British 1796 Pattern Light Cavalry Sword
Curved single-edged blade with single fuller and hatchet point, 31¾ inches (~80.6cm) in length, 36¾ inches (~93.3cm) overall. Leather washer, iron stirrup P-shaped hilt with quillon, semicircular langets, iron backstrap and pommel cap. Ribbed wooden grip covered with pressed black leather. Plain black-painted steel scabbard with two bands and hanging rings.
This example shows some minor variations from the standard design of this pattern: the grip is ribbed differently from some examples, and the backstrap lacks the riveted ‘ears’. It also lacks official markings, both of its maker and government inspection marks. These features may indicate this is a version for yeomanry cavalry, or a commercial version, perhaps intended for export. Thousands of 1796s were produced by various Birmingham makers for both government and private buyers and exported to Europe, the United States and British colonies. Only those for government contracts were required to follow the official Pattern to the letter, while privately sold examples could deviate depending on the needs and budget of the customer.
The blade is bright with only small areas of patination, some old polishing marks and forging inconsistencies to the steel, some small nicks to its edge, mainly around the end of the fuller, one small patch of pitting near the point on one side. The hilt and backstrap are painted black, this paint is largely intact but chipped in places exposing the steel beneath. The grip has a large chip at the pommel end but this appears to predate the black paint, the grip is otherwise very sound and complete. The scabbard is free of dents, some scuffing and chipping to the paint likewise.
Designed by John Gaspard le Marchant, the 1796 Light Cavalry was the first British cavalry sword based not on tradition but on empirical analysis of what worked in combat. Le Marchant gained first-hand experience of cavalry fighting in the Flanders campaigns of 1793-95, and decided that other forces, particularly their Austrian allies, had superior equipment and training to the British:
“I have been busily engaged in making drawings of all the articles in the military equipages of our Allies which differ from our own… I have also paid particular observation to the mode of training the Austrian cavalry to the use of the sabre, in which their superiority over us is incredible.”
Swords in particular needed to change, the existing types being in his view heavy and poorly balanced. For the heavy cavalry he recommended a near-copy of the Austrian Model 1775, while for the light cavalry, inspired by “the expertly used scimitar blades of the Turks, Mamelukes, Moors and Hungarians” Le Marchant argued for a lighter, shorter curved sword that could both cut and thrust. The design that emerged was in fact a pure cutting sword, very broad bladed, more strongly curved and with a simpler profile than its predecessor the 1788. In service the 1796 proved its fearsome cutting power, as an officer of the French Chasseurs recounted:
“Out of every twenty blows aimed by them, nineteen missed. If, however, the edge of the blade found its mark only once, it was a terrible blow, and it was not unusual to see an arm cut clean from the body.”
Le Marchant died in battle leading cavalry at Salamanca in 1812, but his swords carried on his legacy, with the regular Army until 1821 and with yeomanry units for decades longer. The Prussian 1811 ‘Blucher’ sabre was a very close replica, and in India in particular the blade was a natural fit with an existing tradition of slashing sword technique. Spare blades were used by native horsemen, typically mounted into their familiar tulwar hilts, and the East India Company’s ‘Pattern 301’ sword, again a very close replica, was still in service with Indian cavalry units as late as the 1870s.