Civil War Question - Swords/Sabers


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jimsouth
January 8, 2014, 09:09 AM
Anyone ever hear of this? My friend ( the Civil War expert ) - told me he read an article - and I have no reason to doubt him - if you were caught with a sharpened sword - saber, you could be shot on site. The sword being a stabbing sticking weapon, and not a hacking weapon - so it wasn't considered honorable to sharpen a sword's edge. Ever hear of that?

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Sam1911
January 8, 2014, 09:15 AM
Kindof doesn't make much sense not to sharpen a saber as it's optimized as a slashing weapon, not a thrusting one so much. But I'm not an expert.

jimsouth
January 8, 2014, 09:20 AM
I gotta do some searching on this one.

RetiredUSNChief
January 8, 2014, 09:30 AM
Swords and sabers are designed with edges for a reason...and it ain't decorative.

Sabers and cutlasses in particular are "hack and slash" weapons. Any such weapon designed to be wielded on horseback or shipboard (by enlisted aboard ship) are primarily designed for this because that's what combat in those types of quarters calls for when using edged weapons.

A rapier, however, is designed primarily as a thrusting weapon, though it, too, is edged.

Various designs of swords are used in support of a large variety of combat techniques. Regardless, if you are in possession of a sword meant for combat (as opposed to decorative) and it's NOT sharpened as intended, then it's somewhat less than optimal as a real weapon and will not serve you nearly so well in combat. Kinda pointless to have a "fake" weapon in a "real" fight.

jimsouth
January 8, 2014, 09:37 AM
Some time - somewhere , during the Civil War - there was Hell up about swords with sharpened edges. I do not know where it went; but there was a controversy about it "not being honorable". May have been a short lived thing, but it happened.

hso
January 8, 2014, 09:37 AM
You're going to have to provide more context.

Yes, I've seen similar things written about some heavy cavalry sabers supposedly not being sharpened in Europe since the tip was used to pierce in the charge and the heavy blunt was blade broke bones very effectively. Difficulties with edge to edge impact and the risk of breakage while hacking away from horseback led to the idea that the heavy saber would survive use better if redefined as an impact weapon.

I've never heard/read anything about someone being shot for sharpening the things, but there are all sorts of "upon penalty of death" warnings that were part and parcel to Napoleonic era militaries.

RetiredUSNChief
January 8, 2014, 10:25 AM
One of the major risks with any pointed/edged weapon is getting it stuck in the body/bodies of the people you're using the weapon against. A stuck weapon is both a lost weapon and a potentially fatal distraction in the heat of battle if you attempt to deal with it instead of paying attention to things around you.

A blunt weapon may or may not be an effective means of dealing with this problem, depending on the particular weapon design and how it's used.

Not having a sharp edge means it can't "stick" nearly so easily during hack and slash techniques. However, this limits it's usefulness to what amounts to a "club", and the effectiveness of such a weapon now depends primarily upon its weight. Lighter swords are simply not as effective a club as heavier ones and will be less prone to inflicting a debilitating/fatal wound.

Sharp or not, poking a sword into a victim still results in the same potential difficulty...that of being able to pull the sword back out. Depth of the poke is key to this, along with the blade design. The cutting edge has little effect on this.


I have not heard of this taboo with respect to the cutting edge of weapons during the Civil War (or any other period). However, I suspect that if it did exist, it had more to do with preconceived notions of right-and-proper methods of combat rather than actual combat effectiveness. Actual combat is anything BUT gentlemanly in nature...it's not a personal duel of honor in any way, shape, or form.

mole
January 8, 2014, 11:02 AM
I've never heard that. The closest thing I can recall is during WWI something about cutting a sawtooth pattern on the back of your bayonet. Probably not an official policy, but more like guys you just charged with that thing not taking prisoners because of the more terrible wound that bayonet would make. I don't know if that was a real thing or just made up later.

Madcap_Magician
January 8, 2014, 11:26 AM
Sounds like fairy tales to me.

mdauben
January 8, 2014, 06:21 PM
Doesn't sound too credible to me. The sort of curved cavalry swords used during the American Civil War were both thrusting and slashing weapons and cavalry were taught to use them that way. IIRC there was some controversy about the effectiveness of slashing versus thrusting attacks for cavarly in the early 19th century, which led to straighter, stabbing blades such as the US Army Model 1913 Cavalry Saber.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/41/Patton_Sword.png/500px-Patton_Sword.png

Bobson
January 8, 2014, 06:37 PM
Some time - somewhere , during the Civil War - there was Hell up about swords with sharpened edges. I do not know where it went; but there was a controversy about it "not being honorable". May have been a short lived thing, but it happened.
I believe you're correct. When I was going through high school, I became fascinated with the Civil War and took nearly every opportunity to complete reports and projects on a variety of people and events of the time. I specifically recall learning about this same thing, though I certainly couldn't verify that research today.

The way I see it, there are only two possibilities. Either it really happened (even if it was short lived, as you suggested it might have been), or someone went to a lot of trouble to make it seem like it really happened.

CWL
January 8, 2014, 07:07 PM
The (early) cavalry of the Civil War modeled themselves after the dashing horsemen of the Napoleonic Wars. The French and other light cavalries were indeed armed with unsharpened but pointed curved sabers. These were meant to be used as a thrust & parrying weapon for fast cavalry actions as their doctrines meant for them to always be in motion during combat.

The curvature of light cavalry swords were designed to allow easy release after spearing an opponent, especially while in motion. For practical reasons, if the blade was fully sharpened, it would penetrate too deeply and prevent ones sword from being withdrawn. Still deadly, even unsharpened sabers could split skulls and deliver bone crushing blows on the enemy.

Here's a medical journal illustration of some Crimean War survivors of saber woulds (thanks to heavy felt headwear).
http://vintageprintable.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/Medical-Public-Health-Anatomy-Saber-wounds-of-the-head.jpg

Never heard about any shooting offenses for sharpened sabers, tho'.

Piraticalbob
January 8, 2014, 09:27 PM
Nathan Bedford Forrest was known to sharpen his sabers, being something of a badass at hand-to-hand combat; he ended the war with having one more man killed in personal combat than horses shot out from under him. Once, when a subordinate shot him after being accused of cowardice, Forrest, who was paring his nails with a pen knife at the time, stabbed the man to death with the knife.

Vonderek
January 9, 2014, 05:22 PM
I always learn something new here. I never considered the saber as an impact weapon. Interesting thread.

bainter1212
January 9, 2014, 05:32 PM
The Civil War saw the cavalry move from the Napoleonic main-line battle unit to a lighter, more mobile scout-and-harass strategy. I don't doubt that weapons and tactics followed suit in some way.

twofifty
January 9, 2014, 11:05 PM
Unlucky is the soldier whose unit tactics have not adapted to new equipment, or whose equipment has not kept up with new tactics.

owlhoot
January 10, 2014, 04:55 AM
To add a little detail to Piratical Bob's comments about General Forrest:

The good general and his troopers had stopped at a farm to water their horses and take a break when the general noticed a grinding wheel, the kind that is operated by a foot treadle, and sat down to sharpen his sword. As he was grinding away, a young captain approached and said, "Sir, with all due respect, we were taught at West Point that a gentleman never sharpens his sword." Forrest continued his task and without looking up replied, "Good!"

During the war Forrest killed 27 men in hand to hand combat not counting the young man he killed with his pocket knife. He had 26 horses shot from under him. In one particularly difficult encounter in which he suffered some painful wounds but slew his opponent, he remarked to the unit surgeon that had his adversary given him the point instead of the slash, he would be a dead man.

In the incident wherein Forrest was shot by one of his own officers that he had removed from command, Forrest was shot in his hotel room. The pistol used was a single shot. After firing the officer ran from the room, down the staircase, across the town square and into a shop with Forrent, though badly wounded, in hot pursuit. Forrest caught him in the shop and went to work with his pocket knife before collapsing. After he was attended by the doctor, Forrest was asked why he had chased the young soldier being grievously wounded as he was and certainly the man would have been caught and hanged anyway, Forrest answered, "I ain't letting no sonofabitch kill me without killing him back."

Forrest had suffered a solid hit in the torso from the shooting. The young man had multiple stabs wounds. Both were in critically bad shape. They were placed on cots in the same back room at the doctor's office where the doc could look after both at the same time. When they were able to speak, the young officer apologized to Forrest for shooting him. Forrest said he was sorry too. Forrest recovered. The young man did not. Sometimes you can get away with bringing a knife to a gun fight. Both Forrest and Jim Bowie did.

Forrest rose from private to lt. general (three stars). There were no four star generals in the confederacy. They don't make generals like him anymore.

HexHead
January 10, 2014, 08:19 AM
I believe you're correct. When I was going through high school, I became fascinated with the Civil War and took nearly every opportunity to complete reports and projects on a variety of people and events of the time. I specifically recall learning about this same thing, though I certainly couldn't verify that research today.

The way I see it, there are only two possibilities. Either it really happened (even if it was short lived, as you suggested it might have been), or someone went to a lot of trouble to make it seem like it really happened.
Sounds like it came from an earlier version of THR, where they wanted to present a more positive image to the anti-swordists.

RetiredUSNChief
January 10, 2014, 09:20 AM
As he was grinding away, a young captain approached and said, "Sir, with all due respect, we were taught at West Point that a gentleman never sharpens his sword." Forrest continued his task and without looking up replied, "Good!"

Kind of dovetails with my suspicians that any such proclivities with respect to unsharpened swords in combat being due to preconceived notions of what is right and proper as opposed to what actually works best in combat.

General Forrest did not seem to be afflicted with such preconceived notions.

:)

lemaymiami
January 10, 2014, 10:18 AM
Forrest did have quite a career in that war. His activities after the war are what I remember him for --- and not favorably at all.

PRM
January 10, 2014, 10:33 AM
if you were caught with a sharpened sword - saber, you could be shot on site.

Is this really being seriously discussed...LOL

4v50 Gary
January 10, 2014, 11:24 AM
Never read that myself. Generally whether a person is taken prisoner depends on how he fought, the bitterness of his captors (loss of friends, relatives, comrades), and sometimes the presence of officers.

The Bushmaster
January 10, 2014, 11:44 AM
Hummmm...Interesting. The 1849 cutlass that is a family heirloom is very sharp on both edges.

RetiredUSNChief
January 10, 2014, 12:54 PM
Hummmm...Interesting. The 1849 cutlass that is a family heirloom is very sharp on both edges.

Is a cutlass...those hard, calloused sailors tend to understand the utility of an edged weapon actually having an edge. You very likely would not have had much success with officers telling the sailors they couldn't put an edge on their weapons.

;)~

Mike OTDP
January 10, 2014, 01:04 PM
This is very odd...since I don't recollect ever hearing of swords not being sharpened, but have definitely read of World War 1 officers being directed to send their swords to the regimental armorer for sharpening.

AJumbo
January 11, 2014, 01:49 AM
I recall reading a report sen to the Army's Quartermaster Corps by a cavalry officer complaining that their newest batch of swords wouldn't take an edge; it seems to me that it was written some years prior to the ACW, but given that I find references to Indian War cavalrymen needing their swords sharpened, I can't imagine that this 'dull sword' thing would have gotten much traction amongst the end users.

Add to this that cavalry saber training and doctrine emphasized using both the point and the edge of the weapon.... and the pommel, if it came to that, as an impact weapon.

theotherwaldo
January 11, 2014, 02:25 AM
Forrest was known as a man who did what worked. Sharp swords worked.

He was also known as a man who knew when a thing stopped working. That's why he tried to disband the KKK in 1869.

Sam Cade
January 11, 2014, 02:30 AM
SOP for most European saber-wielding cavalry seems to be to sharpen the saber for war and blunt it during peace time service. Makes good sense to me.

kBob
January 11, 2014, 09:56 AM
What Sam said.

Even in the US Army of the 1970's there were discussions about troopers having sharp things. Some units we worked with did not even sharpen their entrenching tools even though the book said to sharpen the left side and both sections of the point for fear that peace time troops might use them as a weapon (having been struck in the gut with a sheathed e-tool I have to wonder if the folks that wanted unsharpened tools have ever been in a fight as I might easily have been killed with a hankercheif afterwards). At one point an officer in a unit we supported was appaled when he found our bayonets were sharpened even on the "false edge" In my unit were did not just train as we did security for the Pershing system six months of the year so we kept everything sharp. We did not only the boring tower guard duty but also alert teams for inside and outside the wire and performed armed patrols every night out to a distance of 1.5 k on foot or 3k mounted ("jeeps" or Mutts the official name no one used). The value of things sharp to folks with limited ammo and support was well understood.

When I was relatively new I found myself ranking man in a six man room and so responsible for the room. Our CO had an early tour in VN as an Infantry Officer, then had swung a last minute tour as a helo driver. After the Army needed fewer pilots and when folks had to promote in field he returned to an Infantry job. He tended to take our work seriously. During an inspection my guts sank when he snatched from the wall locker next to mine a Switch blade knife which was a big no-no. He examined it and then rather than saying anything to the knife's owner turned to me and growled "What is the meaning of this? I can not believe you let your buddy keep a knife in such poor condition and hardly suitable to cut butter! And it is FILTHY!" and he tossed it on my bunk rather than the actual owner's. When he found my file and two sided stone in my locker he bristled at me for having the tools and not using them and told me to bring the knife to him before close of business "ready for use" I did. and that weekend I sharpened a host of pocket knives, sheath knives and e-tools from my platoon. Monday found me in the Arms room checking and more often than not resharpening the platoon's bayonets......of course the reward for doing a good job was I "got" to do the other three platoons bayonets as well.....

Before I left we had a general officer inspect us. As it happened or first shirt decided we would fully paint our e-tools right up to the bevel of the sharpened area to avoid dealing with rust (amazing how much more practical old SF troopers are than regulation) rather than having the traditional 1/2 inch boarder of unpainted steel. When this visiting officer could find nothing wrong with my fire team he noticed our e-tools not being painted in the traditional manner and snatched mine up and pronounced it "UNSHARPENED" and tossed it on the floor. Top came back later and told us the General was going to inspect us up again next week and that his biggist gig was, after having noticed mine, that ALL our e-tools were not sharpened.

So every e-tool in the two platoons in the rear then got stripped, taped and properly repainted to show 1/2 inch of bare steel on the front ad left side and checked for sharpness. Feeling a bit silly I was curious to see just how sharp an 1945 Ames Entrenching tool could be made. The answer is shaving sharp.

Friday the general strode into our barracks and yelled and snorted in the two rooms before mine. Walking in our bay he noticed me and remembered the unsharpened e-tool. Grinning evilly he reached over my display and snatched up my e-tool by the blade.....got a surprised and anguished look, dropped the e-tool, examined his bleeding palm and rushed from the room and then our area bound for the post hospital.

We never had another General Officer Inspection while I was there.

-kBob

SlamFire1
January 12, 2014, 12:16 AM
I've never heard that. The closest thing I can recall is during WWI something about cutting a sawtooth pattern on the back of your bayonet. Probably not an official policy, but more like guys you just charged with that thing not taking prisoners because of the more terrible wound that bayonet would make. I don't know if that was a real thing or just made up later.


I think the story was garbled in translation. There was an extensive and vicious propaganda campaign against "German Kultur", creating a beastly image of Germany and Germans. If the Allies had thought of Baby Cannibalism I am sure that charge would have been laid against the Germans. I can recall claims that the Iraqi's turned off baby respirators in Kuwait, and that propaganda campaign lasted around 6 months, imagine what the propaganda was like in a four year long world war!


http://www.truthcontrol.com/files/truthcontrol/styles/large/public/images/4835.jpg

As it was, anything , true or not, anything that could make the Germans more beastly was put into the popular culture of the allies. The saw back bayonet was one of the things that was used to defame Germans. Sawback bayonets were issued to Engineer battallions as a dual use item: it had a saw which could cut wood. I have a Swiss sawback, the teeth are very sharp, still, I think it is too wide to be a useful saw. I don't remember if the British and French had sawbacks, it is probable they did, but that would have been forgotten, along with all the sawbacks in issue elsewhere, because it made for a good atrocity story against the Germans. It was said at the time that the sawback was proof of the nasty evil nature of Germans, it was claimed the saw teeth were there to make a bayonet wound worse.

I am certain the teeth would not have made any bayonet wound any better, but the teeth were there to cut wood.

Based on reading actual accounts of the times, diaries, recollections, etc, if a German was caught with a sawback, he was shot.

Lots of prisoners were shot by the British for lesser reasons, such as escorts deciding it was too much work to walk across muddy bogs on a cold day and deliver prisoners to the rear. Many such incidents were committed just at the point of surrender and after surrender in both world wars. I am have heard family stories of American's shooting Germans in WW2, and there is a reason why we took very few Japanese prisoners. A Uncle of mine was told to get rid of his Japanese prisoner or he would have to pull KP. He did not pull KP, so you can guess what happened.

Though, except for Fort Pillow, and the shooting of black Soldiers by Confederates, the Civil War has surprisingly few atrocity stories.


Anti German feelings were raised so high in WW1 that having a German name could get you beaten in the US!

As for swords, the Confederates were well known for keeping theirs sharp! Many Union swords are dull. Ninety nine percent of the sharp edges on period swords were done by enthusiasts after the sword was sold on the civilian market. Service swords were dulled after a conflict because of accidents. One story I read, of a new British Cavalry officer, he was in a warlike mood and sharpened his sword prior to mounted sword practice. He managed to cut his horse's ear off!

JRH6856
January 12, 2014, 02:30 AM
The 43rd Battalion, Virginia Cavalry (Mosby's Rangers) often risked being summarily shot, but not because of sharpened sabers. They didn't carry sabers. Each man carried 2-4 revolvers which often placed saber-wielding Union cavalry at a distinct disadvantage.

mac66
January 12, 2014, 10:54 AM
I think opinions sometimes become fact when they are passed on enough. It may very well have been some military officer's opinion that sharpening swords was unfair or unsportsmanlike, that doesn't mean the military didn't sharpen swords. Of course one also asks the question of "why wouldn't you sharpen a sword? Wouldn't you want every advantage in a fight?"

Fred Fuller
January 12, 2014, 06:47 PM
http://www.academia.edu/205649/Sabre_versus_Revolver_Mounted_Combat_in_the_American_Civil_War

Sabre versus Revolver: Mounted Combat in the American Civil War
by Gervase Phillips

A brief article looking at the factors that affected mounted combat during the American Civil War, including training; tactical doctrine and the condition of the mounts. In particular, I focus on the utility, and limitations, of both the the modern revolver and the traditional cavalry arm, the sabre.
Research Interests: Military History, American History, and History

SlamFire1
January 12, 2014, 07:36 PM
I have read a number of personal Civil War books and accounts. The cap and ball revolver really made a huge difference in cavalry tactics. Having six shots to shoot someone before they got within saber distance significantly changed horse cavalry combat. There were still plenty of accounts of saber conflict but there are also plenty of accounts of horsemen being shot out of the saddle.

I can recall one book, “Life in the Confederate Army” by William Watson. Mr Watson’s infantry outfit was charged at close range by Union cavalry with the sword. The Confederate infantry had just enough time to form a line and according to Mr. Watson, they decimated the Union cavalry and broke the charge. Even though the Confederates only had muskets, it is apparent that by the time you get to the Civil War, charging line infantry armed with rifled muskets was suicidal for cavalry. A book I read by a trooper in Custer’s Civil War outfit, they had been issued the Spencer carbine. Confederate cavalry were basically out matched against Union cavalry who had seven shots and a quick reload capability. I do recall the author said they had regiments which were “sword regiments”. These sword regiments had shown a high degree of cohesion and coordination during a sword charge, so Union Cavalry still had sword charges, I guess it was when it was absolutely necessary to force the issue.

AJumbo
January 12, 2014, 07:48 PM
Now that I think upon it, I've read a number of ACW-era references to a trooper's rein's getting cut in combat, leaving him without a way to control his horse. A tautly-drawn piece of harness leather would be difficult to part with a dull sword, even with a fierce stroke. A loose rein, even more so.

JRH6856
January 12, 2014, 08:02 PM
OK, here is the final authority. In The Outlaw Josey Wales, in the scene where Josey kills Captain "Redlegs" Terrell, the Capt. attempts to draw his sabre. Josey grasps it by the blade, stops the draw and forces the blade back into Capt Terrell's body, killing him. The important thing is that Josey did not cut his hand! The blade must not have been sharpened. :evil:

jerkface11
January 12, 2014, 08:29 PM
http://www.strangehistory.net/2013/07/31/blunt-swords-and-the-american-civil-war/

AJumbo
January 12, 2014, 08:49 PM
JRH for the win!

mac66
January 23, 2014, 08:17 PM
Sharp or blunt sword is apparently the 19th century version of 9mm or 45.

Personally if I had to go to war I would want sharp pointy objects I am using for fighting to be sharp and pointy just in case. :D

Jim K
January 23, 2014, 08:46 PM
Neat story, but it is a good bet that those CW sabers were sharpened and meant to be used as a cleaving weapon as well as a thrusting one. At least the surviving ones I have seen were sharp, in a couple of cases very sharp. The saber was heavy, a cutting and cleaving weapon, not a rapier to be used for only thrusting.

A note. In that period, the saber was considered the primary cavalry weapon and most training concentrated on its use. The saber was carried on the left side to be drawn with the right hand; the pistol was carried on the right, with its butt to the front, to be drawn and used with the left hand. Readers might note that there was no extra hand for the reins; riders were trained to control the horse with the knees and of course, horses were trained to respond to that. That kind of intensive training was one reason it took so long for Federal cavalry to reach a standard where they could challenge Confederate horsemen.

Forrest reportedly exclaimed during a Union cavalry charge, "Here come those damn fools with their sabers again, shoot them." His men proceeded to do just that. On the other hand, a Federal horseman was asked which he liked, the saber or the pistol.* His reply was the saber because it didn't "run dry."

Edited to add: The pistol was not usually employed at long range as the enemy approached. That was done only when dismounted cavalry was fighting as infantry, when both carbines and pistols were used. Normally, cavalry was trained to close on the enemy cavalry, using the saber for the main attack weapon, and the pistol on riders or horses at very short range, the barrel almost touching the target.

*The term is "pistol" - the "revolver" vs. "pistol" argument didn't come about until almost a century later.

Jim

jerkface11
January 23, 2014, 10:48 PM
At least the surviving ones I have seen were sharp, in a couple of cases very sharp. The saber was heavy, a cutting and cleaving weapon, not a rapier to be used for only thrusting.

The way I've heard it you would leave your sabre unsharpened so that it would not stick in bone when striking the enemy. Instead it would work more like a club.

hso
January 25, 2014, 08:15 AM
My great great's CW saber wasn't sharpened, so we can see that there are cases of both sharpened and unsharpened sabers in use during the War Between the States.

kBob
January 25, 2014, 11:39 AM
Just a note on the saw back bayonet thing....the British Army was surprised by the propagandists and polititians attack on saw back bayonets as at the time their own engineer/pioneer troops used such a blade and it had been suggested that every squad have one issued to cut barbed wire fence posts down with. The Germans asked if it was alright to shoot UK troops found with such weapons of terror as well......

Non military folks really should find out what is really going on before leaping into things......

As a kid a friend had a Swiss Pioneer bayonet and I can tell you it worked just fine as a saw even on green wood though not a fast as my machete hacks but more neatly.

-kBob

JRH6856
January 25, 2014, 02:26 PM
Off-topic here but the saw-backed bayonet is also called the "Swiss" or "Swiss-pattern" bayonet. Has anyone else noticed that while the Switzerland never seems to join the Geneva and Hague conventions, they often adopt the weapons outlawed by those conventions. May be just another part of the reason no one invades them. :scrutiny:

ThorinNNY
January 25, 2014, 04:37 PM
I wonder how much a decent saber cost during the Civil War era? Revolving pistols cost somewhere between $15.00 - $20.00 depending on make and model.

Sam Cade
January 25, 2014, 05:03 PM
I wonder how much a decent saber cost during the Civil War era?

$8.50 was the government cost for sabres delivered in 1862-1863.


http://www.thehighroad.org/attachment.php?attachmentid=194064&stc=1&d=1390683775

ThorinNNY
January 25, 2014, 05:29 PM
Thanks,:) Sam Cade. After watching a number of episodes of Antiques Road Show, and the current values attributed to Civil War Sabers, I began to wonder just how much they might have cost in relation to a revolving pistol.:confused:
Apparently the effectiveness of a cavalry saber during the Civil War was determined by how well the trooper was trained in its use AND the condition of his mount. Duh, I guess I should have figured that out on my own.:uhoh:

Billy Shears
January 25, 2014, 06:06 PM
OK, here is the final authority. In The Outlaw Josey Wales, in the scene where Josey kills Captain "Redlegs" Terrell, the Capt. attempts to draw his sabre. Josey grasps it by the blade, stops the draw and forces the blade back into Capt Terrell's body, killing him. The important thing is that Josey did not cut his hand! The blade must not have been sharpened.
I realize you're being facetious, but it does bring up the issue of how sharp a sword really was. It would surprise a lot of people to know that bare-handed grasping of sharp sword blades was not at all uncommon, at least in earlier times. Indeed, a lot of the Renaissance fight manuals that survive show numerous illustrations of "half-swording" where a fighter will grasp the blade halfway down toward the point with one hand, and even techniques where the fighter would grasp the blade with both hands and use the hilt like a hammer. And these swords were sharp.

But they didn't have the same kind of edge geometry as the knives that most people are used to. Swords had a thicker edge bevel. They were not shaving sharp, but they were sharp. And the reason for this was that swords have a different job to do than knives, and have to withstand shocks and impacts that knives don't. A thicker edge was more durable, and stayed sharp better in combat than a really fine edge could ever do. And it was still sharp enough to inflict deep cuts when swung with sufficient force. This was even more true for cavalry swords, which would have the weight of the charging horse behind the blow. But this kind of edge could be grasped with a bare hand, as long as you gripped the blade tightly and didn't let your hand slide along it. Though half swording and such like was never done with cavalry sabers as far as I know (not being a particularly useful technique on horseback), the edge geometry of swords was much the same as those earlier Renaissance era swords, and for the same reason.

JRH6856
January 25, 2014, 08:06 PM
In addition, Billy, gauntlets or gloves were often commonplace equipment for swordsman in both medieval and civil war times and times in between.

Billy Shears
January 25, 2014, 10:07 PM
They were, but again, it wasn't uncommon for these techniques to be employed barehanded. You can see illustrations of exactly that in Talhoffer's manual. Surviving swords which still have an edge, demonstrate that wider edge bevel that made this practical. It wouldn't be practical if swords had an edge like a good hunting knife, but as I said, a sword edge has to withstand abuse that a hunting knife doesn't, so it needs a more robust edge (and it doesn't have to do the fine cutting a hunting knife does), just as a hunting knife has to withstand abuse that a straight razor doesn't, so it needs a more robust edge than the razor (and it doesn't have to do the fine shaving a razor does). Swords (most of them), knives, and razors are all blades designed with cutting edges, but each is optimized to its particular purpose, and the edge geometry reflects this.

Jim K
January 25, 2014, 10:56 PM
If you examine your own technique in using a knife to cut meat or vegetables, you will see that you probably don't bring the knife straight down in a chopping motion. Instead, you bring the knife along the top of the object to be cut, in a slicing motion that you make deeper as you go. But a slicing motion is not practical with a sword or saber, so their edges are made to be used with a chopping or hacking motion.

Jim

geim druth
January 25, 2014, 11:45 PM
I own a reproduction Patten saber and an original 1860 pattern light saber. These two swords are designed to be used for two completely different purposes. The Patton sword points naturally, but cuts awkwardly. The 1860 light calvary saber is designed for cutting.

The 1860 was the standard Union saber during the Civil War. An unsharpened saber would have been almost useless, but as Billy Shears pointed out, a sword is normally sharpened to an 'appleseed' edge not a 'razor' edge. An appleseed edge lastes longer and cleaves rather than slices, giving better penetration on leather and heavy clothing.

Perhaps, the controversy over sharpening involved the type of grind used on the sword edge.

RPRNY
January 26, 2014, 01:06 AM
Cavalry swords were edged and used to cut as well as pierce. Lancers obviously only pierced.

An earlier post mentioned a trooper cutting off his horses ear. This was not at all uncommon and up through the First World War, mounts with uneven ears were common in any operational unit, as opposed to ceremonial units.

I am not aware of any instance from the war between the states when having and using and edged weapon was punished by policy on either side. In peace time, both for training and among gentlemen who may have carried short swords, it may well have been policy/custom to dull one's sword, although up through the 1850s duels fought with swords were yielding corpses. It seems improbable that in the US it was acceptable to pierce but not cut your opponent...

Billy Shears
January 26, 2014, 06:35 AM
If you examine your own technique in using a knife to cut meat or vegetables, you will see that you probably don't bring the knife straight down in a chopping motion. Instead, you bring the knife along the top of the object to be cut, in a slicing motion that you make deeper as you go. But a slicing motion is not practical with a sword or saber, so their edges are made to be used with a chopping or hacking motion.
This is true with most cavalry sabers, but not all cutting swords. Numerous Indian talwars and Persian shamshirs, and other eastern blades have very strongly curved blades that make them almost completely useless for thrusting, but whose degree of curvature corresponds almost exactly to the arc of motion of the arm. They were made to employ the drawcut, and were most definitely intended to slice, not just hack. The British 1796 pattern light cavalry sword has enough curvature to be used in this matter as well, though it was also meant to hack. For that matter, the Japanese sword was used with a slicing action at times, not from the degree of its curvature, but rather the technique with which it was employed.

RetiredUSNChief
January 26, 2014, 10:49 AM
SOP for most European saber-wielding cavalry seems to be to sharpen the saber for war and blunt it during peace time service. Makes good sense to me.

My great great's CW saber wasn't sharpened, so we can see that there are cases of both sharpened and unsharpened sabers in use during the War Between the States.

These two comments are very likely spot on.

The condition of any given soldier's sword/cutlass/saber during the Civil War was likely the result of a combination of many things: who and where one got his training from on the subject, folklore, experience, hearsay, and personal opinions.

Much like we see nowadays with respect to personal firearms, in which the type of gun, caliber, bullet design and various methods of carry and utilization are seen to be endlessly debated, just on THR alone.

The bottom line is that, like Sam and hso pointed out in the posts cited above, swords were carried both sharpened and unsharpened.

The why depended on the individuals.

SlamFire1
January 27, 2014, 07:46 PM
Accidents happened in Cavalry units. I knew and used a gunsmith who was in the US Horse Cavalry. Bob told me an event he witnessed. During sword practice against a straw target, one of his fellow troopers fell off his mount. Bob knew the troopers name, I have forgotten, but this trooper was attached to his Patton saber by the sword knot. Somehow in the fall, the point of the sword got under the arm pit of the trooper and the hilt hit the ground first. The trooper was impaled by his sword and of course, died when it went through him.

I was never impressed by the Patton sword. Too flexible, poor side to side balance, I think it was inferior as a thrusting sword to the British P1908.

AJumbo
January 27, 2014, 10:59 PM
I placed this issue before the membership over at the Society for the Military Horse, and they're having as much fun with it over there as we are here. My comments appear under the screen name "bisley45."

http://www.militaryhorse.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=12075&p=107510#p107510

Billy Shears
January 28, 2014, 08:21 AM
One of the posters there put up a lengthy quote from a book about cavalry weapons in the post Civil War era, and I think that just about settles the matter as far as I am concerned, it makes a lot of sense -- the weapons were delivered from the factory blunt, and it was expected that the end users would sharpen them, but a lot of them ended up in the hands of troopers who had no skill in their use, led by officers who had no skill in their use, and these regiments tended naturally to make little to no use of the saber in combat. They simply never got around to sharpening them because it's a time consuming task, and they didn't care much for the saber anyway. I've seen a Civil War era sword that showed no signs of ever having been sharpened, and the "edge" was a full sixteenth of an inch thick. It would take a long time to grind away enough metal from that to put a good cutting edge on the weapon, especially on so long a blade (though the forte, near the hilt, was supposed to be left blunt, as it was used to parry not cut). Troopers and officers who had no skill with, confidence in, or desire to use the saber might well have simply neglected to do it, preferring to trust their pistols. This would have been even more true of cavalry during the Indian wars, where there was even less opportunity for saber charges, and sabers were often laid aside entirely and left with the baggage.

However those officers which did have some proficiency with the sword, and which imparted some of their skill to their men almost certainly did sharpen their sabers.

Outlaw Man
January 28, 2014, 02:47 PM
Back when I did Civil War reinactments, our Captain's was sharpened. I distinctly remember him using it to cut up an apple.

Some of those guys get borderline psychotic with their attention to detail, but this guy wasn't that big a stickler.

geim druth
February 11, 2014, 04:51 PM
Came across this video by chance:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fP3OdCGdmQg

He talks about 19th century swords starting at about 7 1/2 minutes.

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