To broaden the thread out a little, I thought it might be worth clearing up what appear to be some common misconceptions on British Victorian swords (drawing on mistakes I've seen repeated in eBay auctions, requests for sword IDs and so on, and on sword-related questions that I've been asked by friends and family members). Please note that what follows has its origins in my own collecting experience and preferences - for example, I now specialise in British officers' "fighting" swords, rather than trooper or NCO patterns; researching such swords can be equally rewarding (and the scope even larger), but the methods used and the types of information a researcher can discover will differ, mainly because such weapons were government-issue and are thus rarely marked to individuals. All swords are worthy of study, and even seemingly unimportant pieces can, when examined closely, turn up interesting facets of the sword-maker's art, or shed light on some of the dimmer aspects of regimental history.
If anyone has any more suggestions to add then please PM me and I'll update this email to include them.
1) Makers vs Retailers
For the whole of the period in question, there were always more sword retailers than manufacturers. This is because the manufacture of a weapon intended to be used in actual combat (and on which the wearer's life might therefore come to depend) was a skilled process and required specialist equipment not widely available to the average village blacksmith. It also helps to know that many officers liked to go to a single supplier for all items of their military kit: uniform, mess kit, weapons, personal grooming items, campaign furniture etc; and where the retailer or military outfitter did not make these items themselves, it made sense to buy them in for resale rather than lose the business by sending the officer to a different supplier.
Maker or retailer names are nearly always found on the ricasso (the flat part of the blade closest to the hilt). Occasionally these are repeated on the scabbard. Sometimes the naming style will give a clue as to whether the firm was a maker or retailer (eg "Robert Mole for Gieves & Co"); usually you don't get that much help. Provincial swords (ie from towns and cities other than London, Sheffield or Birmingham) are nearly always made by one of the bigger manufacturers such as Wilkinson, Mole or Reeves, since small-scale provincial sword-making had more or less died out by the Victorian period.
2) The Proof Disk
The proof disk is the little round or hexagonal button inset into the base of the blade on the other side of the ricasso from the maker or retailer name. It was introduced by Henry Wilkinson in the mid-1800s as a marketing device to show that the blade had passed various tests of strength or flexibility, and is made of brass (not gold!). Not all manufacturers used this device (particularly the Sheffield makers, but these tend to be later than our period), sometimes stamping or etching the words "PROVED" or "WARRANTED" directly into the blade instead.
3) Infantry or Cavalry?
There are no general rules about the shape or size of a blade determining whether it belonged to an infantry or cavalry officer. Some infantry blades are curved, and many cavalry swords are straight. Some infantry swords are quite long, while some cavalry swords seem too short to do much damage from horseback. In addition, there are a range of swords which were carried by specialist corps or services (pioneers, medical staff, veterinary and remount services etc), which have seemingly totally non-standard shapes and lengths.
To get round this confusion, know your patterns and how each sword was intended to be used before committing yourself to any purchases on the strength of a "shape-based" identification.
4) Dress Sword?
Many inexperienced people assume that a sword must be a "dress" or ceremonial sword if it has decorative etching on the blade. In fact, the majority of officers' swords carry such decoration, whether for dress or undress (ie combat) use. The simple reason for this is that, unlike cavalry troopers or infantry NCOs (whose sword blades are nearly always plain) officers purchased their own swords, and unless they specifically stipulated a plain blade, would automatically receive one marked (as a minimum), with the cypher of the reigning monarch, and perhaps the retailer or maker name (some officers, however, deliberately chose to have plain, unadorned blades, especially for a purely fighting sword). Much later on, in WW1, plain blades are more common on officers' swords, but this was mainly a wartime economy measure from manufacturers who couldn't keep up with the demand for swords from the huge numbers of newly-commissioned officers.
A better guide as to whether a sword was purely for dress use is whether or not it is of "picquet" weight - these were special versions of the fighting blade patterns, but more slender and not intended for combat use (though no doubt they could be used as such at a pinch). These blades were usually too narrow to take an inset proof disk without being fatally weakened, and the absence of these is often another clue as to the sword's primary function.
5) Jewish Swords?
A frequent misconception is that the "Star of David" pattern often found on the ricasso of British swords must have some connection with Judaism (I saw this sign described in an eBay auction once as being proof positive that a sword belonged to a soldier in a Jewish battalion). In fact, although the origins of the symbol's use on swords lies in the distant past, it is usually taken simply as a convention to signify strength (being composed of two interlocking triangles) rather than having any religious or occult meaning.
6) The "Blood Groove" Myth
On many post-1845 British blades there is a shallow groove (or "fuller") which runs along much of the blade's length. This is a manufacturing device to lighten the blade while still preserving its strength (along the lines of an I-section girder) - it is not to let the blood flow out more easily from around a wound!
7) "Shows Signs of Actual Combat Experience!"
This statement is often found in online auction listings and some dealer websites. A moment's thought will show that there is virtually no way to prove that any damage caused to a sword occurred in combat rather than purely by accident. An exception might be a bullet or shrapnel hole in a sword's bowl guard, blade or scabbard, but usually this is just another way of saying "It has edge nicks", and in reality these could just as likely have been caused by children playing with old swords found in attics, amateur fencing practice or even during film work or theatrical performances (many old swords have found their way into local amateur dramatics or other entertainment troupes - in the 1940s and 50s such pieces were cheaper and more readily available than new prop swords).
8) Exciting Provenance...Maybe
This piece of advice is mainly aimed at newcomers who wish to start collecting British officers' swords: there are many sellers out there who will provide very convincing evidence that their sword "must have" been present at some famous battle. They will often cite arcane details of the sword's construction and quote well-respected authors, and use this evidence to "prove" that a sword is particularly special or rare. Remember that, as with any other item of military kit, there were more officers' swords produced that never saw action than those that did - the British Empire relied on the presence of military officers across the globe, many of whom were serving in peace-time stations and who never drew a sword in anger. In addition, there was a significant "churn" of officers who may only have served for one or two years before deciding the Army was not for them and buying themselves out, or (more sadly) dying in battle or of disease or accident.
Collecting British officers' swords and researching their owners can be a very rewarding and satisfying activity within the wider sword collecting hobby, but if this area particularly appeals to you, make sure you buy a sword which is either named or has other clearly-identifiable personal details (such as a family crest or motto, or, if a Wilkinson, a serial number*). Above all, don't rely on the word of a seller who tries to convince you that a sword must have belonged to officer X just because of technical details of its design or construction.
All the best,
* Not all numbered Wilkinson swords can be traced to individual officers, as there are some gaps in the record, and, as noted above, many swords were made for retailers and so the end user's details were unknown. but for the Victorian period you're on fairly good ground with any sword numbered 5000 or higher (ie 1855 onwards)
Last edited by swordcollector1
on 06 Jun 2011 16:00, edited 2 times in total.