The Navy Department Library
The Cutlass Carved its Niche in Our Navy's Annals
By Richard Meckel, JO2, USNR
US Naval Air Station, Olathe, Kansas
"Prepare to receive boarders!"
Up and over the sides of the enemy sloop swarmed the Yankee cutting-out party.
Their short-bladed cutlasses did not trip or hinder these boarders as they climbed, and in the deadly fighting, the wieldy weapons seldom fouled in rigging or wreckage. Dueling seamen swung the broad, heavy blades with skull-cleaving force even at close quarters on the slippery, congested decks.
First cousin to the longer, lighter cavalry saber, the naval cutlass was designed for sea-fighting as the saber was adapted to land-battles. Because boarding actions were fought on the crowded decks of small vessels amid tangles of shrouds and splintered spars and struggling shipmates and foemen, Jack Tar's blade had to be short for easy control, and heavy enough to provide its own momentum in slashing. (Unlike the cavalry trooper's trusty saber, Jack's cutlass did not have the weight of a galloping horse behind it!) The cutlass had a straight or slightly-curved blade designed both for cutting and thrusting. A large, enclosed guard shielded the swordsman's hand.
The cutlass issued to enlisted men of the Continental Navy and the United States Navy was a highly-specialized weapon which evolved slowly from the falchion, a medieval cutting-sword with a broad, slightly-curved, single-edged blade.
From about 1740 to 1780, the cutlass was a simple, sturdy sword with an imported blade and a crude wooden cylinder for a hilt. The single-edged blade was curved so slightly that it appeared straight at first glance. A colonial armorer named Richard Gridley made several of these weapons.
At the onset of the American Revolution, the cutlass had acquired its distinctive features, but American-made models were still crude. When possible, rebelling colonists captured and used the superior British cutlass, which had a straight, single-edged blade and a hilt of blackened iron. The grip was a hollow, forged-iron cylinder wrapped around a wooden core.
Cutlasses often were purchased from an individual swordmaker in small lots, as needed for single ships.
The young American Navy awarded early cutlass contracts to Nathan Starr, Lewis Prahl of Philadelphia, and Robert Dingie of New York. Only those made by Starr have survived.
The Navy's first contract with Starr was signed in 1799. This cutlass had a straight, one-edged blade 29 ½ inches long and 1 ½ inches wide at the hilt, with a narrow groove (called a fuller) on each side near the back edge, for balance. This weapon's overall length was 35 inches, and it had no scabbard. Many of these swords probably skewered Barbary pirates at Tripoli when Stephen Decatur and his volunteers burned the Philadelphiain 1804.
During the first decade of the 19th century, the cutlass had a flat, slightly-curved blade clipped like a Bowie knife at the point. Including the grips and wide guard, this sword was 32 ½ inches long and was greatly superior to earlier models.
In 1808, Commodore John Rodgers of the Brooklyn Navy Yard awarded Nathan Starr a contract for 2,000 cutlasses at $2.50 each. This weapon was 35 ¼ inches long with a single-edged, straight blade. The guard was made of iron, beaten to concavity and lacquered black. The grip was a maple cylinder protected from splitting by two metal rings (ferrules) clamped around the handle near its upper and lower ends. In the hands of New England seamen, these cutlasses felled scores of Britons during bloody boarding actions in the War of 1812, including the capture by HMS Shannonof James Lawrence's Chesapeake in 1813, and Wasp's victory over HMS Reindeer in 1814, one of the fiercest cutlass-fights in the annals of the sea.
Starr's 1816 contract called for 3,000 swords at $3.00 each. This model was like the 1808, but shorter. It was 31 ½ inches long, with a grooved, 26-inch blade. Caribbean corsairs got the point when American landing-parties carried these cutlasses ashore in island raids during the next ten years. These blades helped to clear the West Indies of buccaneers.
In 1826, Nathan Starr filled an order for 2,000 weapons at $4.25 per piece. This cutlass, 30 ¾ inches in length, possessed a curved blade with narrow fuller. With it came an iron scabbard, japanned black.
A radical change in design occurred in 1841 when the Navy gave a cutlass contract to the Ames Manufacturing Company. This seagoing snickersnee was a throwback to the short Roman broadsword. A heavy, unwieldy weapon, it had a straight, double-edged blade 21 inches long and 1 ¾ inches wide at the hilt. The guard was a broad strip of brass. The entire cutlass was 26 1/4 inches long, and it hung in a black leather sheath. This sword went ashore with American bluejackets at Vera Cruz and Tabasco during the Mexican War.
This broadsword wore out its welcome by 1860, when the Navy adopted a new design, patterned after the French naval cutlass. A superior weapon, this model became standard for the next 80 years. It had a sturdy, single-edged, slightly-curved blade. The wooden grips were covered with leather and were bound with brass wire. The pommel at the lower end of the handle was of brass, helmet-shaped.
This cutlass measured 32 inches, with a 26-inch blade 1 ½ inches wide at the hilt. It was wielded by Union and Confederate sailors in the American Civil War; was carried on US Navy ships in the Spanish-American War and in World War I; was issued aboard US Navy gunboats sailing Philippine coves and Chinese lakes and rivers from 1898 into the 1930's; and was still in use at the beginning of World War II.
Like its two-edged predecessor, the 1860 cutlass had a black leather scabbard and was made by Ames, whose cutlasses ruled for a century. Many 1860-model cutlasses are on exhibit aboard USSConstitution in Boston Harbor.
In 1917, the Navy designed and made its own cutlass. Only a few were produced and it was not issued for service. A beautiful piece with blued metal parts, it featured a curved, grooved blade with a clipped point. The wooden grips were secured by copper rivets and were painted black, including the rivet-heads. This sword was 29 ¾ inches long, of which 24 7/8 inches made up the blade, which was 1 3/8 inches wide at its base. It had a black leather sheath with brass mountings.
An unofficial variant of the 1917 model is still around. Never issued for service, it was sold as surplus after World War II. Some specimens of this blade ended their careers in Indonesia. This cutlass was identical to the official 1917 model except that it came in a brown leather scabbard with brass mounts, and the rivets on the grips were polished, not painted.
The best cutlass collections today are in private hands, and no museum has a complete set. The Naval Academy in Annapolis [Maryland] has an excellent collection of naval swords.
Though the clash of the cutlass has faded with the roar of the broadside, the cutlass style of combat still is used in competitive saber-fencing, in which fencers score with cuts and thrusts as on the decks of brig and frigate. The Navy cutlass is one of the direct ancestors of the modern, straight-bladed competition-saber, a weapon which is used in one of the internationally-recognized Olympic sports. Except for gymnasium-fencing at Annapolis and other bases, the Navy's swords now draw ceremonial duty only, but the cutlass has carved a proud place for itself in the history of the naval service.
Source: Meckel, Richard. "The Cutlass Carved Its Niche in Our Navy's Annals." Manuscript. 1957? [copy located in the Navy Department Library's "Swords" vertical file]
Sailor's Salty Sword Still Swings
It has been a long time since the ring of cutlass against cutlass has resounded on the quarterdeck of Navy ships. Exactly how long is not known, but this one-time side arm companion of the bluejacket has vanished from the bulkhead racks of Navy ships where it had rested for so many years and was officially declared obsolete in today's Navy by NavOrd Inst. 4500-1 in November 1949.
This final blow all but obliterated the cutlass that changing tactics and advancements of modern warfare had already labeled a museum piece. For a while prior to World War II the broad blade had rested in the racks of some modern steel vessels as a relic of "the old days" or to be taken down for occasional ceremonial use.
By the time its fancier "brother," the officer's sword, was suspended in 1942 the enlisted man's sword was all but forgotten.
With the disappearance of these bladed brothers a lot of salty traditions seemed doomed for Davy Jones's locker.
In 1954 the officer's ceremonial sword was officially restored as part of the uniform to be worn on prescribed occasions. However, three years before this, a group of enlisted men at Bainbridge Naval Training Center independently brought back the use of the cutlass on the parade ground and drill field. In fact, the cutlass has been an instrumental device at Bainbridge since it re-openend recruit training in 1951.
Cutlasses are used by the recruits selected as members of battalion staffs during parade formations. All recruits can try out for staff positions but only five from each company are selected. These sailors receive instructions in cutlass manual with the 1917 version of the curved sword, and are salted with a bit of its colorful background to carry on with them in their Navy career.
Historical data on the cutlass is rather slim and indefinite. It was never considered part of the bluejacket's uniform as was the officer's sword, but was part of the station equipment kept in bulkhead racks to be issued prior to attack or boarding party and it was also carried by certain enlisted members of landing parties.
The last time a Navyman actually swung the big blade in combat is not known.
Accounts of naval battles indicate that it was still in use during the Civil War. Photographs taken during this period show gun crews wearing the cutlass as a side arm.
The presence of the cutlass aboard vessels of our Fleets continued past this time. According to tone authority on the American sword, cutlasses of the 1860 vintage were to be found in the arms rack of some US ships up to the outbreak of World War II. Also, the word was passed on by the landing force officer of the old four-stacker, USS Stewart (DD-224) before WWII, who remembers following the then current Landing Force Manual which still prescribes their use. Other accounts have been found of landing forces wearing them ashore in China and the Philippines around this time.
A new model of the cutlass was adopted by the Navy as late as 1917. This sword did not differ greatly from the old one but used a steel instead of a brass hilt.
The word on the passing importance of the salty sword is reflected, if not directly stated, in the naval books and manuals of the day.
A naval encyclopedia of 1881 mentions the use of the cutlass on boat expeditions on uncivilized and unarmed coasts while describing the proper gear for such a party. "The howitzers are supplied with 80 rounds of assorted ammunition; more should be carried if stowage room can be found. The field-carriages are taken if the guns are to be landed … The men are armed with rifles and sword-bayonets, except the eight lower members of the guns' crew, who are armed with cutlasses."
In 1904 the Petty Officer's Drill Book states that, "CPOs and staff POs of a landing force shall be armed with cutlass and revolver. Color bearers and bugler, revolver only."
Ship and Gunnery Drills, U.S. Navy (1927) has the CPO of the guard wearing the uniform of the day with leggings and cutlass or pistol as ordered, and the Landing Force Manualof 1938 states, "Officers armed with the sword and enlisted men armed with the cutlass or sword execute the manual in the same manner."
Compare these passages with this brief logging of the early eighteen hundreds when the cutlass was still often the key to a sailor's life or death. The account was taken from a small book by Elijah Shaw, a bluejacket whose name is found in the log of many historic vessels of our early Navy.
This description on a sailor's battle with the Turks during the War with Tripoli exemplifies the tradition and color behind the sword now being used again by the recruits at Bainbridge NTC.
"By this time the boats were along side and we had orders to board. I jumped upon the bulwarks of the enemy's boat, receiving at the same time a blow from a cutlass, on the back part of my ankle.
"Sprawling upon the deck, and unable to rise, I discovered the Turk from whom I had received my first injury. He was wounded in one leg and was also unable to rise.
"He made a pass at me with his cutlass, cutting through my hat and silk handkerchief, and leaving a gash some two inches long on my head. I partly recovered and made a pass at him. He parried the blow, breaking about two inches from the end of my cutlass, and making another hole in the forepart of my hat."
Shaw continued to defend himself with his cutlass while drawing his pistol with his wounded hand and finished the enemy off with a shot.
The name cutlass comes from the French word cutler meaning knife. Distinctive in appearance from other members of the sword family, its blade is usually 27 inches long, an inch wide and slightly curved with a cutting edge on one side only. The most outstanding characteristic of this short sword is the heavy bowl shaped guard on the hilt to protect the sailor's hands.
Swords fall into two general groups according to their use. The older group, to which the cutlass belongs, having heavier blades for slashing and the more modern group with light, pointed blades for thrusting like the sword used in today's fencing matches.
The land-slasher whose large heavy blade was made for shield splitting was outmoded by changing infantry tactics. Among the famous land swords of the slashing group was the large double-edged sword of the Crusades.
When the shield went out, the swords became lighter and more maneuverable depending on a thrust from its pointed end for the kill. For the sailor the rapier never replaced the slashing cutlass, which remained supreme upon the seas as the best weapon for boarding the enemy's ship and the melee of deck fighting.
So ends the All Hands word on the sailor's salty sword. If any of you wardroom or coffee mess sages have any further lore on the cutlass, past or present, pass it on to us. We would like to scrape more barnacles off its colorful past and hear more on its Navy future.
Source: "Sailor's Salty Sword Still Swings."All Hands. 461 (July 1955): 16-18.
The sword, symbol of authority and chivalry, and for thousands of years the instrument of battle most used by man, is today headed for the scrap heap, a casualty of a gunpowder war. Confined in modern usage to military ceremony, the swords are condemned to naval extinction by the Secretary of the Navy's order of October 15, 1942, abolishing them as a part of the uniform for the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps. The blast furnace has overtaken tradition.
The discarded swords, suggested Secretary Knox, might well be contributed to the scrap heap for remolding into modern armament.
After the war some form of dirk will be designated as a symbol of office, but the sword's demise is permanent.
The passing of the sword marks the end of an era. With its abolishment many graceful customs are lost to the naval service. Best known to the civilian public are the "arch of swords" made for the bride and groom at a military wedding and the cutting of cake at the wedding feast.
The importance of the sword as a weapon first made it a part of the fighting man's uniform, but its practical use began to decline with the extensive use of firearms. Nevertheless, it retained its importance in naval warfare long after it had become more or less obsolete on land. Well into the 19th century it vied, in the form of the cutlass, with the pistol and grenade as a necessary weapon for boarding parties, and there have been cutlass racks in evidence on even modern aircraft carriers.
The sheathed officer's sword, however, owes its survival to a different reason. As the gentleman's weapon of the 16th 17th, and 18th centuries, it was only natural that it should be incorporated into the naval officer's uniform. The wearing of the sword thus distinguished the well-born "gentleman" from the lower classes, and the naval officer was able to wear a sword as a "gentleman."
As a useful weapon, the sword and its relative, the cutlass, are now replaced by the bayonet in close-quarters fighting. And while there may be some regrets at the passing of this romantic weapon, the change is not without its compensations. Blades scrapped now will see far more battle than they would resting in their owners' scabbards.
Source: "The Sword is Scrapped." Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin. 309 (December 1942): 37.
42-857 - Swords-Abolished as Part of Uniform
JJ55-3/1510, 15 October 1942
ACTION: ALL SHIPS AND STATIONS
1.Officers of the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps, shall no longer be required to possess swords as part of their uniform equipment.
2.The various uniform regulations will be modified accordingly.
3.It is expected that a form of dirk will, in due course, be adopted as uniform equipment in lieu of the sword.
4.Due to the urgent need for metals, it is suggested that officers, who may so desire, turn in their swords for scrap.-SecNav. Frank Knox.
Source: "Swords-Abolished as Part of Uniform."Navy Department Bulletin. (Cumulative edition, 1943): 660.
41-2049-Swords, Possession and Use of
JJ55-3(1180) Nav-BW, 12 August 1941
ACTION: ALL SHIPS AND STATIONS
(Ref.: (a) Paragraph #1-12, US Navy Uniform Regulations, 1941. (b) BuPers Circ. Ltr. No. 29-41.)
1.In view of the urgent need for metals used in the manufacture of swords, prescribed as part of the Navy uniform, effective upon receipt of this letter, officers upon first reporting for active duty will not be required to own swords.
2.Senior officers present, at their discretion, may discontinue the wearing of the sword by officers in their commands.
3.Sword belts continue as part of the uniform and may be worn on prescribed occasions in lieu of the sword.
4.Bureau of Naval Personnel Circular Letter #29-41 is modified accordingly by eliminating the possession of a sword by a Naval Reserve Officer as a requirement for obtaining uniform gratuities.
5.This directive will continue in effect until further notice.-BuPers. C.W. Nimitz.
NOTE: Paragraphs 1 and 2 superseded by SecNav Ltr. JJ55-3/1510, of 15 Oct. 1942. Paragraph 4 has been superseded. Paragraph 3 remains in effect.
Source: "Swords, Possession and Use of." Navy Department Bulletin. (Cumulative edition, 1943): 591.
1 October 1952
From : Chief of Naval Operations, Op-29
To: Chief of Information
Subj: Query on background of the Navy sword
1.Although the literature on swords and other cutting weapons in general is quite extensive, very little is written on the American naval sword.
2.The best source on the subject available in this office, other than the various "Uniform Regulations" is a publication of the Smithsonian Institution, written by the then-Curator of History, Theodore T. Belote, and entitled, American and European Swords in the Historical Collection of the United States National Museum. (US National Museum Bulletin No. 163, 1932).
3.In brief, this publication states that the United States has never developed a series of military and naval swords truly national in design and manufacture. The swords of the colonial and Revolutionary War period were, with few exceptions, European in manufacture. Later, certain firms began to make swords on US government contracts. Most of these swords were designed along European lines.
4.There are a few distinctive characteristics of early American swords. One is the pommel which offered an excellent base for an eagle-head design. Many bore distinctive designs on the shield attached to the obverse side of the blade at the quillons. In some cases this shield bore designs of a mythological character relating to the art of war; in others it was decorated with a female figure representing America, surrounded by various emblems connected with American arms. These shields also bore the arms of America in a stereotyped form. The designs on the blades indicate that while many of the hilts were produced in America, most of the blades were of European manufacture. Many of these blades bear small floral and trophy designs of typical French or German origin, others have similar designs with the American shield as a center piece; and still others bear the complete arms of the United States in ornate style. These three types of blades are all contemporary with the use of the eagle's head on the pommel. This description is true of American swords up to about 1830. After that date American swords, in most cases, became more stereotyped and consequently lack much of their former artistic interest. About 1850 the Navy adopted the sword design which was continued with very little change down to the end of its use as a regular part of the dress uniform.
Source: United States. Chief of Naval Operations. Memo to Chief of Information, dated 1 October 1952. [copy located in the Navy Department Library's "Swords" vertical file]
From: Wertheimer, Mark NAVHISTCEN
Sent: Monday, August 04, 2003 15:54
To: [name deleted]
Subject: RE: Navy cutlass
1.Navy Cutlass history: The cutlass is (in today's terms) a close quarter combat weapon, part of a range of weapons available for use in shipboard or landing force operations. The first US Navy cutlass was procured in the late 1790's, updated in 1816, 1841, 1860, and 1917. They remained an ordnance allowance item until 1949. More information may be found in the following books:Boarders Away by William Gilkerson; The American Sword: 1775-1945, by Harold Peterson. Both are available at public libraries, and possibly at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.
2.Cutlasses were available for use by the ship's crew. As an allowance item, they could be used by any personnel; officer's generally purchased and carried their own swords. In some situations, such as boarding another vessel, it is possible that officers turned to cutlasses in deference to their own sword, because of immediate availability (cutlasses were generally kept at gun stations), and because of the design, strength and utility of the cutlass over the relatively delicate and ceremonial officer's sword. There are a number of actions where this may have occurred during the Revolutionary War, Barbary Wars, and the War of 1812. Research into these time periods would provide more detail to answer the question.
3.Generally, US navy edged weapons are marked with manufacturers proof marks, inspector's and acceptance markings, and a vessel's inventory number. Special engraving would be done at the expense of the ship's crew, such as for an individual presentation item. While this type of activity is known to have been done, we have no cutlass specimens with engraving.
I trust this will help in your research.
Head, Curator Branch (acting)
Naval Historical Center
Source: Wertheimer, Mark. Email, dated August 4, 2003. [copy located in the Navy Department Library's "Swords" vertical file]