Monday, November 11, 2013

The British Pattern 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre

The British 1796 light cavalry sabre is a cutting and slashing  weapon, pure and simple.  Designed by John Gaspard le Marchant, the weapon was mass produced and  issued  to all British light cavalrymen (hussars and light dragoons) as well as horse artillerymen during the Napoleonic Wars. It's form was copied and used by the fledgling United States for its Dragoons.  It was likewise copied by the Prussians for the pattern 1813, or Blucher, sabre.   The sword remained Britain's  official pattern until it was replaced in 1821 by a completely different form.  However, it served on in India with native cavalry and police units throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century.  The Blucher sabre was carried through the end of the First World War. 

The hallmark  of the 1796 LC is its broad, highly curved 32.5 - 33 inch blade.  The blade, which bears one large fuller, widens to a hatchet shaped point.  For hand protection, it has a single branch "P" shaped guard.   The pattern's grip is comprised of a wooden core over which cord is wound with a leather top-covering.  The pommel assembly incorporates a steel backstrap across the top of the grip with two "ears" issuing downward midway on both sides of the grip.  A steel pin through the grip connects the ears, providing for a strong union of the assembly.  The hilt also incorporates shield shaped languets protruding down  both sides of the blade.  

The scabbard is steel with two hanging rings and a very subtle drag, or shoe -- meaning that is not very pronounced from the bottom of the scabbard.  Swords are often found marked with the cutler's name in the spine of the blade and/or the inboard and uppermost panel of the scabbard.  Swords accepted by the British Board of Ordnance have inspector's stamps in the blade. Regimentally marked 1796 LCs, both regular and yeomanry, bear markings on the top of the quillion or the knucklebow and on the scabbard.  Unmarked examples and plentiful and it is not uncommon to find swords and scabbards mismatched. 

Officer' swords may be distinguished by etched blades, the finest of which are blue and gilt. Examples are found  slightly smaller and there is a wide variety of pattern deviation.   The officer's grip is typically shagreen with twisted silver wire. It may have backstrap ears, which are usually smaller and more decorative, or none. 

The sword depicted below is one that I found in a relic shop outside the Chickamauga National Military Park.  As found, it is a example of what not to do to an antique sword.  

Mixed with US Civil War swords and muskets displayed for sale, I spotted the sword hanging on the wall.  It was shiny; far too shiny than any 200 year old weapon ought to be. I asked the store owner if I could see the 1796 sabre hanging on the wall.  As Napoleonic sabres have little interest to the Civil War enthusiast clientele which frequents his shop, the owner was surprised that I new what the sword is. Upon examination, I found that some fool had cleaned the sword and spraypainted the hilt and scabbard silver. The shop owner said that the previous owner told him that this fellow promised to make the sword look brand new.  Ummmm.....why?  It ain't new. It's 200 years old.  I ended up buying the sword at a very fair price given it's condition. 

I normally do not advocate cleaning any antique arm outside of routine conservation -  remove active rust, dirt and grime; restore and protect leather.  Do not remove patina.  Patina is age. It is part of the weapons history and should be left alone.   However, the damage had already been inflicted on this sword.  

I started by removing the paint to the best of my ability.  This required steel wool, lacquer thinner, arm fatigue and, unfortunately, stronger chemicals. After I was down to a cleaner surface, I used WD40 and steel wool to try to remove the haze left by the chemicals. I was not pleased with the finish, so I darkened the metal with several applications of black show polish over a few days.   The result was as good as I could get it.  

I wish that I had before photos, but I did not think to take any.  It didn't turn out perfect, but the sword sure looked better than it did before.  Make it look like new? Pleeeeze. 

A few parting words on the 1796 LC for the potential collector.   With all of the variations, a whole collection may made of this pattern. Examples are found relatively inexpensive, but you get what you pay for.  Make sure that what you are getting is an original 1796 LC.  This sword has been mass reproduced by modern cutlers for sword fighting enthusiasts and by Pakistani exporters for reenactors and collectors of reproductions.    Beware of Bluchers being passed off as British swords. The knucklebow and the scabbard shoe of the British sword are more subtle than those of the Blucher.   Also, note that a 1796 LC with a brass guard with a British cutler's name on it was probably made for export to the United States -- but not, as some would contend, for the Confederacy.  These swords were made long before the Civil War. 

As stated above, the 1796 LC served in India for a considerable time after the Napoleonic Wars.  If you think you are purchasing a Napoleonic example, but the sword bears Indian, Pakistani or Nepalese markings, think about it.  There is nothing wrong with buying an example made for American export, a WW I Blucher or an Indian police unit marked 1796, unless you think that you are getting a Napoleonic era British 1796 LC and paying the price for it.