Saturday, April 26, 2014

Things: The Sword

Cold Steel

This blog is about about cold steel: more specifically,  the sword.  Despite the steady encroachment of firearms, blades were still an important part of military life during the time of the Yankee Doodle Spies. Although Britain and France manufactured their own blades by the mid 18th century, the best still came from those countries with a long tradition of forging fine tempered steel - Spain, Germany and Italy. During an age when firearms were primitive, slow and inaccurate, combat with cold steel at close quarters could be decisive. And the sword was indeed the most versatile blade weapon at close quarters: whether in melee, ambush or siege. There were practical and symbolic sides to the sword.  First and foremost it was a weapon of simplicity, requiring simple maintenance. It could be used by footman or horseman. It could kill, cut and maim.


Throughout most of history the sword  served as a symbol of leadership and distinction.  This reached its high point during the middle ages when the sword became the symbol of knighthood. Knights were anointed and welcomed into the brotherhood of arms with a sword. Later on, at least in Europe, carrying a sword was  considered the mark of a gentleman, worn on various occasions by civilians and military men alike. Although by the mid 18th century civilians rarely carried a sword, it remained something special in military circles.Symbolism affected its use as warfare in the 18th century progressed. A sword might be drawn as a salute, a signal to prepare for action, or returned to its scabbard as a signal to end fighting.

Weapon of Choice

Before the development of the socket bayonet, every military man carried a sword of some sort. The infantry, artillery and of course cavalry all carried swords of various types for close action. But as the ring mounted or socket bayonet became more widespread, the need for an accompanying sword diminished, at least for the infantry. By the time of the American Revolution only sergeants and officers  in the infantry carried a sword, which remained a symbol of authority as well as a weapon. There were exceptions such as the highlanders and the German mercenary regiments. And artillery crews and  cavalrymen still carried swords.  In the case of the former, swords were used for close in action if the guns were overrun. While in the case of the latter they remained the primary weapon of action.

Cold steel could still be decisive

Let's discuss the general types of swords used during the time of the Yankee Doodle Spies. This is meant as a short overview, not a detailed or authoritative account.

Infantry Sword

The infantry sword, sometimes called a hanger, was a short sword carried for close in action. Generally 25 inches or so in length. By the time of the Yankee Doodle Spies such swords were mostly  carried by American and British infantry sergeants. The hanger had a long, slightly curved blade and a short metal pommel covered by a small round hand guard joined to the butt of the sword by a small metal knuckle guard. The hangers carried by infantrymen were cheap, simple weapons that served well in bloody hand-to-hand fighting by common soldiers.  Marines also carried the hanger.

Infantry Hanger

Short Saber

Used by many officers in combat, the blade was around 30 inches long. Used for cutting or thrusting. These weapons could be simple, or ornate.  In some cases they were family treasures, handed down by a father to a son on his commissioning.

Officer's Sword

German Jaegers

Hunting Sword

Originally a sidearm for hunters, the hunting sword was a short, cut and thrust weapon used by the German Jaegers, American riflemen, and officers of both sides. Sometimes known as the cuttoe, it lacked knuckle and hand guards and served as a brutal, bloody weapon for American militias as well. The blade was around
28 inches and could be curved or straight. Jeremiah Creed carries a version of this in the Yankee Doodle Spies.

Small Sword

By the time of the American revolution these were mostly carried by civilians or officers not with troops. Light and thin, rapier-like in appearance, it was good for quick thrusting.

Cavalry Sword

Dragoon Saber

Mounted troops carried these longer and heavier blades, usually around 35 inches in length. They could be edged but were mostly curved in America. They usually carried a heavy hilt for maximum protection in mounted combat. The trained dragoon could could slash and opponent or drive the point home with an extended arm, much like a lance. And the saber in the hands of a cavalryman had a tremendous psychological effect. Often just the sight of a formation of of cavalry brandishing sabers could send all but the best trained and stoutest infantry running for safety.

British Dragoons

Naval Cutlass

Most people know of the cutlass from pirate movies. But the cutlass really  was the seaman's version of the short saber. Cutlasses were single edged, heavy and had an expanded hilt to maximize protection. Cutlasses were not  suitable for dueling, but in the arms of a strong sailor these crude but effective weapons could smash and crush, as well as slice and cut.

Naval Cutlass with expanded hilt

The Ultimate Symbol?

As mentioned above, the sword was a practical weapon with a symbolic aspect. Perhaps no greater sign of that symbolic use is the classic "surrender."  Whether on ships at sea, in great fortresses, or on the field of honor, a commander often yielded his personal sword as the ultimate symbol of submission. That act was almost always accepted graciously and ensured a modicum of consideration to the surrendering forces. So the sword bridges the spectrum from being the signal to initiate combat to being the signal for laying down arms - yielding. Thus, the sword served as the unique weapon of  its era.

General Burgoyne surrenders his sword near Saratoga

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