Lt Col John Henry Patterson and the Tsavo Lions

While trolling for articles on hunting firearms for this month’s newsletter I came across the true story of Lt Col Patterson and the Tsayo Lions.  Being a great fan of the movie Ghost in the Darkness, I found myself needing to know the true story, so here it is.

(10 November 1867 – 18 June 1947), known as J. H. Patterson, was an Anglo-Irish soldier, hunter, author and Christian Zionist, best known for his book The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (1907), which details his experiences while building a railway bridge over the Tsavo river in British East Africa (now Kenya) in 1898–99.  

Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson, DSO

In the First World War, Patterson was the commander of the Jewish Legion, “the first Jewish fighting force in nearly two millennia”, and has been described as the godfather of the modern Israel Defense Forces.

Patterson was born in 1867 in Forgney, Ballymahon, County Longford, Ireland, to a Protestant father and Roman Catholic mother.  He joined the British Army at the age of seventeen and eventually attained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).  He finally retired from the military in 1920.

In 1898, Patterson was commissioned by the Uganda Railway committee in London to oversee the construction of a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in present-day Kenya.  He arrived at the site in March of that year.  Almost immediately after Patterson’s arrival, lion attacks began to take place on the workforce, with the lions dragging men out of their tents at night and feeding on their victims.  Despite the building of thorn barriers (bomas) around the camps, bonfires at night, and strict after-dark curfews, the attacks escalated dramatically, to the point where the bridge construction eventually ceased due to a fearful, mass departure by the workers.  Along with the obvious financial consequences of the work stoppage, Patterson faced the challenge of maintaining his authority and even his personal safety at this remote site against the increasingly hostile and superstitious workers, many of whom were convinced that the lions were in fact evil spirits, come to punish those who worked at Tsavo, and that he was the cause of the misfortune because the attacks had coincided with his arrival.

The man-eating behaviour was considered highly unusual for lions and was eventually confirmed to be the work of a pair of rogue males, who were believed to be responsible for as many as 140 deaths.  Railway records officially attribute only 28 worker deaths to the lions, but the predators were also reported to have killed a significant number of local people of which no official record was ever kept, which attributed to the railway’s smaller record.

Tsavo male lions look very different from the Serengeti Lions we generally see in Zoos or on the TV.  The most vigorous Serengeti males sport large dark manes, while in Tsavo they have short, thin manes or none at all.  This is due to the shortage of water.  Tsavo is hotter and drier than the Serengeti, and a male with a heavy mane “would squander his daily water allowance simply panting under a bush, with none to spare for patrolling his territory, hunting or finding mates.”

Various theories have been put forward to account for the lions’ man-eating behaviour: poor burial practices, low populations of food source animals due to disease, etc.  There was a slave trade route through the area, which contributed to a considerable number of abandoned bodies.  Patterson reported seeing considerable instances of unburied human remains and open graves in the area, and it is believed that the lions (which, like most predators, will readily scavenge for food) adapted to this abundant, accessible food supply and eventually turned to humans as their primary food source.  One of the lion’s skulls was found to have a badly abscessed canine tooth that could have hindered normal hunting behaviour.  However, this hypothesis accounts for the behaviour of only one of the lions involved, and Patterson himself personally disclaimed it, saying he had damaged the tooth.

With his reputation, livelihood, and safety at stake, Patterson, an experienced tiger hunter from his military service in India, undertook an extensive effort to deal with the crisis.  After months of attempts and near misses, he finally killed the first lion on the night of 9 December 1898 and the second one on the morning of 29 December (narrowly escaping death when the wounded animal charged him).  The lions were maneless like many others in the Tsavo area, and both were exceptionally large.  Each lion was over nine feet long from nose to tip of tail and required at least eight men to carry it back to the camp.

Val Kilmer as Patterson in a gripping  scene from Ghost in the darkness

Colonel Patterson with the first Tsavo lion – killed 9 December 1898

The workers and local people immediately declared Patterson a hero, and word of the event quickly spread far and wide, as evidenced by the subsequent telegrams of congratulations he received.  Word of the incident was even mentioned in the House of Lords, by the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury.

With the man-eater threat finally eliminated, the workforce returned and the Tsavo railway bridge was completed on 7 February 1899.  Although the rails were destroyed by German soldiers during the First World War, the stone foundations were left standing and the bridge was subsequently repaired.  The workers, who in earlier months had all but threatened to kill him, presented Patterson with a silver bowl in appreciation for the risks he had undertaken on their behalf, with the following inscription:

“SIR, – We, your Overseer, Timekeepers, Mistaris and Workmen, present you with this bowl as a token of our gratitude to you for your bravery in killing two-man-eating lions at great risk to your own life, thereby saving us from the fate of being devoured by these terrible monsters who nightly broke into our tents and took our fellow-workers from our side. In presenting you with this bowl, we all add our prayers for your long life, happiness and prosperity. We shall ever remain, Sir, Your grateful servants,  Baboo PURSHOTAM HURJEE PURMAR, Overseer and Clerk of Works, on behalf of your Workmen. Dated at Tsavo, January 30, 1899.”

Patterson considered the bowl to be his most highly prized and hardest won trophy.  In 1907, he published his first book, The Man-eaters of Tsavo, which documented his adventures during his time there.  It was the basis for three films; Bwana Devil (1953), Killers of Kilimanjaro(1959) and the 1996 Paramount Pictures film, The Ghost and the Darkness, starring Val Kilmer(as Patterson) and Michael Douglas (as the fictional character “Remington”).

In 1924, after speaking at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, Patterson agreed to sell the Tsavo lion skins and skulls to the museum for the then sizeable sum of $5,000.  The lion skins were then stuffed and are now on permanent display along with the original skulls.  The reconstructed lions are actually smaller than their original size, due to their skins’ having been originally trimmed for use as trophy rugs in Patterson’s house.

From his book, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, Patterson says of his firearms, “the battery, to be sufficient for all needs, should consist of a .450 express, a .303 sporting rifle, and a 12-bore shot gun; and I should consider 250 rounds of .450 (50 hard and 200 soft), 300 rounds of .303 (100 hard and 200 soft), and 500 12-bore shot cartridges of say, the 6 and 8 sizes, sufficient for a three months’ trip. Leather bandoliers to carry 50 each of these different cartridges would also prove very useful.”

In the book, he doesn’t say what gun he used to shoot the first lion, only that he was on a hunting platform and his first shot entered in the area of the shoulder and penetrated to the heart.  On the second lion, he got six hits.  The first three were from the .303 rifle.  The next shot he fired from the .450 from a tree, and the final two he fired head on into the lion’s head and body, also with the .450, during its final charge.  He said the rounds that killed it were loaded with Martini bullets.

In the film, Patterson (Val Kilmer), used a BSA Lee-Speed Sporter rifle as his primary firearm.  It looks to have a 26-inch barrel and is likely chambered for .303 British, which is in keeping with Patterson’s writings. The rifle was a popular option for British officers and hunters who couldn’t afford expensive double-barrel rifles.  The Lee-Speeds used the same action and ammunition as the Lee-Enfield bolt action, the British service rifle at the time.

The Lee-Speed rifle was a bolt action rifle based on James Paris Lee’s rear-locking bolt system and detachable magazine. Early models were fitted with barrels using the radiused rifling designed by William Ellis Metford. 

Lee-Speed Rifle & Carbine

The actual Tsavo lions in the Field Museum in Chicago

Heritage Arms Member – Cathey Brimage

An Historical Review of Airguns – By Lee Blair-Jenke

Victorian Pepperbox Air Gun

Although of a unique and exacting design, the air gun has not enjoyed the popularity it deserves, both now and throughout history.  In this historical review of the airgun, Lee Blair-Jenke of Regimentals Antiques in Adelaide researches both the positive and negative aspects of this largely overlooked weapon.

THE AIR GUN is only casually thought of by collectors and students of arms history.  In fact it is considered by most people to belittle more than a toy, a judgement being biased by the popular modern air rifle or gun.

Air guns have been with us in one form or another since the early days of firearms.  Had Oliver Cromwell been assassinated by an air gun, so hopefully purchased for that purpose, or had the American Continental Army adopted it as was proposed at the time, and as Austria later did, and if Napoleon had not taken such violent exception to its use agains this army by the Austrians, the subject would not have been as obscure as it is.

It is uncertain when the first airgun was made, but it appears to have been invented by a number of different people at different times and in different places.  Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) makes mention of the air gun quite casually as if a commonplace weapon.

The earliest known air gun is preserved in the Armoury of Schmetan in Germany and bears the date of 1474.  Many references are to be found of air guns in use in Germany during the 1500’s and it must be concluded that during this century they had been developed to a point where they were considered to be a serious and practical weapon.

The Air Gun as a Weapon.

The use of the air gun for hunting in the past was extensive although its military use was limited.  In a hunting book published in 1779 it states that three hundred strokes of the pump were required to·fill the ball type reservoir with air.  This was then sufficient for around 24 shots.  The first 6 shots with a lead bullet were able to down a deer between 70 and 80 aces.  Subsequent shots became weaker as pressure reduced in the reservoir.  According to another old report, Louis VIII, Landgrave of Hessen (1691-1768)

preferred to use air guns rather than conventional firearms for big game hunting.  Many great deer, including one weighing 480 pounds, and an un-numbered amount of wild boar are claimed to have fallen to his air gun.

Experiments with an old airgun in Germany showed that a 9.5 mm round bullet could be targeted at a total shooting range of 500 metres.  At a 35 metre distance a 3 cm pine board was pierced.  Flight speed amounted to about 200 metres per sec.  The results of this investigation was that the penetrating power of the air gun in question was sufficient to kill big game at a distance of 100 paces.

The air gun is,from the standpoint of pressures used, decidedly more efficient than the conventional firearm.  It appears that gas confined under pressure and then suddenly released has a relatively more powerful effect upon a projectile than has the gas generated by the burning or explosion of gunpowder.

Air rifle Girardoni 1779 system Windbüchse Designed in 1779 by Austrian inventor Bartholomäus Girardoni

Advantages of Air Guns in Comparison to Firearms.

In considering the advantages of the airgun, it is also necessary to review the disadvantages of the firearm,particularly as they existed in the flintlock and earlier ignition systems.  Whilst this may suggest it’s superiority, the air gun nevertheless did have certain objectionable features that apparently prevented it from being adopted seriously by many nations

The most obvious disadvantage of the firearm was the uncertainty of ignition.  The matchlock, wheel lock and flintlock were all plagued by this problem.  The firearm could misfire for any of many reasons and probably the weather was the biggest cause.  Powder falling out of the pan, a badly primed piece, poor quality powder, a blocked touch hole or a worn or faulty flint were all possible causes of misfire.  In this respect the air gun had a distinct advantage.  As far as certainty of ignition or discharge is concerned, the air gun never fails.

Firearms of this period were not only noisy but generated a lot of smoke from burning powder.  In this respect the air gun was again superior in that it was noiseless, nor did it reveal the position of the shooter by clouds of smoke, and it was for this reason that it became so popular for game hunting and poaching.  In guerrilla warfare the air gun was a priceless weapon.  The Austrians found this feature to their advantage in the Tyrolean campaign against the French.  As a result, Napoleon caused every Austrian captured carrying an air gun to be summarily shot or hanged.  Another material advantage which the air gun possessed over the firearm was the fact that the former adapted itself to repeating mechanisms and rapid fire more readily than did firearms of the pre-cartridge era.

With the air gun an assortment of principles were available.  They were:

Single pressure charge: single shot

Single pressure charge: multiple shot (with ball magazine).

Multiple pressure charge: single shot

Multiple pressure charge: multiple shot

Repeating mechanisms in firearms of the flintlock era were decidedly dangerous and many explosions are recorded with disastrous results to the shooter.

A very practical advantage that the air gun possessed over the firearm using black powder, was that the air gun required almost no cleaning.  The firearm needed cleaning after every use and suffered badly from fouling during use, which affected accuracy.  Because of the absence of fouling, the use of rifling in the air gun presented less of a problem than it did in firearms.  Much to the delight of collectors, most air guns, even very old ones, are invariably found with perfect bores.

Rapid fire did not pose any problems for the air gun but in a muzzle-loading rifle a serious danger was involved due to residual sparks in the chamber.  Apart from fouling making rapid fire difficult for the firearm user, he had also to carry quantities of powder and primers,whereas the air gun only required the ball to be handled and the carrying of a pump.  Rapid fire in a fire-arm caused it to overheat badly, but the air gun remained cool.

From the standpoint of efficiency it is acknowledged that the pressure in the reservoir of a pneumatic air gun was progressively lowered with each shot but experiments show that the strength between the first and tenth shots are practically the same.  By comparison, gun­powder strength did vary enormously in the early days.

Another claimed advantage of the air gun was the amount of ammunition that could be carried.  The soldier or sportsman could carry sufficient compressed air in the reservoir of his airgun for possibly 40 shots and could carry extra reservoirs if he wished.  An Austrian soldier equipped with the air rifle went into battle carrying 24 filled flask reservoirs, each of which held a potential of upwards of 20 lethal shots.  The soldier was therefore prepared to deliver 480 shots at ranges varying from 150-400 paces, meaning that one corps of 500 men could deliver 24,000 shots with normal field equipment.  The rate of fire of the Austrian air rifle was 20 shots per minute.  One reservoir would last at least a minute and on this basis a corps of 500 men had a potential ire powder of 10,000 shots per minute. This, in view of the little equipment involved and the then existing rate of fire for firearms, is absolutely incredible.  It is no wonder that Napoleon ordered the death of all Austrian soldiers caught with air guns.

Disadvantages of Air Guns.

The primary disadvantage of the air gun was the cold hard matter of cost.  The construction of the weapon required practically every element present in a firearm plus the addition of certain other parts.  The first of these was the reservoir.  This required the forming and welding of an air-tight container which had to be fitted with a screw joint.  In addition to the reservoir a valve assembly was required, which had to be manufactured and fitted with sufficient precision to permit the retention of up to 750 pounds per square inch of air pressure.  The fitting of these valves required a degree of precision in workmanship far above that needed for firearms.  Even after these extra operations, there remained the making of a pump for charging the reservoir which at least equaled the task of making a barrel.  The internal surface or bore of the pump required fitting of sufficient precision to allow a steel piston to slip fit within it, the pump chamber.

A great many air guns were breech loaders and this involved other operations in manufacture.  At the very least it can be said that air guns required twice the time needed to produce a fire-arm of similar quality and workmanship.  Another disadvantage of the air gun was the physical work required to charge the reservoir.  Instructions on a pump accompanying an old air rifle state? ‘800 strokes to fill each globe with air’.

An additional drawback is the element of danger involved in having air under pressure.  Several instances are recorded of air gun reservoirs having exploded either injuring or killing the user.  Probably the most dangerous of reservoirs was the ball type.  The early workers must have had a fear of ball reservoirs exploding as they are invariably made of copper.  While copper, the softer metal,does not have the strength of steel or iron, it does have the advantage of opening when it gives way under pressure, and does not splinter or fracture like a grenade.  These reservoirs filled with air were cold and unpleasant to handle in cold weather and for this reason the stocks were covered with leather or cloth.  Ball reservoirs sometimes were fitted with a stocking cap arrangement.

A reservoir filled to its maximum in a cold room would increase its pressure and possibly explode when brought out into the sun.  Distribution of the air gun was limited by another factor related to earlier remarks.  The skill required to maintain the valve and any other precision parts made it an impractical weapon for use at any distance from a gun making centre.  The air guns,upon which the Austrians put so much hope, were eventually abandoned because of the state of disrepair into which they had fallen.


The Blowpipe.

The most primitive type of air gun is the Blowpipe; along tube through which a projectile is driven out at great speed by the force of the human lungs.  This surprisingly efficient and precise weapon has been used by many peoples all over the world .

Bellows Gun

The Bellows Gun is the earliest form of mechanical air gun.  It is found in one inherent form which in its general appearance is reminiscent of he wheel lock.  The Bellows air gun had a hollowed out butt stock in which the bellows and its accompanying mechanism are housed.  The gun is operated by forcing the bellows open against the pressure of one or two V-springs, this being accomplished by means of a removable crank.  The aircompressed by the sudden closing of the bellows forces the projectile out  through the barrel.

Fine German Breech-Loading Crank-Wound Bellows Air Gun

Strike Pump Guns (Gallery Guns)

Systematically different from the bellows gun is a type which is generally called a spring gun, where the momentary air pressure is created by a spring propelled piston rushing forward in a pump cylinder.  Such air guns occur at about the same time as the bellows guns and its general external appearance is that of a conventional wheel Jock gun.  A common feature of the later strike pump gun was the use of a new type of spring, the double volute spring.  About the middle of the 19th century the strike pump gun became popular in Europe,but was far more widely used in the United States.  The period represented by the strike pump or American Gallery gun appears to have begun shortly before the Civil War and continued for about a decade after.

strike-pump Gallery gun, probably by Johann Peterlongo

With the interest in rifle shooting coming to the attention of urban dwellers as a result of the Civil War, there developed a desire to emulate the heroes of the War.  A means of satisfying this desire was found in the gallery gun, and as the name indicates, was generally used in indoor ranges.  These guns, whilst occurring in a variety of designs, have certain characteristics in common.  They were highly stylized and were of European design.  All are double volute spring piston guns.  All are breech loaders,have smooth bores and were designed to use darts.  A detachable crank which is inserted into an aperture in the side of the receiver operates a rack within, which compressed the spring.  Other varieties are cranked by means of a combination trigger guard level.  Makers, judging by names, were of Germanic origin.

Barrel Reservoir Air Guns

Among the earliest surviving pump-up air guns is the system of the air reservoir surrounding the barrel.  The barrel consists of two tubes, the barrel proper and an outer tube that forms an air reservoir between the two.  The barrel surrounding reservoir air gun is one that is deceptive at first glance.  The impression normally conveyed is that of a heavy barreled piece.  In this type of arm there is a pump in the butt.

Globe or Ball Reservoir Air Gun

This variety is recognisable at a glance.  The ball reservoir is usually constructed of copper, but steel and brass examples do exist.  The advantage of the ball type reservoir was that only one valve was required.  With are movable reservoir it was necessary to have an auxiliary pump instead of having one built in.  The ball reservoir was attached to the gun in a variety of positions.  The ball under the barrel was the most popular position, but a number of examples have the ball reservoir placed either on top or on the side of the barrel.  Locks also are found in a variety of types from simple cocking levers to full mock flintlocks.

G W Bales ball reservoir rifle / shotgun – David Swan Collection

Butt Reservoir Air Gun

Air guns of this style fall into two categories, those with built in butt reservoirs and others with detachable butt reservoirs.  While airguns with built in butt reservoirs and those with barrel reservoirs had to be equipped with two valves, the globe reservoir gun required only one valve.  On the other hand, it had to be admitted that globe reservoir guns were less practically shaped for hunting than butt reservoir guns.  A system that combined the advantages of both was the detachable butt reservoir which required a separate pump.  The detachable butt reservoir was simply a metal container, but with the same outer shape as the normal butt which was covered with leather or fabric.  The ultimate air gun in the form of the butt reservoir air gun was developed by the Austrian Girandoni in 1780.  It was his system that was adopted by the Austrian Army with such success against Napoleon.

Air Canes

The air cane gun was developed to its ultimate form in England.  The lock mechanism is hidden beneath a casing of painted metal.  There is little variation in the essential form of the air cane.  It is divided into two sections with the halves united by a screw joint.  The front section contains the lock, barrel, breech, sights and combined ramrod and barrel cap.  The pop out trigger is characteristic as is the cocking mechanism.  The rear portion of the cane is the air reservoir.  English air canes are commonly found with two barrels.  In addition to the regular barrel a removable liner was provided.  Generally the bore is smooth and the liner is rifled.  Barrels and removable liners are usually made of brass and the rifling is poly-grooved.  While most air canes are muzzle loading, certain specimens are equipped with a loading port at the breech, usable for ball.

Gas Gun

Closely related to the air gun is the gas gun, which uses a chemically produced gas as the propellant.  Attempts to construct such a gun were made as early as the 1830’s.  The first gas gun to be actually produced was the ‘Giffard’ gas gun in 1872, which had an ‘air cartridge’ containing compressed air.  It was obviously not a very long step from this to a cartridge of carbon dioxide gas.  The presently produced C02 air guns are, of course, descendants of the earlier gas guns produced by Paul Giffard.


In the late 1870’s the solid but expensive handmade gallery gun was priced out of the market by a new factory made strike pump gun.  Henry Marcus Quackenbush, with his No.l air gun, had an effective substitute for the expensive handmade gallery gun.  His weapon had only 15 parts compared to 27 parts in a typical gallery gun and weighed considerably less.  In place of the hand fitted leather covered piston, a precision machined steel piston was used to slip fit in a forged cylinder.  Another improvement was a machine wound coil spring.  Gallery guns were equipped with either a detachable crank or trigger guard lever for cocking.  Quackenbush substituted the barrel itself for his purpose.  The result of these improvements and simplification in design was that, while effective as the handmade gallery guns, it could be mass produced at a fraction of the cost.  Under these circumstances the gallery gun gradually disappeared and was not advertised for sale after 1879.  From that time on Quackenbush rapidly assumed the leading position in the air gun field in America.


It is evident that air gunmakers had a lead over gunsmiths.  Not only were the advances in lock mechanics, breech loading techniques, metallurgy and appreciation of pressures evident, but the radically new process of using folded metal was also adopted by air gun makers as early as 1890.

With the cheap tinplate airguns flooding the market, the air gun had now become little more than a toy, with nearly every boy owning one at some time or another.

Air pistol, percussion cap, ca. 1875

Air Pistol Percussion cap, ca. 1875


‘AIR GUNS’ by E.G. Wolf



A German/Polish winged lobster-tailed burgonet by Cathey Brimage

These Lobster Tail Helmets with attached metal winglets are a puzzle.  They first appear in art of the 1730s when Poland was ruled by a Saxon King, and are worn only by Saxon Cavalrymen – as a practical alternative to the Polish back-mounted wings worn by the famous Polish Winged Hussars.

Poles favoured elaborate burnished steel helmets, yet most surviving winged helmets are obsolete burgonets or ‘Pappenhelmers’ to which the winglets have been added.  Whilst the helmets are usually associated with Poland, there is actually little evidence that winged helmets are Polish rather than Saxon.

Essentailly this is a standard “pappenheimer” type of helmet, used in many Central-European countries, including Poland and Germany.

The distinguished wings on the sides of the helmet might indicate its Polish provenance, but it could just as easily be also for a Saxony, which was united with Poland since the Fridrich August I, Saxon elector was introduced into Polish throne as August II in 1697.

Standard ‘pappenheimer’ type of helmet

Whilst I am aware that there are a number of these winged helmets in the Polish Military Museum, I have found no documented link between these and the Polish Winged Hussars, although when they come up for auction they are invariably described as Winged Hussars Helmets.

Collection Cathey and Rex Brimage

1803 Pattern Infantry Sword by Cathey Brimage

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

Victorian Police Lanterns


From man’s earliest times there has existed a need to see into the darkness, beyond the illumination of the camp fire.  A need to verify the existence or nonexistence of those things that exist just beyond our view to remain safe “from ghoulies and ghosties / And long-leggedy beasties / And things that go bump in the night, / Good Lord, deliver us!”, to quote a line from a traditional Scottish poem.  As time passed and civilization developed we find that people migrated to urban centres and the “ghoulies and ghosties” were in the form of human predators.  Police services were developed and the need to see in the dark to either scare off the criminals or place him or her under the care and control for a time period to be determined at the pleasure of the Crown.  Continue reading Victorian Police Lanterns

British Coffin Hilted Swords

Over a number of years I have collected British Cavalry Troopers swords.  As in many collecting fields one sometimes deviates away from the original theme. Such is the case with my collecting which varied into Officers’ swords etc.

The so called Coffin Top hilted sword was always so elusive in Australia, in fact “where would you find one”. At a Melbourne Gun show some years back I met a dealer from South Australia who regularly attended the Gun shows.  In conversation with him re such swords, he said he had one, albeit damaged and missing the knuckle bow and no scabbard. The sword turned up at the next venue and I snapped it up immediately.

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The South Australian start                                                 Lanark Dumfried Regiment

Continue reading British Coffin Hilted Swords

The Covenanters and the Cameronian Regiment

The Cameronian Regiment holds a unique place in the history of the British Army, being the only Regiment raised on Religious Beliefs. The Cameronians or Cameronian Guard take their name from a Presbyterian Minister named Richard Cameron. The Regiments origins go back to the dark days of Seventeenth Century Scotland known as “The Killing Time”, when a religious group known as Covenanters following the Presbyterian doctrine, raised the Regiment at Douglas Water in South Lanarkshire, Scotland.

The Covenanters


Above: The Banner known as “The Bluidy Banner” (Bloody Banner) of 17 year old Covenanter William Cleland, carried at The Battle of Bothwell Brig’ in 1679. A Hebrew script at the top roughly translates as “The Lord is My Banner” At the bottom it reads: “No Quarters for Ye Active Enemies of Ye Covenant”

Continue reading The Covenanters and the Cameronian Regiment

Kilij – The Sword of Vlad the Impaler

Also known as the Kilidj, Kilic, Kalig, Qillij.

What is it?

The Kilij is a Turkish sabre, its name comes from the Turkish Kilic, literally meaning sword.  The Kilij had a deeply curved, single edged blade with a flaring tip called a yelman.  It has a cruciform (cross-shaped) guard, with a curving hilt that ends with a downturned pommel. Continue reading Kilij – The Sword of Vlad the Impaler

The Fraser Highlanders

Simon Fraser 11th Lord Lovat
Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat 1667 – 1747

After the first failed Jacobite uprising of 1715 Clans loyal to the Crown were appointed Independent Highland Companies to police the Highlands of Scotland. But by 1717 these Companies had been greatly reduced due to the numbers of regular Crown troops now stationed in the Highlands at Fort William, Fort Augustus and Ruthven Barracks. Continue reading The Fraser Highlanders

The Fenian Raids 1866 – 70

Canada GSM with Fenian Bars
Canadian General Service Medal and miniature with 1866 clasp. (Author’s collection)


Just over fifty years had passed since British Canada had successfully fought off an invasion and defeated the American armed forces during the War of 1812.  Since the end of the war, following the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, the two countries had enjoyed a period of mutual trade and peace; albeit an uneasy peace.  In the mid 1800s Canadian newspapers carried stories of the Underground Railroad, a clandestine series of safe houses stretching from the United States to Canada with the purpose of providing slaves a means of reaching freedom in Canada.  Also of interest to the Canadians was news of the American Civil War that had started in 1861, nearly tearing the United States apart, until the end of hostilities in 1865. Continue reading The Fenian Raids 1866 – 70