Officers' Swords in the 95th Rifles
By Iain Wilkinson
Patterns for British swords first appeared in 1786, up to this time there was no official patterns and infantry officers carried what is known as the spontoon, it had little or no value as a weapon and was merely a badge of authority.
The next pattern to be introduced was the 1796 pattern. The 1796 was never popular. This was particularly so in the grenadier and light infantry companies of regiments who thought of themselves as elites, and in the new Experimental Rifle Corps, soon to become the 95th. As a result a large number of infantry sabres come into existence about this time, many with classical, spadroon style hilts or hilts modelled on the 1796 Light Cavalry sabre, and bearing the flaming grenade device of the grenadiers or the hunting bugle of the light infantry.
In 1796, the officers of light companies of the 12th foot were reported as carrying sabres and it is clear that this was the custom among light infantry officers. The swords in question differed in detail among the regiments but the general form consisted of a curved blade, some 30 inches long, with a spear point and a curved knucklebow or stirrup guard, sometimes with an additional curved bar or bars on the outside. Reasoning behind this development is that the light infantry officer, engaged in scouting and skirmishing, then a short, curved sword was likely to be handier than the longer, straight regulation infantry pattern, and this in turn, may have come from experience in close, wooded country in America between 1775 and 1783.
The introduction of the 1803 pattern sword coincided with the conversion of a number of regiments, like the 43rd and 52nd, into light infantry regiments. The 1803 pattern was better suited to light infantry officers with a curved blade around 30 inches long. It is quite possible that some 95th officers also used this sword, as it was suited to their duties. Of course there are always exceptions to regulation patterns, officers were given plenty of leeway in their choice of swords and clothing, after all they had to pay for them themselves. It was quite common for swords to be handed down from father to son, sometimes they were used unchanged, sometimes the blade was re-used and a new hilt mounted on it.
Rifle Officers' Swords
It is significant that when the Rifle regiments began to appear around 1800, the officers invariably adopted curved sabres. From the beginnings of the rifle regiments curved swords were worn, the 60th initially carried a sabre with gilt-brass stirrup hilt, in a black leather scabbard with gilt mounts. Officers of the experimental rifle corps carried a similar sword but with steel mounts. Both the 60th and the experimental rifle corps carried the sword in slings from a black leather waist belt.
‘The View of the Standing regulations for the colours, clothing etc of the infantry, to which are annexed the Guards, rifle corps etc (1802)’ specified that the swords for officers of the Rifle Corps was to be ‘a sabre similar to the Light Cavalry’ carried on a black waist belt with silver mounts’. Clearly the Pattern 1796 Light cavalry sword was too long and heavy for infantry use and it is reasonable to assume that ‘similar to’ in this case meant of the same general form, with stirrup hilt and curved blade, but smaller.
The pattern adopted specifically by the 95th rifles appears to be the one as shown on the right and is in the collection of the National Army Museum.
It does seem strange that they would have adopted a steel scabbard, bearing in mind the 95th regiment’s affliction for nothing bright and shiny, but the steel scabbard would have many advantages out in the skirmish field, as it would better protect the sword during some of the hide and seek type manoeuvres of the Rifles. It is more than likely that the steel scabbard would become a rusty colour in a short period.
To show that not all officers of the 95th had the regulation pattern, the sword shown below also belonged to a Rifle Corps officer.
Light Infantry Swords
Below are some swords attributed to Light Infantry regiments and have the same stirrup type guard as used by the 95th:
Resources and thanks
Swords of the British Army by B Robson
Swords & Sword Makers of England & Scotland by R H Bezdek
Christine Pullen of the RGJ Museum
Keith Miller, Head of Weapons, Equipment and Vehicles at the National Army Museum