The Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry Sword was adopted due to the failings of its predecessor, the 1788 Pattern. Along with its light cavalry counterpart, the 1796 Pattern Heavy Cavalry Sword was the first standardised sword used by each arm of the British cavalry.
The Board of Cavalry General Officers found that the sword was: 'from long and repeated experience, to be unmanageable, owing to the length of the blade and the weight of the hilt'.
In 1796 the new heavy cavalry sword was adopted, rather than developed, as unlike the light cavalry sword of the same year it was not a new design. Whereas the British cavalry officer John Gaspard Le Marchant had developed an entirely new sword for the light cavalry, he simply proposed an almost identical copy of the sword currently in Austrian service for the heavy cavalry, the Dragoon Pallasch of 1769. This was a sword he had seen used to good effect by the Austrian cavalry during the Flanders campaign (1794-96). However it is likely that its successful use can be attributed to the Austrians' high levels of training and superior levels of swordsmanship, rather than the sword itself.
Use and Effect
Despite being a cutting sword - with a broad, single-edged blade - the straightness of the blade meant the sword was not optimised for cutting, as it could not produce the slicing effect of a curved blade. Additionally, the hatchet point made thrusting all but impossible. However, when compared with its predecessor - the 1788 Pattern sword - the 1796 heavy cavalry sword was much better balanced and more manoeuvrable, especially for the cutting-based system that Le Marchant devised in his Rules and Regulations For The Sword Exercise Of The Cavalry.
Despite problems with its design, the sword could be used to fearsome effect, especially by the typically larger men employed as heavy cavalry. Both of the French Eagles (regimental standards) taken at Waterloo were secured by men wielding the 1796 Heavy Cavalry sword, however each used it in quite a different way.
Sergeant Ewart of the 2nd (Royal North British) Dragoons (Scots Greys) exclusively employed cuts, as prescribed in the training manual:
'The officer who carried it [the Eagle of the 45th Regiment of Line Infantry] and I had a short contest for it; he thrust for my groin, I parried it off and cut him through the head; in a short time after whilst contriving how to carry the eagle and follow my regiment I heard a lancer coming behind me; I wheeled round to face him and in the act of doing so I he threw his lance at me which I threw off to my right with my sword and cut from the chin upwards through the teeth. His lance merely grazed the skin on my right side which bled a good deal but was well very soon. I was next attacked by a foot soldier who after firing at me, charged me with the bayonet; I parried it and cut him down through the head; this finished the contest for the eagle which I was ordered by General Ponsonby to carry to the rear.'
Despite his method, it is thought that Ewart carried one of the swords that had had its hatchet point converted into a spear point; a process that Private Smithies of the 1st (Royal) Dragoons describes as happening in the days before the battle. Captain Clarke of the same regiment clearly had his sword so ground as he took the Eagle of the 105th Regiment of Line Infantry in the same charge by thrusting with the point: 'On reaching it [the Eagle], I ran my sword into the Officers right side a little above the hip'.
These spear-pointed swords are naturally shorter than the unmodified versions and also have slightly less mass for cutting. Even without the hatchet point the sword did not have a blade profile, being broad and single edged, for good penetration. However, the option of being able to use the point, especially when facing armoured cuirassiers - as the British were for the first time at Waterloo - made the modified sword a more versatile weapon.