What is a cutlass sword?

Learn more about the cutlass sword, its history and its parts

A cutlass is a single-edged sword that is similar in appearance to the cavalry saber.

The cutlass sword was used among sailors starting in 17th century. It comes from the Italian word coltellaccio, which means a knife.

During the Golden Age of Piracy (1650-1720s), the cutlass was associated with the pirates who used it frequently in their sea raids. Thus, the cutlass is sometimes referred to as the pirate saber.

Pirate cutlass swordCutlass sword history

Pirates and navies used crude sea weapons from the ancient times until the Medieval Age. They did not have any specialized naval swords. Instead, they relied on battering rams (the prow of their ship was used to crash against the target ship), pikes, spears, crossbows and land-based infantry and cavalry swords.

The age of exploration in 16th-17th century corresponded to the rise of national navies. Sailors became a professionalized rank. Piracy likewise boomed when trade routes on the seas were opened.

Backswords were used in Europe in the late 16th century. Backswords were either straight or slightly curved swords with only one cutting edge, the unsharpened edge having the thickest width of the blade. Their main use was in the cavalry.

Later on, backswords became useful not only in land-based cavalry, but for the sailors as well. The cutlass, a type of backsword, was issued to the navy in 17th century. Pirates quickly adopted the use of cutlass sword; they procured their supply of cutlasses from the loots of fallen ships.

Parts of a Cutlass sword

The cutlass is a broad blade. It is shorter but thicker in width than a saber. The majority of cutlasses, particularly those of the 18th century French navy, are slightly curved. The fuller, a groove on the surface of the cutlass, runs from the base of the blade up to the tip.

The hilt of the cutlass sword has varying designs: ladled, cupped or basket. What is common in these designs is the knuckle guard, which extends from the foot of the blade to the pommel to protect the hand.

Functional cutlass swordUses of a cutlass swords

The cutlass is long enough to fit on a sword belt, but short and robust enough to be used for daily non-combative purposes: cutting mast ropes, wood, and deck canvas. The pirates preferred cutlass for its simplicity of use. Compared to the highly stylized sword fighting required of the rapier, the cutlass is a simple slashing weapon.

While the saber is ideal for land use, the cutlass pirate sword is ideal in sea-fighting shipboard encounters. The pirates usually fought close-combat in narrow spaces on the ship. With a cutlass, they can swing recklessly without it getting caught among the riggings.

Another good reason to use cutlass on ship decks is that it has both a fatal blade and an excellent hand protection in its guard. Its blade is wide and curving to produce considerable damage when it makes a hit. The knuckle guard also protects the hand of the pirate during clashes.

Antique navy cutlasses

Cutlass swords have been adopted as military weapons by the English, French, and American army starting from 18th century well into first half of 20th century. Today, these antique navy cutlasses are highly valued sword collectibles. Below is a list of some of the most popular antique cutlass swords:

French Naval Cutlass replicaEnglish military hanger and French navy cutlass swords

English military hanger was used in Revolutionary period in 19th century. It is the longer version of the cutlass, with almost similar characteristics.

The hanger has a copper wire wound over a band wrapped grip. A good example of an English military hanger is the Captain Jack Sparrow sword from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

The French naval cutlass features a blade that is thick and stout, but never heavy.

It was first introduced in 1801. Its curving blade, cupped hilt and fuller groove became a classic.

American military sword: Model 1860 Navy Cutlass

Model 1860 cutlass sword served as an American Civil War sword. It was also used later on during Spanish wars. Its design was patterned after French naval cutlass and produced by Ames Company of Massachusetts.

It has a grip covered in black leather wound over by brass wire, slightly curved blade, and cupped hilt.

Model 1860 Naval cutlass swordAmerican military sword: Model 1917 Navy Cutlass

The Model 1860 was replaced by Model 1917. The Model 1917 American naval cutlass was a short, cut-and-slash sword issued to enlisted navy soldiers as a sidearm weapon. It was in service in World War II and became obsolete by 1949.

The Model 1917 navy cutlass has a blade slightly curved, single-edged with the tip clipped. The grip has a textured wood with incised diamond pattern.

For the first time in the US cutlass design, the grip is secured by three copper rivets and fitted with a flat knuckle guard. The scabbard of the Model 1917 naval cutlass is black leather with blued iron tip.

American military sword: Model 1941 Navy Cutlass

While the Model 1917 was in production, the Model 1941 Navy cutlass was introduced in the opening months of World War II. It was produced in unknown number by several contractors. The Model 1941 cutlass sword was issued to the Pacific Theater personnel as an insignia of high rank and authority. Its production was stopped in 1956.

Both Model 1917 and Model 1941 cutlasses are similar, except for the knuckle guard, scabbard, and grip. The wooden grip of Model 1941 cutlass does not have any incised diamond pattern; its knuckle guard is cutout; and the scabbard is made of russet leather.

How to collect antique cutlass sword

Collecting antique cutlass sword is not easy. The cutlass does not have a long history as compared to other swords. References and researches on cutlass are also few. To help you out, here is our tips on how to collect antique cutlass sword:

1. Join sword clubs. Organizations of sword collectors are a great place where you can meet and talk to experts, collectors like you, and dealers. In this way, you can gather more information and you will have better confidence in purchasing antique cutlass swords.

2. Attend sword shows and exhibits. These are very good chances where you can see genuine antique cutlass swords, as well as talk to curators for tips on appraising antique swords.

3. Protect your investment through insurance. You should thoroughly check the insurance policy. There are antique cutlass swords, especially very valuable ones, which are not covered by the policy.

4. Check local laws. There are countries or states that set restrictions on possession and importation of deadly weapons like swords.

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