Last updated

Type Sword (short sabre, single-edged)
Place of origin Europe
Service history
In service17th, 18th, and 19th century
Used by Sailors, pirates, and privateers
HeightMostly 28-32 inches (Some Cutlasses such as Lead Cutters were up to 35 inches tall).

Blade  typeSingle-edged
Hilt  typeCup hilted guards, half-basket cup guards, and branch guards were commonly seen with cylindrical hilts and wire-wrapped hilts which are common and found on most cutlasses.

A cutlass is a short, broad sabre or slashing sword, with a straight or slightly curved blade sharpened on the cutting edge, and a hilt often featuring a solid cupped or basket-shaped guard. It was a common naval weapon during the early Age of Sail.



The word cutlass developed from a 17th-century English variation of coutelas, a 16th-century French word for a machete-like blade (the modern French for "knife", in general, is "couteau"; the word was often spelled "cuttoe" in 17th- and 18th-century English). The French word is itself a corruption of the Italian coltellaccio or cortelazo, [1] meaning "large knife", a short, broad-bladed sabre popular in Italy during the 16th century. [2] The word comes from coltello, "knife", derived ultimately from Latin cultellus meaning "small knife". [3]

In the English-speaking Caribbean, the word "cutlass" is used as a word for machete. [4] [5]

History and use

Cutlasses aboard the frigate Grand Turk Grand Turk(37).jpg
Cutlasses aboard the frigate Grand Turk


The cutlass is a 17th-century descendant of the edged short sword exemplified by the medieval falchion.

Woodsmen and soldiers in the 17th and 18th centuries used a similar short and broad backsword called a hanger, or in German a messer, meaning "knife". Often occurring with the full tang (i.e. slab tang) more typical of daggers than swords in Europe, these blades may ultimately derive through the falchion (facon, falcon) from the seax.


Although also used on land, the cutlass is best known as the sailor's weapon of choice. A naval side-arm, its popularity was likely because it was not only robust enough to hack through heavy ropes, canvas, and wood, but short enough to use in relatively close quarters, such as during boarding actions, in the rigging, or below decks. Another advantage to the cutlass was its simplicity of use. Employing it effectively required less training than that required to master a rapier or small sword, and it was more effective as a close-combat weapon than a full-sized sword would be on a cramped ship.

Cutlasses are famous for being used by pirates, although there is no reason to believe that Caribbean buccaneers invented them, as has occasionally been claimed. [6] However, the subsequent use of cutlasses by pirates is well documented in contemporary sources, notably by the pirate crews of William Fly, William Kidd, and Stede Bonnet. French historian Alexandre Exquemelin reports the buccaneer François l'Ollonais using a cutlass as early as 1667. Pirates used these weapons for intimidation as much as for combat, often needing no more than to grip their hilts to induce a crew to surrender, or beating captives with the flat of the blade to force their compliance or responsiveness to interrogation. [7] [8] [9] [10]

Owing to its versatility, the cutlass was as often an agricultural implement and tool as it was as a weapon (cf. machete, to which the same comment applies) that was used commonly in rain forest and sugarcane areas, such as the Caribbean and Central America. In their most simplified form they are held to have become the machete of the Caribbean.

Modern history

In 1936 the British Royal Navy announced that from then on cutlasses would be carried only for ceremonial duties and not used in landing parties. [11] The last recorded use of cutlasses by the Royal Navy is often said to be on 16 February 1940 during the boarding action known as the Altmark Incident. However, this is disbelieved by the majority of the HMS Cossack Association (Cossack was the ship that boarded Altmark) and the authors of British Naval Swords and Swordsmanship. The authors point to another claim, a boarding by HMS Armada in 1952, but disbelieve this one too. In their view, the last use of cutlasses by the Royal Navy was by a shore party in China in 1900. [12] Cutlasses continue to be worn in the Royal Navy by a Chief Petty Officer escorting the White Ensign and by Senior or Leading Ratings in an escort at a court martial. [13]

The cutlass remained an official weapon in United States Navy stores until 1949, though seldom used in training after the early 1930s. The last new model of cutlass adopted by the U.S. Navy was the Model 1917; although cutlasses made during World War II were called the Model 1941, they were only a slightly modified variant of the Model 1917. [14] A United States Marine Corps engineer NCO is reported to have killed an enemy with a Model 1941 cutlass at Inchon during the Korean War. [15] A cutlass is still carried by the recruit designated as the Recruit Chief Petty Officer for each training company unit of recruits while at the US Navy Recruit Training Command. In a message released 31 March 2010, the US Navy approved optional wear of a ceremonial cutlass as part of the Chief Petty Officer dress uniform, pending final design approval. [16] That approval came in January 2011, and the cutlass was made available for ceremonial wear by Chief Petty Officers in August of that year. [17]

See also

Sources and references

Related Research Articles

A machete is a broad blade used either as an agricultural implement similar to an axe, or in combat like a long-bladed knife. The blade is typically 30 to 45 centimetres long and usually under 3 millimetres (0.12 in) thick. In the Spanish language, the word is possibly a diminutive form of the word macho, which was used to refer to sledgehammers., alternatively, its origin may be machaera, the name given by the Romans to the falcata. In the English language, an equivalent term is matchet, though it is less commonly used. In the English-speaking Caribbean, such as Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, and Grenada and in Trinidad and Tobago, the term cutlass is used for these agricultural tools.

A sword is a bladed melee weapon intended for cutting or thrusting that is longer than a knife or dagger, consisting of a long blade attached to a hilt. The precise definition of the term varies with the historical epoch or the geographic region under consideration. The blade can be straight or curved. Thrusting swords have a pointed tip on the blade, and tend to be straighter; slashing swords have a sharpened cutting edge on one or both sides of the blade, and are more likely to be curved. Many swords are designed for both thrusting and slashing.

Falchion One-handed, single-edged sword

A falchion is a one-handed, single-edged sword of European origin, whose design is reminiscent of the modern machete. Falchions are found in different forms from around the 13th century up to and including the 16th century. In some versions the falchion looks rather like the seax and later the sabre, and in other versions the form is irregular or like a machete with a crossguard.

Sabre Type of sword used for combat on horseback

A sabre is a type of backsword with a curved blade associated with the light cavalry of the early modern and Napoleonic periods. Originally associated with Central European cavalry such as the hussars, the sabre became widespread in Western Europe in the Thirty Years' War. Lighter sabres also became popular with infantry of the early 17th century. In the 19th century, models with less curving blades became common and were also used by heavy cavalry.

A backsword is a type of sword characterised by having a single-edged blade and a hilt with a single-handed grip. It is so called because the triangular cross section gives a flat back edge opposite the cutting edge. Later examples often have a "false edge" on the back near the tip, which was in many cases sharpened to make an actual edge and facilitate thrusting attacks. From around the early 14th century, the backsword became the first type of European sword to be fitted with a knuckle guard.

<i>Dao</i> (sword) Single-edged Chinese sword primarily used for slashing and chopping

Dao are single-edged Chinese swords, primarily used for slashing and chopping. The most common form is also known as the Chinese sabre, although those with wider blades are sometimes referred to as Chinese broadswords. In China, the dao is considered one of the four traditional weapons, along with the gun, qiang (spear), and the jian, called in this group “The General of Weapons".

Kampilan Sword

The kampilan is a type of single-edged sword, traditionally used by various ethnic groups in the Philippine archipelago. It has a distinct profile, with the tapered blade being much broader and thinner at the point than at its base, sometimes with a protruding spikelet along the flat side of the tip. The design of the pommel varies between ethnic groups, but it usually depicts either a bakunawa (dragon), a buaya (crocodile), a kalaw (hornbill), or a kakatua (cockatoo).

<i>Altmark</i> incident WW II naval incident between British and German ships

The Altmark incident was a naval incident of World War II between British destroyers and the German tanker Altmark, which happened on 16–17 February 1940. It took place in what were, at that time, neutral Norwegian waters. On board the Altmark were some 300 allied prisoners, whose ships had been sunk by the pocket battleship Graf Spee in the Southern Atlantic Ocean. British naval forces cornered the tanker and later the destroyer Cossack attacked the German ship near the Jøssingfjord and freed all the prisoners, killing eight German seamen with firearms and wounding ten others, five of them seriously. A British and a Norwegian sailor were also seriously wounded in the action. Germany claimed that the attack was a grave violation of international law and of Norwegian neutrality.

Classification of swords

The English language terminology used in the classification of swords is imprecise and has varied widely over time. There is no historical dictionary for the universal names, classification or terminology of swords; A sword was simply a double edged knife.

A dirk is a long bladed thrusting dagger. Historically, it was a personal weapon of officers engaged in naval hand-to-hand combat during the Age of Sail as well as the personal sidearm of Highlanders. It was also used by the officers, pipers, and drummers of Scottish Highland regiments around 1800 and by Japanese naval officers.


The term kopis in Ancient Greece could describe a heavy knife with a forward-curving blade, primarily used as a tool for cutting meat, for ritual slaughter and animal sacrifice, or refer to a single edged cutting or "cut and thrust" sword with a similarly shaped blade.

Makhaira Ancient Greek bladed weapon

The makhaira is a type of Ancient Greek bladed weapon, generally a large knife or sword with a single cutting edge.

Dusack Sabre

A dusack is a single-edged sword of the cutlass or sabre type, in use as a side arm in Germany and the Habsburg Monarchy during the 16th to 17th centuries, as well as a practice weapon based on this weapon used in early modern German fencing.

Messer (weapon) Cold weapon

A messer is a single-edged sword with a knife-like hilt construction. While the various names are often used synonymously, messers are divided into two types:

A pistol sword is a sword with a pistol or revolver attached, usually alongside the blade. It differs from a rifle with a bayonet in that the weapon is designed primarily for use as a sword, and the firearm component is typically considered a secondary weapon designed to be an addition to the blade, rather than the sword being a secondary addition to the pistol. In addition, the two components of these weapons typically cannot be separated, unlike most bayonet-fixed rifles.

Bilbo (sword)

The bilbo is a type of 16th century, cut-and-thrust sword or small rapier formerly popular in America. They have well-tempered and flexible blades and were very popular aboard ships, where they were used similarly to a cutlass. The term probably comes from the Basque city of Bilbao, Bilbo in Basque, where a significant number of them were made and exported to the New World. These swords were also sold to merchants of every European nation, including England.

A combination weapon is a close-quarters gun hybrid combining the features of both a firearm and an edged melee weapon. Examples of gun hybrids include knife/pistols and pistol/sword combinations.

Ka-Bar Combat knife first adopted by the United States military in 1942

Ka-Bar is the contemporary popular name for the combat knife first adopted by the United States Marine Corps in November 1942 as the 1219C2 combat knife, and subsequently adopted by the United States Navy as the U.S. Navy utility knife, Mark 2. Additionally, Ka-Bar is the name of a related knife manufacturing company, Ka-Bar Knives., Inc., of Olean, New York, a subsidiary of the Cutco Corporation.

Leadcutter sword Broad English sword

The Leadcutter sword or lead cutter is a type of broad, heavy, specialist English sword or cutlass. Popular in the 19th century, these weapons resemble an enlarged naval cutlass, consisting of single-edged, flatbacked blades with broad widths, often flexible and sometimes slightly curved, always with a full cutlass-type hilt. The swords, heavier than standard cutlasses, were designed for strength training and for "sword feats". These displays often included the dissevering of whole sheep's carcasses and of balanced lead bars in a single blow. A prominent manufacturer of Leadcutters was Wilkinson Sword, who produced the sword in four sizes; Model 1 being the lightest, and Model 4 being the largest and heaviest. A Model 2 blade measures in at 31 inches in length and 1.75 inches in width, with a model 3 blade 33 inches long and 2 inches wide.


  1. Wedgwood, Hensleigh (1855). "On False Etymologies". Transactions of the Philological Society (6): 66.
  2. Ossian, Rob, The Cutlass (accessed Jan. 25, 2015)
  4. John Klein, "What Is a Machete, Anyway?", "The Atlantic, Oct 21, 2013 (accessed Jan 25 2015)
  5. Teresa P Blair, A-Z of Jamaican Patois (Patwah), Page 49 Google Books Result
  6. "Pirate Weapons". Brethren of the Coast. Archived from the original on 23 December 2007. Retrieved 30 March 2009. According to legend, buccaneers invented the cutlass, but this may not be factual. It is said to have evolved from the long knives used by the early buccaneers to butcher their meat.
  7. Lawson, John Davis (1915). American State Trials. St. Louis: F.H. Thomas Law Book Co. p.  668. But as soon as they came up the shrouds, they clapped all hands to their cutlasses. Then I saw we were taken...
  8. John Richard Stephens, ed. (2006). Captured by Pirates. New York City: Barnes & Noble. p.  6. ISBN   0-7607-8537-6. They immediately drew their weapons and, after beating us up severely with their cutlasses, drove us below.
  9. John Richard Stephens, ed. (2006). Captured by Pirates. New York City: Barnes & Noble. p.  9. ISBN   0-7607-8537-6. [N]ine or ten men of a most ferocious aspect armed with muskets, knives, and cutlasses . . .ordered Captain Cowper, Mr. Lumsden, the ship's carpenter, and myself to go on board the pirate, hastening our departure by repeated blows with the flat part of their cutlasses over our backs.
  10. John Richard Stephens, ed. (2006). Captured by Pirates . New York City: Barnes & Noble. p.  40. ISBN   0-7607-8537-6. [T]he man who gave the order commenced beating me severely with the broad side of his cutlass.
  11. "Royal Navy". Official Appointments and Notices. The Times (47514). London. 24 October 1936. col D, p. 17.
  12. Mark Barton, John McGrath, British Naval Swords and Swordsmanship, p. 21, Seaforth Publishers, 2013 ISBN   184832135X.
  13. "RN DRESS TABLES (39A-2)" (PDF). Royal Navy Digital. October 2013. Retrieved 26 March 2014.
  14. Wagner, Rick. "Focus on the M1917/M1941 Cutlass". The Swordcollector. Retrieved 19 September 2008.
  15. Gilkerson, Bill (1991). Boarders Away. Volume 1: With Steel. Lincoln, Rhode Island: Andrew Mowbray Inc. ISBN   978-0-917218-50-7.|volume= has extra text (help)
  16. Press release (2010-03-31). Uniform Changes Include CPO Cutlass, Ball Caps. United States Navy. Retrieved 2011-01-11.
  17. Press release (2011-01-25). NAVADMIN 025/11 - Uniform Board Update [ permanent dead link ]. United States Navy. Retrieved 2012-03-18.