Easton Antique Arms


British Infantry Officers' Swords of the 1890s and the 1895 Infantry Sword Exercise
By Matt Easton

The 1897 pattern infantry officer's sword is commonly encountered by modern collectors. It is still the regulation sword for British line infantry officers today and they were produced in large numbers especially during WW1. For this reason, they are quite numerous and are relatively affordable.

Some writers have claimed that this model of sword was the epitome of military sword design for combat and self-defence on foot. Robson (Swords of the British Army) boldy states, "taken as a whole, the Pattern 1895 sword, with its excellent guard and its wicked, thrusting blade, was unquestionably the best fighting sword ever prescribed for the infantry officers of the Army, and its theoretical excellence was confirmed in practice". But assessing whether that is a defendable statement is difficult with the available sources. These models of sword came right at the end of the era when swords still saw battlefield use, whereas previous models of sword had been used in attack and defence all over the World in numerous wars and small conflicts. These new swords would never go through that extensive passage of arms as modern warfare largely overtook them.

The evolution of these swords, from 1892 pattern, through to 1895 pattern and the final 1897 pattern, has not been comprehensively documented and explained in a modern publication until now. The exact details of who exactly inspired and designed the various elements of the sword and why has remained obscure. Hopefully this article will go further than any previously in addressing some of the questions surrounding British infantry officers' swords of the 1890s.

Over the course of a few months I have drawn together a diverse set of primary sources which describe and explain the development of the new thrusting blade (in 1892) and then the addition of an improved hilt design (in 1895 and 1897) for British infantry officers' swords. I have also included period judgements on the new weapon, as well as period critique of the new fencing system that was introduced to accompany it.

Examining both the weapon and the system intended for its use is necessary to understand the full context of the weapon's development. It is hoped therefore that this article will show these swords in a new light and increase general understanding of how, why and by whom they were introduced into British service. It is also hoped that the sources presented here will help dispel some of the myths surrounding this pattern of sword and indeed Victorian swords in general.

In the 1890s a rapid succession of regulation changes happened to British infantry officers' swords. The overall movement was away from a cut and thrust sabre blade and towards a specialised straight thrusting sword.

The introduction of the new thrusting blade was quickly followed by improvements to the handle and guard of the hilt, intended to provide a better grip and greater protection to the hand. Some authors have claimed that this resulted in a better military sidearm than the old 1845 pattern sword, though given the quite different context and frequency of use of swords in warfare between 1845 and 1897 this is hard to judge from the available sources.

The British infantry officer had carried a regulation sword which had not officially changed in design since 1845 - article on the 1845 pattern blade.. The regulation allowed for some variation, so some blades were straighter or more curved, a little longer or shorter, a bit wider or narrower, or simply heavier or lighter. It can be surprising to see how much one 1845 pattern infantry officer's sword can vary compared to another, both in appearance and even more in handling (and therefore in use). One example of these swords can feel like a foil while another feels like a cleaver. This is without even considering the material quality variance between different makers. Making general statements about this pattern of sword is therefore fraught with difficulty. Some were good cutters, some were good thrusters, some were adequate at both and some were awful at both.

By the 1880s there were various commitees looking at the regulation British cavalry sword. A 'sword scandal' had erupted in the press, over the performance of British cavalry swords in the Sudan campaigns. And a gradual momentum gathered to revise the design of the infantry officer's regulation sword, which had been in used since the Anglo-Sikh Wars and Crimean War. Certain voices in both the military and the press had long criticised the British infantry officers' swords, on a number of grounds. Some claimed that compromise cut and thrust blades were inherently inferior to specialised blades, some claimed that the handles and guards of the hilts were poorly designed. Many critics, in typical British fashion, pointed to foreign weapons which they considered were superior and called upon a patriotic effort to give British officers something better. Though many of these armchair critics disagreed as to what this better weapon should be. Meanwhile, officers all over the Empire and beyond were using 1845 pattern swords to defend their lives and take others'.

It should be explained at this juncture that while the 1845 regulation sabre blade was officially mandated and was the most widespread type between 1845 and 1892, some officers who felt strongly about sword design ordered non-regulation blade types. These came in a variety of forms, curved and straight, broader and narrower. In simple terms, these non-regulation blade types were intended to produce a more effective fighting weapon, according to the individual officer's own preferences, and tended to either accentuate the cut, the thrust, or attempted to combined cutting and thrusting more efficiently than the 1845 pattern blade had.

These non-regulation swords and the people designing them played a part in influencing the new regulation infantry swords of the 1890s, as will be detailed below in the case of Colonel King-Harman. Some officers had elected to have specially made thrusting blades on their regulation hilts since the Crimean War and earlier (the so-called 'Percy' and 'Toledo' type blades offered by Wilkinson were more specialised to thrusting for example). Some of these earlier non-regulation blades were not greatly different in function to the 1892 blade which would later become regulation.

The cut and thrust debate went back centuries. It was debated in fencing manuals, newspapers and military journals. We can see the matter discussed explicitly in English as early as George Silver's treatise of 1599. In the 18th century the smallsword had utterly specialised in favour of the thrust, backswords retained the ability to both cut and thrust and the most curved sabres were virtually (if not literally) specialised to cutting.

In the Victorian period, different individuals championed thrusts, cuts or a combination of both, and in some cases this varied for combat on foot versus mounted. Brigadier-General John Jacob, for example, was strongly in favour of thrusting swords for fighting on foot and curved cutting swords for fighting on horseback. This was due to his own personal experience, where he had run through an opponent with his point while mounted and had his sword wrenched from his grip and the blade bent in the process, leaving him effectively disarmed. Conversely, Sir Richard Francis Burton writing some decades later suggested that this was due to Jacob's own error of technique.

Disagreement on the topic was rife at all levels of the military, as well as in interested civilian circles. Regardless of all the debate, specialised cutting swords and specialised thrusting swords continued to be used successfully by different exponents on active service. Each could be used successfully in the right hands. By WW1, British cavalry was using an utterly specialised thrusting sword (essentially an estoc), while Indian cavalry in British service was mostly using a specialised cutting sword, with a blade based on the old 1796 pattern light cavalry sabre.

By the Victorian period it was the dominant popular opinion that although the cut versus thrust debate was still open for cavalry, for men on foot the use of the point was superior. That is not to say that everyone agreed with this assessment, nor that they all agreed in the same extents. Some writers conceeded that a sword should be able to both cut and thrust, but that the thrust should be most favoured. Others spoke strongly in favour of dedicated cutting or thrusting swords. This will be examined in greater depth in another article, but for now it is enough to note that by 1892 the thrust 'camp' had won the argument in Britain and it was decided to create a new thrust-centric sword for British infantry officers. This in turn led to calls for an improved hilt.

To summarise, the regulation changes were:

1892 pattern - New blade introduced (with the brass hilt remaining basically the same as the 1845 pattern weapon).
1895 pattern - New steel guard and straight fully-chequered steel backstrap to the grip.
1897 pattern - New steel guard with the inside edge turned down and holes made smaller - this is still the current regulation for British line infantry officers.

Because these three main changes were introduced separately, there are technically three different sword patterns. The 1892 pattern was really just a change of blade, replacing the 1845 pattern blade (although the grip became universally straight also, where it had only sometimes been straight previously). Presumably some officers purchased a new 1892 blade and had them mounted in their earlier hilts, but as the hilts are identical it would be impossible to tell this now. The 1895 pattern was an entire hilt update, with a new steel guard and new chequered backstrap. The 1897 pattern was the final refinement of the hilt design, which is still the British Infantry regulation officers' sword today.

Here is shown the development from 1845 to 1897:

A Typical Infantry Officer's Sword of the 1850s (the hilt was the 1822 pattern, with the new improved 1845 fullered blade):

A Typical Infantry Officer's Sword of the 1880s (folding guard abandoned by 1860, blade and grip generally straighter on later examples, the backstrap usually having a chequered thumb-placer):

British 1892 Pattern Infantry Officer's Sword (new model of blade dedicated to thrusting, with the hilt remaining essentially the same as previously):

British 1892 Pattern Infantry Officer's Sword (post-1895 example for RAMC with chequered backstrap and domed pommel - after 1895 all backstraps became fully chequered and flatter at the thumb-placer):

British 1895 Pattern Infantry Officer's Sword (new steel guard and new straight fully-chequered backstrap):

British 1895 Pattern Infantry Officer's Sword (early version with thicker steel guard):

British 1897 Pattern Infantry Officer's Sword (guard folded on the inner edge and the guard perforations made smaller in general):

British 1897 Pattern Infantry Officer's Sword:

British 1897 Pattern Infantry Officer's Sword (a mid-20th century example, unchanged in design since 1897 and still regulation today):

The 1892 pattern blade

The new blade was 32.5 inches long, 1 inch wide at the base, tapering to a point. The first half of the blade was symmetrical in cross-section, with a deep fuller (groove), being rounded and blunt on front and back. This has gained the blade the description of 'dumb-bell' blade, due to the cross-section of the forte. The second half of the blade is a wedge-section, with an edge for about 12 inches on the front of the blade and 6 inches of false edge on the back.

The precise measurements, including the length, width, taper and weight vary between examples. The point of balance also varies between examples. Despite numerous descriptions of the time stating that this blade was lighter than the previous 1845 pattern, in my experience this is incorrect as a universal statement. Some examples are lighter and some are heavier than average 1845 pattern blades - there is a considerable overlap in the weights. Overall, I would say that both patterns of blade vary a lot between individual examples and if the tendency is for the 1892 blade to be lighter than the 1845 (which I am not convinced it is) then the difference is very slight indeed.

Where the sword may feel 'lighter' in the hand to some people, this is due to having a more tapered blade with slender point. This different mass distribution may lead to the illusion that the sword is lighter, because of less intertia required to move the tip around. This being said, some examples of 1892 type blades are quite thick at the tip and not very nimble at all.

The main difference to the old cut and thrust blade is that a similar amount of steel has been put into a very different form in the 1892 blade, such that it is much narrower but thicker in the end of the blade, resulting in a more rigid spike. The 1892 blade was supposed to retain some cutting capacity and the new 1895 Infantry Sword Exercise (devised by Ferdinand Masiello under the instructions of Colonel Malcolm Fox, Inspector of the Army Gymnasia) includes cuts as part of the associated system of use. But in reality, these blades are very narrow and thick to execute an effective cut (though some examples are broader and flatter than others). No doubt they could deliver a painful blunt force strike, but they are clearly primarily thrusting swords.

We can reasonably conclude that purely for the act of thrusting, this new blade was superior to the typical 1845 pattern, having a stiffer blade and a more slender tip profile. Deeper and easier penetration is the consequence, at the cost of cutting capacity. The blade is also well set up for defensive purposes, having a chunky and blunt base to the blade, known as the forte. The forte is very solid on this design and well adapted to absorbing impacts from any sort of opposing weapon, be it another sword or a rifle and bayonet.

The Hilt

The hilt consists of three basic elements; the guard, the handle and the backstrap. The handle remained more or less the same as the previous model of sword, aside from some straightening and in some cases lengthening. The key changes, which did not occur until 1895, were to the guard and the backstrap.

The backstrap of the 1895 pattern hilt often gets overlooked in modern works on antique swords, but was in fact one of the most important features of the new sword.

For decades writers on swords had been asking for an improved military sword grip. It was generally regarded that for a thrust-centric sword which did not have finger-rings a rectangular handle gave the most secure grip. Especially where the thumb was to be placed up the backstrap to improve edge alignment in the cut and control the point in the thrust.

Fencing foil grips were rectangular in section and therefore many fencers wanted a similar feature on combat swords. The rather narrow rounded backstrap on both infantry and cavalry officers' swords before 1840 provided a slippery surface on which to place the thumb and so by the 1840s many officers' swords received a chequered area to place the thumb. This chequered thumb-placer became common by the 1860s and basically universal by the 1870s.

The 1895 pattern backstrap took this development to its natural conclusion by flattening and broadening this thumb-placement area, making it even less prone to slipping in use, as well as chequering the entire rest of the backstrap. The 1895 pattern backstrap was also completely straight, whereas a lot of earlier backstraps had been more or less angled or curved. This is a somewhat interesting design choice, as other thrusting swords had more angled 'pistol' type grips, to bring the point more easily online. However, for whatever reason, the designers of the 1895 hilt elected to put the grip in line with the blade (unlike the 1908 and 1912 pattern thrusting cavalry swords).

The resulting grip was copied over to cavalry, Rifles and artillery swords after 1895, as seen on the 1896 pattern cavalry officers' sword. In fact it can be a useful dating feature for Royal Artillery officers', Highland Field Officers' and Rifles officers' swords from the 1890s (as well as Cavalry officers' swords between 1895 and 1912). Generally, if only the thumb-placer is chequered then it is pre-1895, if the whole backstrap is chequered then it is post-1895. Once you recognise the 1895 type backstrap, it is easily spotted.

The 1895 backstrap is attached to a smooth domed pommel, in contrast to the stepped pommel of earlier infantry officers' swords. The new grip was to measure between 5 and 5 3/4 inches, according to the preferences of the officer.

The steel half-basket guard of the 1895 pattern was undoubtedly a huge functional improvement over the brass guard of regulation infantry officers' swords which had gone before. For no notable increase in mass (actually a slight decrease usually) the protection offered was greatly increased, both in terms of the material used and the coverage offered to the sword hand.

Criticism of the brass guard went back at least to the 1850s and in 1862 John Latham of Wilkinson had himself criticised the use of brass for a sword guard in a series of lectures he gave, due to it being able to be compromised by a strong cut from a weapon such as a tulwar. In fact, many non-regulation swords ordered by officers from the 1850s onwards had at extra cost substituted this brass guard with a steel version, which was then gilded to match the look of the regulation brass guard for parade purposes, while providing the protection in combat offered by a steel guard. These gilded-steel guards were particularly popular with officers serving in India, for obvious reasons. On antique examples the gilding is often lost with age and the bare steel guard remains.

As this extract from the Pall Mall Gazette of 19 Oct 1895 illustrates, the brass guard of the old brass regulation infantry hilt was not trusted to protect from a sword blow. Passing references like this abound from numerous sources and there had long been a call for steel hand guards in Britain:

Criticism of the 1892 pattern sword's retention of the brass guard, from The Globe of 8 Sept 1894:

The Freeman's Journal of 3 Apr 1893 also highlighted the complaints against the old brass hilt and the desire for a new steel one with a longer grip:

A similar account from The Army and Navy Gazette of 13 May 1893:

Finally the design of the new steel hilt was agreed upon, as announced in The Globe of 9 Jun 1894:

The Edinburgh Evening News of 7 Jan 1896 was typical of many newspapers around this time in reporting the new infantry officers' sword, now with the updated steel hilt:

John Wilkinson Latham (British Military Swords) shares two images of proposed alternative designs for the new steel hilt, from the Wilkinson Sword Company records. He goes on to relate a word of mouth anecdote which suggests that the War Department commissioned both Wilkinson and Mole to submit prototypes for testing and approval. The left example is clearly based on the heavy cavalry officers' hilts and the right hand example is close to the final 1895 pattern, but with a cartouche for the Royal cypher which harks back to the earlier Gothic hilts:

The final 1895 guard is a fairly simple flat sheet of steel, curved and forge-bowled into shape, with perforations cut to reduce the weight and accentuate the foliate design, which was engraved into the steel on the outside. The perforations make a significant weight reduction to the guard, keeping the sword from being too hilt-heavy. These guards vary in thickness, but below is shown an early interpretation which was made using rather thicker steel than is normal and with consequently larger holes in the design to reduce the total weight - most 1895 guards are made of thinner steel and with not such large holes:

The turn-up on the inner edge of the 1897 Pattern hilt was a really minor detail, though coupled with the generally smaller holes in the decoration of the guard the hilt does have a slightly different overall appearance to the 1895 Pattern, even if they are fundamentally very similar. We can only speculate how annoying it was to officers, manufacturers and traders alike when the new hilt design was updated after only two years, but there was no official requirement on an officer to update his hilt at that point. The functional improvement was also very minor. Detail of the 1897 Pattern hilt turn-up:

Transitional swords

A frequent hybrid to encounter today is an earlier 1845 pattern blade which has received an updated 1895 or 1897 pattern hilt. Because many Army officers had been commissioned before 1892, but were still in the Army in 1895, it seems that a lot of them chose to update the hilts of their swords and keep their old blades, rather than buying completely new swords in 1892, 1895 or 1897. Some of these officers were undoubtedly aiming to save some money, while others presumably preferred the old cut and thrust blades, or were attached to them for personal reasons.

While many official and press sources proclaimed the new blade to be functionally better, we know from contemporary letters that not all Army officers agreed. Some authors lamented the lack of cutting capacity with the new blade and so it seems likely that some officers decided to retain the old 1845 style blade as a matter of martial preference. A similar situation occurred in the cavalry with the introduction of the thrusting blade after 1912, whereby some officers ordered newly made cut and thrust swords of the 1896 pattern (which had an 1845 type sabre blade) even after the 1912 pattern thrusting sword had been introduced.

British 1845 Pattern Blade with 1895 Pattern Infantry Officer's Hilt:

British 1845 Pattern Blade with 1895 Pattern Infantry Officer's Hilt:

British 1845 Pattern Blade with 1895 Pattern Infantry Officer's Hilt:

British 1845 Pattern Blade of narrower than standard width, with 1895 Pattern Infantry Officer's Hilt:

Patent Solid Hilt versions

The Patent Solid Hilt was an 'optional extra' offered by some makers to officers who wanted to pay a premium for the prestigious full-width tang first patented by Charles Reeves in 1853. This expensive feature was available on Wilkinson's custom order officers' swords from 1854 onward and the company (as well as some rival companies such as Pillin and Mole) were offering this option on swords even as late as WW1.

This is interesting because it shows that some officers were still considering their swords as serious fighting weapons even in WW1 and in fact swords were occasionally used in that war. The first British 'kill' of WW1 was in fact committed by a cavalry officer, Captain Hornby of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards on 22 August 1914, near the Belgian village of Casteau, with his sword.

The solid tang does undoubtedly create a stronger sword (though whether the additional strength is necessary is a different matter), but with the arguable drawback of additional weight. Patent Solid Hilt versions of swords tend to be slightly heavier than their standard counterparts.

This example below is a late example by Wilkinson, dating to 1910:

An example of an 1892 pattern sword by Wilkinson with the Patent Solid Hilt dating to early in 1895:

Two more Wilkinson examples of the 1897 pattern with Patent Solid Hilts, the upper one Victorian and the other Edward VII. The latter is service sharpened and was carried in WW1, its owner losing his life to a German marksman in 1914. Note the different grip lengths. Purchasers could choose their grip size, as well as changing other minor details as they wished. Also note that the hexagonal 'best quality' proof slugs of Wilkinson were placed on the inside of the blades, in contrast to the standard circular proof slugs which were placed on the outside of the blade:

Period Opinions of the New Regulation Infantry Officers' Sword

Period opinions of the new swords varied. Many official publications were in favour of the new blade and hilt - change had long been called for and had finally come. In fact the new steel hilt was almost universally approved of once it was introduced in 1895, but the 1892 blade was not so universally accepted. Some commentators did not like the move to such a dedicated thrusting blade, and some exponents of the thrust did not like the details of the new thrusting blade. Some argued that the new blade was not stiff enough, while others argued that it was too heavy for nimble use of the point. It was noted that the new regulation sword did not very closely match the characteristics required of the new Masiello-devised 1895 Infantry Sword Exercise, which specified a lighter sword with a point of balance close to the hilt, which could also cut. Some simply thought that a dedicated thrusting blade and hilt could be designed which would be even more effective than the new sword.

From The Army and Navy Gazette of 2 Apr 1892:

From the Dublin Daily Express of 20 Aug 1895:

From the The Army and Navy Gazette of 23 Nov 1895:

The Army and Navy Gazette of 25 Jan 1896 gives some interesting further perspective in regard to brass scabbards worn by Field Officers (officers from Major upwards), Royal Engineers swords and also Naval swords:

The Origin and Design of the New Sword Pattern

The precise origin of new 'dumb-bell' blade and hilt designs remains obscure. They may have been devised by a committee of appointed officials (as we know later cavalry swords were). At least one of the newspapers of the time mentioned the hilt design being subject to agreement by committee, though John Wilkinson Latham (British Military Swords) claimed that Wilkinson and Mole were both tasked with submitting designs to the War Department. Various men with an interest in the subject seem to have played a part.

John Wilkinson Latham (British Military Swords) relates a word of mouth family anecdote whereby either Wilkinson or Mole submitted a design for the new 1895 hilt mounted on a dummy blade and this dummy blade was inadvertently accepted as well as the hilt design, leading to the mostly-blunt-edged 'dumb-bell'-section blade. This seems utterly implausible, given that the blade was adopted in 1892 and the new hilt was not adopted until 1895. Also, as we will see below, the design of the 1892 blade seems to have been very much deliberate and talked about in 1892 and 1893, with comparisons drawn to earlier custom swords.

Colonel George Malcolm Fox, Inspector of the Army Gymnasia, probably played a prominent part in all aspects of the new sword design. He commissioned Maestro Masiello to create the new Infantry Sword Exercise and he certainly later played a large part in designing the 1908 pattern cavalry sword, allegedly sculpting the gutta percha prototype for the 1908 grip himself. Fox sat on the various committees behind the design of a new cavalry sword at the beginning of the 1900s, seemingly butting heads with Captain Alfred Hutton, and it seems highly likely that he was somehow involved with the design of the infantry swords of the 1890s. Robson (Swords of the British Army) directly attributes the design of the 1892 'dumb-bell' blade to Fox, but sources from Fox's time that I have found do not directly attribute it to him.

Colonel Fox as Inspector of Army Gymnasia in 1895 at Aldershot:

Fox himself had, unlike most people involved with sword design at the time, actually used a sword successfully in combat. As a young Captain in the Black Watch he had taken part in the 'cold steel only' charge at Tel-el-Kebir in 1882, where the Egyptian trenches had been taken at sword and bayonet point. British forces, realising that to enter into a firefight with entrenched Egyptian soldiers while occupying open ground themselves would be suicide, decided to charge the trenches as quickly as possible. Orders were given to attack with cold steel and not waste time shooting and reloading. As a Captain in the Black Watch, Fox was armed with the regulation claymore (a basket-hilted broadsword).

In an account by Private John Gordon (The Army Isn't All Work, Campbell, 2012), Fox related his experience at Tel-el-Kebir as commander of D Company of the 1st Batallion;
"I leaped to the top of the trench, found myself on a platform with three 'friends' all ready for me. The swing of my sword took off the head of one, the point of my sword killed another, but before I could get at the third the beggar put a bullet into my thigh."

Colonel Fox is featured in De Neuville's painting 'The Storming of Tel-el-Kebir'. He is the officer to the left clutching his shoulder (it should have been his thigh!):

Another officer who took a great interest in the design of the new infantry officers' sword was Colonel Wentworth Henry King-Harman (1840-1919). In the 1880s he had Wilkinson make a special non-regulation thrusting sword to his own design and when the 1892 and 1895 pattern swords were announced he noted some of the similarities to his own design in various publications and lectures.

Some other writers even assumed that the new regulation infantry sword was King-Harman's own design, although this seems not to have been the case at all. King-Harman seems not to have particularly discouraged this misconception and perhaps he did believe that credit was due to him, whether correctly or not. The similarities with King-Harman's sword seem to have been coincidental for the most part. As King-Harman himself later elaborated, the differences between the eventual regulation sword and his own design of sword were considerable enough for them to be considered completely separate weapons, similar only in that they were specialised for thrusting and shared a similar 'dumb-bell' section to the forte. Naturally, King-Harman considered the design of his own weapon to be superior to the Government-designed sword.

King-Harman had been writing about his opinions on sword design since the 1880s if not earlier.

Rudyard Kipling reports in his "Simla Notes" Civil and Military Gazette attributed to 22 July 1885 a lecture given by (the Major) King-Harman on the subject of swords:

King-Harman was writing as a correspondent to the Army and Navy Gazette of 29 Jun 1889 in this article:

From St. James' Gazette of 3 April 1893 (note - Hunter mentioned here is actually Captain Alfred Hutton) - the journalist wrongly attributed the new regulation sword design to Colonel King-Harman, no doubt because King-Harman in his own writings had implied that his sword design and John Latham's copy of it were the inspiration for the new regulation sword, despite them being fairly different looking blades and hilts:

The Western Daily Press, Bristol reported on 11 Jul 1892:

The Globe of 10 August 1892 further cements the perception that King-Harman was the originator of the new sword, by attributing the design of the new blade to King-Harman and his inspiration Major Neville of the 14th Bengal Lancers:

From the Army and Navy Gazette of 19 Nov 1892:

Despite the widespread perception and even claim by Colonel King-Harman that his own sword design was the inspiration for the 1892 regulation blade, the records of the Wilkinson Sword Company do not really support this. In fact the original drawings and description of the sword survive, as well as a crude photograph of the counterpart kept by John Latham. These have been shared by Robert Wilkinson-Latham, a descendent of John Latham and are reproduced here - full credit and thanks to Robert Wilkinson-Latham:

As even a casual observer will be able to see, the blade of King-Harman's sword is more akin to a Colichemarde smallsword blade and is not really very similar to the 1892 pattern blade.

The hilt, except for the fairly standard grip, is utterly different to the eventual regulation 1895 and 1897 pattern hilts. King-Harman's hilt seems to offer very little hand protection for a service sword.

An article in the South Wales Daily News of 9 Oct 1895 writing about Sir Richard Francis Burton's "History of the Sword" suggests, whether accurately or not, that the steel hilt was devised at the Royal Military Gymnasium in Aldershot. This may bring Colonel Malcolm Fox back into the picture, as he was the inspector of Army Gymnasia there at the time:

The New Infantry Sword Exercise of 1895

As has been mentioned above, with the new model of sword blade being very different in form to the previous model there was a necessity for a new system of swordsmanship. This new manual was called for when the new blade type was introduced in 1892, but it would not be until 1895 that the new manual was to appear. It was clear that earlier methods of sabre fencing which had placed a lot of emphasis on the cut, as well as point work, were no longer applicable to the new weapon. The new 1895 manual put most emphasis on the use of the point, while still including cuts.

For several years Italian fencing instructors had been gaining favour in the UK, despite the continuing popularity of some British instructors such as Captain Alfred Hutton and French masters of the foil. In the mid-1890s Colonel Malcolm Fox of the British Army Gymnasia officially engaged Maestro Ferdinand Masiello of Florence to create a new system for the new British infantry officers' sword.

Colonel Fox in Vanity Fair, Sept 1896:

The Masiello system of 1895 received mixed responses from British soldiers and fencers. It was different in many key ways to systems then being taught in Great Britain. In fact it seems to have also differed a little from Masiello's own regular system that he was teaching in Florence. The gymnasium sabres being used to teach and practice fencing in Italy were rather longer and lighter than either British military swords or British gymnasium practice sabres.

The characteristics of Masiello's 1895 manual were an extended and forward-leaning lunge, a very extended arm position in the guards and cuts given from the elbow rather than the wrist. Bizarrely there were no leg attacks or defences included, apparently for reasons more related to the fencing hall than the battlefield.

Some plates from the 1895 Masiello manual:

A comparative plate from 'La Scherma Italiana di Spada e di Sciabola' by Ferdinando Masiello, Firenze, 1887, showing the same lunge and guard positions:

Captain Alfred Hutton in particular, an unrivalled authority on swordsmanship in Great Britain at the time, took great issue with Masiello's 1895 manual. He went as far as publishing a rebuke to it in which he set out all his criticisms of Masiello's system. His main criticisms related to the forward-leaning lunge, the cuts from the elbow, the lack of legs attacks and defences, and the entended arm and sword point in the guard positions.

Hutton and his good friend Captain Cyril Matthey were exponents of their own system, which had evolved over three decades and was in form more closely aligned to French methods. They championed more relaxed and less extended guards, a more conservative lunge with the body upright and the general inclusion of battlefield considerations.

Hutton's less exagerated lunge, following the standard lunge taught in French foil, as shown in 'The Swordsman':

One of Hutton and Matthey's biggest criticisms of the Italian schools in application to British military swordsmanship was their focus on lighter fencing gymnasium swords than the regulation British military sword and techniques which were more appropriate to the duel than the battlefield.

Hutton and Matthey were two of the earliest pioneers of what we now call historical fencing - that is, the study of older methods of fighting. They proposed to incorporate older battlefield techniques into the combat systems of their day, most famously adapting George Silver's 'grips and closes' (from 1599) to the British infantry officer's sword of the 1890s. They were primarily concerned with equipping British soldiers with a simple system that would work in service conditions, in uniforms and boots, on rough ground and against opponents who would use all manner of weapons in 'uncivilised' ways. They introduced the use of grabbing, wrestling, strikes with the hilt and other (for the time) unorthodox methods. Hutton and Matthey argued that this was 'sword fighting' as opposed to 'fencing', and they detailed their beliefs in several publications and many lectures. They also produced systems for the rifle-mounted bayonet and the hand-held knife and truncheon.

Because of their vocal opposition to both the new 1892 blade and the 1895 manual, they naturally came into conflict with some of the exponents of these new introductions. There seems to have been no love lost between Hutton and Fox. Hutton would again clash with Colonel Fox's opinions at the beginning of the 1900s, when both sat on committees trying to design the new British cavalry sword which after a few abortive prototypes would eventually lead to the 1908 pattern.

After the introduction of the new 1892 blade it was quickly noted that no new sword manual had been issued to accompany the new blade, even though the new blade would certainly necessitate a different method of fencing to the old 1845 type blade. From The Globe, 29 Mar 1893:

In the middle of 1895 the new Masiello system, designed for the new regulation sword, started to be filtered out. The Edinburgh Evening News, 8 Jul 1895:

By July 1895, the new regulation manual was being issued and the Supplement to the Manchester Courier, quoting the Pall Mall Gazette on 6 Jul 1895 noted this:

The Star, of 1 Aug 1895, featured a letter originally to the editor of the Lancet from two doctors who questioned the choice of Masiello's system for the new British Infantry Sword Exercise. They go as far as to call the system "faulty" and inferior to contemporary French methods:

This letter to the Lancet was followed by another article summarising the matter in The Star on 10 Dec 1895:

On 12 July 1895 The Globe featured the following letter, which questioning the nature of the new 1895 manual echoed many of Hutton and Matthey's criticisms:

The question of whether the method of Masiello was suited to the new British regulation infantry officers' swords continued and the flames were fanned by Captain Alfred Hutton's published misgivings in 1896, as shown here in the Leeds Mercury from 13 Jun 1896:

A particular criticism levelled at the new Infantry Sword Exercise of 1895, as highlighted by Hutton and others above, was that it specified a type of practice sword (modelled on Italian gymnasium practice sabres of the time), which rather differed in weight and balance to the actual infantry officer's new regulation sword. The practice sword was both lighter and balanced more closely to the hilt. This was highlighted in the article below featured in the Morning Post of 7 Apr 1896 - the manufacturer in question was almost certainly Wilkinson:

Training in the new 1895 Infantry Sword Exercise underway at the Aldershot barracks in 1896, as featured in the Army and Navy Illustrated:

Another critic of the 1895 Masiello manual was serving Army officer Captain Frederick Charles Laing, who was an exponent of Bartitsu and walking stick self-defence methods. In an article titled "The Encouragement of Fencing" for the Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol 26 No. 127 from the year 1900 he wrote:

"There still appears to be some doubt in the minds of the authorities as to the advantages of the new sword exercise of 1895, and the first thing to do is to determine on some method, French, Italian, English, or any other which seems best all round, for a method, even if defective, can be rectified by degrees as time and experience point out, and, any way, some system is better than none; and the next thing is to induce officers to become proficients. This cannot be done by merely issuing orders, nor by Inspecting Generals; and we already know what a farce the “toasting fork drill” is as usually shown to the latter under the misnomer of Infantry Sword Exercise; as a spectacle it is possibly not devoid of humour, but for teaching a man how to defend his own life is worse than useless.

It is only in England and on the Continent that experts can be found to teach, and consequently it is in England chiefly we must induce officers to learn the art. Considerable expense is incurred in attending the various schools of arms in London, and this also contributes largely to the reluctance displayed by most officers when at home on leave to take lessons. I would therefore venture to suggest that the following plan be adopted, or at all events tried :—Let one officer at least from all regiments, British and Native, be granted a free return passage from England on the production of a signed certificate that he is capable of instructing efficiently in fencing."

In his manual of 1891 "The Swordsman", Captain Alfred Hutton outlined a simple method of cut and thrust military swordsmanship which built on his works of the previous 30 years. In his 1898 second edition of The Swordsman Hutton included an appendix titled "The Grips and Closes - A Defence Against an Uncivilised Enemy". This took his work with Captain Cyril Matthey into published form. Hutton and Matthey had been working for a decade on interpreting fencing treatises of previous centuries and had both come to the conclusion that older fighting techniques offered some answers to the problems of military hand to hand combat in their own time. Laing had been coming to similar conclusions and collectively there was a movement to try and create a new type of military swordsmanship which was more practical for actual service in the field.


The assertion by some more recent authors that the final British Army regulation infantry officer's sword was the finest design ever produced seems over-enthusiastic. Assessments from the period when the sword was still occasionally used as a weapon were mixed. Some authorities did indeed approve strongly of the new weapon, while some others thought that the design had either not gone far enough towards thrusting specialisation, or had gone too far and that a cut and thrust blade would still have been better.

This of course stemmed from the never-ending argument of cut versus thrust, which is such a huge topic as to warrant an article (or book!) of its own.

In other words, opinions on the new regulation sword were very varied, more so in regard to the blade than the hilt. The hilt seems to have been universally regarded as a big improvement.

The 1895 manual for the use of the new regulation sword does not seem to have been widely liked in either military or fencing circles, though it did have its exponents and champions.

Perhaps more pertinently though, by 1897 combat involving swords had become very rare and isolated to particular conflicts, for example the Omdurman Campaign of 1898, the ongoing insurgency operations on the North-West Frontier and in the last period of regular hand to hand combat in Western warfare, the trenches of WW1, where the trench knife and club for the most part took over from the sword, even for officers.

Therefore it seems challenging to realistically assess the effectiveness of the 1892-1897 pattern infantry officers' swords in attack and defence, given that they were so infrequently used in combat.

In contrast, the 1845 pattern blade had been extensively used in combat in numerous conflicts all over the World, from the plains of the Crimea and cities of India, to the forests of New Zealand and rivers of China. Whether the 1892 pattern blade was in fact better or worse in combat than the 1845 pattern we cannot really say. Data for the 1892 blade is too scarce, even though a little data does exist and we know that it was occasionally used to dispatch opponents.

The Belfast News-Letter of 28 Dec 1899 sums up the prevailing attitude to infantry officers' swords by the end of the 19th century:

Special thanks to Jonathan Hopkins, John Hart, Pedro San Miguel and Gavin Locke for their feeback, suggestions and proof-reading of this article.

Copyright Matt Easton 2017