Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The British 1796 Heavy Cavalry Sword

As I have stated before, heavy cavalry during the 18th and 19th centuries played a specific role on the battlefield.  Big men mounted on big horses wielding big swords.   

In 1796, the British would deviate from arming the King's heavy cavalryman with a long, relatively narrow, spear pointed sword.  Rather, the King's Board of Ordinance adopted a long, straight, wide bladed, hatchet point sword for heavy cavalry.   This sword is known as the pattern 1796 heavy cavalry sword. 

The sword is also known as a disk hilt sword and is derived from the Austrian model 1769 pallasch.  It is approximately 35 inches long with the blade bearing one fuller and being of the backsword type (with the spine being unedged and flat).  The iron disk hilt is somewhat crude looking and has a single knuckle bow and has two languets protruding down the blade. I've heard the purpose of languets to be to either trap and break an opponent's blade or to hold the sword securely in the scabbard.    I'm not positive of the real function of the languet, but this sword is not intended for fencing or finesse swordplay.  It is for hacking, pure and simple.  The hilt has an iron backstrap that incorporates two "ears" which are folded down and secure the grip. Thr grip is wood wrapped with cord and covered with leather. 

The sword depicted to this point is the troopers' model.  Regulations required that officers have two swords.  The dress pattern, also known as a boat shell hilt:


and the undress pattern,also known as a ladder back due to decorative cut outs in the knucklebow. 


1796 heavy troopers' swords are found with period armoury and field modifications.  The hatchet point is often found ground down to a spear point.  This was done reportedly prior to Waterloo to render the sword more of a thrust weapon so that troopers would stand a better chance hen facing Napoleon's armored cuirassiers.   Also, examples are found with the inside portion of the disk ground away (for comfort when the sword is worn on the side and to prevent wear on the uniform) and with the languets removed (because quite frankly they appear to be useless).

The 1796 heavy cavalry sword is a brute of a weapon.   Fans of Bernard Cornwell's British Napoleonic rifle officer, Richard Sharp, will remember that he carries a 1796 heavy cavalry troopers' sword at his side.  Having owned a few of these beasts over the years, I think it highly doubtful that any foot officer would carry such a weapon. It is far too long to walk around with at your side and certainly too long and heavy to fight with on foot. 

These swords command high prices on the market due to popularity and the relatively few examples available.   The British simply did not have that many heavy cavalry regiments and, therefore, fewer heavy cavalry swords.  Officer's undress examples and regimentally marked swords bring the highest prices. Beware of faked regimental designations on troopers' swords. Also, the sword, both officers' and troopers' models have been reproduced. Look for British cutler names, such as Gill, Wooley & Deakin, Reddell, Bates, Osborn & Gunby and Osbourne, stamped on the spine of he blade  as well as inspector's stamps on blades.

 Inspector's stamps will be a crown with a number underneath.  Regimental designations are founded stamped or etched typically on the guard or knucklebow and on the top side of the scabbard.  They will appear as a regimental abbreviation with a troop letter and rack number for the sword. for example:   

3d DG

meaning that the sword, or scabbard, was issued to Troop B of 3rd Dragoon Guards and numbered 32.  The designation form depicted above is known in the collecting world as the British fraction.  The letters "YC" if found in the British fraction stand for yeomanry (or volunteer) cavalry.  A sword ith these markings, although unit identified, will not garner as high of a price as one designated to a regular army regiment, because the sword likely never left the British Isles during its service life.   Do not be concerned if the regimental or inspection marks differ between sword and scabbard. When the swords were placed into storage or decommissioned, regimental armourers often mismatched swords and scabbards. 

Finally,  make sure that what you are buying is a British sword and not the Austrian predecessor or a later Austrian sword.  The Austrian 1824 heavy cavalry pallasch, shown below, looks quite similar to the British 1796 heavy cavalry sword. 

The British 1796 heavy cavalry sword is an ugly weapon. However, the weapon has mystique. I am fortunate to have had a few in my collection. 

Note:  The photos used are not of swords that I own or have owned. Rather they are examples commonly found on the Internet in the public domain.