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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 blade.

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 they wished.

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 pipe-backed blades.

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 areas:

1) It was too flexible for effective thrusting through layers of clothing, especially when equipped with an asymmetrical point;

2) it was rather fragile and light for rough combat against things like Indian tulwars, and;

3) the 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 Pattern stated:

"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 cutting."

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'.

This 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.

It is 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' blades.

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 modification.

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.