By the 1860s swords played a lesser role in war than they did in earlier periods. Even so, they still had a vital place in some situations. Here, Mykael Ray looks at some of the most important swords at the time of the US Civil War and how they were used.


History has a lot to tell us about where we came from, and how it is we have everything we use every day. With all the important developments we have made through the ages, the advance in weaponry has always been key to a people’s survival. It is during the transition between these advances where things start to get interesting.

The use of the sword was vital in the ancient world, but it has become an obsolete technology.  The US Civil War was part of the beginning of the end for the production of swords for any practical combat use. Firearms were beginning to become more advanced, but the sword still had certain advantages. Below is a short list of swords that still had their place during this transitional period.

A US Cavalry Sabre, 1860s.

A US Cavalry Sabre, 1860s.

1832 Foot Artillery Sword

Crafted in 1832, the foot artillery sword was in circulation through 1872. It was modeled after the French foot artillery sword made in 1816, which in turn was designed after the ancient Roman gladius. Its hilt was made of brass that had a 4 inch cross-guard, its first difference from the gladius, which had no cross-guard at all. The blade itself was straight and double edged with a length of around 19 inches, which is dwarfed by the gladius’ 48 inch blade.

This weapon was not very popular, and wasn’t widely used despite the fact that thousands of them were issued. Its lack of range and minimal hand protection were most likely the largest deterrents, but it was a viable option for extremely close combat. The truly effective use for it was made in the swamps of the South, where it was most commonly used for bushwhacking. It became less of a weapon, and more of a tool for clearing vegetation and forming paths. The French make this assumption more valid with the nickname they gave it, coupe choux. Translated, this means “cabbage cutter”.

Though it remains uncertain how suitable it was for combat, it had its place in military dress.  Not serving as ceremonial swords either, they were considered to be more ornamental than practical, and would have been worn by an artillery regiment during formal occasions.


1860 Light Cavalry Sabre

Designed after the 1840 heavy cavalry sabre, this sword was made slightly smaller and lighter to make it easier to wield. The light cavalry sabre had a 35 inch curved steel blade. Its hilt was made of brass, and had a full brass hand guard that would reach all the way down to the pummel, and was carried in an iron scabbard.

Carried by most any soldier riding a horse, this sabre was mainly used during cavalry charges, where they would ride their horse’s head on into a line of foot soldiers, using the speed and height advantage to cut through enemy lines. This tactic was still popular due to the heavy use of the slow reloading muskets among foot soldiers. The curved design behind the sabre was to optimize the slashing motion used when attacking at speed and height.

Off of the horse, this weapon became more problematic. Its iron scabbard made it too clunky to carry on foot, as the material added extra weight, and the noise it would make gave away its wielder’s position. So, instead of wearing it on their person, they would attach it to their horse, making it readily available for the next cavalry charge, and leaving it behind with the horse when the rider had to dismount and carry on while on foot.

Though not the 1860 light cavalry sabre specifically, officers would use their sabres to issue orders as well. When giving orders to a regiment, visual cues would be more important than a vocalized order, either due to the need to be silent, or the possibility of overbearing background noise. Officers would waive and point, using their sabre as an extension of their arm to signal to soldiers out of earshot, or in the back of a formation.


1860 Cutlass

The 1860 cutlass sword was made specifically for the navy. It is often confused for a sabre, and based on its shape it is easy to see why. The differences however do make it an entirely different sword, despite the fact that it was designed with the sabre in mind. The blade of the sword still has a curve on it, but is overall much straighter and wider than the sabre’s. It is much shorter as well, being 26 inches long. The biggest difference is in the hilt, where it sports a full brass plate for the hand guard instead of a brass cage.

The design was to make fighting in close quarters as effective as possible. It was made short enough to be maneuverable in tight spaces, even when worn on the hip, yet long and heavy enough to be both a practical weapon and rigging tool. During ship boarding ventures, combat was often too tight to have effective use of most firearms, which was amplified even more when going below deck. This is why the cutlass was designed for not only slicing, but also thrusting, making it the weapon of choice for sailors.

When not in combat, the cutlass still proved useful on deck. During an emergency away from shore, it could easily have been used to cut ropes from riggings, and was heavy enough to chop through fallen boards. It would have been a much faster and effective means than using a knife.


Bowie Knife

Practically a sword itself, the bowie knife’s blade was between five and twelve inches long, and fairly consistently an inch and a half wide. Some have even been made to be 24 inches long. The blade is sharp on one side, and the tip is referred to as clip point, which is to say that the blade tapers in towards the point on the unsharpened side of the blade either directly, or concavely.

The uses for this knife are vast, making it the choice utility knife of the civil war. Its common uses were for hunting and skinning, and for self-defense. It has also been known to be used as a razor for shaving, a small hatchet for splitting wood, and a makeshift paddle; most likely while it was still in its leather casing.

Self-defense is the aspect that made it so popular, and is the reason it received its name. It was named after James Bowie, who made use of his knife in a brawl that preceded a public duel in which he killed a man who had just injured him by shooting him, bashing him on the head, and then stabbing him in the sternum. The story was so inspirational that even to this day, that knife is known as the Bowie knife.

Even though swords were still being used later in history, the Civil War proved that their effectiveness in battle was coming to a close. Mounted cavalry would soon start replacing their sabres for newly developed repeating rifles like the Carbine, and the development of the bowie knife proved that a short sword like the foot artillery sword was no longer a convenient secondary weapon. Regardless of where the weapons ended up, they played their part in military history, and still made an impact in a world where they coexisted with firearms.


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Dr. Howard G. Lanham “Enlisted Swords, Model-1832 Foot Artillery Sword”

Ron S. “Model 1860 Light Cavalry Saber”

Richard Meckel “Swords”

Norwich University “The Most Important Developments in Human History”


Image reference