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French naval cutlass of the 19th Century

A cutlass is a short, broad sabre or slashing sword, with a straight or slightly curved blade sharpened on the cutting edge, and a hilt often featuring a solid cupped or basket shaped guard.


History and Use

Cutlasses aboard the frigate Grand Turk

The cutlass is best known as the sailor's weapon of choice, the naval side arm, likely because it was robust enough to hack through heavy ropes, canvas, and wood. It was also short enough to use in relatively close quarters, such as during boarding actions, in the rigging, or below decks. Another advantage to the cutlass was its simplicity of use. The cutlass required less training than the rapier or small sword, and was more effective as a close-combat weapon than the full sized sword. The cutlasses portrayed in films set during the Golden Age of Piracy (1650-1720s) are often anachronistic 19th century weapons.

The cutlass was also used on land, particularly by cavalrymen such as the mamluks, since its curved blade made it useful for slashing combat. In times of peace the Ottoman Empire supplied no arms, and the janissaries on service in the capital of Constantinople were armed only with clubs; they were forbidden to carry any arms save a cutlass, the only exception being at the frontier posts.

A cutlass is as often an agricultural implement and tool as it is a weapon (cf. machete, to which the same comment applies), being used commonly in rainforest and sugarcane areas, such as the Caribbean and Central America. Woodsmen and soldiers in the 17th and 18th centuries used a similar short and broad backsword called a hanger.

Cutlasses are famous for being used by pirates, although there is no reason to believe that Caribbean buccaneers invented them, as has sometimes been claimed.[1] However, the subsequent use of cutlasses by pirates is well documented in contemporary sources, notably by the pirate crews of William Fly, William Kidd, and Stede Bonnet. French historian Alexandre Exquemelin reports the buccaneer Francois l'Ollonais using a cutlass as early as 1667. Pirates used these weapons for intimidation as much as for combat, often needing no more than to grip their hilts to induce a crew to surrender, or beating captives with the flat of the blade to force their compliance or responsiveness to interrogation.[2] [3] [4] [5]

In 1936, the British Royal Navy announced that from then on cutlasses would only be carried for ceremonial duties and not used in landing parties.[6]

The cutlass remained an official weapon in United States Navy stores until 1949, though seldom used in training after the early 1930s. The last new model of cutlass adopted by the US Navy was the Model 1917; although cutlasses made during World War II were called the Model 1941, they were only a slightly modified variant of the Model 1917.[7] A United States Marine Corps engineer NCO is reported to have killed an enemy with a Model 1941 cutlass at Incheon during the Korean War.[8] A cutlass is still carried by the recruit designated as the Recruit Chief Petty Officer for each division at US Navy Recruit Training Command.

See also

Sources and references



  1. ^ "Pirate Weapons". Brethren of the Coast. Retrieved 2009-03-30. "According to legend, buccaneers invented the cutlass, but this may not be factual. It is said to have evolved from the long knives used by the early buccaneers to butcher their meat." 
  2. ^ Lawson, John Davis (1915). American State Trials. St. Louis: F.H. Thomas Law Book Co. p. 668. "But as soon as they came up the shrouds, they clapped all hands to their cutlashes. Then I saw we were taken..." 
  3. ^ John Richard Stephens, ed (2006). Captured by Pirates. New York City: Barnes & Noble. p. 6. ISBN 0-7607-8537-6. "They immediately drew their weapons and, after beating us up severely with their cutlasses, drove us below." 
  4. ^ John Richard Stephens, ed (2006). Captured by Pirates. New York City: Barnes & Noble. p. 9. ISBN 0-7607-8537-6. "[N]ine or ten men of a most ferocious aspect armed with muskets, knives, and cutlasses . . .ordered Captain Cowper, Mr. Lumsden, the ship's carpenter, and myself to go on board the pirate, hastening our departure by repeated blows with the flat part of their cutlasses over our backs." 
  5. ^ John Richard Stephens, ed (2006). Captured by Pirates. New York City: Barnes & Noble. p. 40. ISBN 0-7607-8537-6. "[T]he man who gave the order commenced beating me severely with the broad side of his cutlass." 
  6. ^ "Royal Navy" (Official Appointments and Notices). The Times. Saturday, 1936-10-24. Issue 47514, col D, p. 17.
  7. ^ Wagner, Rick. "Focus on the M1917/M1941 Cutlass". The Swordcollector. Retrieved 2008-09-19. 
  8. ^ Gilkerson, Bill (1991). Boarders Away. Volume 1: With Steel. Lincoln, Rhode Island: Andrew Mowbray Inc. ISBN 9780917218507. 

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Up to date as of January 14, 2010
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