The 1803 Pattern infantry sword evolved out of necessity, as its predecessor the 1796 Infantry pattern had less than positive feedback as a fighting sword. Evidence of the low regard in which this pattern was held can be found in the comments made by Captain Mercer of the Royal Artillery at Waterloo:
“Nothing could be more useless or more ridiculous than the old Infantry regulation [sword]; it was good neither for cut nor thrust and was the perfect encumbrance. In the Foot Artillery, when away from headquarters, we generally wore dirks instead of it.”
1796 Pattern Infantry Officers Sword
However, despite its flaws the 1796 Infantry pattern could be used as a lethal weapon when necessary. At Waterloo, Captain Adair of the 1st Foot Guards was able to dispatch a cuirassier officer who used a breach caused by artillery to penetrate the battalion’s square. Also, Ensign Clarke of the 69th Foot was able to kill three cuirassiers during the battle, but the fact that he received 22 wounds in doing so perhaps speaks more of his personal fortitude than the merits of the 1796 infantry pattern sword.
When it comes to infantry swords of the period, the 1796 light cavalry pattern stirrup hilt was still popular with Infantry Volunteers and Rifle regiments, Flank and staff officers. The fact that this was a cavalry pattern certainly did not deter the Gentlemen of the infantry from opting for a more serviceable weapon than the standard infantry officers 1796. From 1796 until the infantry 1803 pattern was introduced it was fashionable for flank company officers in particular to carry sabres, they followed the basic design carried by the light cavalry (i.e.) the stirrup hilt, with a large number of variations. Leather Scabbards with Brass fittings were particularly favoured. The blades tended to be shorter usually around 30 inches but of course the owner could have his sword made to measure.
Infantry Flank Officers 1796 Pattern Sabre – Authors Collection
The development of the Pattern 1803 Flank Officer’s sword goes back to the late 18th century, when light infantry units were formed in the British Army. The grenadiers and light companies of a battalion were considered the elite of these infantry regiments, and could be detached and deployed separately as skirmishers. Grenadiers were the senior company of any infantry battalion and would typically lead an assault. When the battalion was deployed in line, the grenadier and light companies were deployed on the right and left flanks respectively, and both companies could be could be called upon to operate in looser formations and semi-independently.
The added element of risk associated with detached skirmishing in looser formations meant that officers of light infantry needed a more robust fighting sword. By 1799, sufficient numbers of officers of these regiments and companies were using sabres rather than the Pattern 1796 Infantry Officers sword, enough for them to be given official leave to wear sabres instead. In addition to being a more practical weapon,these sabres could be more easily hitched up, as they were suspended on slings rather than the shoulder belt and frog of the Pattern 1796 Infantry Officer’s sword. This ensured that the weapon did not inhibit movement when skirmishing over broken ground.
This need for a more robust weapon was formally acknowledged by the King in 1803, when he approved ‘a Pattern Sword for the Officers of Grenadiers and Light Infantry’. Despite this regulation there exists a great deal of variety in 1803 Pattern swords. The most common form has a slotted hilt with the royal cypher (GR) on the knuckle-guard, which joins the head of the backpiece at a lion’s head pommel. The blade is commonly quite broad for an infantry sword, with a single fuller and a hatchet point. In terms of general form,the sword is similar to the curved sabres of the light cavalry, and the blade is comparable to a slighter version of the 1796 Light Cavalry sword.
This similarity was perhaps deliberate, as at this time light infantry across Europe were increasingly taking their military stylings from their light cavalry counterparts. Both light infantry and cavalry considered themselves elite, and were keen to distinguish themselves from their comrades in the line through different uniform and equipment. However, light infantry officers neither needed such a robust sword (as it would not have to withstand the stress of mounted combat) nor did they need a steel scabbard to protect the sword from bumps and falls when mounted. As such,the 1803 usually had a much thinner back and was carried in a lighter leather scabbard.
There were three other common blade types found on 1803 hilts. These included a narrower, straighter, flat-bladed version, which was double-edged for the final portion and ended in a spear point. There was also a shorter, thicker-bladed version with a double fuller blade, which again ended in a spear point closer to a hanger of the 18th century in terms of blade proportions. The third had a heavily curved narrow blade, almost crescentic in shape,without a fuller and it usually ended in a spear point, despite its pronounced curve. This last type closely resembles the blade form of the Persian Shamshir.
The sword was approved for both flank officers of line infantry regiments as well as those few regiments in the British Army designated as light infantry. In addition to this, regimental officers (Majors, Lieutenant-Colonels and Colonels) were permitted to carry the sword.
In some cases the swords can be identified by the hilt, with the light infantry bugle or flaming grenade being incorporated in the guard around the cypher. However the majority of 1803 swords lack this distinction.
Although regiments of designated light infantry were authorised to carry the sword, these regiments often adopted swords unique to their unit, which were broadly modeled on the Pattern 1803.
In terms of combat use, the 1803 seems to have had mixed success. At the storming of Ciudad Rodgrigo in 1812, Lieutenant Smith of the light company of the 77th foot’ hewed and slashed his way through the enemy’ before being fatally wounded. The reference to cutting perhaps suggests that Smith had the more standard slightly curved blade form.
Ensign Frank, of the 2nd Light Battalion of the King’s German Legion, saved his comrade Lieutenant Graeme in a tightly fought combat in a barn at La Haye Sainte. Graeme was about to be shot by a French soldier when Frank ‘stabbed him through the mouth and out through his neck; he fell immediately’. The fact Frank was able to thrust with his word makes it probable he possessed one of the straighter and more slender-bladed spear-pointed 1803 swords.
However, evidence clearly suggests that the heavily curved crescentic blade, a regimental pattern which was carried by officers of the 95th Rifles, was unsuitable for combat. Lieutenant John Kincaid of the 95th describes a combat between his enormous comrade, 2nd Lieutenant Saunders, and a French infantry officer:
‘The Frenchman held in his hands which was well calculated to bring all sizes upon a level – a good small sword but as he had forgotten to put on his spectacles, his first (and last) thrust passed by the body a lodged in the highlander’s left arm. Saunder’s blood was now up (as well as down) and with our then small regulation half-moon sabre, better calculated to shave a ladies maid than a Frenchman’s head, he made it descend on the pericardium of his unfortunate adversary with a force that snapped it at the hilt. His next dash was with his fist (and the hilt in it), smack in his adversary’s face,which sent him to the earth; and though I grieve to record it, yet as the truth must be told, I fear me that the chivalrous Frenchman died an ignominious death, viz. by a kick. But where one’s life is at stake, we must not be too particular.’
1803 Blade Variations (Authors Collection)
1803 with GG Mark on Blade by Osborn (Single fuller with extreme curve)
1803 by Reddell (Flat blade no fuller with extreme curve)
1803 J J Runkel Blade (Single fuller – Blade Almost Straight)
1803 Personal Battles significant to the owner on the blade (Almost Straight Piped back blade with different point)
Note; these blade variations are also found on 1796 light Cavalry and Flank Officer Swords.
The 1803 sword remained in service until 1822,when a very slightly curved, cut-and-thrust bladed sword with a pipe back was introduced for all British infantry officers. Apart from a brass or steel hilt, there was no difference in subsequent words for officers of line regiments or light infantry and rifles regiments.
1803 Sword with the GG stamp on the blade, extreme curve. Robson’s originally inferred that this denoted Grenadier Guards however this is now a subject of debate. Authors Collection.
Some Guard Variations
Other Variations I have seen include a 1796 pommel and backstrap, American eagle pommel, and three bar hilt.
Heny Yallop Article for the Royal Armouries Pattern 1803 Flank Officers Sword
Brian ROBSON 2nd Edition-Revised Swords of the British Army Pp 148-156
WILKINSON LATHAM-John British Cut and Thrust Weapons Pp 32-34