Some Notes on Military Swords

By Commander K.E. Grant, RCN, Commandant of the Joint Atomic, Biological and Chemical Defensive Warfare School, Camp Borden, Ont.
Canadian Army Journal, Vol. XII, No. 2, April 1958

Most of us in the military profession find the sword a slightly embarrassing item of equipment—firstly, because we do not know how to use it, except for saluting (and then only after some rehearsals); and, secondly, because we know so little about the sword and its history. Yet today, as in all ages, the sword holds a certain mystic attraction to the professional fighting man. It is a symbol of many things: chivalry, honour, and the privilege of the freeman to bear arms. The sword is also traditionally a "personal" weapon. It is not something one draws from the Quartermaster's Stores to be returned later. It is meant to be part of the officer's personal equipment, to be at his side throughout his professional career, and to be prized in later years by his descendants. This "cult of the sword" has been carried to quite emotional extremes by fighting men of other nations, but the Anglo-Saxon has always maintained a proper sense of modesty. One authority writes that a visiting Japanese officer entering a London club was shocked to observe British officers' swords in the umbrella rack. To the Oriental this was an insult to such a revered weapon. The Japanese, of course, have always attached an almost religious significance to their ancestral swords. When Japanese aircraft bombed Pearl Harbour a number of their pilots of Samurai breeding carried their swords with them in the cramped cockpits of their aircraft. Adolf Hitler recognized the mystic influence of the sword on the Teutonic mind, and made it a vital part of the Nazi paraphernalia, together with their drums, trumpets and torchlight parades. The Nazi dirk became the symbol of German manhood and patriotism. Those who wore this prized weapon were forever pledged to the Fatherland above all other loyalties.

Earliest History

Primitive man found himself unprotected and unarmed in a world of creatures well provided with claws, fangs, beaks, fur coats, thick hides, scaly armour and colours which served as camouflage. Many of his animal foes could outrun him. His prey could elude him by flying, swimming, burrowing or climbing. Others were equipped with deadly venom. In the midst of a violent and dangerous creation, only homo sapiens was vulnerable and naked. His helplessness was, of course, not complete or he could not have survived to conquer and even enslave much of the animal kingdom. For Man had an unusually large cranium. He was sly, shrewd and cunning to a degree unequalled by any other mammal or reptile. Soon this led to his exploitation of fire. He borrowed fur pelts from the animals, ate their flesh, drank their milk, and later forced them to carry him on their backs. One of man's first inventions was the club and the pointed stick. Later the stick became a tipped spear, a dagger, a sword. But in all its forms it became man's claw, his tooth, and his emblem of power over a hostile world. Perhaps it is some subconscious racial memory of these times which causes the modern hiker to pick up and swing a stick as he tramps through the autumn woods.

Early European Swords

Recorded history is, of course, only the last five minutes in time of the "century" or more of human development. But from a few fossils of earlier ages, and from primitive races living today, it is obvious that the pointed stick, tipped with bone or metal, has always been an implement of human society. The Copper Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age brought relatively recent improvements, and left a few samples of early edged weapons. Babylon and Egypt certainly knew the sword. But it came to its best form in the Roman legions, where the sturdy short two-edged sword, used in conjunction with a shield, made possible a degree of good swordsmanship that was not to be surpassed for centuries. The Roman soldier was careful, too, to avoid becoming too encumbered with armour. He depended upon his agility and balance in handling his weapon. And his ability to march long distances rapidly was part of the secret of the Roman success in conquering and governing their world. The medieval knight, with his unwieldy burden of armour and his massive Teutonic type of sword, was a much inferior fighting man. Strangely enough, no other fighter waxed so enthusiastic about his weapons as the Middle Age warrior over his sword. Many knights gave their swords a personal name such as "Excalibur", "Durandel" or "Joyeuse". Squires on the eve of knighthood prayed all night with their sword-hilt as a crucifix in some cathedral. In an age of great religious fervour the cruciform quillons and handle were always in their thoughts. In death many of these forgotten warriors still held their sword-hilts to their lips in the final act of absolution. At the Crusades the European knight discovered, however, that his massive, badly balanced, crudely shaped weapon was no match for the sword of the Oriental warrior. The fable about Saladin's encounter with Richard makes this point. The European monarch severed an iron bar with one blow from his sword. Saladin smiled, tossed a silk cushion into the air, and sliced it effortlessly with a sweep of his razord-edged scimitar.

The massive, Teutonic type of sword used by the knights in the Middle Ages is shown on the left. On the right is the 16th Century rapier. The massive, Teutonic type of sword used by the knights in the Middle Ages is shown on the left. On the right is the 16th Century rapier.

The Crusaders took home with them a new respect for the Damascus blade, whose quality of tempered steel and sharpness was unequalled anywhere, and whose workmanship in ornamentation of blued steel, inlaid with gold, silver and, occasionally, jewels, created a new demand in Europe for "damascened" weapons. The massive two-handed sword of Charlemagne and the Teutonic Knights was obsolete. The truth that such weapons had often been laid aside in battle anyway, and replaced with spiked war hammers, battle axes, and "morning star" weapons, all of which required less skill than strength.

The Latin Influence: Milan and Toledo

Archery was always an important form of combat in the Near East from Babylonian times. It was again important at the Crusades. Finally the long bows of England at the Battle of Cr\E9cy spelled doom for the traditional French knights and their armour. The new soldier had to develop mobility, agility and a more shrewd sense of tactics. Lighter swords were essential in this trend. The popularity of Oriental blades led to their imitation and later improvement in Mediterranean lands. Milan and Toledo became particularly renowned as a result of their success in achieving fine quality in steel. The real contribution of the Latin races to swordsmanship, how ever, was their rediscovery of the pointed weapon. The Oriental sword, for all its superb sharpness, relied upon the slicing effect of its edge to achieve casualties. Such weapons may be intimidating to behold, and can produce painful and spectacular injuries, but these are rarely fatal. The Italian and Spanish swordsmiths realized that lethal wounds are rarely inflicted on the legs or arms. Even the neck and head are relatively well arranged by Mother Nature to afford deep protection to the arteries and vital parts. For planning purposes, only the trunk of the body was considered a target for blows intended to kill. And even here punctures must be at least three inches deep to guarantee results. This line of thinking produced the rapier and the stiletto. These weapons had no cutting edge at all, and were usually made with a triangular section. They required a high degree of skill in order to parry an opponent's blade and still remain poised for a successful lunge. This produced an entirely new type of swordsmanship, still found in today's fencing. The rapier did not, of course, take the place of the edged sword in warfare. The science of rapier fighting proved too difficult for the rank and file ever to master. Even experts found it impractical in the melee of a mass struggle where there was no room for good footwork. In many types of combat, too, particularly at sea, there was a need for a cutting weapon that could sever ropes and other materials, as well as human opponents. Thus the rapier became the gentleman's weapon, a mark of quality and rank. Its popularity as a duelling weapon is well- known. It also had a more practical purpose in defending a gentleman's purse against cut-throats who roamed the highways and dark alleys of the medieval towns. Finally, the appearance of these lighter, more portable "small swords" or rapiers resulted in them becoming for the first time an article of civilian dress throughout Europe after the 14th century. Shakespeare's plays are full of young dandies and fops, each equipped with rapier or dagger, and quick to draw either at the slightest provocation. The young gentlemen of quality in Britain for several centuries made it a fashion to tour the capitals of Europe in search of culture. They brought back with them many French and Italian fads, including "the code of the duello", which prescribed in great detail the offences for which any man of honour must call for a duel, aud the intricate formalities for arranging such a meeting. Death was by no means required: a gentleman could honourably terminate a duel after "pinking" his opponent in a manner which made it clear that a lethal thrust could have been delivered in its stead. Shakespeare also pokes fun at a number of middle-aged social climbers who carried swords so cheap and shoddy that they would bend at the first blow, except that the owner lacked the courage to draw. Perhaps the best description of a rapier wound comes from the dying Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet. Asked by his comrades if he was seriously injured in a duel, Mercutio drily remarks that his wound is "not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door, but 'tis enough, 'twill serve." Duelling remained a serious blight on European—and American—society for many years. Pistols began to replace rapiers and swords after 1700. In germany, however, duelling with sabres remained a popular sport among college students until the early years of the 20th Century. Sabres had the advantage of being rarely fatal, and they left quite picturesque scars on the face which were highly regarded among a certain class of German officer and student. By the 18th Century, it can be noted in many portraits of the day, military and naval officers were in the habit of wearing costly small swords or rapiers on court occasions, and plainer sturdier weapons in battle. This distinction between the fighting sword and the dress sword soon became recognizable in military patterns. Small swords for court affairs may still be found in uniform regulations of forty years ago. Diplomatic court dress includes such a sword still—a last evidence of the place of this weapon in civilian costume.

Swords of the 19th Century

France has always exerted a profound influence upon European fashions and dress, including those of the military. This became evident after the French Revolution, when the hated "aristocrats" were banished. The astute young French officer after this period was wise if he made it very clear that he was a staunch Republican, and not one of the despised blue-bloods. The rapier and straight sword were, of course, emblems of the aristocracy. The democratic weapon was the curved hanger, a cutlass-type blade with a sturdy basket hilt. This promptly became the sword of the French Army officer after the change in the "party line". Napoleon's superlative armies made this weapon more famous than ever through their victories. His regiments meanwhile adopted very distinct and flamboyant uniforms, reminiscent to our modern eyes of the theatrical garb for a Balkan operetta. The curved sword fitted this fashion ideally. Throughout Europe, and even in Great Britain, such fashions appeared among various regiments, usually on the grounds that the first models had been captured from an honourably defeated foe. (The "bearskin" worn by several British regiments was captured from one of Napoleon's proudest units.) In this manner the British Army sword of the 19th Century became—with certain units—much like the curved French hanger. Cavalry units liked a longer curved sabre, with the addition of the pointed spear tip. On a long straight charge the out-thrust point offered some of the advantages of the spear itself, although thrusting it too deeply into a victim was known to be a sure way to lose such a weapon, if not to unseat the rider as well. At the Battle of Balaklava some mathematical-minded Britons inspected more than a thousand Russian dead after a cavalry charge. They reported that only two of the dead died from sabre wounds. The remainder were victims of cannons and muskets. Although the gaudy pageantry of the cavalry squadrons with their plumes and pennons continued another forty years, the handwriting was on the wall. In Africa, India and in China, British officers were showing great interest in the new revolving pistol made famous on the frontier of North America. Pistol duelling had long been a sport: now the repeating pistol seemed to promise much to the young gentleman de fending Her Majesty's Empire on many a heathen frontier. By 1902 even the British Navy had made pistols, rather than swords, the approved weapon for officers' combat equipment. The final pattern sword was not unlike that of 1800: a straight Wilkinson blade, with spear point, about 31 inches in length. Highland units and certain other groups maintained their privilege of wearing the claymore or similar pattern. Cavalry sabres continued in use with mounted units. Most British "soldiers of the Queen" knew only two types of sword. One was the type which fractured and broke at the first hard blow in battle. The other was the sword which merely bent. The latter was preferred, since it gave the gallant redcoat an opportunity to bend his blade straight over one knee and resume his struggles. British Army swords were generally so inferior in quality that an outbreak of criticism in the House of Commons resulted in stern measures to ensure better merchandise from future contractors. These "proof-tests" are still carried out today by reputable swordsmiths. The notion still persists among certain young officers that a sword of good quality should be capable of bending almost double. Many a broken sword of good quality has resulted from this misconception. Proof-tested swords must merely be capable of snapping promptly back to a true position if deflected five inches at the tip from the straight position. Other tests place a vertical load of 30 or 32 pounds on the tip, which must then return to centre when bent one inch in either direction. The tests also includes striking an oak block with the front, back and sides of the blade to check on hilt fastening and other accoutrements. Swords which have been properly tested in England bear an inlaid brass stud below the hilt, dimpled with a blow from the tester's hammer.

"Made in Germany"

Although there are many famous swordsmiths still in business in England, it must be stated that almost every respectable blade the past two centuries has be made of German steel from Solingen. Solingen blades in all forms are still a major export from this region. Traditionally, the steel blank is 17 inches long, an inch and a quarter wide and a half an inch thick when it comes to the swordsmith's hands. This is heated, hammered under a machine hammer, reheated and drawn out until it is a yard in length. Grooves or "fullers" are formed in each side on a special roller. The upper end of the blade is then shaped into a "tang", ready to receive the hilt. The other end is rough shaped into a point. Next the temper is applied by heating in molten lead and chilling in cold oil until the steel approaches brittleness. Then the cutting edge and pointed tipped end are ground sharp, and the blank is polished. The tang must now be heated and softened so that it can be pierced for the hilt. At this point the blank blade, without handle, hilt or adornment of any type, is shipped to England where it is finished by one of the established firms of swordsmiths. The "sword-cutler" supervises the general assembly, aided by such tradesmen as the "handle-binder" and the "hilter". The final blade is measured and provided with a scabbard. The appropriate ornamentation is etched on the blade, not excepting, of course, the name of the British firm which "made" the final weapon.

Typical Blank Blade as made by SolingenTypical Blank Blade as made by Solingen

Although Birmingham has produced many respectable blades, it can be assumed that almost all military swords of the past century, regardless of trademark, are made from Solingen blanks. The Wilkinson sword, usually regarded as the best, is no exception.

How to Look at a Sword

The "feel" and balance of a sword should be the first criterion of its worth if one is a skilled swordsman. The proof- mark verifies that it has the suppleness and strength needed for violent combat. However, most of us are not swordsmen, and can be satisfied if a sword is merely of fine workmenship. Here are some points to look for: Serial Number: Wilkinson blades of good quality have been numbered in sequence for over a century. This number is found on the back of the blade, not many inches from the hilt. Etching: The adornment of the upper part of the blade is achieved by dulling the polished metal with nitric acid, except where the surface is concealed by a design. Later this design appears in bright lines against the dulled background. In older swords the design was applied free-hand with a type of cement- pencil. Modern etchers use machine-cut transfers. The latter method produces flawless, symmetrical patterns. However, some connoisseurs prefer the imperfect free-hand designs. In general, there are wide differences between the quality of etching on otherwise identical swords, but it can be said that the more detailed, elaborate and perfect the design, the better the sword. Royal Cyphers: The best clue to a sword's age may be found in the Royal Cypher which appears on most swords since George I began the custom in 1725. The cypher is traditionally on the reverse side of the sword, i.e. the side nearest the owner's face as he salutes. The sword-cutler's name is usually just below this. According to dubious legend, this arrangement helps, on ceremonial occasions, to remind an officer of his duty to the sovereign—and his debts to his tailor! Other Insignia: Army insignia (or in the Navy a crown and anchor) are etched on the obverse side of the sword, so that they display to the inspecting officer saluted the identify of the bearer's service. Below this insignia is usually a vacant space, surrounded with a garland of oak leaves or flowers. This space has in various periods been used for the owner's name, or for some inscription or motto. (Many valued swords are presented to commemorate happy occasions.) It appears to be common usage, however, to leave this space vacant if an officer has purchased his own sword, and to place his name on the scabbard instead, possibly to aid in identifying the owner without running the risk of drawing the weapon inside a mess. Stars and Dots: Some better swords of fighting quality show a star or dot about one-third down the blade from the hilt. This marks the centre of gravity of the weapon. In parrying a blow, it should be taken at this point to avoid a stinging sensation in the palms. A second dot, about one third the way from the point marks the "percussion" point, where blows should be delivered. British Army swords adopted a gilt lion's head pommel in 1795, but dropped this in 1822. This feature, however, remains on British naval swords. Military and naval swords used a plain "stirrup" hilt (shaped like the letter "D") until 1829 when the modern "half basket" hilt was introduced. The wooden grip was encased in ivory on most swords of 1800. This was later replaced with rough shark- skin, either white or black. The hinged flap on the hilt was introduced in Army swords in 1822 and in the Navy in 1829. The locking stud was not added until 1880. Field marshals adopted a scimitar-shaped sword about 1835, fitted with a "mameluke" hilt. Swords were worn originally on diagonal shoulder straps, due to their weight. Sword belts, fitted with a frog or two slings, became common after 1856, although many regiments had introduced them by 1832. Military swords have generally become longer since 1800, possibly due to the greater stature of modern men. Fighting swords measured about 25 inches long, and about 1\9B inches across. By 1880 the standard length was 31 5/8 inches long by one inch in width. Typical swords of today are 32 inches long by 7/8 inches wide. Sword length should suit the wearer's height.

Faible portion of blade"Faible" portion of blade

Some Sword-Cutlers of Recent Times

Many other names than those above may be encountered on swords of the past fifty years, but in general it can be assumed that all such cutlers were basically tailors or military outfitters who purchased Solingen blades and sub-contracted among the London tradesmen to have these assembled and equipped under their local name.

Royal Cyphers

George I, George II and George III all used the same cypher—an entwined "GR". George IV used simply the letter "G" with numerals "IV" below it. Victoria used the familiar entwined "VR". Edward VII used a large letter "E" with the numerals "VII" encircled by the lower loop of the "E". George V used the letters "GR" with a smaller "V" centred between. Edward VIII used the letters "ER" with "VIII" centred between. Elizabeth II uses the familiar "ER" with a small "II" between.

Occasions on which Swords Are Worn

The sword is part of a military full dress in the same sense that medals are. Traditionally, an officer wore both for all formal occasions, such as calling on his superiors, or representing his service at any public ceremony. In diplomatic protocol, it is disrespectful for a military officer to call officially on a foreign potentate in peacetime without being properly dressed with sword and medals. It may be noted, in passing, that the United States Navy, due to its numerous contacts aborad in the past decade, has found it advisable to reintroduce the sword and full-dress uniforms as a compliment to foreign dignitaries. Officers should, of course, carry either swords or pistols on all occasions when they command men bearing arms. However, when the occasion calls for ceremonial, rather than combat equipment, the sword is obviously correct.

Saluting with the Sword

There are two schools of thought on the origin of the salute with the sword, concerning the significance of the "Recover" position. One view is that this comes from the act of kissing the crucifix hilt to verify the sincerity and loyalty of the saluting warrior. The other theory is that this derives from the Oriental custom of shading the eyes in the "dazzling" presence of superiors. Both schools of thought agree that the act of lowering the sword tip is a universal and ancient token of submission, and hence of loyalty to a senior.

Courts Martial

The custom at the end of a court martial, prior to announcing the Court's judgment, is to place the accused officer's sword on the table. If the point lies toward him, the verdict is guilty. The hilt toward him means that a "not guilty" verdict has been reached. This corresponds to the ancient practice, after a trial, of the executioner marching ahead of the prisoner on his return from the Court to his cell. If the headsman carried his axe with the blade towards the prisoner, by-standers knew that another head would shortly roll.

Mess Etiquette

Officers' Messes from time immorial have opposed the drawing of blades within their precincts, for the obvious reason that duelling and fighting, particularly after drinking and gambling, have deprived British sovereigns of many young gentlemen's services prematurely. This may possibly be at the root of the modern practice of leaving one's belt and stick in the ante-room, although it is just as likely that this began as an optional privilege in the interests of comfort in the Mess. Various Messes, of course, have different rules covering this subject. However, it is apparently still correct, unless specifically prohibited, to wear a sword inside a Mess: the rules of ancient etiquette merely prohibit the drawing of such a weapon from its scabbard.

Care of Swords

Good swords require virtually no maintenance. The polished steel blade should remain bright for many years if kept clean. (Wedding cake is notorious for leaving permanent stains, particularly on borrowed blades!) A thin film of vaseline is recommended by most authorities when a sword is not in use. This should, of course, be removed before appearing on a ceremonial occasion. The same is true for other bright metal fittings on the hilt, and for metal scabbards. In general, abrasive cleaning materials should never be necessary, particularly if the metal is promptly wiped clean after each use, especially in wet weather. Gilded fittings should be left severely alone, except for occasional dusting. Leather sword knots and scabbards will benefit about once a year from a cautious application of saddle soap to keep them from drying out. Otherwise, they should require nothing more than an occasional wiping with a dry, soft cloth. Sword knots of any type should be replaced when they become shabby, since they often mar the appearance of an otherwise fine weapon. Scabbards, too, can be replaced: they rarely last as long as the sword. Most damage to swords occurs from accidents when they are not in use. The best protection is keep sword and scabbard in a soft chamois cover, or in a leather case, or both. This protects metal surfaces and sword knot from the assaults of small children, movers and other service hazards. Certain officers make a practice of displaying their swords on the wall like a museum piece. This may not be a breach of etiquette, and certainly shows a regard for the weapon. However, it exposes the sword to the ravages of domestic life, dust, smoke, fumes, moisture, and interior decorators, and generally produces in a short time the antique finish of a 16th century collector's items.

The Modern is not Vulgar

Swordsmen have never admired weapons solely for great age or history. Like riflemen, they normally look to newer weapons for precision, strength, lightness and accuracy. Most famous soldiers have owned several fine swords, many of them gifts from admirers. Only the Japanese have believed that ancestral weapons provided secret sources of courage and skill. So today, as in the past, the well turned-out officer does not carry a battered family heirloom at his side if he can afford a better one. such relics have their place—over the family hearth!

elipsis graphic

Main Sources

Follow The Regimental Rogue on facebook.