Object Title

Pattern 1796 Light Cavalry sword

Development

The Pattern 1796 Light Cavalry sword, along with its heavy cavalry counterpart, was only the second standardised sword of the British cavalry. Prior to 1788, regiment colonels were permitted to purchase whatever swords they saw fit for their troops, paid for from a bulk allowance they drew from the War Office. This meant that for most of the 18th century the British cavalry were furnished with swords of varying quality and suitability.

In 1787 a Board of General Officers was established to consider, among other items of equipment, standardised swords for the British cavalry. All regiments were required to submit a sample of the sword currently issued to their troopers for assessment by the committee.

The resulting sword for the light cavalry (at the time all designated light dragoons) was a hybrid design, based on the simple stirrup-hilted straight sword that had been used by some British light cavalry regiments for 30 years previously, and the curved Hungarian hussar sabre. Its narrow 36-inch-long blade was spear pointed and only very slightly curved. Although this was presumably an attempt to provide a compromise between a thrusting and cutting weapon, this weakened the swords performance at each function. The blade was neither broad nor curved enough to provide a powerful, slicing cut, and the slight curvature meant that attacks with the point were difficult to aim, would penetrate less easily, and would be harder to withdraw. The long grip encourages a thrusting hand position, whereas this extra length could promote slippage when attempting to cut. Unlike the models of the higher quality officers, the overall balance of the weapon was particularly poor in troopers' models.

The Pattern 1788 sword's only real test was against the Revolutionary French in the unsuccessful Flanders expedition of 1793-95. During this abortive campaign, Major John Gaspard le Marchant - a British cavalry officer of the16th Light Dragoons - was able to use his practical experience in the field to supplement his previous studies on cavalry swords. In 1789, whilst a Cornet in the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, he had written Remarks on the Construction of Swords Adapted to the Use of Cavalry. The continuation of his work during and after the Flanders campaign contributed to the decision to replace the Pattern 1788 sword, after only six years of service and one foreign campaign.

When he returned to England in 1795, Le Marchant set about developing the sword his research and practical experience suggested would be of best use to the cavalry. In order to convert his ideas into reality, he worked with the Birmingham sword cutler Henry Osborne. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering his previous writings on the suitability of Hungarian and Turkish swords and close working relationship with the Austrian cavalry in Flanders, the light cavalry sword first produced by Osborne resembled a hussar-style sabre, with a 31.5 in curved, single-edged blade and stirrup hilt. After being favourably received in trials, the sword was approved.

In a royal warrant issued in June 1796, proclaiming the required specification of the new sword, the length had increased 'from 32 and a half, to 33 inches, measur'd in a straight line from the Hilt to the Point'.

The Pattern 1796 Light Cavalry sword is a weapon designed primarily for cutting, as shown by the form of the blade. These swords curve as much as 2.25 in from the straight line, giving them a level of curve closer to the cutting swords of Indian talwar or the Hungarian hussar sabre, rather than the almost straight blades that were to be classified as the cut-and-thrust types of later European cavalry. A sufficiently curved blade can produce a slicing effect, rather than the hacking or chopping effect of a straight sword, making cuts more powerful with a similar weight of sword, and amount of effort delivered.

To increase this cleaving effect, the blade of these swords was narrowest in the middle section, and broadest at the tip - adding extra mass and therefore power to the final, unfullered 6 in of the blade. Points of balance are often as much as 7 in down the blade, extremely far forward on a sword blade of this length, again assisting with a powerful cutting blow.

Use and Effect

Le Marchant wasn't just keen produce the correct type of sword, he also wished to ensure that swords were properly used by the British cavalry. Whilst observing his Austrian allies in the Flanders campaign, he paid particular attention 'to the mode of training' of the Austrian cavalry in 'the use of the sabre, in which their superiority over us [the British] is incredible'.

Drawing on his study of the Austrian methods, and learning from an Austrian sergeant who he had taken lessons from in the field, Le Marchant devised the first standardised text for the British cavalry on the use of the sword. This took the form of the 1796 Rules and Regulations for the Sword Exercise of the Cavalry, which in that year was approved by King George III as the compulsory training system for all British cavalry.

In the work Le Marchant laid out six cuts and eight parries that would form the foundation of the swordplay of the British cavalry. All movements against cavalry were to be carried with a straight arm, so as not to expose the bent elbow to a disabling blow, which would immediately make a cavalryman no longer combat effective. This need for uninhibited wrist and finger movements was supported by the hilt design. Devoid of any but the simplest knuckle-guard, the sword is manoeuvrable in the hand, and grip positions can be altered, albeit at the loss of a more enclosed and protective guard. The short grips ensures a secure hold when cutting, but the rounded 'pommel' means that, despite the blades curve, an effective pointing grip could also be used.

Despite the sword being primarily designed for cutting, the weapon could also be called upon to deliver a fatal thrust when required. Although the Regulations suggested such attacks should be limited to the pursuit, given the inherent risk of an opponent parrying the thrust and then 'the adversary blades gets within your guard', the point of the 1796 Light Cavalry sword could also be used in the melee.

At Waterloo, Sergeant John Taylor of the 18th Hussars found his blows against a French cuirassier's helmet to be ineffective, with his opponent calling out 'Ha-Ha' in derision and proceeding to continue to attack the sergeant unaffected. Taylor then thrust the tip of his sword through the mouth of the laughing cuirassier who fell dead. It was then Taylor's turn to call out 'Ha-Ha'.

However it was when the sword was used to cut that it was most adept. Accounts from soldiers of the light cavalry regiments, who would go on to fight at Waterloo, abound with the fatal cleaving power of the sword. Private Farmer of the 11th Light Dragoons described an occasion when even the metal helmets of heavy cavalry could not always be relied upon to protect its wearer against the sword. He was an eyewitness to a combat between a French colonel of dragoons and a comrade of the 11th.

'…raising himself in his stirrups [he] let fall upon the Frenchman's head such a blow, that brass and skull parted before it, and the man's head was clove asunder to the chin. The brass helmet was afterwards examined by order of a French officer, who, as well as myself, was astonished at the exploit; and the cut was found to be as clean as if the sword had gone through a turnip [the recommended target for practice in the Le Marchant's Rules & Regulations], not so much as a dint being left on either side of it.'

Such remarks were not limited to British sources. The sword was also used by the Light Cavalry of King's German Legion; Hanoverian exiles that fought against Napoleon throughout the Peninsular War and at Waterloo. Following a combat with French cavalry at Salamanca, Lieutenant Heise (of the 3rd KGL Hussars) reported in great detail of the sword's effectiveness at cutting:

'He saw one Frenchman who had had the whole of his head cut off horizontally above the eyes with one blow, and many other with heads split in two. He also noticed one man who rode by with outstretched arms who had received a diagonal blow across his face which had cut his mouth right open so that his jaw, as far back as the tongue, hung down over his chest, and you could see his gullet.'

The French who faced the 1796 Light Cavalry sword knew of the potential force of its cutting power. Captain Parquin of the Chasseurs à Cheval of the Imperial Guard remarked that although most of the cuts with the sword missed, if 'the edge of the blade found its mark only once, it was a terrible blow, and it was not unusual to see an arm cut clean from the body.'

It was not, however, only British soldiers or those in British service that made use of the sword of Le Marchant's design. In addition to all 14 regiments of British and KGL light cavalry at Waterloo who were using the sword, the troops of all five regiments of the Dutch-Belgian light cavalry were also armed with the British light cavalry sword. Furthermore, the sword was widely exported to Prussia during its War of Freedom (1812-15) with France. Over 16,000 Pattern 1796 Light Cavalry swords were sent to Prussia over this period, first issued to their regiments of hussars and then also to their dragoons. The fact that the cuirassiers - the only Prussian cavalry type not issued with the 1796 Light Cavalry sword - were not involved in the Waterloo campaign and that Prussian production of their own version of the 1796 sword began in 1814, would suggest that the majority of Prussian cavalrymen during the 100 Days campaign would have also been armed with this sword.

When it is considered that the Anglo-Dutch light cavalry made up approximately 75% of the Allied horse on the field at Waterloo, it could be said that this sword was the most common sword in Allied service at the battle. Furthermore, given the fact that the French cavalry were split evenly between heavy and light, each with their differing swords, it is more than likely that Le Marchant's design was the most used sword of the battle. The arrival of the Prussians in the final stages of the battle, whose cavalry were armed in the vast majority of cases with the 1796 Light Cavalry sword, would have only increased the numbers of the sword in use on the field.

Statistics

Blade length 830 cm
Country of manufacture Britain
Date entered service 1796
Overall length 949 cm
Weight scabbard 1.098 kg
Weight sword 944 g

Author

Henry Yallop