FRENCH CAVALRY SWORDS
As with most European countries in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the French cavalryman carried a sword similar to that of other nations. It would probably have been either brass or iron-hilted with a long, straight blade. A sword based on the “Walloon” pattern (Model 1679) was carried by cavalry officers during the latter half of the seventeeth century.
There followed a series of cavalry patterns based on this hilt form. In the mid-1700’s, dragoons -carried brass-hilted swords with single and S-Bar hilts. Unlike the English military, the French had already formalised a system of regulation sword models some years earlier, producing quite an extensive range of models for different branches of the cavalry.
In the 1770’s, an attractive fan or shell-shaped hilt was adopted for both officers and troopers. Pommels were round or ovoid. Later examples during the Napoleonic period had a flat, cap pommel. Officers’ blades were also blued.
The appearance of Napoleon Bonaparte coincided with a great revival of ancient classical designs, particularly in architecture. It was not lost on French sword makers who turned out a series of superb, classically inspired cavalry swords.
Napoleon shrewdly understood the importance of appearance amongst his army, and many new cavalry sword designs were introduced during this period. One of the most influential of designs was the Model ANIX CuIrassier Trooper’s Sword. It was a heavy sword, with a four-bar cast brass hilt and long, two-fullered and single-edged blade. It was a fearsome weapon and caused more fatal injuries to British troops, than the hatchet-bladed swords of the British Heavy Cavalry regiments. The light cavalry soldier carried an elegant three-bar brass-hilted sword with curved blade. An officer’s version is also encountered.
Hussar regiments favoured a stirrup-hilted light cavalry sword. Elite regiments such as the Imperial Guard Dragoons carried a sword with brass hilt, cap pommel and knucklebow, with two supplementary bars holding an oval, upon which was placed a silvered or brass flaming grenade badge. The Mousquetaires de la Garde du Roi, who acted as the royal bodyguard to Louis XVIII during the short period after Napoleon abdicated his throne, carried a very elegant sword, similar to the Imperial Guard Dragoons, but having a cross with fleur-de-lys and sun rays, within the hilt oval. Swords issued to cavalry troopers were invariably marked on the spine of the blade with the year, month and place of manufacture.
From the 1700’s, the town of Klingenthal, in Alsace, became a centre of sword making for the French military. It was the official government manufactory, and produced an enormous quantity of military swords both before and after the French Revolution. Blades produced during the monarchy period are marked either with a Royal designation e.g. “Rle” or Imperial (Bonapartist) designation e.g. “Imple”.
After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the design of cavalry swords was relatively unchanged, with only minor alterations made to the hilt (Model 1816). For a period, heavy cavalry troopers abandoned the straight blade in favour of a slightly curved version.
FRENCH INFANTRY SWORDS
The French military had a far greater variety of infantry swords than most of their European neighbours. The idea of rank was very important and there were many different designs of sword carried, from the infantry private, sergeant, captain and through to General Officer. The early years after the Revolution created a series of very distinctive infantry swords, including those carried by the Garde Nationale and Garde Nationale Chasseur. They featured pommels with helmets of neo-classical form and half basket brass guards that carried emblems placed in cartouche.
A common type of sword carried by most French infantry soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars (alongside the musket and socket bayonet) was the “sabre briquet”, a brass hilted short hanger. It had a curved, single-edged blade with brass and leather mounted scabbard. This sword was widely copied throughout Europe and adopted by many countries during the early to mid-1800’s. It was noticeably rejected by Britain for a time, although a Gladius sword was introduced very briefly for the Land Transport Corps during the 1850’s.
Napoleon Bonaparte was always keen to reward his best regiments with either honours or special uniform and equipment privileges. An example of this was the weapon carried by the Sappers of the Old Guard. They were given a special uniform of bearskin, felling axe, apron, and more importantly, a large brass, cockerel-hilted sword. They were also allowed to grow a beard! This sword is currently being copied and examples are of reasonably high quality and can easily fool the beginner.
In the early 1800’s, a very distinctive and classically inspired infantry sidearm was introduced. It had a wide, leaf-shaped blade combined with a scaled brass grip. This Model 1816 and the later Model 1833 Foot Artillery Sidearm, were based on the Ancient Roman Gladius Sword. It is best known to collectors as the “cabbage chopper”. Vast quantities were produced. It seems ubiquitous at arms shows and auctions. The standard of manufacture of these swords was very high, but its military effectiveness must be questioned.
The carrying of a sword for the ordinary ranks in the French Army declined during the latter part of the nineteenth century, as the reliance on the musket, rifle and bayonet became dominant. This was not so for officers. Infantry officers had always carried a straight-bladed sword throughout the eighteenth century. It usually took the form of a smallsword with stylised pommel and stirrup guard. These pommel styles ranged from plain ovoid to classical helmet and lionshead.
The shell guard was also classically inspired, with embossed decoration of victory wreaths, stands of trophies, and figures in classical poses. This style continued throughout the Napoleonic Wars. Blades were also frequently finished in blue and gilt. The vogue for the classical continued in the design of other infantry swords, including a wide range of curved sabres of light cavalry form. There was no great official desire to regulate these swords and officers were allowed a great deal of freedom to choose whatever style of sword they wished to carry.
The standardisation of cutlasses came a little earlier for the French Navy, with the introduction of a Model 1771 (modified in 1782/83) Cutlass. The hilt was brass with a ribbed grip and prominent pommel cap. It was similar to contemporary grenadier hilts, but differed slightly in having a three-bar hilt. The year XI (1802-1803) witnessed a new model that has become very familiar to collectors (although not as common as its British counterpart). The large, half basket guard was of blackened iron with an octagonal grip and the blade slightly curved and wide fullered. A later model (1833) saw the addition of an engraved anchor to the blade. The last pattern of French cutlass was the Model 1872. It comprised a hilt of steel plate, shaped grip and a perforated guard. French officers of the eighteenth century followed the British practice of carrying swords similar to those in the army. Around 1800, a more uniform sword was introduced. It was still based on a light cavalry officers sword and was only differentiated by the addition of an engraved anchor to the long hilt langets.
A further pattern of 1805 saw the removal of langets and the placing of an inset anchor to the crossguard. In 1837, a completely new sword for naval officers was introduced. It comprised a gilt brass half basket hilt with a very decorative shell guard, incorporating an anchor, royal crown and martial trophies. There were slight changes to the hilt in 1848 (removal of the royal crown), 1852 and 1870.
© French Napoleonic Swords – a Guide for Collectors article by Harvey Withers – www.harveywithers.co.uk