Sabers and Swords: More on the small arms columns from the summary statements

Sabers… or sabres for you Anglophiles… are all over the place this season:


I will confess that edged weapons, be those weapons with actual edges or “energy powered” edges, fall outside my area of direct interest and study.  Still, I know enough to recognize that even in the civil war in some galaxy far, far away, there were various types of sabers and swords to contemplate….


Each with a form fit to function or user’s preference.  The same applied to those weapons employed in the American Civil War:


A “rough” copy of the plate from the Ordnance Manual, but you see the basic variation.  Swords have straight blades.  Sabers have curved blades.  Generally speaking that is.  The Ordnance Manual provided a description of the types, along with a limited explanation of respective usage.

  • Cavalry Saber – Curved blade, two groves (one small, one large) through the length of the blade.
  • Light Cavalry Saber – “This saber differs from that above in being shorter and lighter.”
  • Light Artillery Saber – Blade has one groove.
  • Foot Artillery Sword – Straight blade with two edges.
  • Non-Commissioned Officer’s Sword – “This sword is for the non-commissioned officers of foot troops.”
  • Musician’s Sword – “The same as the non-commissioned officer’s sword, without guard plate, and with a blade six inches shorter.”
  • Saber for Staff and Field Officers – Shorter and lighter than the cavalry sabers.
  • Sword for Officers of the Staff and Staff Corps.
  • Sword for Foot Officers.
  • Saber for Cavalry Officers – “… as the cavalry saber, or light cavalry saber, with gilt mountings.”

The manual provided this table with the particulars of selected US Army saber and sword types:


The 1862 version of the summary statements had but three printed columns for edged weapons – Cavalry Saber, Horse Artillery Saber, and Foot Artillery Saber.  I would interpret the Horse Artillery Saber as the Light Artillery Saber.

Later summary statements allowed for more diverse entries:


Yes, separate groupings for sabers and swords.  The printed headers allowed for American and foreign manufacture.  But notice that many of those were struck through by the pen, with alternate annotation offered.  The listings were:

  • Saber, Horse Artillery (struck through and replaced with Cavalry), American manufacture (also struck through).
  • Saber, Horse Artillery, foreign manufacture (struck through).  Assume this references the Light Artillery Saber.
  • Sword, Foot Artillery, American manufacture.
  • Sword, Foot Artillery, Foreign manufacture.
  • Sword, Foot Officers’, American manufacture.
  • Sword, Foot Officers’, Foreign manufacture.
  • Sword, Musicians’, Leather scabbard, American manufacture.

That last column begs the question: what self-respecting artillerist would brandish a flimsy musician’s sword?  With matching leather scabbard?

Another, serious question that comes from this defined array of edged weapons is how the ordnance officer inspected and “proofed” the arms.  The Ordnance Manual required the inspector to verify the saber or sword by comparing to the listed dimensions, weights, and pattern form.  Gauges and patterns were provided for measurement and comparison.  And the inspector reviewed overall workmanship of the product.  In addition, the inspector was encouraged to “break a certain number” of the brass mountings from rejected pieces in order to determine general quality of the lot.

That’s fine for the basics, but what of the weapon’s durability? The manual specified this test:

The blade is then proved, as follows: – 1st. The point is confined by a staple, and the blade is bent on each of the flat sides over a cylindrical block, the curvature of which is that of a circle 35 inches diameter, the curvature of the part next the tang being reduced by inserting a wedge 0.7 inch thick at the head, and 14 inches long.  2d. It is struck twice, on each of the flat sides, on a block of oak wood, the curvature of which is the same as the above.  3d. It is struck twice on the edge and twice on the back across an oak block 1 foot in diameter.  4th. The point is placed on the floor and the blade bent until it describes an arc having the versed sine indicated in the above table. After these trials, the blade is examined to see that it is free from flaws, cracks, or other imperfections, and that it is not set, – that is to say, does not remain bent.

The blade of the artillery sword is proved by striking each of the sides and edges twice on a flat block of hard oak wood.

When this was accomplished, the inspector placed a stamp (approval or condemnation) on the side of the blade, below the tang.

Notice that at no point in the inspection did the officer verify the saber or sword could cut anything.  It was assumed, by the Ordnance Department, that the trooper, soldier, artillerist, … or musician to whom the weapon was issued would put an edge on the blade.  This was a particular complaint of many in the cavalry.  Recall Whittaker wrote, “Sabres are issued blunt enough to ride on to San Francisco.  The steel is hard.  Grindstones are not to be found. The soldiers lose confidence in the weapon, and prefer the revolver.”

Scabbards also required testing:

Steel scabbards are proved by letting fall on them, from a height of 18 inches, an iron weight of two pounds, 1 inch square at the base: 1st, on one side, just above the upper band; 2d, on the same side, 6 inches from the tip; 3d, on the opposite side, just above the lower band. In this proof the scabbard should not remain indented. The nature of the material (whether iron or steel) may be tested, if there be any doubt, by using nitric acid, which will leave a black spot on the steel but not on the iron.

Next time you see a reenactor with a saber on his hip, offer to “proof” his scabbard.  Let me know how that turns out.

As for cleaning and maintenance, the manual was short… and to the point:

The iron and brass parts of swords and sabres are cleaned in the same manner as those of muskets.  When the oil on the blade of a sword is dried up, it will leave a spot which may be removed by covering it with oil and rubbing it smartly, after a short time, with a linen rag.

Again, the Ordnance Department cared little about the sharpness of the blade. They just didn’t want the weapon to rust.

As with the discussion of pistols, carbines, and muskets issued to the artillery batteries, I think we see some reporting a large allotment of edged weapons for operational reasons.  That applies, in particular, to batteries assigned non-artillery duties in the remote theaters and garrisons.  At the same time, some batteries simply had quantities on hand because that is what they were issued and maintained – despite the insistence by some that the artillery didn’t need small arms.