British Regulation Cavalry Swords at the Battle of Balaclava

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(Above: “The Relief of the Light Brigade" by Richard Caton Woodville)   

The Battle of Balaclava,

fought on 25 October 1854 during the Crimean War, is probably best remembered for the infamous charge of the Light Brigade, and to a lesser extent the more successful charge of the Heavy Brigade. As the names imply, the Light Brigade was composed of regiments of light cavalry and the Heavy Brigade was made up of regiments of heavy cavalry. several regulation pattern swords were used during the battle because of the differences in light and heavy cavalry swords, because a new sword pattern had recently been approved for all cavalry troopers (but not all regiments had received the new sword), and because officers of both light and heavy cavalry regiments also carried unique patterns.

Swords of the Light Brigade

The Light Brigade, under the command of Major General the Earl of Cardigan, consisted of the 4th (The Queen’s Own) Regiment of Light Dragoons8th (The King’s Royal Irish) Regiment of Hussars,

11th (Prince Albert’s Own) Regiment of Hussars,

13th Regiment of Light Dragoons, and

17th Regiment of Light Dragoons (Lancers). The predominant sword for light cavalry troopers would have been the Pattern 1821 Light Cavalry Trooper’s Sword, however it is possible that nearly fifty percent of the troopers were armed with the newest cavalry sword intended as a universal sword for all types of cavalry; the Pattern 1853 Cavalry Trooper’s Sword. It is known that at least some troopers of the 11th (Prince Albert’s Own) Hussars were armed with the P1853. 

(Above: Light Cavalry swords)

The Pattern 1821 Light Cavalry Trooper’s Sword (fig. A) featured a slightly curved, single edged blade with one fuller on each side, a steel or iron three bar guard, and a leather covered wood core grip. The Pattern 1853 Cavalry Trooper’s Sword (fig. B) featured Charles Reeves’ “patent solid hilt” construction. This was a full-width tang construction

intended to produce a stronger fighting weapon. Aside from this new construction, the P1853 was very similar to the P1821 Light Cavalry Trooper’s Sword.

(Above: Charles Reeves’ “patent solid hilt” vs. a standard tang)

Officers of light cavalry regiments carried the Pattern 1821 Light Cavalry Officer’s Sword. At its inception the P1821 Light Cavalry Officer’s Sword had a pipe-back blade (fig. C), but this was found unsatisfactory for both cutting and thrusting, and was officially replaced in 1845 with a fullered “Wilkinson” style blade (fig. D) which was similar to the P1821 Light Cavalry Trooper’s Sword blade. The hilt of the P1821 Light Cavalry Officer’s Sword was nearly identical to that of the trooper’s sword, but it was finished to a higher standard and featured a shagreen (fish skin) grip bound with twisted silver or copper wire. Because swords were expensive items and officers had to pay for their own kit, many kept their old swords until they were no longer serviceable. 

This means that both pipe-back blades and fullered 1845 pattern blades saw action on the day of the battle.

(Above: “The Charge of the Heavy Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava” by 

Godfrey Douglas Giles)

Swords of the Heavy Brigade

The heavy Brigade, commanded by Brigadier the Honourable James Scarlett, was composed of the 1st (Royal) Regiment of Dragoons (The Royals),

2nd (Royal North British) Regiment of Dragoons (The Scots Greys),

4th (Royal Irish) Regiment of Dragoon Guards,

5th (Princess Charlotte of Wales’s) Regiment of Dragoon Guards,

6th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Dragoons. Like their counterparts in the light cavalry, troopers of heavy cavalry regiments carried one of two sword patterns during the Battle of Balaclava. The first–and probably the most common–was the Pattern 1821 Heavy Cavalry Trooper’s Sword (fig. E), and the second was the new Pattern 1853 Cavalry Trooper’s Sword (fig. F). As with the light cavalry, it is possible that nearly half of the regiments were armed with the new swords, but we know that at least some troopers of the 2nd (Royal North British) Dragoons were armed with the new sword.

(Above: Heavy Cavalry swords)

The P1821 Heavy Cavalry Trooper’s Sword had a slightly curved, single edged blade with one fuller on each side, and a very protective bowl guard. The leather-wrapped wooden grip was the same as that found on the P1821 Light Cavalry Trooper’s Sword.

Officers carried the Pattern 1821 Heavy Cavalry Officer’s Sword. When they were first introduced these swords had pipe-back blades (fig. G), but these were replaced in 1845 with the more versatile fullered “Wilkinson” style blade (fig. H). As with the light cavalry officers’ swords, both blade types would have been used at Balaclava because some officers would not have gone to the expense of buying a new sword if their old pipe-back was still serviceable. The guard of the P1821 Heavy Cavalry Officer’s Sword is a pierced bowl guard decorated with what has been dubbed a honeysuckle design. Collectors often refer to these as “honeysuckle hilts”. The grips have a wood core with a shagreen covering and silver or copper wire wrap.

Non-Regulation Swords

There is no doubt that some officers of both the light and heavy brigades used non-regulation swords. Some of these may have been regimental special patterns, while others may have been a non-regulation pattern made to the preferences of the individual officers. These non-regulation swords are fascinating but beyond the scope of this brief overview of regulation cavalry swords. I have posted a number of non-regulation swords in the past, so just use the search function on my blog to see some nice examples!

Additional Reading

This short article only scratches the surface of the swords used by the British cavalry in the Crimean War. For more, please see the following:

  • “Swords for the Crimea: Some Scottish Officers’ Swords Manufactured for Britain’s War with Russia, 1854-56″ by Stephen Wood (The Journal of the Arms and Armour Society, London, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, pp 115-135)
  • Swords of the British Army: The Regulation Patterns, 1788-1914 by Brian Robson

  • The British Cavalry Sword 1788-1912: Some New Perspectives by Richard Dellar

  • The British Cavalry Sword from 1600 by Charles Martyn

Notes

The photographs above featuring regulation cavalry swords are composite images from past lots listed at Bonhams . Therefore the swords are not shown to scale and should not be used to determine relative sizes or to make any detailed comparisons. The paintings depicting the charges of the Light Brigade and the Heavy Brigade are from the online collection of the National Army Museum in London.