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History No. 2: Weapons and Equipment of Early American Soldiers
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Some American Military Swords*

THE museum at Morristown National Historical Park has displayed in its Early Federal Room a collection of swords which, while embracing but 16 specimens in all, proves to be significant and interesting to general visitors as well as to students of Americana. The collection, gifts of numerous individuals and the Washington Association of New Jersey, presents types of swords used by the military forces of the United States during the first half-century of the Republic which often are attributed in the public mind to other periods, usually a much earlier one.

The history of the American military sword can be said properly to have begun when Gen. George Washington, on Cambridge Common, July 3, 1775, drew from its scabbard one of the several blades he was known to have possessed, and formally took command of the heterogeneous Continental Army. Such swords as were worn by the Continental troops and militia during the Revolutionary War, principally by officers, were for the most part types occasionally carried by the gentry of the time, or which had served Colonial officers of the British Provincial forces some 20 years previously in the French and Indian Wars. Although not included in the collection here described, examples of both such types are exhibited elsewhere in the Morristown Museum, viz., in the silver-hilted colichemarde once owned by George Washington, a design of blade popular since the late seventeenth century, named after the famous Swedish swordsman, Count Konigsmark, and hallmarked as having been made in London in 1770; and in the characteristic hanger, with animal-head pommel, made by the Philadelphia swordsmith, Louis Prahl, about 1750.

Swords designed especially for the American Army, either regular or militia, did not make their appearance in any considerable number until almost the close of the eighteenth century for the good reason that there was no army and therefore no demand; because following the Revolution the armed forces were reduced to 80 men. Even as late as 1789, at the time of the inauguration of President Washington, the National Army was composed of but 800 troops. Possibly early types of swords worn by the commissioned personnel of this force are identified in one or more of the large and important collections.

During the 4 years following 1792, the American Army presumably was composed of 5,000 enlisted men with some 250 officers, then reduced somewhat until 1798 when, war with France looming, a force of more than 13,000, with 800 officers, was raised. It was in this year that the first Government contract for sabers (about 1,000), for equipping the enlisted men of the dragoon regiments, was awarded to Nathan Starr, of Middletown, Conn., a craftsman having a knowledge of edged tools who had served as an armorer during the Revolution. These sabers proved to be a good job of blacksmithing, as will be seen by reference to two specimens in the Morristown collection which, although of later manufacture than the first issue, are of the same general pattern. A single iron strip was forged to form a knuckle bow and guard, known as a "stirrup" guard, such as had been in use by light cavalry in European armies for some 10 years or more. The scabbards were of iron and had two rings by which they were suspended from a waistbelt by slings, superseding the stud on earlier types whereby the scabbard was attached within a frog of the shoulder belt.

In January 1813, with his son as a partner, Nathan Starr was successful in his initial venture and later received a contract for 10,000 swords, some for the infantry, some for the dragoons, those for the latter varying only slightly in design from the first lot made in 1798. Although in later years the Starrs produced some fine swords, the first made were not considered sufficiently sophisticated for use by the officers of the various branches of the service. Due to great scarcity of skilled swordsmiths in the young republic, weapons of more refinement in design and manufacture were unobtainable except by import from France, Germany, England, and Spain, principally from the first two of these countries; or parts, chiefly blades, were brought over for assembly in America. In many of these today can be seen characteristic casting, forging, and decoration.

A sword consists of blade and hilt. A tapered portion of the former, called the tang, is sufficiently long to pass completely through the guard, grip and pommel of the latter. It holds all parts of the weapon firmly in position by being welded above the pommel. The forging and tempering of blades was a high art, as was their decoration by a process of bluing, etching, and gilding. Guards and pommels were of forged steel or cast brass; grips were of hardwood, shaped or fluted, of bone, often tooled, or of leather which was covered or frequently wound spirally with wire or bands.

There had been a number of skilled swordmakers in several of the Colonies in the early days, but their art had waned. Probably only two of the swords in the Morristown collection, those made by Starr, are entirely of American manufacture. One of the earliest importations in the collection has boldly inscribed upon its blade: "Wilhelm.Tische.Peters.Sohn.In.Solingen.Fecit." It is a pity that the inscribing of blades with makers' names, and especially with dates, was not more customary, those specimens on which it was rarely done now being exceedingly helpful in determining exact sources.

In 1799, the armed forces of the Nation, were greatly increased, as they were again upon the approach of the second war with England. It was in those years at the turn of the century that the eagle's head, not as it had appeared with various animal heads from early times but specifically American in character, began to be found generally as the pommel of sword hilts intended for military use, while the bird in its entirety, with or without the motto E. Pluribus Unum, was incorporated in the decoration of blades.

After great deliberation and much discussion, the eagle had been adopted finally in 1782 as an appropriate national emblem, and as soon thereafter as was feasible it made its official debut. New Jersey cents for 1789 show an eagle with shield on breast, and motto. Other States followed in the use of the Great Seal of the United States on their coinage and soon afterward, in whole or in part, this insignia made its appearance generally on military paraphernalia. In the United States National Museum at Washington is an unusually interesting officer's saber, undoubtedly of French manufacture, having an eagle-head pommel and blade decorated with spread eagle, motto, and the date 1783. This is without question one of the first swords to be so designed and inscribed.

Once the vogue for the eagle-head pommel was established, it remained as regulation or in popularity in the Army for half a century, especially among militia officers. In the naval service it was much shorter lived, probably from about 1832 into the 1840's. Exception is made, however, of the dirk, the short weapon with either a straight blade or one exaggeratedly curved, which was worn by officers of the Navy when in undress uniform or on boat duty. The eagle-head pommel may have appeared on these as early as the War with Tripoli and was regulation upon the midshipman's dirk as late as 1867.


The 16 swords in the Morristown collection are shown in the illustrations which accompany this article. No. 1 (see images) is a sword of the hanger type made in Spain, probably Toledo, between 1800 and 1825. The fluted grip is of hardwood; the pommel, strap knuckle bow, and guard are of brass, as are the scabbard fittings. The uninscribed blade has one narrow groove or fuller. Swords of this type and source have a wide distribution in collections because they were immensely popular with American naval and merchant-marine officers during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The one shown is unique in having the Spanish crown impressed in the leather of the scabbard. Another of these swords is in the collection of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown, Va.

Weapons Nos. 2 and 3 are swords exhibiting early types of eagle-head pommels. They are officer's sabers, probably militia, of 1800 to 1820, possibly a few years earlier. The blade of No. 2 is quite plain but that of No. 3 is partly blued and gilded, and decorated with sprigs, trophies, and an eagle with motto. Sword No. 4 shows an eagle-head pommel of somewhat later date, 1810 to 1825. As in the case of the two foregoing specimens, this arm has no backstrap, that extension of the pommel connecting it with the quillon at the back of the grip. No. 5 is a field or staff officer's saber of from 1830 to 1845. The blade is etched with wreaths, sprigs, and trophies of arms. The scabbard is of tooled brass. In this number, as in all the subsequent specimens, the backstrap is shown.

Specimen No. 6 is a militia officer's sword, staff or infantry, of 1830 to 1845. For a pommel it has a prone eagle, an unusual type. The blade is blued and gilded and decorated with sprigs and trophies. Its scabbard is of tooled brass. No. 7 is a militia officer's sword, infantry, 1840. It shows an eagle head pommel, and the quillon terminates in an eagle head. The blade is blued and gilded and the mountings and scabbard have been silvered. This sword was worn by Lieut. Peter Wortendyke, of the Bergen County (New Jersey) Rangers, whose commission is in the Morristown collections.


Weapon No. 8 is a field officer's saber, infantry, 1812, worn by Maj. Gabriel Wisner, New York State Militia. The broad blade has one shallow fuller and is etched with trophies, wreaths, and a spread eagle. No. 9 is a dragoon officer's saber of 1810 to 1815. The broad blade, with shallow fuller, is blued and decorated in gilt with trophies and other designs. No. 10 is a type of saber worn by officers of dragoons and light artillery, United States Army, 1800 to 1825. This specimen, having a brass scabbard, probably was worn by an officer of artillery. The blade, blued and gilded, is decorated with trophies and a spread eagle with motto. No. 11 is a dragoon officer's saber of 1792 to 1810; it is possible that it is a few years older as the stirrup guard is of the earliest type. The blade is decorated with sprigs and trophies and, within a medallion, a spread eagle with 11 stars above.


Weapon No. 12 is a dragoon officer's saber of about 1790. The pommel is a lion or dog head, and the knuckle bow and guard are pierced, the only guard in the collection not distinctly of the stirrup pattern. On each side of the blade is inscribed "American Light Horse," together with a spread eagle surrounded by rays and 13 stars. This is the sword referred to (above) as having been made by Wilhelm Tische Peters Sohn in Solingen. No. 13 is a dragoon trooper's saber of 1810 to 1825. Although an import, probably from Germany, an inscription on the blade indicates that it was sold by Christopher and John D. Wolf, Merchants, at 87 Maiden Lane, New York City.

One other sword in the Morristown collection, although not displayed in the group described, is marked as having been sold by these same merchants. No. 14 is a dragoon trooper's saber, United States Army, 1820 to 1842, and is one of the Starr weapons referred to above. The blade is fullered and stamped "US—N Starr," and bears the initials of the inspector who tested it at the factory. With this saber the stirrup guard passed, the brass half-basket guard of the French Army type being adopted for use of the cavalry.

Specimen No. 15 is a dragoon trooper's saber, United States Army, and is probably one of the contract of 1813. The blade is flat, without fullers, and is stamped ''N Starr,'' together with inspector's initials. No. 16 is an officer's saber, probably militia, of 1810 to 1815. The blade, etched and gilded, is decorated with a shield bearing stars and stripes. This type of saber, varying in length, was used by both foot and mounted troops in the War of 1812.

While this small collection does not embrace all types and designs used during the period, it serves nevertheless as an interesting and instructive index to the military picture of the time.

Language of the Sword

Hilt: Sum of the parts of the handle.

Pommel: Terminal knob of the hilt.

Cross guard: The crosspiece set at right angles just below the handgrip to protect the thumb and fingers.

Quillons (kee-yôn'): The two arms of the crossguard.

Knuckle bows: Curved guards of various types and modes of attachment designed to protect the knuckles of the thumb and fingers.

Backstrap: A metal strip which extends the pommel all the way to the rear quillon and forms the back of the grip.

Fuller: A channel or groove in the blade.

*Reprinted from The Regional Review (National Park Service, Region One, Richmond, Va.), Vol. IV, No. 1, January 1940, pp. 11-16,

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