Known lovingly by its nickname, the "old wrist breaker," the U.S. pattern 1840 heavy cavalry sabre is the first of the official U.S. cavalry sword patterns to follow French design. Also referred to as the "Prussian Sabre," the sword follows the pattern of the French 1822 model cavalry sword which was readily copied and manufactured in Prussia by a variety of companies. When I was younger, I thought that the heavy designation indicated the weight of the sword, hence the old wrist breaker sobriquet. This really made sense when considering that the official replacement of the 1840 sabre is the 1860 light cavalry sabre. I thought, "oh,i guess they realized that the first one was too heavy." Later, I understood that the heavy designation pertains to cavalry type and was following upon European military designation.
I consider the Napoleonic Wars to be the pinnacle of cavalry. They had it all -- heavy dragoons, light dragoons, lancers, cheveuax a cheval, chevaux leger lancier, carabiniers, cuirassiers, hussars, grenadier a cheval, chasseurs, etc. These names are fanciful designations for light and heavy cavalry. The two are distinguished from each other by size (horse and cavalryman) and by role. Heavy cavalry, in the Napoleonic world, were big men on big horses. Their job on the battlefield was that of shock troops. Charging stirrup to stirrup into infantry formations, they were to punch a hole in the opponent's line. The mere sight of these men charging upon unprepared opponents was enough to make even the most hardened veteran turn and flee. Light cavalry, on the other hand, were more mobile. Smaller men on smaller horses assigned the tasks of foraging, scouting, raiding and harassment. These men would chase down the fleeing opponent after the heavy cavalry caused a rout.
So what does all of this have to do with an American mid-Victorian sword pattern? Not that much, except to illustrate the obscurity, to me, of the heavy designation. As far as I can tell, the U.S. Army of 1840 did not really have light and heavy cavalry. Rather, there was cavalry-- referred to as dragoons. Dragoons, originating in the 16th-17th centuries, were mounted infantry. They carried swords (as did most military personnel at that time) and firearms. Thus, a dragoon could fight on horseback with a sword or ride to a position, dismount and fight with his firearm. By the 18th century, dragoons were for all practical purposes cavalrymen. While they were armed with carbines, most of their battlefield activity involved the sword.
By 1860, infantry firearms and artillery had approved to the extent that mass cavalry charges were suicidal. There are exceptions, such as the charge of the 1st Virginia Cavalry at First Bull Run (or First Manasas depending upon your point of view), but for the most part Civil War cavalry were used in the traditional dragoon (ride, dismount and fight with firearms) and light cavalry (scouting, harassment and raiding) roles.
The 1840 cavalry sword remained in manufacture as an official U.S. pattern from 1840-1858. Accordingly, state and federal armories were full of 1840 sabres at the outset of hostilities in 1861. Many a Civil War cavalryman, both Union and Confederate, carried the 1840 sabre. The heavy designation, practically speaking, is correct. Cavalryman using the weapon found it to be overweight and unwieldy -- resulting in the wrist breaker nickname.
The sabre depicted below is an 1840 pattern manufactured, or imported, by J.P. Justice of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There are numerous manufacturers of this pattern, including Ames and a whole slew of German companies. The pattern is recognized by its large, heavy blade with a flat back spine as well as its large, brass multi-branch guard and somewhat blocky grip.
This sword is formerly of my collection and is a typical example. The pattern is readily found on the market and sold at a reasonable price with U.S. manufacturer or retailer marked examples fetching slightly higher prices than unmarked or foreign company marked swords. It is a good Civil War sword for the beginning collector, but watch our for reproductions. Also, beware of any inflated price due to reputed Confederate use. Without clear provenance, the Confederate association is speculative.