Sabre (Napoleonic)

During the Napoleon wars the main weapon of the cavalryman was the sabre. Its usage far outweighed the use of lances or even firearms from horse back and due to the dashing image many cavalry units actually never used firearms issued relying on their swords instead. All the countries involved in the conflict had their own patterns of sabre and this depended on whether the most effective attack method was deemed to be a slash or a stab. For those favouring the slash, which was often the light cavalry or Hussar units, the weapon was curved in an Hungarian style with a sharp edge. For those favouring the stab the weapon was often heavier with dull edges but a sharp heavy point. Heavy cavalry often favoured this and the sword was held almost like a short lance. This is not surprising as heavy cavalry often wore body armour (a cuirass), which would be largely proof against a slashing weapon. The advantage of the slashing attack was that the swordsman could attack and defend more easily whereas a stab / thrust if missed left the swordsman open to a counterattack.

French heavy and medium cavalry (Cuirassiers and dragoons) were equipped with a thrusting weapon with a heavy brass hilt whose weight helped bring the blade up, whereas the French light cavalry were armed Hungarian style with a slashing weapon. The German style Pallasch was a heavy sword with a straight blade suitable for cutting and was favoured by many nations’ heavy cavalry. Early British versions of the weapon had a hatch like blade end making it impossible to thrust with, so many units ground the weapon into a point at the end to add versatility. Compared to the French thrusting weapon it was heavy and clumsy a ‘chopper like’ weapon especially when fatal blows in combat normally came from a thrust although the Pallasch did inflict horrendous damage in combat. With typical slowness the British army did not adopt a thrusting sword for cavalry until 1908 just before the end of cavalry’s useful life on the battlefield.

As mentioned, light cavalry sabres were curved in an Eastern European/ Hungarian style due to the long tradition of light cavalry coming from those areas. Once again although the French weapon was also capable of thrusting the British swords had such a heavy blade only a cut was useable to which one critic said they were only useful for chopping firewood. Cavalry drill involved set moves with a stiff elbow and flexible wrist but in reality cavalry combat was often a confused melee of individual combats also adding to the Cavalry’s dashing and knightly image but doing little to improve battlefield effectiveness.

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How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T (12 November 2005) Sabre, Napoleonic, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_sabre_napoleonic.html

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