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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sword or Pistol for the US Cavalry?

The following article was published in the Cavalry Journal in 1903, when it was still possible to debate whether mounted troops would be better armed with a sword or a pistol. The debate continued until the First World War, when, after a few cavalry charges against massed machine-gun fire, the topic was dropped.

By Lt-Col James Parker, Thirteenth U. S. Cavalry.

Many articles have appeared within the last few years in the Cavalry Journal advocating the abolition of the saber as a cavalry weapon. Allow me to give in a few words some reasons why it should be retained.

1. The saber as employed in war is not the saber imagined by these gentlemen. There is as much difference between a sharp saber and a dull saber as between a razor and a club. The dull saber will not cut anything. Only its point can be used, and the natural instinct of every individual is to use the edge of a cutting weapon. A sharp saber, on the contrary, is a terrible weapon. Let some of these scoffers take the trouble to sharpen up a saber as sharp as a Japanese sword and go out in their kitchen and cut a piece of beef with it. They will find, whereas the dull saber will not make an impression, the sharp saber will make a wound eight inches long and four inches wide; that is, it will cut through a man's neck in one blow. As compared with this wound the wound made by a pistol will be insignificant.

2. The abolition of the saber will be the abolition of the charge in mass. With the charge as for skirmishers the pistol will be a better weapon. The enemy is not then obliged to meet you hand to hand, and the combat becomes a contest of maneuvering. Under these circumstances a weapon that will reach an enemy at a distance is necessary.

It is evident that those who would abolish the saber would get rid of the charge in mass. This is not always possible. When two regiments meet, when lines of 1,000 to 5,000 men are hurled at each other, there is an actual collision. It is not possible for the individual to separate as in the charge as foragers. There is a jam of men. The men are at arm's length. It is a melee. Under such circumstances the pistol is the worst of weapons. In this crowd of men a shot fired at an enemy is more than likely to hit a friend.

But say the opponents of the saber: "During the charge and while we are advancing on the enemy, we will with pistols overwhelm them with bullets, so that before the actual collision occurs they will have lost heavily and will retreat." I would ask these gentlemen if they have ever examined the record target practice of the United States army during the years when, prior to 1892, pistol practice firing to the front was in vogue? They will find there that the average percentage of hits for the whole army in firing to the front was about twenty per cent. The practice was as follows: Lines of men at slow canter advanced toward a line of targets, commencing the fire at eighty yards. They were allowed to fire until they passed the targets. The men passed between the targets and invariably reserved one last shot for the moment when the muzzle of the pistol came against the target. That last shot counted always. None of the other shots, as a rule, hit. As we fired five shots, and one shot hit, the percentage was twenty per cent.

But, further, in actual warfare this firing to the front during the charge would be inadmissible. It would be a waste of ammunition, because the horse proceeding at full speed, in terrific strides and jumps, is an impossible firing platform. It would be dangerous to our own men, and especially to our officers, for the reason that the charge in line, as it approaches the enemy, if not already in double rank, is likely to become so, and may as likely become a formation of three or four ranks, where the cowards and poor shots are in the rear. I should want nothing better than an enemy charging toward me in this formation, firing. It would not be my line which received the bullets. But I would not like to be the commanding officer of such a line, riding in front of it.

The truth is that the use of the pistol is incompatible with the charge. The charge is the act of a man wishing to close with his enemy. Shooting is the act of a man wishing to keep his enemy at a distance. If our friends will carry their argument to its logical conclusion, they would, perhaps, receive the charge at a halt. Men at a halt can shoot better. If they are cool enough, they should be able to wait until their charging enemy arrives within a few paces, and then fire a volley, which, if their premises are correct, ought to be sufficient to defeat the enemy.

Further, comparing the pistol with the saber, it may be said that the saber, if not dull, is always loaded. On the other hand, the five shots of our troopers of the charging line may be gone when they arrive. Consider their predicament, ' when, carried forward by their maddened horses, they plunge into the opposing ranks. Practically it is impossible to reload a pistol under such circumstances. The troopers will be practically unarmed, crowded in boot to boot with a mass of men armed with sharp knives, seeking to cut their throats.

The disadvantage of the pistol when fighting a cutting weapon is often shown in the cutting and shooting encounters of the South and West, knife against pistol, when the man armed with a knife, in a majority of instances, has the last say.

The use of projectile weapons on horseback is not a new thing. It has been tried again and again. The mounted archers of the old days carried a weapon, which, in the hands of an expert, was very nearly or quite as effective as the modern pistol, and yet it availed little against troops armed with the sword or lance and determined to close. The dragoons of the middle ages carried a pistol, and there were even many in those days who praised it, as do some of our cavalrymen, as being equivalent to a lance one hundred yards long. Some of the cavalry during the Civil War made use of a pistol which, for all practical purposes, was as efficient a weapon as the one we use to-day, and while it had its enthusiastic supporters, still its superiority over the saber, even the dull saber, was not so manifest as to lead to a demand for the general abolition of the saber. As a test of the question our Civil War was not complete. Too large a proportion of our cavalry were untrained.

In what respect have conditions, so far as mounted fighting is concerned, changed since 1866? In 1866 it was impossible, as it is now, to ride down infantry, but it was necessary, as it is now, to fight cavalry mounted. If war is to be in future a partisan affair; if grand charges, cavalry against cavalry, are no longer possible; if cavalry will no longer have to clear the way for the advancing infantry, beat down the opposing cavalry, penetrate through the network of defense so as to reach and discover the position of the enemy, then we need the saber no longer. But as long as cavalry in great bodies are liable to meet each other, then we need a weapon that can be used in hand-to-hand fighting in a melee. Such a weapon is the saber.

Let us not be so short sighted as to imagine that all the lessons of European wars go for nothing. Let us not be so densely convinced of our own superiority as to think that the decision of European experts, men who apply all their lives to the study of cavalry, that the pistol as a charging weapon is inferior to the saber, is of no consequence. Finally, let us not make a leap in the dark and deprive our cavalry of an arm which may on some battlefield save it from destruction. Let us retain the saber, and when war comes, keep it keen that it may not miss the opportunity that to a cavalryman comes seldom, but when it comes, is decisive.


  1. The cavalry sword is being used as an official ceremonial sword being used by cavalry army.

  2. In the closeing stages of WW1 Australian light horse were issued with swords (no swords for most of the war) presumably because they believed they were needed.