Until the early years of the 19th Century British
Naval Officers did not have a uniform pattern of sword, but wore
whatever weapons they chose. It is almost impossible to identify
actual weapons as having been worn by Naval Officers and it is
therefore necessary to reply upon portraits as the main source of
information. From these you are able to gleam that for the first 30 or
so years of the 18th Century the fashion was for short curved swords.
These were far more handy in the melee of a battle at sea than would
be the longer rapiers and military broadswords. By 1750, however, the
fashion had changed and three types are in evidence. It is most likely
that Officers would have had 2 swords, the conventional small sword
and usually with a triangular blade for shore going and ceremonial
occasions, and for use on board either a double-edged cut and thrust
military weapon or a shorter slightly curved sword, rather like the
infantry type. Either of these 2 latter weapons usually had a round
pommel, a simple guard and carried a blue and gold sword knot.
the late 1700's, the Naval Officer might have made his choice between
4 types of weapon. Firstly the conventional small sword as above.
Secondly, a type rather similar to the Infantry Officers sword, having
a long straight blade either double-edged or with a flat back, and a
guard and knuckle guard each ornamented with 5 balls and with a small
anchor inserted into the space between the knuckle guard and quillons.
The pommel may be urn-shaped, but more commonly square and heave. The
ivory grip was decorated by a gilt band on which a foul anchor was
engraved. Thirdly, there was a type very similar to the infantry
hanger but with a straight blade. This was the type favoured by Lord
Nelson. Lastly there was one with a short heavy blade, having usually
2 grooves. The pommel was sometimes in the form of a lion's head,
though it is now believed that this type are slightly earlier in date.
The more general form had no pommel but the back piece ran round to
the guard in a continuous curve. This type continued to be worn by
many officers after the official pattern had been introduced.
The date of introduction of the official pattern sword
has not been determined. It has been linked with an order of 4th
August 1805, that pattern swords were to be sent to the dockyards, but
was more likely earlier. Pictorial evidence seems to suggest that the
uniform sword may have been introduced as early as 1801.
The order of 4th August, 1805, refers to 2 patterns of
swords, the ornamented sword for Flag Officers, Captains and
Commanders and the plain sword for Lieutenants and Midshipmen. There
is not direct evidence as to the pattern laid down, but from various
portraits and from those weapons that reside in museums and private
collections today, stirrup hilts were usual though ordinary straight
knuckle bow hilts may be found. There were 3 types of grips and pommel
- ivory grip and lions head pommel; black-fish skin grip and plain
pommel; black-fish skin grip and lions head pommel.
From this period there remain many miniature swords
with narrow straight blades only about 27" long which may be either
grooved or diamond sectioned. At first sight these might be though to
be intended for Midshipmen, but the amount of ornamentation on them
would have made them expensive weapons and it is more likely that they
were dress swords which replaced the old small sword.
The first definite regulations for swords appeared in
1825 and gave details and illustrious of 3 types.
For Lieutenants and above there was a sword which
must have been similar to the 'ornamented sword' of the 1805 period.
It had a straight 32" grooved blade, engraved, blued and gilt, a
gilt knuckle bow hilt with lion's head pommel, an ivory grip and
langets ornamented with the foul anchor, but without the crown.
Intended for Masters/Warrant Officers and was
similar but had the black-fish skin grip and plain pommel and the
blade was not to be blued or gilt. A similar sword with a shorter
blade was to be worn by Midshipmen, Volunteers and Masters
A small sword which, was to be worn by the three
civil branches, Surgeon, Secretary and Purser, each having its own
appropriate badge on a gilt plate let into the grip. This small
sword continued in use until 1832.
In 1827 a completely new sword was introduced with the solid
half-basket hilt which has remained in use every since. The guard was
ornamented with a crown and anchor badge. The Blade had around back,
usually known as a 'pipe back', and was etched but not blued or gilt.
There were 2 patterns, one with a white fish-skin grip and lion's head
pommel for Lieutenants and above, the other was the black fish-skin
grip and plain pommel for Masters, Mates Midshipmen and Warrant
In 1832 Masters, Mates and Midshipmen besides the
Civil branches adopted the same swords as Commissioned Officers
leaving only the Gunner, Boatswain and Carpenter to wear the WO's
sword with the black grip and plain pommel. In 1846 the blades of all
swords were changed to the Wilkinson blade with a flat back.
In 1847 approval was given for Flag Officers, if they
desired to wear a curved sword with a mameluke hilt, similar to that
worn by General Officers but with a foul anchor on the langets. This
permission was withdrawn in 1856 but many Admirals continued to wear
these swords. In the latter half of the 19th Century there was a
fashion for wearing swords with 'claymore' blades, ie straight blades
with 2 grooves.
In 1901 the design of the crown on the guard and blade
was changed to a Tudor crown and in 1953 to a St. Edward's crown. In
1918 WO's were given the white-gripped Commissioned Officer's sword
with the lion's head pommel and thereafter the sword with the black
grip was worn only by the Master-at-Arms. In 1929 blades were ordered
to be straight. The width of blades had been altered from time to time
but was not often adhered to so is of little value in dating a blade.
Midshipmen, at periods when they wore swords, were supposed to wear
short ones to suit their height but did not always do so. On the other
hand many Commissioned Officers continued to wear their short
Midshipmen's sword until well on into their own careers.
There have, of course, always been Officers who have
worn special blades fitted to uniform hilts. For example, in the
Indian Mutiny Captain Oliver J. Jones wore a sword with the blade
which his father used when he commanded the 18th Hussars at the
retreat to Corunna.
Examples of many of the types of swords mentioned within this
article can be found at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich,