struggle involved more than just Indian soldiers and troopers, there was the issue of a mutiny, that is to say any soldier upon taking an oath of allegiance is bound by that oath; deviation from those terms constitutes an act of mutiny.  I make no political observations by that statement only to say that for the sake of this discussion it is one military body against the other and involves the swords of both sides regardless of which side wields them.

 

One of the criticisms of the British Cavalry Sabre was that it was consistently dull, being unable to maintain a sharp edge for any length of time.  Compared with the Indian tulwar, the sword of choice by the Indian mutineers and their supporters, the British sabre was often called a “bludgeoning” weapon by its critics. Another flaw according to some was the incidences of the sword blade bending and even breaking upon impact with the enemy’s weapon.  The complaints regarding poor hand protection offered by hand guards of the era is a subject I will reserve for future posts.

 

Photo below shows the Pattern 1853 British Cavalry Troopers Sabre and an Indian Tulwar which we will use for the first discussion.

 

I have selected a tulwar that, while it looks quite a bit shorter than the British Cavalry Sabre (and it is) it is at the same time one of the larger tulwars you might find.  I do have a larger example which almost matches the 35¼ inch British sabre blade but I wanted discuss the two sword types that might have opposed each other on the battle field as my examples.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pattern 1853 British Cavalry Sabre

 

The 1853 Cavalry Sabre was designed as a “cut and slash” weapon with the emphasis on “giving point”, that is to say, for thrusting or stabbing and not cutting (slashing).  The British were almost obsessed with designing the perfect sword and a thrusting sword was considered superior to the cutting sword.  There were few complaints regarding the ability of the 1853 to perform well as a thrust centric weapon, the complaints came in regard to its ability or lack of ability to be a good cutter.  At times on the battle fields of the Sepoy Mutiny a number 7 cut (straight down) to the head of an enemy wearing a thick turban would render the combatant unconscious or dead due to massive head trauma. In other words the 1853, in this case, didn’t cut but acted as a bludgeon, bashing in the poor fellow’s head.  

 

One of the aspects of the thrust (giving point) that was supposedly better than a cut was that a cut was not necessarily always fatal; however the thrust had a greater chance of rendering your opponent dead.  Napoleon was said to have exclaimed, “Ne sabrez pas! Pointez! Pointez! ( No sabring! Give point! Give point!).  On the other hand there are many accounts of a soldier running an opponent through and the fellow still advancing right to the hilt and dealing a death blow to the soldier, both to die on the battlefield together.  A cut tends to stop or slow down a charging opponent better, even if he was to survive the first cut he would most likely be subjected to a thrust once he was down or at least stopped.

 

So why were British cavalry sabres always dull?  Well, they weren’t, at least not to start with.  All swords and sabres were sharpened to razor sharpness before starting out on campaign.  There are many accounts of a British cavalry trooper completely slicing an enemy in half diagonally.  One of the favourite “sword tricks” of the British was to slice a silk handkerchief in half by simply laying the cloth on the blade (sharp edge up) and with a slicing motion severs the handkerchief in half. 

 

The problem was not with the sharpening it was with the means of carrying the sabre while out on campaign.  British cavalry troopers and officers always carried their sabres in a steel scabbard with the blade facing the ground.  The sharpest blade soon becomes quite dull under these circumstances.

 

As I have stated the Pattern 1853 was not designed as a cutting only sabre but as a thrusting weapon.  One of the problems with this is that, it was said, once a trooper got into a melee, or close combat, the natural urge to slash became overwhelming.  I personally think this was out of necessity as you need space to thrust with a 35 inch basically straight blade. Experiments done here at “The Home Office” (aka my back yard) shows that you need at least 24 inches between your body and your opponent’s body in order to give point.  This is if you can successfully draw your sabre back far enough to get that space needed.  On the other hand if you slash using your left hand pushing on the back of the blade to give the sabre the proper cutting weight you reduce that space to around eight inches. Of course at that point you are pretty well grappling with your enemy, which often happened.

 

In summary the Pattern 1853 Cavalry Sabre was every bit as good as the tulwar provided it could be kept in a state of razor sharpness. This, keeping in mind the sabre action is more of an arcing cutting slash rather than the pull and/or thrust slash of the tulwar. This we will discuss in the next instalment.

 

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The Indian Tulwar

 

The curved sabre used in India for centuries, known as the tulwar, was the preferred, non firearm, weapon used by the Indians opposing the British during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. The term “Sepoy” is the Indian equivalent of the British rank of Private.  I will not go into the causes and actions taken during this uprising as we are only dealing with the weapons themselves.

 

A tulwar is a curved sword that is best suited for the cut or slash as opposed to the thrust or “giving point”.  The British believed that the Indian schools of swordsmanship did not teach giving point, possibly due to the extreme curve of the blade making it look like it could not deliver a thrust if it had to.  This was not completely true as while a straight forward thrust was not as practical as the cut it could be done.  In fact it has been documented that British troopers upon missing their intended target and in passing the antagonist were stabbed in the back when the Indian struck in a curving arc thereby actually giving point.  The myth was based on false assumptions drawn from the ignorance of the vast variety of Indian swords. Fighting schools throughout India not only taught the use of the curved tulwar but many forms of straight bladed swords designed primarily for giving point, or thrusting.  There was also no need to spend a great deal of time teaching how to parry with the sword as the Indian fighters used a buckler, or small shield, with which they parried their opponent’s thrust or cut then delivered their own strike.

 

The shape of the blade in cross section was also a long thin taper as opposed to the steeper bevel of European sword blades.  It could be argued that the tulwar was more fragile and they did on occasion break but overall they held up very well.  Any sword will break if the block or parry is made too close to the tip rather than on the bottom one third of the blade.  The closer to the hand guard the better.  Any blade might also break if struck hard enough on the flat of the blade.  This was almost impossible for the tulwar due to the shape of the handle allowing for better control, or indexing, of the blade.

 

The cut of the tulwar was delivered mainly with the forearm and wrist action.  Literally, with a flick of the wrist an Indian swordsman could remove an enemy’s hand. One practise of the mutineers was to slide under the British cavalry horse from the side and with one slash open up the horse’s belly. There are stories of heads being severed in half horizontally just above the eyes and limbs or legs being decapitated are not uncommon. Interestingly, the British took a lesson for the Indians and started to wrap their head gear with twisted lengths of cloth forming a turban to protect from tulwar cuts. Even the cork or pith helmet alone was some protection from tulwar slashes. 

 

So why were the Indian tulwars able to maintain their sharpness while their British counterparts burdened with dull sabres? Again it has nothing to do with the steel used or the techniques of sharpening.  It is the method of carrying the tulwar that is the secret.  Indian tulwars are carried in a wooden scabbard wrapped in leather or cloth then slid into the waste belt.  By not having the sharp edge rubbing against a steel scabbard day in and day out the tulwar maintained it edge.  Another advantage of the wooden scabbard was in the ease or repair or replacement over the steel tube scabbard of the British trooper.

 

Regards

Brian

 

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Brian,

Thanks for posting this very informative and well presented article. Your Sword collection and its display is of the highest order.

I look forward to seeing more as you get the time.

Best regards Simon.

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Thanks Simon, my intention is to make this section a "go to" destination for people interested in British swords and their use.  I am a bit concerned that there seems to me to be  too little interest in British history here on the GMIC. I could be wrong but the only way to correct that. providing I am correct, is to start to post about British history rather than sitting here complaining; which is what old guys like me do best. :whistle:

Regards

Brian

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Quality:

 

One of the flaws attributed to the British cavalry swords of the 1850’s was that the blades were of very poor quality.  These, it was said, were made in Germany and sold to sword makers in Britain at a lower price, ending in a poor quality weapon.  True this no doubt happened and in fact some sellers would place proof marks on blades that were never put through quality assurance testing.  However, there were many very good quality blades produced in Germany for the British and even the Indian market.  You can find Indian tulwars on the collector’s market today with British, German and Indian made blades of exceptional quality.  I have an example of a Pattern 1853 Cavalry Trooper’s Sabre in my collection that is marked with a visored helmet motif to indicate the German maker, Kirschbaum, and also stamped with an “I” on the back edge of the blade by the British indicating it was for use by their troops serving in India.  This seems to be an excellent quality blade.  I do not believe that the British sword blades, even those from Germany, were of poor quality overall, some no doubt were, but not to the extent that was reported by the press of the day. 

 

So why would some officers even use a poor quality blade in the first place?  We need to remember that at this time period positions in the army or cavalry were purchased.  This meant that the new officer, while highly educated and socially refined knew little to nothing about what was expected of him on the battlefield. In addition to this the purchase of his entry rank most likely left him with little to spend on uniforms (he needed several) and other equipment such as his sword. Firearms were not issued to officers and they were required to purchase their own if indeed they wanted to carry one.  When a young officer went to a “tailor” to be outfitted with his uniform he often had the opportunity to purchase his sword from the same supplier.  If the tailor was out to maximize his profit margin then the swords he was offering might vary greatly in their quality.  Even for the common cavalry trooper the quality might vary depending on which blade maker was supplying the sword makers in England who then supplied the military with the swords that were then issued to the troopers. 

 

 

 

The practise or purchasing your rank in the army (including cavalry) sounds rather ridiculous today and I will admit that I often wondered how this came to be.  While I was researching this post I delved into this question and found what might be the answer.  I’ll admit that the solution to my question comes from only one source so you decide whether you want to accept it or not. During the English Civil War c. 1650 Oliver Cromwell (leader of the opposition to the King) made changes in the military, one of those changes was to promote officers through the ranks based on merit. This seemed to be a very positive change and in today’s thinking makes a great deal of sense. However once the Civil War had settled down and a new King on the thrown it was noted that the army officers held rather revolutionary ideas and were at the same time viewed as being rather crude and brutish.  This was when it was decided that in order to fill the upper ranks of the military with members of the gentry the government would offer to sell rank to the privileged.  The so-called lower members of society would be excluded and the officer’s positions filled with men of quality, better educated and refined; in other words more apt to support a monarchy than make moves to copy the French and revolt. Much has been written about the problems associated with the purchase system but in all fairness many great military leaders came from the upper class and purchased their entry level rank; The Duke of Wellington being one of the best examples.

In the forward to Janusz Jaroslawshi’s book, “The British Pattern 1796 Cavalry Sword and Other Derivatives”, Tadeusz M. Klupezynski writes,

 

“There were special price lists of specified amounts that had to be paid in order to obtain a certain officer rank in the individual regiments. Such a dealings did not miss as well as Arthur Wellseley Wellington, who twice- by borrowed money- bought himself a promotion to higher rank to accelerate his career in military advancement.  Perhaps, without these “purchases” if the indigent Irish nobleman had been promoted only in connection with the military service, the transformation of the British army would never have happened, there would not have been a Waterloo and the Napoleonic era would have had a completely different course, and perhaps over the Houses of Parliament in London would be a tricolor French flag today.” [sic].

 

Certainly a sobering thought and perhaps the most positive reinforcement of the success of the purchase program for its day. While it is good to point out the positive side of a topic that has been held as a negative condition of the early British army we shouldn’t dismiss this as purely politically driven criticism. The successes and achievements of the British army of the distant past owes much to the few brilliant leaders and much more to the perseverance and determination of the common soldier.

 

Regards

Brian

 

 

 

 

 

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