Object Title

Pattern 1803 Flank Officer’s Sword

Development

The development of the Pattern 1803 Flank Officer's sword goes back to the late 18th century, when light infantry units were formed in the British Army. The grenadiers and light companies of a battalion were considered the elite of these infantry regiments, and could be detached and deployed separately as skirmishers. Grenadiers were the senior company of any infantry battalion and would typically lead an assault. When the battalion was deployed in line, the grenadier and light companies were deployed on the right and left flanks respectively, and both companies could be could be called upon to operate in looser formations and semi-independently.

The added element of risk associated with detached skirmishing in looser formations meant that officers of light infantry needed a more robust fighting sword. By 1799, sufficient numbers of officers of these regiments and companies were using sabres rather than the more ornamental Pattern 1796 Infantry Officer’s sword, enough for them to be given official leave to wear sabres instead. In addition to being a more practical weapon, these sabres could be more easily hitched up, as they were suspended on slings rather than the shoulder belt and frog of the Pattern 1796 Infantry Officer's sword. This ensured that the weapon did not inhibit movement when skirmishing over broken ground.

This need for a more robust weapon was formally acknowledged by the King in 1803, when he approved 'a Pattern Sword for the Officers of Grenadiers and Light Infantry'. Despite this regulation there exists a great deal of variety in 1803 Pattern swords. The most common form has a slotted hilt with the royal cypher (GR) on the knuckle-guard, which joins the head of the backpiece at a lion's head pommel. The blade is commonly quite broad for an infantry sword, with a single fuller and a hatchet point. In terms of general form, the sword is similar to the curved sabres of the light cavalry, and the blade is comparable to a slighter version of the 1796 Light Cavalry sword.

This similarity was perhaps deliberate, as at this time light infantry across Europe were increasingly taking their military stylings from their light cavalry counterparts. Both light infantry and cavalry considered themselves an elite, and were keen to distinguish themselves from their comrades in the line through different uniform and equipment. However, light infantry officers neither needed such a robust sword (as it would not have to withstand the stress of mounted combat) nor did they need a steel scabbard to protect the sword from bumps and falls when mounted. As such, the 1803 usually had a much thinner back and was carried in a lighter leather scabbard.

There were three other common blade types found on 1803 hilts. These included a  narrower, straighter, flat-bladed version, which was double-edged for the final portion and ended in a spear point.  There was also a shorter, thicker-bladed version with a double fuller blade, which again ended in a spear point – closer to a hanger of the 18th century in terms of blade proportions. The third had a heavily curved narrow blade, almost crescentic in shape, without a fuller and it usually ended in a spear point, despite its pronounced curve. This last type closely resembles the blade form of the Persian Shamshir.


Use and Effect

The sword was approved for both flank officers of line infantry regiments as well as those few regiments in the British Army designated as light infantry. In addition to this, regimental officers (Majors, Lieutenant-Colonels and Colonels) were permitted to carry the sword.

In some cases the swords can be identified by the hilt, with the light infantry bugle or flaming grenade being incorporated in the guard around the cypher. However the majority of 1803 swords lack this distinction.

Although regiments of designated light infantry were authorised to carry the sword, these regiments often adopted swords unique to their unit, which were broadly modelled on the Pattern 1803.

In terms of combat use, the 1803 seems to have had mixed success. At the storming of Ciudad Rodgrigo in 1812, Lieutenant Smith of the light company of the 77th foot 'hewed and slashed his way through the enemy' before being fatally wounded. The reference to cutting perhaps suggests that Smith had the more standard slightly curved blade form

Ensign Frank, of the 2nd Light Battalion of the King's German Legion, saved his comrade Lieutenant Graeme in a tightly fought combat in a barn at La Haye Sainte. Graeme was about to be shot by a French soldier when Frank 'stabbed him through the mouth and out through his neck; he fell immediately'. The fact Frank was able to thrust with his sword makes it probable he possessed one of the straighter and more slender-bladed spear-pointed 1803 swords.

However, evidence clearly suggests that the heavily curved crescentic blade, a regimental pattern which was carried by officers of the 95th Rifles, was unsuitable for combat. Lieutenant John Kincaid of the 95th describes a combat between his enormous comrade, 2nd Lieutenant Saunders, and a French infantry officer:

'The Frenchman held in his hands which was well calculated to bring all sizes upon a level -  a good small sword – but as he had forgotten to put on his spectacles, his first (and last) thrust passed by the body a lodged in the highlander's left arm. Saunder's blood was now up (as well as down) and with our then small regulation half-moon sabre, better calculated to shave a ladies maid than a Frenchman's head, he made it descend on the pericranium of his unfortunate adversary with a force that snapped it at the hilt. His next dash was with his fist (and the hilt in it), smack in his adversary's face, which sent him to the earth; and though I grieve to record it, yet as the truth must be told, I fear me that the chivalrous Frenchman died an ignominious death, viz. by a kick. But where one's life is at stake, we must not be too particular.'

The 1803 sword remained in service until 1822, when a very slightly curved, cut-and-thrust bladed sword with a pipe back was introduced for all British infantry officers. Apart from a brass or steel hilt, there was no difference in subsequent swords for officers of line regiments or light infantry and rifles regiments.

Statistics

Blade length 817 mm (32 3/16 in)
Country of manufacture Britain
Date entered service 1803
Overall length 943 mm (37 2/16 in)
Weight 0.779 kg (1.717 lb)

Author

Henry Yallop