During the late 18th and early 19th century the definition of a proper sword varied from nation to nation. Initially, nations sought to choose the ‘best’ sword for their light and heavy cavalry units so that on the battlefield they would be more effective. Tests and studies were done, data collected and proposals put forth. Somewhere along the line, however, the matter of the cutting sword or thrusting sword became more than one of facts and figures- it became one of national pride.
The gallant war-cry “huzzah” of the light cavalry and their colorful uniforms inspired the very definition of a cavalryman. The hussars were used by numerous European nations and modeled off Hungary’s light cavalry. They were seen as swift, brave, dashing and daring. Their spirited behavior existed throughout the ranks.
Antoine de Lassale was a general in Napoleon’s army and commanded the hussars. He rode into battle with a pistol in one hand, his curved saber in the other and the reins in his teeth. His delight of drink led to the founding of the Society of Alcoholics and his drinking binges were so great that a fellow French General asked if the wild Lassale planned to drink himself to death.
Lasalle remarked that any hussar not dead by thirty was a blackguard. Being a blackguard in the Napoleonic era was apparently a very unpopular thing to be. Lasalle continued to drink, swear, and fight outrageously until his death in 1809 leading a charge against the Austrians at Wagram. He was thirty-four years old.
The hussar’s choice of weapon was a light, curved saber in the fashion of the Hungarians. This Eastern European weapon was the choice of light cavalry in England and France during the Napoleonic Wars and much admired for its ability to be rapidly used upon fleeing troops. Other blades that were popular at the time were Egyptian, which also were curved sabers and could be used identically to the Hungarian.
The blade could bear a strong curve and be quite stout such as this Hungarian (possibly) blade of the late 18th or early 19th century.
Other blades were more uniform in terms of width. This French hussar blade was used during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt.
Historical manuals on the use of the curved saber are available in English. These manuals usually refer to the use of the Hungarian (or Austrian) blade when using a curved weapon. Examples of manuals can be found in the works of Angelo.The actual Hungarian method of swordplay was different to what England and France actually used and it is better to say the Hussar, his sword, his means of fighting were all influenced by Hungary- not directly copied.
In England, late 1700’s battles revealed severe flaws in their light cavalry weapons. This was an issue of poor-balance and workmanship in which a sword would rattle to pieces after only a few strokes ( a trend that continued throughout the Napoleonic Wars despite attempts to improve quality). Le Marchant designed for the British a better sword. He was a fanatic about the cut being the best means of inflicting harm during a battle. He argued that thrusting weapons, while technically more fatal to the opponent, were impractical to use in the heat of battle where rapid chops won the day. He proposed a 1796 light cavalry blade that remained popular throughout the Napoleonic wars and furthered the cause of cutting weapons. The blade was of Indian and Hungarian inspiration and had a pronounced tip. This was to make the act of cutting easier and more effective. Thrusting with the weapon would be nearly impossible due to curvature and shape – Le Marchant’s intent! This purposeful extreme curve gave rise to some complaints that the weapon wasn’t flexible, however it was the heavy cavalry saber that drew the most ire.
While the cutting, Hungarian-style blade was nearly universally accepted in the light cavalry of the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, the heavy horse of the era were not so uniformed.
The French preferred a monstrous thrusting weapon. French statistics led to an ever-more effective heavy cavalry arm. French heavy horsemen wore a cuirass that covered the chest and the back, as well as wore helmets to protect the head. The armor was noted as heavy and cumbersome to the point that Wellington likened fallen French cuirassiers to upended turtles. Despite the supposed (and possibly mythical) disadvantaged once unhorsed, the cuirassiers of France were terrors on the field when mounted. In an exchange with their Austrian rivals, the French heavy horse came away the victor. The Austrians and French both used heavy thrusting swords, but the Austrians only wore breastplates, and their exposed backs proved to be a critical weakness.
The French heavy cavalry sword was created to be a weapon specifically for horseback and the thrust. The blade is 37 inches in length and the sword weighs three pounds. It is used one-handed giving the overall sword a length of 44 inches. In combat the sword was held in the ‘prime’ position (the point is shaped in such a way as to encourage this) and defense was not a concern since body armor was worn.
Quality of the blades varied. Officers had better swords than the common cavalryman and as the Napoleonic Wars drug on quality of the French blades declined as did their ability to find proper mounts. In terms of raw data, the French were absolutely convinced their thrusting weapon was superior to the heavy cutting swords used by other nations.
The issue of the thrust vs the cut became one of national pride and the French heavy cavalry blade is an example of this. The XII for example is just too clunky to swing with effectively. The criticisms of this fact made the English point out in the heat of battle, French cuirassiers after their initial charge were weakened because they were forced to use their weapons to cut with, especially at close quarters. France’s counter-claim was that the British heavy cavalry swords couldn’t thrust so they’d lose the initial exchange.
The British took on a different tactic when creating their heavy cavalry swords. Le Marchant, the creator of the 1796 Light Cavalry blade, was from a school of theorists who were absolutely convinced the cut was superior to the thrust. While statistical data seemed to indicate that the thrust was more fatal, the cut-camp had answers to this.
First, the cut produced wounds that while not fatal, were scary and would demoralize the enemy. John Smith gets stuck in the chest and drops dead is not as scary as Pierre Smite’ having his scalp split to the point he needs to hold his face on.
Second, after the initial collision and the tight press of bodies and horses, the cut was more natural and easy to use. Thrusts require precision while cuts could travel in wide arcs. The claim the British made was that even the French tried to start hacking once it came to a protracted melee.
Third, THINK OF ENGLAND!
The heavy blade approved by the Cavalry Board drew heavy criticisms but was adopted by nations opposed to Napoleon including Sweden and Portugal and became part of the struggle against the French- facts be damned. In truth, there is evidence to indicate that the British cavalrymen wanted the best of both worlds. Several samples of the 1796 heavy cavalry sword have been modified- their original hatchet tips meant for cutting having been ground down into spear-points.
The origins of the 1796 heavy cavalry saber is debatable with German swords, schinovias, mortuary swords and other back-swords being possible contenders. Additionally, 1700’s Swedish heavy cavalry blades might also be an originator. They bore a similar shape but even more weight at the tip and a weight of five pounds! Heavy indeed for a single-handed weapon.
Slipping the leg using a Scottish backsword from Angelo’s manual. The backsword of Scotland inspired the manuals of the era which claimed to be Hungarian and Scottish in origin, but were not pure systems. The technique of slipping the leg can be found in Fiore’s 1409 work, and in the manuals of Fabris and Giganti in 1606.
The End of the Debate (As if people would ever stop arguing!)
The Napoleonic Wars created two distinct camps, those who favored cutting and those thrusting. Both sides cited facts as well as the harder to define psychological factors. While in terms of the light cavalry, the curved blade won the day, the heavy cavalry blades demonstrated what happens when two nations put national pride and a lot of money and time into a debate.
French heavy cavalry blades became the ultimate thrusting weapons. The blades were designed to do one thing only and performed poorly at other tasks. This was intentional.
British heavy cavalry blades were the same.
Soldiers wanted a bit of both as seen in the modifications some made to their swords. In the end, the debate ended with the Napoleonic Wars. Once the Emperor was exiled (then exiled again) the British switched to a uniformed cavalry that was essentially all light. The curved sabers were done away with and a thinner thrusting weapon that could be used to cut took its place. It was acknowledged that on the charge the thrust was best, and afterwards a soldier had to have the ability to use his weapon in the most versatile fashion possible.
America’s Civil War should have given Europeans and Americans some sense that the days of the headlong cavalry charge were all but over. However, militaries are by their nature conservative institutions loathe to drop old ideas or adopt new ones. The airplane wasn’t taken seriously for example. In Germany, Field Marshal Heinz Guderian in his memoirs makes repeated references to how tanks were not considered valuable and never fully understood by Hitler and his commanders even late in the war.
Throughout WWI Douglas Haig (who repeatedly tried to get my great grandfather killed but only succeeded in accidently gassing him) was convinced cavalry would one day break through the German lines and run rampant.
During this time-period George S. Patton, a man who wished he’d been born a few centuries prior, developed America’s last ‘true’ cavalry saber. The weapon is based off the British India-pattern thrusting sword, and like the India-pattern can cut if needs be. Patton’s saber has a pistol grip and he designed it after becoming the Master of the Sword in the US army, competing in the Olympics, and traveling to Europe to learn swordsmanship from the finest masters.
Compared to the heavy, clunky and limited swords of the Napoleonic Era, the Patton saber handles smoothly and easily putting an end to the cut vs the thrust debate by incorporating both. Or so he thought.
The debate is over.
Or is it?
In 1943 the German army found itself attacked by men on horseback armed with curved sabers. They were Cossacks who struck during the winter and hit hard and rode off before the Germans could mount a response.
Staged photo. Since ‘the last’ anything is important many nations claim to have performed the last traditional cavalry charge including Britain, Poland, Russia, and Mongolia (in 1949!).
Russ Mitchel explains what makes up the true Hungarian system in an interview in The Journal of Western Martial arts. http://jwma.ejmas.com/articles/2011/jwmaart_thompson_0511_1.htm
Martin Read gives an in depth history of the British 1796 Light Cavalry Blade. http://www.napoleon-series.org/military/organization/c_swordpoint1.html
Article on modified heavy cavalry swords. http://www.napoleon-series.org/military/organization/c_swordpoint.html
Patton’s Sword, the ultimate and last cavalry saber. Includes images as well as how-to drawings from a manual. http://sbgswordforum.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=swordreviews&action=print&thread=16572