1796 saw the introduction of new patterns of sword for both the light and heavy British cavalry. The 1796s were the first successful official patterns of sword used by British cavalry. Today’s blog looks at the 1796 Light cavalry sabre. I may write something in the future about the 1796 heavy cavalry sabre but today I will confine my comments to the light cavalry’s weapon. “1796” in the following passages should be taken to refer to the light cavalry weapon.
Light cavalry in the Napoleonic era were tasked with skirmishing, scouting, foraging and raiding. In the British army light cavalry were designated as either hussars or light dragoons. After the Napoleonic war Britain raised a number of lancer regiments who were also classed as light cavalry.
In previous blogs I have mentioned that there was a long running dispute as to whether cavalry sabres should primarily be designed for thrusting or cutting. The cuirassier sword, 1908 sabre and M1913 Patton Saber are examples thrusting sabres. The 1796 light cavalry sabre can be taken as one of the seminal examples of cutting sabres.
The 1796 light cavalry sabre was the creation of the British officer John Gaspard Le Marchant and was to be the standard weapon of British light cavalry for much of the Napoleonic wars. The 1796 was officially replaced during the 1820s, although some Yeomanry regiments are known to have been using it as late as 1860.
In the further corners of the Empire the 1796 seems to have served longer. Le Marchant was inspired by eastern weapons when designing the 1796 and many Indian fighting men took to the weapon with enthusiasm. Some 1796 blades are known to have been refurbished with tulwar-syle hilts. Victorian writers describe Indian soldiers performing fearsome feats of cutting with “old sabres” and many of these were 1796s. One unit of Indian horsemen would wear shields across their backs and lie along their horses’ necks. As the enemy’s sword harmlessly hit the shield they would make a backhand slash at him as he galloped past. These horsemen replaced their sabre’s metal scabbards with wooden sheathes, having found that the metal items tended to blunt the cutting edge.
“The sword-blades they had were chiefly old dragoon blades cast from our service (the 1796). The men had mounted them after their own fashion. The hilt and handle, both of metal, small in the grip, rather flat, not round like ours where the edge seldom falls true; they had an edge like a razor from heel to point, were worn in wooden scabbards, a short single sling held them to the waist belt, from which a strap passed through the hilt to a button in front, to keep the sword steady and prevent it from flying out of the scabbard.
The Swords are never drawn except in action.”
Several other nations copied the 1796, most notably the Prussians as the 1811 “Blücher” sabre. The US Dragoons used a copy of the 1796. Large numbers of swords were exported to the USA during the war between the states and some of these were probably 1796s or Blüchers. British light infantry also seem to have taken a liking to the 1796. Rifle, Grenadier and Light Infantry company officers took to using curved swords and some of these may have been 1796s. The official curved sword that was eventually adopted for these units has a blade that looks identical to the 1796, although the pattern 1803 infantry sabre was a little shorter and lighter at 30-31½" x 1 3/8" -1 ½" and 1 lb 15oz.
The blade of the 1796 light cavalry sabre was 32.5-33" x 1.5” x 3/8", single edged except for the last 10" which was double edged and hatchet pointed. The guard was 4.75" with 4" long grip area and weight was 2lb 2oz. The guard is a very simple “stirrup” knucklebow.
Handling a 1796 gives me a new found respect and insight into those hussars and light dragoons of centuries past. The 1796 has its weight towards the point and the grip needs to be grasped quite firmly if it is not going to run away from you. If you actually try swinging the thing around you find it has a lot of momentum so keeping the weapon under control and in hand requires considerable wrist and forearm strength. The 1796 is supposed to be manipulated by movement of the wrist and shoulder rather than the elbow. Light cavalry must have spent many hours of practice and exercise to master this weapon.
As a weapon for fighting on foot, opinions vary. Some claim it is a little clumsy, others claim it is perfectly balanced. I am probably more inclined to the former opinion, but might feel differently if I had put in the months of exercise needed to handle it with more confidence. In fairness, foot combat is not what it was designed for. It is intended to defend a rider and his horse and to fight from the saddle against both mounted and unmounted enemies.
The debate on whether the cavalry should have a sword primarily designed for thrusting or slashing raged through the 19th century. Napoleonic French favoured the point, and it is claimed that the thrusts from French horsemen killed more men than the slashing of British Hussars. Fatally wounding someone and eliminating them from a fight are not actually the same thing, however. This is best illustrated by two contemporary accounts:
“We always thrust with the point of our sabres, whereas they always cut with their blade which was three inches wide. Consequently, out of every twenty blows aimed by them, nineteen missed. If, however, the edge of the blade found its mark only once, it was a terrible blow, and it was not unusual to and arm cut clean from the body.”
Captain Charles Parquin, “Chassaurs à Cheval of the Imperial Guard”
from Charles Parquin, Military Memoires, ed (1969)
p56 The World Encyclopaedia of Swords and Sabres. Harvey J S Withers.
“Just then a French officer stooping over the body of one of his countrymen, who dropped the instant on his horse's neck, delivered a thrust at poor Harry Wilson's body; and delivered it effectually. I firmly believe that Wilson died on the instant yet, though he felt the sword in its progress, he, with characteristic self-command, kept his eye on the enemy in his front; and, raising himself in his stirrups, let fall upon the Frenchman's head such a blow, that brass and skull parted before it, and the man's head was cloven asunder to the chin. It was the most tremendous blow I ever beheld struck; and both he who gave, and his opponent who received it, dropped dead together. 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, not so much as a dint being left on either side of it…..It is worthy of remark, that the French cavalry, in nine cases out of ten, make use of the point, whereas we strike with the edge, which is, in my humble opinion, far more effective. But, however this may be, of one fact I am quite sure, that is as far as appearances can be said to operate in rendering men timid, or the reverse, the wounded among the French were more revolting than the wounded among ourselves. It is but candid to add, that the proportion of severely wounded was pretty equal on both sides;”
George Farmer. 11th Regiment of Light Dragoons
The Light Dragoon (Ed. George Gleig,, London, 1844) Vol. I, Ch. 4.
The French had a very healthy respect of the effects of 1796. It could cleave off limbs and inflict other ghastly wounds, and one can’t overlook the psychological effects this had. One of the functions of light cavalry is to fall upon routed foot, and my personal feeling is that the hussar’s slashing sabre was far more likely to keep a foe panicked than any lance or thrusting sword. Notably, the instruction manual written for the sabre by Le Marchant illustrates six cuts with the head as the target of choice.
After the Napoleonic wars there were attempts to design a common sword for both heavy and light cavalry. Nearly all of these prior to the 1908 were slightly curved single edged weapons with double edged spear points. This is a form used for many successful swords over the centuries but in practice the British issued weapons never seemed to be satisfactory, there being frequent problems with metallurgy, construction, weight etc. One officer observed that a charge he saw would have inflicted more damage if the horsemen had been wielding stout sticks! Nobody appears to have pursued this alternate approach –if they had we may have seen a return of the horseman’s hammer!