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Old 9th September 2018, 12:16 AM   #1
M ELEY
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Default An American War of 1812 era cutlass

A recent purchase from CutlassCollector/David. This is an American private puchase naval cutlass dating to c.1800-15 period. Having done some research on the piece and also having seen similar cutlasses, I feel comfortable with the time period, classification and country of origin.

The single knucklebow stirrup hilt is of the 'reverse P' style, which I was surprised to learn didn't appear until after the m1796 British cavalry sword came about. It was only after that model that the reverse P became immensely popular. Around this time (1800-05), we begin to see British and American patterns adopting the very characteristic knucklebow. For numerous examples of British naval swords with said guard, see Gilkerson's 'Boarders Away'. American swords followed suit with the reverse P in te 1812 era, with makers James Winner, Nathan Starr, William Rose, John Henry, Henry Deringer, Daniel Henkels, and Dunbar & Leonard.(Swords and Sword Makers of the War of 1812, R Bezdek).

Private purchase naval cutlass production still remained the express responsibility of the shipping companies that were placing the orders. In other words, just like during the American Revolution, when it came to supplying the many merchantmen for defence against enemies or as boarding weapons for attacks (privateering), the lowest bidder to make cheap but effective pieces would always win out. Private purchase buying might mean a small order or it could be quite large, depending on the size of vessel or number of vessels. As in the Rev War period, both the British and American private purchase sea swords mostly folowed the patterns of existing naval issue culass and officer's swords, but had a 'flair' all their own when it came to cost, materials, and design. Many of the private purchase had legitimate quality blades (but not always), matched with a simple, even crude blacksmith-made guard (see 'Boarders Away, pg 87.)

The grip on this sword has a plain wooden handle, a common American trait. This feature isn't unique to the 1800 era, but at this time, they began to take on an almost tool-like shape, with a bulbous swelled end towards the pommel area. I did do a repair to the grip, which I rarely do, but was concerned the split wood might get worse over time.

One might queston that this is a naval piece, what with its single knuckle bow, reverse Ps found on cavalry pieces and a blade that might esemble the old m1796 in a way. I would counter those arguments by noting that there are actually many examples of single knucklebow cutlasses in collections (see 'American Swords: From the Philip Medicus Collection', Norm Flayderman, plates 83a, 83b, 83c, 92a, 92b, 92c,9a, 97b, 97c). Also in Flayderman's book one will see plain tooled handles on several of the above mentioned swords.

The key evidence that this is naval is the japanned iron hilt, the lacquer so thick to the 'pommel' area that one can barely make out the tang, which is peened through the back of the grip. The black surface was put on sea service swords to prevent rusting in the salty air. Secondly, this monster blade with the swollen end is blunt for three-forths its length, with only the tip bearing an edge. This exactly coresponds with other naval cutlass of the period, where the blunt end could snap bones and crack skulls, while the edge tip could inflict gruesome wounds.
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Last edited by M ELEY : 9th September 2018 at 01:32 AM.
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Old 9th September 2018, 12:32 AM   #2
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Default More pics-

A few more views. Note the broadening tip, falchian-like...
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Last edited by M ELEY : 9th September 2018 at 01:02 AM.
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Old 9th September 2018, 12:34 AM   #3
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Default Suportive pics of swords

Here are other swords of the ca. 1800-15 era for comparison of tooled wood hilts, reverse R knucklebow and guard construction. Note the tooled wood grip on the Baltimore cutlass 2nd down. Also, the reverse P American eaglehead.
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Last edited by M ELEY : 9th September 2018 at 12:45 AM.
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Old 9th September 2018, 02:46 PM   #4
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A nice buy Mark, congratulations. I like the "primitive" look. Are you going to clean the blade any, or leave it as it is ?
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Old 9th September 2018, 03:13 PM   #5
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Hello Colin and thanks for your comments. Yes, I also like the primitive look and simplicity of private purchase examples.

I felt guilty enough fixing the cracked hilt (pic of the original here), so I'll probably leave the 'blemishes' alone. Don't want to clean it up too much.
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Old 9th September 2018, 06:11 PM   #6
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Hi Mark,

Great cutlass!

Regards, CC
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Old 9th September 2018, 08:39 PM   #7
M ELEY
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Thank you, David! I'm told the seller was a notorious Scottish pirate!


Thanks for agreeing to sell it to me. I'm glad to have it for my collection. I am still under the opinion that you blokes in Europe have a much better selection than we do here in the states. Honestly, I live in the southern U.S. and don't find swords like this. I'll occasionally find a gem or two.
Mark
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Old 18th September 2018, 02:40 PM   #8
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Sorry but to me the grip looks like a more modern tool handle. The grip color from sizing to the ferrule seems to attest to that and consider a linoleum or other work knife handle and there you go.

The Rose bladed/Wolf eagle hilt as well looks like a modern reconstruction of the grip but it is represented in books as old.

Best
GC

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Old 18th September 2018, 07:08 PM   #9
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Hello Glenn,

Possibly true. I had considered that when I first saw the crack...a tool handle split and fitted over the old tang. The only thing is the pics are deceptive. The grip actually fits perfectly into the ferrule and although lighter in color to the rest of the wood grip, it has a mellow patina, indicating age. Again, still a possible replacement, but it must have been from some time ago.
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Old 2nd October 2018, 07:12 PM   #10
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Talking Possible proof of contemporary hilt

I am willing to accept the possibility that the grip on this cutlass might be a replacement, but I am still of the opinion that it is contemporary with it and a replacement in its working life, not a modern fashioning. I base this on two points. First off, the pics don't show the rich patina to the wood, even to the inner split in the piece and to where part of the grip has chipped away. Two, it would have been nearly impossible to fit a tool handle on this piece in modern times without taking apart the hilt, which appears undisturbed. The knucklebow has undisturbed black lacquer, the fuller fully accepts the grip (the wood isn't cut off, but ftis into it) is intact, etc.

Finally, I have included some hilts on cutlasses of the period. You will note that many of the grips are plain, crude iron and/or wood, of varying shapes (including a 'tool handle' appearance, which seems to have become popular in the Federalist period), often turned on a lathe. One has to accept that private purchase is the key word here. If you are looking for nice, cast iron ribbed grips or fine swelled wooden grips, you are forgetting that these swords were purely utilitarian, not inspected by any government body or legislature and made during the period of war when the lowest bidder got the job of making mass quantities of the crude beasts (I love them anyway! )
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Old 2nd October 2018, 07:15 PM   #11
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Default Here's another...

This is from Moore's 'Weapons of the Revolution and Accoutrements', but I suspect this sword actually dates to the War of 1812. Sheet steel guards and maple grips (this one very closely matching mine) were common, especially on the so called Baltimore patterns.
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Old 10th February 2019, 11:38 PM   #12
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With respect to the use of a British cavalry sabre "...the blunt end could snap bones and crack skulls" my 4X Great- grandfather William Kelly was on the wrong end of one of these in May 1778. Thanks to the skill of one Dr. Wilford, a British surgeon in Philadelphia, who "...dressed the Wound...and took from it a part of the Scull", I am here to enjoy this site.
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Old 11th February 2019, 01:41 AM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JamesKelly
With respect to the use of a British cavalry sabre "...the blunt end could snap bones and crack skulls" my 4X Great- grandfather William Kelly was on the wrong end of one of these in May 1778. Thanks to the skill of one Dr. Wilford, a British surgeon in Philadelphia, who "...dressed the Wound...and took from it a part of the Scull", I am here to enjoy this site.



James, thank you so much for adding this interesting note!!! It really adds dimension to the actual use of these weapons to have these kinds of real time experiences passed down in family history. It is often surprising to see how many sword injuries were actually from blunt force trauma.
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Old 13th February 2019, 12:10 AM   #14
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Welcome to the Forum, James! Sorry I missed your post earlier. It was a simple fact that it would have been impossible back in the day to train sailors in the fine art of fencing. Despite the glamour of the old Errol Flynn movies, with the exception of perhaps the captain and officers, most of the old salts would be lucky to even get a cutlass rather than a belay pin or some such. Cutlass drill was very primitive and simple, consisting of mostly clumsy strikes and the head and upper limbs and an occasional slashing blow and stab to the mid-section.

Most injuries delivered by cutlasses (especially in the later periods of Fighting Sail (1790's-1800's) were delivered to the enemy's scalp and skull with the blunt crushing edge of the cutlass. If you could 'ring the man's bell', stun him or knock him senseless, lacerate his scalp and put blood in his eyes, you could take the fight out of him. In Gilkerson's "Boarders Away", he prints an actual list of casualties from one such boarding raid and it is shocking to see the amount of head injuries inflicted.

It should be noted that the American naval powers took this very seriously and the U.S. were the one naval power that developed a naval helmet/headgear made of tarred leather with deflecting leather slats to decrease the number of injuries from said blows.
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Old 13th February 2019, 07:12 PM   #15
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Beautifully described Mark!!! and this truly puts things in perspective as far as the actual 'combat' and 'boarding' circumstances in the days of sail. Most of these guys were anything but combat trained and were certainly not fencers!!
Nobody really kept these weapons up as far as sharpening etc. and that was truly a problem with most issue weapons.

In the Civil War, despite all the colorful images of sabre wielding cavalry there were so few injuries ever recorded as sword wounds that references on the medical aspects of the war only mentioned several cases. These were invariably blunt force trauma to the head....not cuts.

Actually dull blades have been a pretty regular situation it seems in many campaigns in history....the British cavalry in India were always complaining of how ineffective their sabres were, In the 1820s when the stout M1796 sabres were replaced with a blade supposed to be more effective in thrusting, the older swords were phased out.
Later the British troops were amazed and horrified at how effective the Indian warriors were with their swords........and even more so when they discovered the warriors were using thier OLD SABRE blades!!!
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