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
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
I am aware of only five extant examples of this 4th
Royal Irish Dragoon Guards pattern:
Guards Museum, York - sword dated to 1848 (described in The
British Cavalry Sword from 1600 by Charles Martyn)
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
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):
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.