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Heavy Cavalry sword

The Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry sword is one of the most recognisable and, to the British at least, iconic swords of the Napoleonic period. The sword was used by all regiments of British heavy cavalry (Life Guards, Royal Horse Guards, Dragoon Guards and Dragoons) throughout the Peninsular War (1807-14) and during the Waterloo campaign. In this blog post, we look at the development of the sword. 

Cavalry Trooper’s sword and scabbard

Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry Trooper’s sword and scabbard

Although for ever associated with Waterloo due to the swords use in the massed charge of the British heavy cavalry of the Household and Union brigades, Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry sword was also used by other countries. As part of supporting allied nations warring against the French, Britain exported a huge amount of weapons to its allies over the course of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Amongst these were Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry swords, which were used by both Portuguese and Swedish cavalry against the French.

Red coated cavalry on grey and white horse charge with swords raised

‘Scotland for Ever!’ by Lady Butler, with the 1796 Heavy Cavalry Sword pictured. © Leeds Art Gallery.

Above you can see the 1796 Heavy Cavalry sword pictured in Lady Elizabeth Butler’s iconic ‘Scotland for Ever!’, which captures the charge of the Scot Greys. The painting currently features in the Royal Armouries’ Waterloo exhibition ‘The Art of Battle’, alongside other stunning arms, armour and art from the battlefield. To find out more about the painting and work of Lady Butler, please read more here.

Development

The Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry sword was adopted due to the failings of its predecessor, the 1788 pattern sword. This first sword was found by a Board of Cavalry General Officers “from long and repeated experience”, to be “unmanageable, owing to the length of the blade and the weight of the hilt”.

The new heavy cavalry sword was adopted rather than developed in 1796, as unlike the light cavalry sword of the same year, it was not a new design. Whereas for the light cavalry the British cavalry officer John Gaspard Le Marchant had developed an entirely new sword, for the heavies he simply proposed an almost identical copy of the sword currently in Austrian service, the Dragoon Pallasch of 1769. This pallasch 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 it was due to the Austrians’ high levels of training and superior levels of swordsmanship that the sword was used successfully, rather than due to the sword itself.

Use and Effect

Despite being a cutting sword, with a broad, single edged blade, the straight 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, the 1796 heavy cavalry sword was much better balanced and manoeuvrable, especially for the cutting based combat system that the British cavalry were taught.

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 we 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 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. …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 Officer’s right side a little above the hip’.

Heavy Cavalry sword

A spear pointed Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry Trooper’s sword of the 1st (Royal) Dragoons.

Modified tip of a sword compared to the original

Blades with modified spear (left) and original hatchet point (right)

These spear pointed swords are 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.

Hilt and blade of cavalry sword shown edged on

A spear pointed Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry Trooper’s sword of the 1st (Royal) Dragoons.

The Royals were the regiment of British heavy cavalry which saw the most action during the Napoleonic Wars.

‘D’ Troop, which this sword is marked to, was led by Captain Methuen at the Battle of Waterloo. Captain Clark and Corporal Stiles of ‘G’ Troop took an Eagle from the French 105th  Regiment of Line Infantry during the charge of the Union Brigade.

Cartoon of trooper of the Royal Horse Guards, astride a black horse with a cavalry sword

The Royal Horse Guards were one of seven British cavalry regiments to use the sword at Waterloo

Below are two images of the Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry Trooper’s  sword associated with Corporal of Horse (Sergeant) John Shaw of the 2nd Life Guards. Shaw was a renowned prize fighter and is thought to have personally slain several French Cuirassiers during the charge of the Household Brigade.

Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry Trooper’s sword

Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry Trooper’s sword associated with Corporal of Horse (Sergeant) John Shaw of the 2nd Life Guards

close up shot of inscribed sword knuckle guard.

Inscription on the knuckleguard

Cartoon of three soldiers in sword combat on horseback

Shaw in combat with French Cuirassiers at Waterloo

Popular Culture

Of course one the most famous users of the Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry sword is a character of fiction – and one that would not have been issued with this type of sword. Bernhard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe, despite being an officer of the 95th Foot (Rifles), uses the sword throughout his adventures.  Cornwell has Sharpe carry the sword due to personal preference, with Sharpe favouring the  straight bladed heavy cavaly sword to the lighter, curved Pattern 1803 Flank Officer’s sword a Rifle officer would have more normally have carried.

Man dressed as a soldier, holding a sword in a defensive stance

Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe

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