Navy Cutlass

History of the United States Navy Cutlass

First cousin to the longer, lighter cavalry saber, the naval cutlass was designed for sea-fighting as the saber was adapted to land-battles. Because boarding actions were fought on the crowded decks of small vessels amid tangles of shrouds and splintered spars and struggling shipmates and foemen, Jack Tar's blade had to be short for easy control, and heavy enough to provide its own momentum in slashing. (Unlike the cavalry trooper's trusty saber, Jack's cutlass did not have the weight of  a galloping horse behind it!) 

The cutlass had a straight or slightly-curved blade designed both for cutting and thrusting. A large, enclosed guard shielded the swordsman's hand. The cutlass issued to enlisted men of the Continental Navy and the United States Navy was a highly-specialized weapon which evolved slowly from the falchion, a medieval cutting-sword with a broad, slightly-curved, single-edged blade.

From about 1740 to 1780, the cutlass was a simple, sturdy sword with an imported blade and a crude wooden cylinder for a hilt. The single-edged blade was curved so slightly that it appeared straight at first glance. A colonial armorer named Richard Gridley made several of these weapons.

At the onset of the American Revolution, the cutlass had acquired its distinctive features, but American-made models were still crude. When possible, rebelling colonists captured and used the superior British cutlass, which had a straight, single-edged blade and a hilt of blackened iron. The grip was a hollow, forged-iron cylinder wrapped around a wooden core.

By the Secretary of the Navy's order of October 15, 1942, the cutlass was discontinued as a part of the uniform for the Navy. In 1954 the officer's ceremonial sword was officially restored as part of the uniform to be worn on prescribed occasions. However, three years before this, a group of enlisted men at Bainbridge Naval Training Center independently brought back the use of the cutlass on the parade ground and drill field. In fact, the cutlass has been an instrumental device at Bainbridge since it re-openend recruit training in 1951.