At first sight it seems rather curious that, though the saber has been a component part of our cavalry equipment ever since the beginning, it's use and form has never been given much thoughtful consideration. When we consider, however, that for years the only target practice our troops had was when the old guard fired the loads from their muskets, our negligence in acquiring other knowledge seems less strange. It was through the personal interest and excellence of individual officers and men that attention to target practice was first introduced. I have been informed by some of these gentlemen that at first they were met by obstructionists and the cry of "let well enough alone." They persisted, however, and as people began to see the results they accomplished they ceased to hinder, and rapid and wonderful progress both in the rifle and in the manner of it's use have followed.
It now seems that the turn of the bayonet and saber has arrived. But to gain any prominence it must be supported by some personal interest on the part of officers and men which, when applied to the rifle, has given us the greatest shooting arm in the world. Yet, however essential this interest may be it is difficult to excite it with our present saber and methods of instruction.
As to the form of the saber, there seems to have been an age long controversy between the advocates of the edge and those favoring the point. Beginning with the 11th Century, from which time accounts are fairly consecutive, we find as follows:
When scale, and later chain, armor became sufficiently perfected to completely cover the body, the point went out of use because it was quite impossible to thrust it through the meshes, while by giving a violent blow, it was possible to break or cripple an opponent's arms or ribs without cutting the armor.
When the German Mercenaries in the Italian wars began to wear plate, the Italians found the edge of no avail and returned to the point which they thrust through the joints of the crude plate armor. Gradually armor became so well made that neither the point nor edge affected it, but about this time the bullet began to put the armor out of business.
While the armor was being eliminated, so-called light cavalry was evolved. These men wore no armor, and since the Cossacks, Poles, and Turkish horsemen were the only examples of the unarmored horse which men had to copy, and since these inherited from the Arab a curved scimitar-like saber, the new light cavalry was mostly armed with a curved saber. The weapon adopted was, however, an unintelligent copy. The scimitar of the Oriental was a special adapted for cutting through defensive clothing made of wool wadding and to be used in combats when the opposing horsemen fought in open formations circling each other and not in ordered lines trusting to shock.
The sword given to most of the light cavalry troops was not of sufficient curvature to give the drawn saw-like cut of the scimitar and yet was curved sufficiently to reduce it's efficiency for pointing. It may also be noted that the scimitar was not used for parrying and could not be, having neither guard nor balance. All the parrying was done with a light shield. But this lack of balance and the curved form of the weapon must not be considered as essential to a cutting weapon, for the long, straight, cross-handled sword of the Crusader has a most excellent balance, about two inches from the guard. Yet this weapon was probably the one of all time capable of striking the hardest blow.
The present saber of our cavalry is almost the last survival of the incorrect application of the mechanics of the scimitar. It is not a good cutting weapon, being difficult to move rapidly. It is not a good pointing weapon, being curved sufficiently to throw the point out of line. Yet it is clung to as fondly as was the inaccurate Civil War musket and the .45 Springfield with it's mule like kick.
The tenacity evinced for the retention of an illogical weapon seems without basis in history, while from the same source we find numerous tributes to the value of the point. Verdi du Vernois says, "Experience has shown that a sword cut seldom, but a point with the sword always, throws a man off his horse."
In the Peninsula War the English nearly always used the sword for cutting. The French dragoons, on the contrary, used only the point which, with their long straight swords caused almost always a fatal wound. This made the English say that the French did not fight fair. Marshal Saxe wished to arm the French cavalry with a blade of a triangular cross section so as to make the use of the point obligatory.
At Wagram, when the cavalry of the guard passed in review before a charge, Napoleon called to them, "Don't cut! The point! The point!."
To refute this and much more historical approval of the point and the present practice of all great nations, except Russia, the advocates of the so called cutting weapon say that we are practically a nation of axmen. It is doubtful, however, if many of our men have ever handled an ax or are descendants from those who have. The tendency of the untrained man to flourish his sword and make movements with it simulating cuts is to be found in other nation. In France, noted for it's use of the point, I witnessed within the last year several hundred recruits, when first handed sabers, thrashing about with them as if they were clubs, but no sooner were they taught the value of the point than they adopted it and never thereafter returned to the edge.
The child starts locomotion by crawling, but on this account do we discourage walking? The recruit flinches and blinks on first firing a gun, but he is certainly not encouraged to continue this practice. Why, then, should the ignorant swinging about of a sword be indicative of it's proper use? It is in the charge that the sword is particularly needful, and, in fact, finds almost it's whole application, and it is here that the point is of particular advantage in stimulating to the highest degree the desire of closing with the enemy and running him through.
In executing the charge with the point, according to the French method, the trooper leans well down on the horse's neck with the saber and arm fully extended and the back of the hand turned slightly to the left so as to get the utmost reach. This also turns the guard up and thus protects the hand, arm, and head from thrusts and the hand from cuts. The blade is about the height of the horse's ears, the trooper leaning well down and in the ideal position slightly to the left of the horse's neck. In this position he can turn hostile points to the right by revolving his hand in that direction, the point of his weapon still remaining in line and he himself covered by the guard of his saber. The pommel of the saddle and the pommel pack, such as is on our new saddle, protects the thighs and stomach from points deflected downward. Cuts would fall on the shoulder or across the back where they would be hindered by clothing and to little harm. The head can be protected by ducking it below the horse's crest. Moreover, since the point will reach it's mark several feet before a cut could be started, there is little danger of it's being dealt. Should it be necessary to attack an opponent on the left, the arm is brought over the horse's neck and the hand rotated further to the left, keeping the guard before the face. In this position the parry for the point is either up or to the left.
Another advantage of this position is that while pushing forward to close, only half the human target visible in our present position of charge is exposed, and that in urging the horse to speed the best results are attained with the weight carried forward as described. To use the edge it is necessary to sit erect and in the act of dealing a cut the trooper is completely open either to cuts or thrusts. Moreover, his reach is shortened at least three feet, for the cut to be effective must be dealt with the "forte" of the blade which starts about eight inches from the point and in a position to cut the trooper also loses the entire reach of his extended body and arms.
The point is vastly more deadly than the edge, for while it might be possible to inflict a crippling blow with the edge were the swing unrestricted by the pressing ranks of the charge or by the guard or attack of an adversary, yet with both of these factors added to the necessity of so starting the cuts as to reach it's mark after making due allowance for the relative speed of approach of the two contestants; the size and power of the blow becomes so reduced that there is grave doubt if it would have sufficient power to do any damage to an opponent's body, protected as it is by clothing and equipment. And even should it reach the fact, it's power to unhorse is dubious.
The use of the point, on the other hand, is not restricted by the press of the ranks and it's insinuating effect is not hindered by clothing or equipment. The exaggerated idea of the effect of a cut which prevalent in our service is due possibly to the fact that when a man wants to demonstrate it he rides or walks up to a post, and with plenty of time to estimate distance and with his swing unimpeded by companions on either hand, he can expend all of his power and attention to chopping at his mark. Also, in our so called fencing, mounted or dismounted between enlisted man, the touch with the point which, were it sharp, would introduce several inches of steel into it's target, is hardly felt, while blows with the edge often cause considerable bruises, though were these sharp it is doubtful if they would do more.
It is also well to remember that were one of our lines, charging as at present, to run up against a line charging with the point, our opponents' weapons would reach us and have ample opportunity to pass through us before we could be even able to start a cut in return. Were we, on the other hand, while using the point, to encounter men using the edge, we in turn would have them at our mercy. In the melee which follows a charge, there is less objection to using the edge, for the horses will be going at less speed and things will probably open up. At least, there will be no rank formation and a man can chop away as ineffectually as he likes, though here, too, the point would be more deadly. In the pursuit there is little choice between the edge and point, though it might be a little easier on the horses to stick a man when he is several feet ahead than to be forced to ride almost abreast of him to deal a cut. Moreover, a man can parry a cut from behind while continuing his flight, but in order to parry a thrust he must stop and turn. Still, with the straight sword under consideration by the War Department, cuts can be more effectually made than they could with our present saber, as the new sword is better balanced for rapid cutting and is very sharp on both edges. Of course, this weapon is distinctly a cavalry arm, and it would not effect the equipment of the infantry or artillery.
In instructing the trooper in the use of the saber, he is never allowed to fence with beginners but is assigned to a noncommissioned officer or an instructed private who teaches him the mechanism of the thrust and the idea of parrying with the blade while keeping the point in line and always replying to an attack with a thrust. Later, he is allowed to use occasional cuts, but he is always impressed with the idea of thrusting. This instruction will give him facility in the use of his weapon and impress him with an aggressive spirit. He is then placed on a wooden horse and first taught the position of charge, mounted, and how to parry with his blade while in the charging position without getting his point out of line for his opponent's body. He is then placed on horseback and taught to take the proper position and later to run at dummies of considerable weight. In running at dummies, there is no jabbing with the arm. The blade is kept still and the horse does the work. All the man has to do is to direct his point, which operation is facilitated by the fact of his having his blade along the line of sight. Later he is taught to use his weapon against adversaries on his right and left as in a melee. In teaching this he is first allowed to go slowly, but having learned the mechanism he is thereafter required to go fast and is never permitted to slow up or circle. He rides at a man to kill him, and if he misses, he goes on to another, moving in straight lines with the intent of running his opponent through.
As to the question of recovering his sword thrust into an opponent, it is not difficult with a dummy when the latter is given any flexibility at all, and when a man has been run through he is going to be pretty limp and will probably fall from his horse, clearing the weapon for you. It would seem, then, that the straight sword possesses all of the advantages of the curved sword for cutting, besides admitting of the proper use of the point, which the other does not, and that in using the point in the charge not a single advantage of the edge is lost, while many disadvantages are overcome. In addition, the highest possible incentive to close with the enemy is given.
Finally, many of our possible opponents are using the long straight sword and the point in the charge. To come against this with our present sabers and position of charge would be suicidal.