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A Rare Officer's Regimental Sword For The 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards

By Matt Easton

In 1821 new designs of sword were introduced in Great Britain for heavy and light cavalry, replacing the 1796 heavy and light patterns that had gone before. When the new models were introduced for cavalry troopers it was only natural that officers should update their swords also.

Virtually all cavalry regiments followed the standard patterns for troopers and their officers followed the standard patterns set out for their swords. The designs for officers' swords followed a similar outline to the troopers' swords, but with greater detailing, shagreen (shark or ray skin) covered grips and etched decoration to the blades.

The light cavalry officers had a three-bar hilt and the heavy cavalry officers had the so-called 'honeysuckle' style hilt shown here:

 

As shown above, the 1821 pattern heavy cavalry officer's 'honeysuckle' hilt was almost symmetrical. There is a very slight bias to the right, as the right hand projects more on the right side than the left when gripping the sword, but this is far less exagerated than most British sword patterns after 1821.

This guard was in use from 1821 until 1912 as regulation for heavy cavalry officers and became the universal cavalry officer's hilt from 1896. The only notable change in 1896 was the addition of a straight fully-chequered backstrap, as found on the new 1895 pattern infantry officers' hilt.

The 1796 hilts (whether spadroon for infantry, or light cavalry sabre or heavy cavalry pallasch) all featured symmetrical hilts, but after 1821 all standard regulation British hilts became asymmetrical.

This was for two main reasons - firstly because it is possible to reduce the weight of the hilt by making it asymmetrical, as not so much protection is required on the inside line as the outside (due to both the shape of the gripped hand and the guards used in swordsmanship) and secondly because a hilt that projects less on the left or inside is more convenient to wear.

Asymmetrical hilts did however come in for criticism from swordsmen such as John Latham (of Wilkinson Sword) and Colonel Marey-Monge (author of a Memoir on Swords). The disadvantage of asymmetrical hilts were that they obviously protected the inside line to the hand less, but perhaps more critically they could cause the sword to turn in the hand when delivering a cut.

If this happened then it could have disasterous outcomes, as a blow landed without the edge leading at 90 degrees to the target could twist flat, do no damage, and in some circumstances could even damage the sword blade. Leading squarely with the edge is critical to delivering effective cuts and any feature of a sword which makes that more difficult can cause big problems (grips being too circular on some swords was another cause of this).

For this reason, one sometimes finds that asymmetrical hilts have a proportionately thicker section, or folded section, on the inside edge of the guard. This can serve to make the sword more comfortable to wear, or reduce abrasion on the uniform, but it can also serve to balance the hilt in the hand and reduce the twisting effect when delivering cuts. 

The 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards Special Pattern Sword

Some regiments desired their own particular sword designs. The regiments of the Horse Guards were granted this officially, to denote them as the most elite of all British cavalry regiments and naturally this probably led some other regiments who considered themselves a cut above the others to seek their own special patterns. One such regiment was the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, an elite heavy cavalry regiment who in this period served most notably in the Crimean War and took part in the Charge of the Heavy Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava.

As far as I am able to tell, the 4th RIDG were not officially granted the right to a special pattern, though it seems to have been tolerated anyway. Their troopers' swords would have been the standard 1821 pattern, but some of their officers decided to have their own peculiar variation of the officers' sword, as featured below. There are 4th RIDG swords which are not of this special pattern, so it seems to have been an optional design within the regiment.

The main feature of this special 4th RIDG regimental pattern was a very asymmetrical guard, with the honeysuckle pattern offset to the right side. There was a blank section at the top, around the base of the blade, the rear quillon being removed and replaced instead by a flared upwards plate.

It is not known why exactly they thought offsetting the guard in this way would be a good idea. It certainly creates a large degree of protection on the outside line and perhaps makes the sword more comfortable to wear. Though the inside section of the guard is hardly small and still offers a great degree of protection to the thumb and inner hand. Overall it seems that this 4th RIDG guard is bigger and therefore offers more protection than the standard 1821 hilt, though at the expense of extra mass. These are big swords, again probably emulating the great size and mass of Horse Guards swords.

Notably there is no backstrap, as found on most British patterns of this time. Instead the grip is fully exposed all around, with the join in the shagreen being at the front of the grip, facing the inside of the knucklebow. The end of the grip features a hollow steel pommel cap, like some Horse Guards dress swords, or indeed like many models of French sword. The original inspiration for this is probably the French cuirassier swords of the Napoleonic era. In Britain this seems to have been a feature associated with elites.

Renowned sabre fencing master John Musgrave Waite in 1880 wrote that his perfect sword design should lack a backstrap and instead have a separate pommel cap like this, which he considered offered a better grip of the weapon.

The blade on this example is also different to the standard 1845 Wilkinson style, principally due to the shape of the tip. This 4th RIDG officer's sword features a hatchet tip, somewhat similar to the earlier 1796 heavy cavalry sword, or indeed to contemporary Victorian Horse Guards state swords.

The hatchet tip seems an unusual choice, as it makes the sword less capable as a thrusting sword, which was seen as the principle attack for heavy cavalry swords in Britain at the time, though in contrast it increases its cutting potential near the tip. It is also interesting to note that despite immediate appearances, the blade is not precisely straight and does have a very slight curve, producing a slightly convex cutting edge.

It is notable that the blades of the known surviving examples of these 4th RIDG swords vary from each other. As well as varying in length (this example has a 36 inch blade, which is shorter than the others I am aware of) at least one surviving example (in the National Army Museum linked below) features a Wilkinson type spear point, for better thrusting. Therefore they did not all feature the same blades and the difference in tip shape is quite important to the function of the weapon.

The blade of this example, as shown below, features various motifs related to the 4th RIDG, including the name of the regiment, the regimental badge and a winged Irish harpy emblem. The photos below speak for themselves. The etching is very high quality.

The retailer's name is etched on the forte of the blade as F. W. Woodfall of 16 Waterloo Place, London. This is an obscure military outfitter for whom I have not found other swords attributed to. Francis William Woodfall is listed as a tailor based at 16 Waterloo Place in the 1843 Post Office London Directory and he is also mentioned in other publications around 1845. It seems possible that his business did not last very long, which pending further research may date this sword to the mid-1840s. If so, that would be interesting as it could date this sword earlier than the other known examples. Also, officers' blades did not generally switch from pipe-backed to fullered until 1845.

One of the other examples (described in The British Cavalry Sword from 1600) is marked to retailer Cater, but as both Cater and Woodfall were outfitters, these swords were presumably being made under contract, perhaps by one swordmaker. I cannot find any clues on the example I own as to the maker, though the example in the National Army Museum was made by Thomas Osborne of Birmingham, so it is possible he made all of them.

I am aware of only five extant examples of this 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards pattern:

  • Royal Dragoon Guards Museum, York - sword dated to 1848 (described in The British Cavalry Sword from 1600 by Charles Martyn)

  • Royal Dragoon Guards Museum, York - sword dated to 1864 (described in The British Cavalry Sword from 1600 by Charles Martyn)

  • Undated C. M. Lewer-Allen collection example shown in Swords and Sword Makers of England and Scotland by Richard H. Bezdek

  • National Army Museum, London - sword carried by Colonel (later General Sir) Edward Hodge, 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards in the Crimean War (the sword therefore pre-dating 1854): https://collection.nam.ac.uk/detail.php?acc=1988-02-12-1

  • The example shown below, in this author's collection

In conclusion, it appears that the officers of the 4th RIDG considered themselves an elite and deserving of a special pattern of officers' sword, as the Horse Guards regiments had. However it seems that this was not an officially granted pattern and was instead implemented individually at regimental level, in a more or less haphazzard way from various retailers. The known examples all seem to date to the middle decades of the 19th century and at least one is known to have been carried in the Crimean War. Other 4th RIDG swords from after c.1870 are of the standard 1821 pattern, so it seems possible that this special regimental pattern enjoyed a relatively brief period of favour between around 1845 and 1865. This regimental pattern seems to be extremely rare to find now, but hopefully with time and knowledge more of these will come to light. In the hand these are big impessive swords and when equipped with the hatchet point give the impression of choppers rather than pokers. The hilt is a little unbalanced to the right, but the backstrap-less grip is very comfortable and secure in the hand, whether with the thumb-up sabre grip or hammer-fist. With their heavy hilts and extra-long blades these are very much elite heavy cavalry swords and look at home against the giant swords of the Horse Guards.

Special thanks to Jonathan Hopkins for his invaluable assistance in researching this sword.