Weapons: The 1796 Light Cavalry Saber in the War of 1812

For Americans, the year 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.

What kind of edged-weapons gear and literature can we dig up from this period?

—by J. Christoph Amberger

If you ever find yourself in the mood to see first-hand how a place looks like after 50-plus years of Democratic administration, I say “come on down” to Baltimore.

Long-abandoned by the financially responsible and procreationally ambitious, it’s a strange mix of Third World  dilapidation and East Bloc neglect, 19th-century bluecollar modesty, with some recent but mostly characterless patches of crony capitalism thrown in. “Charm City’s” saving grace is the old city center, which—at least for the time being—preserves some of patrician red-brick backdrop of the 19th century.

Baltimore Battle of North Poin monumentIn a place where urban beautification consists of placing steel plates over potholes and tax liens on crumbling rowhomes, imagine my surprise when I passed the Battle Monument last week—and found it cleaned, restored, and looking like somebody actually gave a damn.

Even the timing appears to be sensible—it commemorates the Battle of North Point in 1815, Baltimore’s direct brush with the War of 1812.

The three years of the war, fought by various means on a variety of disconnected battlefields from Canada to New Orleans, saw Washington, DC, go up in flames and the U.S. national anthem written as the British fleet shelled Fort McHenry. For weapons collectors, it saw the issue of the 1812 Starr Saber. Antiquarians peg the publication of one of the “first” American military sword manual—a now quite rare book that was published in Baltimore, out of all places.

Sincerest Forms of Flattery

The United States declared war against Britain on June 18, 1812. That same month, a Baltimore “Teacher of Military Tacticks” by the name of Robert H. Craig capitalized on the renewed wave of American patriotism by publishing a small, leather-bound quarto, 215 pages strong and beautified by 26 leaves of rather crudely drawn copperplates.

In his Introduction to the Rules and regulations for the sword exercise of the cavalry, Craig states confidently:

“Having examined the different works on the Sword Exercise and the Drills and Evolutions for the Cavalry, I take the liberty of recommending this work to the Cavalry of the United States, as possessing advantages over any other work now in use.” (p. iii)

It’s this statement that frequently induces antiquarian book sellers to list this book as one of the first American books on military sword exercise. A fencing historian, however, will not be able to shake a constant feeling of déjà vu while reading the treatise. With good reason. Because Craig is not the author of the work, but merely compiled two earlier publications into this two-for-one mini-anthology on cavalry tactics.

Indeed, the first 104-page segment of Craig’s work, dealing with the Sword Exercise, is identical to the two editions of Robert Hewes’ Rules and regulations for the sword exercise of the cavalry, both published simultaneously in Boston and Philadelphia in 1802 as “The First” and “Second American, from the London Edition”, respectively.

The book is illustrated with twenty-eight excellent engraved plates by William Norman (who also signs responsible as publisher for the “First American” or Boston edition). Norman not only was a Book and Chart Seller (as advertised on the title of this edition) but is also counted among the important early American engravers.

The “Second American” or Philadelphia edition, was published by an M. Carey, and in all aspects is identical with the Boston edition.

The plates—like Craig’s a decade later—depict sword exercises showing a uniformed soldier demonstrating the actions, many of which are conducted on horseback, as well as one showing the “six cuts” to be aimed at the opponent’s head. (And, of course, in continuation of the lines, at bridle hand and horse.) The only differences between Craig and Hewes are minor updates on the uniform and headgear of the depicted trooper, as well as a few turns of phrase in the Introduction

Hewes identifies himself as “Teacher of the Sword Exercise for Cavalry” and declares:

“Having carefully examined the following work on the Sword Exercise, I find it the best now extant and take this opportunity respectfully to recommend it to the Cavalry of New England in general, and of the State of Massachusetts in particular.” (pp. iii-iv.)

But those searching for Yankee originality in the Hewes editions will surely be disappointed. Because his work is a near verbatim copy of the most influential military sword manual of the 19th century, the British Rules and Regulations for the Sword Exercise of the Cavalry, developed by John Gaspard Le Marchant (whose initials JGLM conclude the text on page 90), edited by Adjutant General William Faucett and published in London by the War Office in 1796, with multiple later reprints.

Leave it to Cleaver

Le Marchant—who kindly signed one of the copies now in the Amberger Collection—wasn’t the man to leave good enough alone. In collaboration with the Birmingham sword cutler Henry Osborn, he designed new saber patterns to go with the new drills: A heavy, straight-bladed weapon for the Heavy Cavalry—famous today as Sharpe’s Sword from the Bernard Cornwell series. And a murderous-looking curved saber known as the Pattern 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre.

The cleaver tip of an American 1796 patttern saber

This weapon’s most distinguishing characteristic is that the blade widens near the point into a machete-like cleaver. The pronounced curvature diverges almost 3″  from the straight, with the point well above the base line. The blade varied from 32.5 to 33 inches in length and had a single, 1″-broad fuller on each side. (Later versions reduced the size of the fuller and width of the cleaver point.)

The simple “stirrup” hilt consists of a single knucklebow with langets (which often were removed by the users). The iron backstrap of the grooved, leather-covered wooden grip had “ears” riveted through the tang of the blade to give the hilt and blade a very secure connection.

A British Pattern 1796 Light Cavalry Saber

There is some variety in weapons of this type, based partly on who used them (or had them custom-assembled) and where there were adopted:

The hilts of officers’ weapons could be made of brass, with and without “ears,” using different materials for the grip. Depending on rank and wealth, the blade might be blued or gilded or both. Apparently, officers also meddled with the setting, angling the tang so the point was in line with the root of the blade. Troopers are reported to have removed the lagnets.

Made in America

Given the popularity of the Light Cavalry Saber on the non-Francophone Continent during the Napoleonic Wars (which, of course, coincide with the War of 1812) and the prominent position of La Marchant’s plagiarized manual, it shouldn’t be surprising that a fair number of American soldiers and volunteers also armed themselves with 1796 Pattern sabers.

The tense relations between the United States and Britain in the years following the Revolutionary War make it probable that only a limited number of British-made weapons made it across the pond. The French, with whom strong trading connections existed, didn’t manufacture this kind of blade at all. But given the American proclivity to copy British examples—reminiscent of Chinese practices today—it stands to assume that a fair number of 1796-type blades was turned out by American blade makers.

The Hilt of an American 1796-Pattern Light Cavalry Saber carried in the War of 1812

We have examined several such weapons with excellent provenance—one saber being carried by a Maryland relative of James Fenimore Cooper. The one specimen in the Amberger Collection (see above) has a brass hilt from which one langet was removed.  The grip is made of horn, exquisitely carved in a small, tight diamond-pattern. I consider it the most terrifying blade in my collection.

Playing with your Food

This is, of course, not a “fencing” weapon. The hilt provides little protection for the hand and lower arm, and its pronounced curvature is intended to be drawn with the combined force of shoulder, elbow, and wrist—creating large openings to the swinging attacker. The 1796 was made to be used from horseback, against other mounted troopers and their horses (especially their undefendable left rear)—or ideally against the backs of fleeing foot-soldiers.

Just how nasty a piece of work was this weapon? Generally, I dislike the cutting exercises performed on suspended pieces of meat. (Mostly because I think it’s a waste of good meat!)

Nevertheless, I’m including a short video that shows the product testers of Cold Steel taking their handsome replica of the 1796 out for a ride. While no tests were performed against meat wrapped in uniform-grade wool fabric, the bite of the cleaver is quite impressive.

(And no, we’re not getting paid to plug Cold Steel—although we’re great fans of their fine knives!)

The type more directly linked to the War of 1812 is the 1812 Starr Saber, which closely resembles the 1796 if you ignore its angled hilt and clipped point. On March 4 of that year Nathan Starr had signed a contract for 5,000 of them with Purveyor of Public Supplies, Tench Coxe. The first 1,000 of the  1812 design were completed by November of 1812, when the pattern was changed. You can read up on the history of this sword right here.

(Our friends at Lion’s Gate Arms & Armour currently have an excellent specimen of the 1812-13 for sale.)

The skirmishes and campaigns along the northern front probably were still fought without the 1812 Starr saber—considering the production and distribution time. The 1815 Battle of North Point may have involved some of the new Starr sabers. But I consider it reasonable to assume that the American defenders—especially the militia and volunteers—still may have carried a number of the Americanized 1796 pattern into battle.

“Se non è vero, è ben trovato.”

For more on the strange, contorted relationship between American swordplay and its British contemporaries, check out our article “Boston Tea and Mad King George.”

3 responses to “Weapons: The 1796 Light Cavalry Saber in the War of 1812

  1. Pingback: Weapons: The 1796 Light Cavalry Saber in the War of 1812 | Fencing Gear 365

  2. In the section ‘Leave it to the cleaver’ you mention a 2″ fuller. Could this be a typo? The fuller on my 1796 is about 1″.

    Cheers,

    Stefan

  3. Christoph Amberger

    You’re right! It should be 1″!

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