On the Water

Naval Figure Eight Pattern Cutlass

Naval cutlasses were heavy, short-bladed swords designed for hacking and thrusting. They were not intended for fancy swordplay (like fencing) or dueling, but for close combat on the rolling decks of wooden sailing ships where weight might count more than skill. Because boarding actions were fought on the crowded decks of vessels with tangles of shrouds, spars and equipment, the blade had to be short for control and heavy enough to add momentum to a sailor’s swing. The name of this cutlass type refers to the shape of the bent iron knuckle bow and guard around the hilt. It was a standard pattern for both the British and U. S. navies in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

During the Revolution and War of 1812, the American government did not have a sizeable navy to protect and defend its shores. Lacking the funds and time to build its own warships, Congress authorized hundreds of privately-owned armed ships to attack British vessels. These “privateers” were heavily armed, preferably to intimidate their prey into surrendering, or—if necessary—to actually fight. However, a sea battle was the last resort, for it could injure crews or valuable hostages and damage the privateer or its intended prize.

Privateer vessels needed large crews to board enemy vessels or to put their own loyal crews on captured vessels. They also needed large stocks of arms for fighting. Edged weapons—swords, cutlasses and knives—were best used for fighting at hand-to-hand quarters. They also required less training than firearms to use, and they could be used continually, unlike a muzzle-loading gun that needed to be reloaded after each firing. Routinely, only officers owned and were permitted to bear their personal arms. Weapons were stored under lock and key in arms lockers and distributed among the crew when needed. Although the men were highly motivated and unlikely to mutiny, crews were large and disagreements could occur. In addition, weapons had to be ready for use at any moment, and their condition was easier to maintain if stored together out of the weather.

ID Number:
Circa 1780
4 1/4 x 33 1/2 in.; 10.795 x 85.09 cm

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