The 1845 'Wilkinson' style blade
By Matt Easton
This style of blade was promoted for British officers'
swords by Henry Wilkinson in 1844 and 1845. It was made official
regulation for Army officers' blades in 1845 and for Naval
officers in 1846. It remained in use until 1892 for infantry
officers, until 1912 for cavalry officers. It is still
regulation for artillery and Navy officers today.
Its key features are a single-edged backsword style
blade (essentially triangular wedge cross-section), with a
single fuller towards the back, slightly curved overall. It has a
so-called spear point for roughly the last 10 inches of the
The standard lengths were 32.5 inches for infantry
officers and 34.5 to 35.5 inches for mounted officers, though in
practice an officer could purchase a longer or shorter blade as
The 1845 blade design, outlined by Henry Wilkinson, was
intended to be a more practical fighting blade than the
pipe-backed blade which was used as standard for officers'
swords between 1821 and 1845. The pipe-backed blade seems to
have been devised around 1800 by the London sword maker Prosser.
Initially the pipe-back was applied to relatively broad cavalry
officers' sabres of the 1796 light cavalry shape, but by 1820
there was a tendency for officers' swords to become less curved
and with points better adapted for thrusting.
In 1821 and 1822
respectively new patterns of swords were introduced for British
cavalry (with different hilts for heavy and light cavalry) and
infantry officers. In 1827 a new pattern of Naval officers'
sword was introduced, as well as a steel hilted version of the
infantry officers' sword for Rifles officers. These all featured
1821 Pattern light cavalry officer's sword
1822 Pattern infantry officer's sword
1827 Pattern Naval officer's sword
The pipe-backed blades were only used for officers'
swords, while cavalry continued to use fullered blades after
1821, as they had done previously. During the 1840s specifically
the inadequacies of the pipe-back design, at least when used on
narrow blades like the 1821 and 1822 officers' swords then in
use, started to be noted.
There had been a growing opinion that
swords were mere dress ornaments for officers, but in the Sikh
Wars, the Afghanistan and Chinese campaigns, it started to
become apparent that officers did still require functional
swords for self-defence. This would be highlighted to an even
greater extent in the conflicts of the 1850s, but by 1845 Henry
Wilkinson seems to have gained enough support at various levels
to push for a new blade design for officers' swords.
The pipeback design had been lacking in three specific
1) It was too flexible for effective thrusting through
layers of clothing, especially when equipped with an
2) it was rather fragile and light for rough
combat against things like Indian tulwars, and;
cross-section of the blade was not suited to heavy chopping when
combined with a relatively narrow blade.
John Latham, who took over Henry Wilkinson's business
after he died, lecturing in 1862 and holding a pipe-backed 1822
"Here is an officer's regulation infantry sword of
twenty or twenty five years ago. It is a specimen I believe of
the worst possible arrangement of hilt, blade and shape that
could possibly be contrived. It is crooked, but has no regular
curve, is wrongly mounted for thrusting and wrongly shaped for
As well as revising the design of the blade in 1845,
Henry Wilkinson also picked on the issue of blade quality. He
devised his own formula of sword steel and introduced what he
called an 'Eprouvette' which was a device for testing the
toughness of the blades, which were then declared 'Proved'.
was somewhat similar to the term 'Warranted' which had been in
use since the Napoleonic era, but Wilkinson standardised the
testing and it seems made the testing more harsh.
Henry Wilkinson took
particular issue with what were often terms 'tailors' swords';
that is, swords which were purchased from an outfitter together
with a young officer's uniform, and to which no proper testing
had been applied.
Writing in 'Engines of War; or Historical and
Experimental Observations on Ancient and Modern Warlike Machines
and Implements, including the Manufacture of Guns, Gunpowder,
and Swords, with Remarks on Bronze, Iron, Steel, &c.' in 1844,
Henry Wilkinson stated:
"A young gentleman going to India is presented with
a regulation-sword purchased along with his shirts and
stockings, and he only discovers, when opposed for the first
time to some sturdy Afghan, that the hoop of an ale-cask would
have been equally serviceable, being fortunate if he escape with
a few severe wounds, as reminiscences of the mistake that has
been committed. There is little inducement to the manufacture of
a superior article when all parties, vitally and pecuniarily
interested, exhibit so much indifference, which must arise, in
some measure, from the difficulty of discriminating between a
good sword and a bad one. An officer's sword undergoes no
authorized proof whatever, and seldom, if ever, more than the
manufacturer, with fatherly tenderness, chooses to inflict upon
it. This state of things is giving place to a more correct
notion of the importance of the subject, in consequence of the
accounts received from those officers who have served in India.
The swords of the private soldiers are all proved before they
are received, either by the Ordnance, or by the East India
Company, and if it be necessary for the privates, surely it is
for the officers. It cannot be either an act of bravery,
prudence, or economy in an officer to trust his life to the
chance of an untried and doubtful, in preference to an efficient
and proved weapon; but such is actually the case."
And from the same publication Henry Wilkinson goes on to
detail his improvements to the quality of officers' swords:
"Swords, the manufacture
of which I have studied for several years, and now propose to
enter into fully, in connexion with my own business. There are
many essential properties in a sword besides the quality of the
steel and the temper, which are either unknown to the makers
generally, or wholly neglected, but which are most important to
all who have occasion to use them, namely, - the mounting, the
balance, the combination of strength and lightness; and
elasticity with firmness. Every swordsman knows that a thrust is
always more efficient than a cut, and a sword that is too
elastic vibrates in the hand, and is more inconvenient to use
than one that is firm. The centre of percussion, or that part of
a sword in which its whole force is concentrated, and on which
there is no vibration, ought to be distinctly marked, so that
every one using it may at once know on what part the hardest
blow can be struck, without regarding, or entering into the
philosophy of the subject. To all these points I propose
especially to direct my attention, so as to redeem, if possible,
this branch of our manufactures; and in order to effect this
object, and to give a more severe proof than has ever been
attempted, I have invented a sword Eprouvette, which will
represent a power similar to, but far exceeding any human force.
It is easily adjustable to every kind of sword, and having
ascertained, by means of a dynamometer, the maximum of human
force in striking with a sword, I propose to subject every
sword, manufactured under my direction, to the unerring and
unfavouring power of my machine, which may be likened to the arm
of a giant, with power sufficient to decapitate at a single
stroke; after which proof, it is not likely these swords will
ever break in any actual encounter. I propose, also, to prove
the swords of any officer or civilian, who may desire to
ascertain the capabilities of his own blade, and at the same
time to afford an opportunity of ascertaining the individual
strength of each person when making a cut, in order to compare
it with the proof, to which I will afterwards subject the blade.
I feel assured that sufficient
patronage will not be wanting to enable me to persevere in an
attempt to render the swords of this country equal, if not
superior, to any in the world.
The Machines are now ready for
inspection and use, and certain days and hours in each week will
be devoted to the proving of sword blades."
We have no verified examples of swords by Henry Wilkinson
pre-dating 1844/1845 and his own words above seem to explain
that he expanded into the sword-making business (from making
firearms) in 1844 at the earliest.
In 1845 we see reference to the new regulation sword in
numerous newspapers and journals:
The 1845 style blade was not exactly a new design. While
it did replace the pipe-backed blades used previously on
officers' swords, it bears quite a strong resemblance to cavalry
troopers' blades as used by both the British light and heavy
cavalry since 1821.
The spear-point is arguable more distinct of
the 1845 type officers' blade, but overall it is hardly a
revolutionary design. Henry Wilkinson more or less took the
cavalry troopers' blades and mounted them on officers hilts,
general in 1 1/4 inch width for cavalry officers and 1 1/8 inch
width for infantry and Navy.
1821 Pattern heavy cavalry trooper's sword, showing the
same fundamental blade design as the 1845 Wilkinson type
The 1845 Wilkinson type blade on an 1857 Pattern Royal
Engineers officer's sword
One feature which was new, although more aesthetic than
functional, was the distinct ricasso, featuring an embedded
brass or gilt 'Proved' slug or disc. This was a feature which
seems to have been introduced by Henry Wilkinson in 1845, to
accompany his Eprouvette proofing test. It was immediately
emulated by other sword makers who presumably felt the necessity
to show their own blades as having been proven also.
notable that as soon as the new regulation for officers blades
came into effect (in 1845 for the Army and 1846 for the Navy)
there was a very rapid switch by all sword suppliers to provide
the new design of blade for sale.
Pipe-backed blades seem to
have generally been removed from sale straight away, although we
know that they remained in service for many years with officers
who had purchased their swords before 1845. While the regulation
forced new swords to assume the new design, there was no
requirement for officers to change their existing weapons.
Brass 'proof' or 'prooved' slugs in a distinct
rectangular ricasso became standard after 1845. The six pointed
star around the slug was used by Wilkinson first and then other
makers in recognition of the symbol for strength found on some
Middle Eastern blades. It is not a 'Star of David'.
We could certainly assert that the 1845 Wilkinson type
blade was an improvement on the pipe-backed blades that went
before. It was stronger, more rigid for thrusting, could give
better cuts, parry more solidly and the spear-point was better
shaped for penetration through resistant materials.
In many ways
it was not really very different to successful blade types that
had gone before. While most Victorian examples are slightly
curved, there is a general tendency for the blade type to be
straighter more often as the 19th century progressed. You can
certainly find straight examples with earlier dates and curved
examples with later dates, but the general rule is that blades
got straighter from 1845 to 1892, when a new completely straight
thrusting blade was introduced.
It was widely believed in Britain in the Victorian era
that for a swordsman on foot the most important mode of attack
should be the thrust, but it was not until 1892 that the British
Army went fully with a dedicated thrusting design for officers'
The 1845 type blade is what we would call a 'cut and
thrust' design in that it can do both fairly well. I have myself
used sharp examples of this blade to cut and thrust various
mediums and they perform as well as many other types of
historical sword and better than some.
Some writers have
criticised compromise designs like this, which in the larger
context of swordsmanship and the history of swords is frankly
ridiculous. Most swords throughout history have been compromise
designs and most swords used in war have needed to retain the
ability to both cut and thrust.
Alfred Hutton, the most famed
expert on swordsmanship in late-19th century Britain, and whose
brother took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade, agreed
that a sword intended for war should be able to cut and thrust.
There were some officers serving in dangerous parts of
the British Empire (and some who served safely at home!) who
felt very strongly regarding their preference of cut versus
thrust. Some were strongly in favour of one or the other, while
others believed both were necessary and were happy with the
compromise design of the 1845 type blade.
Certainly there were
lots of officers who actually used their swords in combat and
were happy with the 1845 type blade. For example Robert Shebeare
VC, John Jacob and William Hodson all used swords in combat and
at least two of them also owned Indian tulwars, yet they all
utilised the 1845 Wilkinson type blade happily and without
Nevertheless, the debate over cut versus thrust pervaded
all discussions about sword design in the 19th century and in
this context is this very interesting response by Henry
Wilkinson himself below, aimed at a commentator who was strongly in
favour of the cut.
It is a particularly interesting piece, in
that it gives us a little more understanding about Wilkinson's
choice of blade type and why he retained a slight curve to the
blades. From the Naval & Military Gazette and
Weekly Chronicle of the United Service - Saturday 20 June 1846:
The 1845 Wilkinson type blade was used all over the
British Empire in the last period that saw swords used with any
frequency in combat. Some cavalry officers retained the blade
type (on the 1896 pattern cavalry officers' hilt)until well
after the dedicated thrusting 1912 pattern sword was introduced.
The blade type lives on in the regulation swords for officers of
the Royal Artillery and Royal Navy.
Infantry officers received a
new blade type in 1892, but by this point swordsmanship was
rarely needed by officers, except perhaps for those in India and
the Northwest Frontier. Whether the 1892 pattern blade was an
improvement or not is a difficult question to answer, but one
which I will address in another article.