Types of Navy Officer’s Swords and Their History
With its history dating as far back as the Age of Sail, the Navy Officer’s Sword was an essential element in carrying out maritime missions. Symbolizing authority, honor and bravery, it was a crucial part of the uniform of the US Navy Officers who were responsible for overseeing the operations carried out at sea, as well as the training and deployment of sailors.
Having evolved over the centuries, the design and materials used to craft it has also understandably changed. Therefore, in this article, we are going to explore its history, development, and significance.
Types of Navy Officers’ Swords
Regardless of the type of sword, they’ve all made their mark on history, with each model earning a name after the era it was used in, and are firmly steeped in the naval community.
|Type of blade
|Type of handle
|29½ inches (75 cm)
|Single-edged and slightly curved
|Simple cylinder wooden handle
|Revolutionary Sword, 1775
|32½ inches (82.5 cm)
|Straight, single-edged blade with a rudimentary false edge
|Cylinder grips made out of iron
|Navy Sword, M1808-1816
|37½ inches (95 cm)
|Broad curved blade with a single edge that’s blued in the first half to protect the blade against rust
|Ivory shaped grips made to fit the hand
|Navy Sword, M1820-1840
|36 inches (91.5 cm)
|Straight blued blade that’s decorated with gilt etched designs
|Composed of two plagues of reeded bone and covered by a strip of gilded brass
|Navy Sword, M1841
|37 inches (94 cm)
|Slightly curved and single-edged, bearing intricate etched designs
|Bone handle that’s carved into several diamond-shaped patterns
|34 inches (86 cm)
|Adorned by elaborately etched designs and slightly curved
|Wooden handle covered in fish skin to offer better grip
|Navy Sword, M1862
|32 inches (81 cm)
|Single-edged curved blade with a rudimentary false edge
|Wooden grip covered in leather
Navy Officer’s Sword, Model 1740-1780
The sword carried by navy officers in the middle of the 18th century was a simple and sturdy cutlass. It featured a single-edged iron blade which was slightly curved so as to appear that it was straight at first glance.
The guard, which is made from a sheet of iron, is made up of a tang rivet at the pommel end and a relatively thin strap for a knuckle-bow that gradually became wider as it crossed the blade to form a roughly circular counter-guard.
Navy Officer’s Revolutionary Sword
Like all other officer’s swords of the time, the history of navy officers’ swords throughout the revolution and the early years of the Republic is similar. Navy officers donned anything they could find whilst the war was still going on, primarily small swords and short sabers.
Navy swords from this period are extremely rare due to the small number of officers and it is impossible to differentiate a naval sword from any other saber. Therefore, it is generally believed that most of the swords of this time followed the pattern of the British model and the only indication of American manufacturing could be found in the crudity of the craftsmanship on the hilt.
Navy Officer’s Cutlass, Model 1808-1816
On 18th May 1808, Nathan Starr, the nation’s first sword manufacturer, received a contract under terms where he was to supply 2,000 cutlasses. The pattern for these swords was chosen by Commodore John Rodgers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and further negotiated by Navy Agent Joseph Hull.
This model featured a straight, single-edged blade which bears the signature stamp “N.STARR” of its manufacturer. The guard of the sword is made from a piece of iron that’s slightly concave and is fixed onto a simple wooden cylinder grip.
Navy Officer’s Sword, Model 1820-1840
The most notable element of this model was the large counterguard that sat on the front side of the blade. To further emphasize the rank of the naval officers who carried this sword, the guard bore an intricate design featuring an American eagle, anchor, seated female figure holding a caduceus, horn of plenty, and ship.
Following the pattern of its predecessors, the blade itself was straight and single-edged with the first half of the blade length being coated in black oxide to protect the blade from rust and giving it a blued finish. The handle was composed of reeded bone and finished into an eagle’s head pommel which was sometimes adorned with decorative tassels.
Navy Officer’s Sword, Model 1841
Following the Regulations of 1841, the United States Navy Department requested a specific design inspired by the Army’s NCO sabers of that time.
The blade of the required model was single-edged, slightly curved, and had a false edge. The observed side of the blade was etched with floral and military designs, the goddess of liberty, and an American eagle with a ribbon in its beak which bore the word “Liberty”. On the other hand, the reverse side had similar designs except that the goddess of liberty was replaced with a warrior.
The grip was made from bone carved into a number of diamond-shaped patterns and extended into an eagle-head pommel. The sword also featured a knuckle bow that followed the typical pattern of the reverse P form, but with a slight downward swing.
Navy Officer’s Sword, Model 1852
In 1852, the USN adopted a new sword, albeit with very few changes from its previous version.
The curved, single-edged blade is characterized with a similar design, etched with floral decorations, a circle of stars, and a fouled anchor and shield. The handle is wood carved and covered in ray skin, believed to provide a better grip. The pommel is a so-called Phrygian helmet and it’s connected to a dolphin head adorned knuckle bow.
The scabbard of this model is made out of black leather, although there are examples of other models using fish skin or blued metal scabbards.
Navy Officer’s Cutlass, Model 1862
Developed as a cut and thrust sword, the M1862 cutlass was a prominent weapon during the American Civil War. Its design was inspired by the French naval officers’ sabre, which was more commonly referred to as “soup ladle”. It is also known as the CPO cutlass, due to being a desired weapon by chief petty officers, who preferred a more handsome design.
The curved, single-edged blade bore a rudimentary false edge and a broad fuller which began near the hilt. The guard was a solid half-basket, similar in design to that of the enlisted man’s cutlass. However, the distinguishing feature of the naval officer’s variant were the brass mounts and the cut out design of the letters “U S N”.
General characteristics of the Navy Officer’s Sword
The most significant characteristic of the naval officers’ swords and what distinguished them from the regular swords of the enlisted men were the intricate designs that were used to emphasize their rank.
While the latter followed a relatively simple pattern, the swords of naval officers bore intricate features, from unique designs on the counter guards and knuckle bows to elaborately etched decorations on the blades.
Although the shape of the blade of the naval officers’ swords varied between straight and curved throughout history, its single-edged design remained a constant. The cause of this was that single-edged weapons were generally lighter than double-edged and provided easier maneuverability when boarding an enemy ship as well as during combat.
In the later years of the Age of Sail, manufacturers used the opportunity to adorn the stainless steel blades of naval officers with complex designs in order to elevate their significance.
Knuckle bow and guard
Both the knuckle bow and the counterguard were also used to highlight the prestige of the naval officers through their decorative designs.
The knuckle bow followed the standard P-shaped form and throughout the various models, it bore many different designs from a standard floral pattern to an ornate lion’s head. In some cases, it also featured different sword knots which were symbolically used to emphasize the prestige of the sword’s carrier.
The counterguard of naval officers’ swords were also typically quite robust and covered a large surface of the handle. This large surface was often used as a ‘canvas’ for manufacturers to illustrate different adornments.
Handle and pommel
Depending on the period they were used in, we can observe the use of many different materials for the handle of the naval officers’ swords.
From carved bones to simple cylinder wood and sheaths of iron, craftsmen often experimented with the type of design that would provide the best grip. It wasn’t until the later years that they began wrapping the handles in either leather or fish skin in order to obtain the desired firm grip.
Historically, the pommels of these swords were quite ornamental, featuring many different designs. The most noteworthy, however, might be the eagle’s head pommel which inspired many different unofficial names for these swords.
Navy Officers usually carried their swords in leather scabbards, typically strapped to a black leather sword belt. There are, however, examples of officers also carrying their swords in both fish skin and blued metal scabbards.
Overall length and width
Depending on the era they were used, the length of the swords varied, but this distinction wasn’t too great – ranging between 29½ and 37½ inches. As for the width, it generally followed the same pattern and stayed around 1 inch (2.5 cm).
Spanning from the mid-16th century to the mid-19th century, the Age of Sail was a crucial period in world history, shaping the development of global economies and empires. During this time, sailing ships controlled the seas for maritime trade and warfare. To enforce this naval domination, various weaponry was employed, though none were as noteworthy as the Naval Officers’ swords.
The sword was a crucial weapon for close combat during this time and it was used to protect the ship or when boarding an opposing vessel. The earliest variations of the naval officer’s sword were quite simple – cutlasses designed for functionality rather than elegance. However, as the role of naval officer evolved, so did the design of their sword.
The evolution of more sophisticated naval combat throughout the 18th century led to a shift in the style of naval officers’ swords. The simple design of the cutlass was replaced with the more elegant hanger sword, which featured both curved and straight blade designs.
The hanger was a relatively light sword, designed for easier maneuverability, thus often referred to as a small sword. It was typically carried by junior officers and midshipmen, whilst senior officers wore a more distinct sword, also known as a dress sword.
The development of the naval officers’ swords culminated in the 19th century. After the First Barbary War, Marine First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon was gifted a Mameluke sword as a sign of respect for the Marines’ actions during the war by Prince Hamet, the Ottoman Empire’s viceroy.
Upon his return to the United States, he was presented with an eagle’s head sword by the state of Virginia, modeled after the sword he was initially gifted. This design inspired the later designs for the naval officers’ swords which were eventually adopted by the Navy Department as well as the U.S. Marine Corps.
Like many other swords from this time period, the naval officer’s sword suffered a similar fate. The development of steam-powered ships and the introduction of firearms led to a slow decrease in the use of this sword. Although no longer a battle ready and issued weapon, the naval officer’s sword still carries a great significance in modern times.
The wearing of the sword is an important part of naval customs and traditions. During ceremonies and special events, it’s mandatory for naval officers to wear their swords which are often displayed as a part of full dress uniforms.
Not only is the NCO sword a reminder of the honor and sacrifices made by those who served before them, it also represents the core values that define the naval service.
In conclusion, naval officers’ swords are a symbol of authority and heritage, serving as a reminder of the history and traditions of naval service. Be it used for ceremonial purposes or as a decorative piece, these military swords are a true testament to dedication and bravery.
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