A VWF Guide to British Military Swords, 1837-1913

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A VWF Guide to British Military Swords, 1837-1913

Postby Jonathan » 21 Dec 2008 22:26

I thought it might be useful (and fun) to start a general informational thread on British swords of the Victorian and Edwardian periods. This thread will be occasionally updated with mini guides to specific sword patterns, recommendations for further reading, and other miscellanea related to swords and their use during our period of interest. Anyone should feel free to add their own content to this thread, or to ask questions.

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Re: British Military Swords 1837-1913

Postby Jonathan » 21 Dec 2008 23:11

To begin, some reading recommendations:

Swords of the British Army: The Regulation Patterns, 1788-1914 by Brian Robson
This is considered to be the "Bible" of British military swords, and rightfully so. This in-depth look at regulation British swords (originally published in 1975, and revised in 1996) is the most recent attempt to provide a comprehensive study of all of the official patterns of swords. Robson is careful to address the errors and misconceptions present in previous titles on the subject (e.g. Sword, Lance, & Bayonet by Charles ffoulkes and E.C. Hopkinson, British Military Swords by John Wilkinson-Latham). The book's chapters are divided by sword types (cavalry troopers' swords, cavalry officers' swords, infantry officers' swords, corps swords, Scottish swords, etc.) which discuss the documentation for each pattern including the design and review of the patterns, period accounts and opinions of the various patterns, etc. At this point in time, Swords of the British Army (simply "Robson" to collectors) is unsurpassed and is a must-read for anyone interested in British military swords. It is important to note that this book only covers army swords, not naval or RAF swords. The 1996 edition is now available as a re-print from Naval & Military Press for £49.95.

The British Cavalry Sword 1788-1912: Some New Perspectives by Richard Dellar
This book, published Septeber 2013, is the best book on British military swords since Robson. For a full review of the book, click here. This book is available directly from the author, here.

Mr. Wilkinson of Pall Mall (Vols. 1 & 2) by Robert Wilkinson-Latham
This two volume work examines the history of the Wilkinson sword company beginning with its inception making guns under Henry Nock, and progressing through the acquisition of the firm by James Wilkinson, its rise to prominence under Henry Wilkinson, and the transition to John Latham. Also discussed are the industrial activities of the firm, including the production of guns, swords, bayonets, and other various non-military items. This book offers a fascinating look at the the preeminent sword maker of the Victorian era, and should be enjoyable for enthusiasts of the weapons of the Victorian period or those interested in British industry of the 19th century. This book is currently available in a re-print as a paperback.
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Re: British Military Swords 1837-1913

Postby Jonathan » 21 Dec 2008 23:31

Other titles...

These should be read after reading Robson's title because they do not contain the most recent scholarship (which means misinformation, errors, etc.):

Sword, Lance & Bayonet by Charles ffoulkes and E.C. Hopkinson
This is the first major study of British military swords. I have not read it, but I have heard from many collectors that this reference is simply out of date and filled with errors (some of which are repeated in Wilkinson-Latham's title discussed below). This book is out of print, but used copies are available for around $60-$70 US.

British Military Swords by John Wilkinson-Latham
This book, the second major study of British military swords, is unfortunately not much use to one who is new to British swords. There are enough errors in the text so as to leave one thoroughly misinformed on a number of sword patterns and their periods of use. The book does contain photos of swords and Wilkinson design sketches not found in other books, making it a useful visual reference (but with Robson as the final authority on the specifics). This book is available as a paperback re-print or used hardcover original.
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Re: British Military Swords 1837-1913

Postby Jonathan » 21 Dec 2008 23:55

For collectors...

The titles below are not only for collectors, but were published with the collector in mind:

British Military Swords, 1786-1912, The Regulation Patterns: An Illustrated Price Guide for Collectors by Harvey J.S. Withers
This book is an excellent visual reference and depicts multiple examples of each pattern (as there was often variation in patterns from maker to maker). It is well-organized and provides some interesting information on sword making in Britain and a brief history of Wilkinson. I would recommend reading Robson's book first, but if that is not possible this one is good enough so as to not be misleading (indeed much of the information is based on Robson's research). Remember that this is not intended to be an academic book, but a collector's reference. This book is out of print, but copies do surface on eBay from time to time and sell for between $60-$100 US.

Swords and Sword Makers of England and Scotland by Richard Bezdek
This is one of the most recent titles on the subject, but does not offer any new revelations on swords themselves. Instead the book focuses on sword makers and retailers in England and Scotland. In this regard the book is quite good--the index of makers and dates of activity can help in dating swords. The author relied on private collectors for the visual reference section, which has mixed results. First the good; many swords that may never be seen by the public (die to being privately owned) are available for perusal. However, there is no uniformity to the photos as each collector supplied the photos. This means no standard backgrounds (professional white backgrounds for some, carpet for others), and poor image quality (bad lighting, focus, etc.). There are numerous errors in describing some of the swords. Again, read Robson before relying on the visual reference section. This book is still in print.
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Re: British Military Swords 1837-1913

Postby Jonathan » 22 Dec 2008 00:00

Online options...

OldSwords.com
This excellent website is a resource for collectors and enthusiasts. OldSwords contains a huge image library and other resources such as a list of makers and retailers, information on serial numbers, proof marks, articles, etc. I could go on and on listing the site's features and praising its usefulness, but instead I'll just encourage those interested in swords to register (only $10 US per annum, and worth every penny) and have a look for themselves.
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Re: British Military Swords 1837-1913: A VWF Guide

Postby swordcollector1 » 22 Dec 2008 09:48

I'd add:

British Cut and Thrust Weapons, by John Wilkinson Latham
Another out-of-print reference book, this time widening the focus to take in Navy and Air Force swords, bayonets and fighting knives and polearms. The book also includes useful material on sword manufacture (through family access to Wilkinson material), a list of volunteer units for the pre-Victorian period and information on sword knots and regimental markings. As with the author's British Military Swords, which Jonathan reviews above, I'd consider this as a useful addition to a sword library for its diagrams and illustrations, but containing much text that is out-of-date or inaccurate.

The British Cavalry Sword, by Charles Martyn
The author of this relatively recent work (2004) is a retired Army officer and keen sword collector. The book is actually a collection of photographs of different sword hilts (ie not blades), with descriptions of each and career histories of some of their owners. There are some quite rare and desirable examples illustrated; however, the writer appears to be out of touch with much modern thinking on the history of certain patterns, and there are a couple of basic errors in identification. To cap it off, the black-and-white photographs are quite poor quality, which is a shame, as some of the swords are really very nice and I'm sure would benefit from good colour treatment. The book is still available on eBay and Abebooks and is quite inexpensive.
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Re: A VWF Guide to British Military Swords, 1837-1913

Postby Jonathan » 11 Jan 2009 04:01

Wilkinson Sword Patterns and Blade Rubs - Including Index and Details, 1844-1954 by Robert Wilkinson-Latham

I highly recommend this recent release to anyone who collects Victorian military swords. I have posted an informal review here.
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Common Misconceptions

Postby swordcollector1 » 12 Jan 2009 18:47

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,

John
* 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.
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Infantry Officers' Swords 1837-1845

Postby Jonathan » 10 Sep 2010 16:34

When Victoria took the throne in 1837 there were two sword patterns for infantry officers; the Pattern 1822 Infantry Officer's Sword (for infantry of the line) and the Pattern 1827 Rifle Officer's Sword (for rifle regiments). These patterns were introduced during the reign of George IV and were probably the creations of his favored sword maker, John Prosser.

Pattern 1822 Infantry Officer's Sword
The Pattern 1822 Infantry Officer's Sword (P1822) had a gilt brass "Gothic" hilt which incorporated the royal cypher and a hinged in-board counter-guard, a shagreen (fish skin) grip with wire wrap, a "pipe-back" blade which was generally 31"-32" in length, and a black leather scabbard with gilt brass mounts. The P1822 also had a black leather liner, although these rarely survived to the present day.

P1822 (Photos from OldSwords.com):
1822.jpg
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1822 hilt.jpg
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Pattern 1827 Rifle Officer's Sword
The Pattern 1827 Rifle Officer's Sword (P1827) was similar to the P1822, but with some important differences. The P1827 had a steel "Gothic" hilt, and had a strung bugle in place of the monarch's cypher. The grip and blade were generally the same as the P1827, but the P1827 had a steel scabbard rather than a leather one with metal mounts.

P1827 (Photos courtesy of swordcollector1):
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1827 hilt.JPG
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Infantry Officers' Swords 1845-1892

Postby Jonathan » 10 Sep 2010 19:04

The pipe-back blade of the Pattern 1822 Infantry Officer's Sword and Pattern 1827 Rifle Officer's Sword was not well-liked and in 1845 a new blade pattern was introduced. The new blade, sometimes called a Wilkinson pattern, had a broad fuller on each side and a prominent square or rectangular ricasso. This blade was soon adopted for all officers' swords including those of the cavalry and the Royal Navy.

Pattern 1845 Infantry Officer's Sword
The major difference between the Pattern 1845 Infantry Officer's Sword (P1845) and the Pattern 1822 Infantry Officer's Sword was the new "Wilkinson" style blade. The gilt brass hilt, which by this time tended to be a bit thicker and stronger, was largely the same except for the incorporation of the Flowers of the Union beneath the monarch's cypher.

P1845:
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p18452.jpg
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Pattern 1854 Infantry Officer's Sword
In 1854 the hinged in-board counter-guard was discontinued in favor of a one-piece solid brass guard. Aside from this small change the P1854 was largely the same sword as its predecessor. The P1854 underwent some unofficial changes as the century progressed; the grips became longer and more square in cross section, the bars of the guard became flatter and wider, and the pommels became less pronounced. These changes were a function of style and changes in sword drill rather than changes imposed by the government.

It should be noted that the P1854 is often labeled P1845. This may be because the change to the counter-guard in 1854 is so minor that many people do not consider it a truly new pattern. I have elected to make this distinction because the most modern scholarship on British military swords, Swords of the British Army by Brian Robson, uses this terminology and I believe that it is useful when assigning a date to a sword.

P1854 (Photos from OldSwords.com):
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Pattern 1827 Rifle Officer's Sword
In 1845 the pipe-back blade was replaced with the fullered "Wilkinson" style blade for rifle officers' swords--the only change made to the Pattern. Interestingly, the pattern is still referred to as the Pattern 1827 Rifles Officer's Sword. One may wonder at why the P1822 was re-designated with P1845 and the P1827 was not. A possible explanation may be that having two infantry swords with the P1845 designation would cause confusion, thus making the case for retaining the former name.

P1827:
p18271.jpg
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p18272.jpg
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Re: A VWF Guide to British Military Swords, 1837-1913

Postby acanthus » 11 Sep 2010 06:35

Hi all,

Another small book which I have found to be a useful general reference over past years is "A Pictorial History of Swords & Bayonets" by R.J. Wilkinson-Latham 1973.

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Re: A VWF Guide to British Military Swords, 1837-1913

Postby Will Mathieson » 11 Sep 2010 12:58

Annotating my references with corrections in pencil is a great way to have the proper info at hand. Some might say it devalues the book, but I would rather pass on the truth than a pristine book full of errors, Future collectors will thank us. How many times have you had to explain to a fellow collector that his reference is wrong on certain points?

Could start a post with all our corrections accompanied with their reference. Sounds like an almost neverending task!
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Re: A VWF Guide to British Military Swords, 1837-1913

Postby roconn » 28 Sep 2016 20:50

Will:

I have recently received my G Uncle's sword tentatively ID'd as an 1854 Infantry officers model. The Gilt is largely gone from the Hilt and basket. However the maker's name is well preserved "Hobson and Sons, Little Windmills, London" .sThe rest of the family don't care about the sword, but seeing as the fairly new Lieutenant William Fitch of the 10th Royal Grenadiers (now Royal Regiment of Canada) wore this with obvious pride in the North West Rebellion of 1885 but unfortunately stopped a bullet almost as the battle of Batoche was over.
It does deserve a good cleaning and as you are well versed in the care & maintenance of edged weapons any advice would be welcomed.

regards
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Re: A VWF Guide to British Military Swords, 1837-1913

Postby Will Mathieson » 29 Sep 2016 02:10

Can you post photos of your sword? Sword Forum has a good post on conservation: http://www.swordforum.com/forums/showth ... nservation
1885 Rebellion items with provenance are sought after.
Loss of gold gilt is very common, too thin to last long. Does your sword have the officers name etched on the blade or is it family history that ties it to him?
Fitch would have most likely worn his sword when he died. Check for regimental photos online and at Glenbow Museum.
You can email me photos and I can give you my opinion of how to conserve your sword. willsswords@gmail.com
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Re: A VWF Guide to British Military Swords, 1837-1913

Postby BingandNelsonFan » 15 Feb 2017 19:53

Thanks, Jonathan, for the great info! My Mom and I have been going through all of this (along with photos of some various swords), and your posts were extremely helpful. Great stuff!

Regards,
Sarah
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