British 1889 Pattern Infantry Staff Sergeant's Sword, 1st Volunteer Battalion Black Watch?
Straight single-fullered spear-pointed blade, pierced infantry ‘Gothic’ style hilt with crown and cypher of Queen Victoria inset within an oval. Wire-bound shagreen grip, brown leather washer. Blade length 32¾ inches, 38¼ inches overall. Steel scabbard with two fixed hanging rings.
The flat of the blade is stamped at the forte on one side with the manufacture date 12 ’91 , an issue stamp ’03 for 1903, a crown inspection mark and a Birmingham repair mark. It is stamped on the other side with a broad arrow and ‘WD’, indicating War Department property, another crown inspection mark with ‘W’ for Wilkinson and an ‘X’ indicating that the blade passed a manufacturer’s bending test. The spine of the blade is stamped with another Birmingham repair mark.
The inside of the hilt next to the quillon is stamped with ‘5/04 - V - B.COY. - R. H. - I ’. The scabbard is identically stamped on one side of the throat piece, confirming that sword and scabbard are an original pair. I interpret this as a unit mark indicating B Company, 1st Volunteer Battalion, the Royal Highlanders (Black Watch). The scabbard's throat piece is also stamped on its trailing edge with 'W' for Wilkinson, and the manufacture date '91.
British Army sergeants continued to carry swords as a sign of rank even after they were withdrawn from the basic infantryman. Unlike officers, who purchased and owned their own swords, sergeants were issued their swords from regimental stores like a musket or bayonet, and the swords remained government property. Regiments only needed a small stock of sergeants’ swords and would only have disposed of them when obsolete or broken, so the sergeant’s models are rarer than the officer’s today. In 1852 swords were withdrawn from infantry sergeants - only the more senior staff-sergeants continued to carry them, but a diverse range of designs had developed, five different models of sword used in various corps of the Army.
The 1889 Pattern sword was introduced to standardise these many types into one useful weapon for everyone (except Highlanders, who kept their distinctive swords). At the suggestion of the Duke of Cambridge the final design came in two versions to better match the dress of different units: one with a gilt brass hilt and one with steel. Gilt brass was used for regular infantry, Engineers, and Medical Corps, while steel was used for Rifles, Artillery and other Department Corps. Its straight blade could be seen as presaging the thrusting-oriented design of the new officer’s blade which would be introduced in 1892, but the sergeant’s is wider and still has a cutting edge on one side, more traditional in form.
With this history in mind the identification of this sword to the Black Watch immediately presents an issue: as a Highland unit, Black Watch staff sergeants should have carried a Scottish broadsword, not the 1889 pattern sword for regular infantry. Why the mismatch? Assuming the attribution is correct, the explanation might come from its issue date 5/04 i.e. May 1904, shortly after the end of the Boer War.
Equipment was in short supply for some time because of attrition due to loss or breakage over the course of the unexpectedly gruelling war in South Africa – a new model of infantry sergeant’s sword was introduced in 1905 for just this reason, made with surplus cavalry trooper’s blades as an economy measure. Highland broadswords may have taken even longer to resupply. If not enough Highland sergeant’s swords were available, retrieving this sword from stores to fill the gap might have been acceptable practice for a volunteer unit.
The blade has no edge damage, with cleaned pitting overall giving it a bright but frosted appearance with visible polishing marks, and some dark speckled pitting remaining towards the tip and along the edge. The brass hilt, backstrap and pommel have an even patina. The shagreen of the grip is all present but has shrunk, exposing the wood core along its edges and with minor scale loss in places. The wire grip binding is all present and tight. The scabbard has cleaned pitting overall, with visible polishing marks, and some small dents on its lower section.