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Specifically, I'm interested in the last documented occurrence of swords (of any sort) being used as a primary weapon by infantrymen or cavalrymen in Western warfare. That is, when did any European or North American army last combat with swords in live battle?

I think I am safe to say that by the late 19th century swords were overwhelmingly ceremonial items, harking back to the earlier days of warfare. No doubt, even in the 17th century when gunpowder and indeed muskets were being increasingly starting to be used in battle, the sword would have played a diminished role compared to that of the High Middle Ages (12th century). However, I am tempted to think the sword lingered on in usage for centuries afterwards. Does anyone have any historical evidence to suggest when this usage finally stopped for good?

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You may be interested in Jack Churchill British soldier who fought in the Second World War armed with a longbow and a Scottish broadsword. His motto: "any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly armed." –  Nathan Cooper May 10 '13 at 10:02
Hah, that's a most interesting fact! Thanks for that. It seems he was an exceptional case though... a definite eccentric. –  Noldorin May 10 '13 at 14:04

7 Answers 7

Cavalry sabres (a.k.a. Shashkas) were still widely used in the Russian Civil War (1918-1922) and appear in many books on that period. This weapon is primarily associated with Cossacks even though it was standard equipment in the Russian and later Soviet army. The Russian Wikipedia article claims that Shashkas were still used by the cavalry in the Second World War which was (according to this article) the last massive military use of a sword-like weapon. Other sources seem to confirm that all Soviet cavalry units were equipped with Shashkas during Second World War - but it is hard to imagine what they would use them for. After the war they became purely ritual weapons.

Edit: This article shows lots of WWII Soviet posters displaying cavalry charges with shashkas. The article (and a bunch of others) explain that this pretty much never happened in reality: horses were used primarily for transportation and shashkas were put away before an attack. So Wikipedia most likely exaggerates when it talks about "massive military use".

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Thanks for the answer. This sounds like a pretty late occurrence of swords. Indeed, I always expected cavalry sabres were the final type to be used. And it makes sense that the Russian military, often reputed as the most 'backwards' and 'behind times' would have used them last... Will wait for other answers, but I think this is likely to be the one. :-) –  Noldorin Oct 15 '11 at 0:33
Yes, that would be my impression as well - Soviet/Russian army used shashkas well into 2nd world war. –  user144 Oct 15 '11 at 13:12
@Noldorin: Tactics in Russian Civil War were very different from WWI, with both parties very short on resources and often using untrained soldiers - shashkas did make sense there. Also, they did make sense when "restoring order" (against barely armed peasants). As to WWII - as I said, there is no indication that they were really used there other than in a few extraordinary cases. –  Wladimir Palant Oct 15 '11 at 18:07
Not only Russia but Poland and Germany in WWII used sabers. Any country which retained cavalry did. Red Army cavalry attack, 1944: medveputa.net/gallery/vov-i-ww2-a15/… –  Anixx Dec 27 '11 at 4:20
Most powers in the eastern front in WWII used cavalry and using cavalry means using sabers. Polish cavalry, 1939 attack on Wehrmacht: img404.imageshack.us/img404/1086/polishcavalryattack.jpg German SS cavalry attack: img0.liveinternet.ru/images/attach/c/3/75/137/… –  Anixx Dec 27 '11 at 4:32

I believe that the last use of sword in Western military were cavalry sabres used in cavalry charges alongside revolvers. Those were used in the Crimean war and in the USA Civil War. So we are talking mid-19th century. After the USA Civil War automatic rifles made cavalry obsolete (or nearly so) so I do not think you will find any more examples.

Depending on your definition of sword, bayonets were used as late as the Falkland war in the 1982 . It is, as far as I know, the last time a unit charged a position with bayonets. If I could remember the battle, I would add it but cannot -- Mount Tumbledown, thanks to hawbsl . In addition, in 2013, then corporal Sean Jones led a bayonet charge across 260ft of open ground through Taliban gunfire has been given the Military Cross.

The Polish lancers at Krojanty (1939) did attack German troops using sabres (but did not attack tanks) so that would be the last use. Of course, it was highly irregular and desperation more than military tactics.

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Interesting. I am wondering whether cavalry sabres were used in the First World War at all, though? Crimean War sounds about right though, since I vaguely recall the "Light Brigade" used them. –  Noldorin Oct 14 '11 at 15:34
@Sardathrion your Falklands battle involving bayonets was featured on TV recently. It was the battle for Mount Tumbledown. –  Tea Drinker Oct 15 '11 at 0:36
The First World War opened near Casteau in Belgium with a British cavalry charge, sabres drawn (4th Dragoon Guards). They attacked a German patrol of Lancers. The British saw no casualties other than one horse. The Germans lost several men and three were captured with sword wounds. bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/firstshot_01.shtml –  Rincewind42 Oct 19 '11 at 13:23
If bayonets in the Falklands war is in scope, this action in Afghanistan is in scope. –  Nathan Cooper Jan 7 '13 at 13:35
@Nathan Cooper - Bayonets are pole-arms, not swords, sadly - they were designed to turn a musket into an impromptu pike. Pikes require less training, and operate more efficiently with soldiers fighting shoulder to shoulder than a sword. Bayonets are still used to turn a rifle into a (very short) pike, not a sword. So, it would be the last battle involving spearmen. –  RI Swamp Yankee Mar 19 '13 at 18:34

The only reliable use of a sword I can find is mentioned in Tuchman's book 'The Guns of August' when a British cavalry Captain used the 1912 new pattern sabre against some German cavalry. That was August 1914.I will dig out the reference.


Page 269 in my edition in the Chapter 'Debacle: Lorraine,Ardennes,Charleroi,Mons'. "Captain Hornby, leader of the squadron, was awarded the DSO as the first British officer to kill a German with the new pattern cavalry sword.". Tuchman, 1994 Edition. Papermac.

[edit] The UK National Archives do show a number of awards to various 'Hornby's' for the correct period. For example, Hornby, Edward Windham, Lancashire Hussars,Second Lieutenant, later Captain. Without forking out two quid a pop for the privilege, I can't specifically place which one it was. I am very sure there were later examples than 1914 but that's the only written reliable source I have to hand. If I had to bet my money would be on ' Hornby, Reginald Forte',Hussars which is a poor summary.

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Thanks. I look forward to it. –  Noldorin Oct 17 '11 at 19:42
21st of August 1914. It was the 4th Dragoon Guards. bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/firstshot_01.shtml –  Rincewind42 Oct 19 '11 at 13:25
Thanks Rincewind42. Now I need to track down the Australians in Gaza in 1918. This may never end... –  ExpatEgghead Oct 22 '11 at 12:47
LOL. Most powers in the eastern front in WWII used cavalry and using cavalry means using sabers. Polish cavalry, 1939 attack on Wehrmacht: img404.imageshack.us/img404/1086/polishcavalryattack.jpg German SS cavalry attack: img0.liveinternet.ru/images/attach/c/3/75/137/… Soviet cavalry attack, 1944: medveputa.net/gallery/vov-i-ww2-a15/… –  Anixx Dec 27 '11 at 4:33

Cutlasses remained a personal weapon in various navies, mainly for use when boarding an enemy vessel, I think. The cutlass was reported to have been used during the Korean War (wiki).

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Interesting find; thanks. Do you have any harder evidence that this one small citation in Wikipedia though? I want to believe, but can't quite yet... –  Noldorin Oct 16 '11 at 23:15
@Noldorin Did you look up the source cited in the Wiki? –  quant_dev Oct 17 '11 at 8:17
I did, but I'd like something a bit more conclusive. Also, it's best to cite the source directly where possible; common practice in papers. –  Noldorin Oct 17 '11 at 19:42
@Noldorin I'd do that if I were writing a paper. –  quant_dev Oct 18 '11 at 12:14
Alright, well sorry, but you're missing out on an up-vote and potential accepted answer then. A recorded rumour by a single soldier isn't quite enough for me I'm afraid. –  Noldorin Oct 18 '11 at 12:52

To take off on another answer about the Crimean war, the use of swords (by cavalry) is documented in Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem about the Charge of the Light Brigade ("sabering the gunners there"). It was a late example of sending soldiers with blade weapons against soldiers with "fire" weapons that became infamous for the disproportionate losses suffered by the British cavalry. Shortly after that, "repeating" rifles and artillery made such charges altogether impractical.

Thereafter, cavalry was used only as a form a transportation, with cavalrymen dismounting and using fire weapons such as rifles. One quarter of the men had to hold the horses of the other three quarters, so this disadvantage had to be balanced against the faster arrival.

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Cavalry sabres were used in the Crimean War (1853–1856) and The American Civil War (1861–1865). Although, the USA is not European to be fair. ^_~ –  Sardathrion Oct 14 '11 at 15:50
I would up-vote, except for that this mainly re-iterates @Sardathrion's answer and my comment on his answer... –  Noldorin Oct 14 '11 at 19:53

US cavalry troops carried sabers throughout the US Civil War of 1861-1865.

During JOseph Wheelter's cavalry raid on Union supply lines after the Battle of Chickamauga one of General Crook's brigades made a saber charge against some of Wheeler's forces. Source Crook's autobiography or official records.

The autobiography of General James Wilson mentions a saber battle between Union and confederate cavalry that I remember because a very young soldiers rode up to Wilson to ask for reinforcement to rescue his colonel.

I have read that General Custer preferred to make saber charges because they demoralized the the rebels who faced them.

US cavalry used sabres during parts of the indian Wars and probably in the Phillipines.

General Custer ordered the seventh cavalry sabers left behind on his march to the Little Big Horn in June 1876, but two of his men took their sabers anyway.

Second and Third cavalry men in General Crook's forces carried sabers at the the Battle of the Rosebud on June 17, 1876 - I believe two of the Sioux carried sabers captured at the Rosebud at the Little Big Horn. Major Chambers in charge of Crook's mule-mounted infantry was so frustrated by their ragged riding that he was seen to throw down his infantry officer's sword in disgust.

Lt. McKinney of the Fourth Cavalry was shot and killed as he led a charge waving a saber at the capture of Dull knife's village in November 1876.

I have read that Tauregs fought French colonial forces it in the 19th and twentieth centuries with swords. For a example a sudden treacherous sword charge wiped out most of the Flatters expedition around 1881.

I have read that during a civil war in the Sudan in the 1970s warriors in chain mail made charges with spears and swords.

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Very nice list. Two quick comments - first, the OP did ask about "European" warfare, and second, citations would have been fantastic. –  Mark C. Wallace Mar 19 '13 at 10:45

My understanding is that the Dutch used the Klewang cutlass against the indigenous population in the war in Aceh at least into the 1930's . I believe the Klewang was specifically designed by the Dutch to combat the guerilla warfare tactics of the locals in this nasty jungle campaign.

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This is hardly European warfare. –  American Luke May 8 '13 at 22:15
Cite? Superior answers like superior histories, include sources. –  Mark C. Wallace May 9 '13 at 12:39
Quite correct - not European warfare but use by a European country. Best reference that includes many citations of the Klewang used in 20th Century combat is "Klewang - catalogue of the Dutch Army Museum" by J.P.Pupye & R.J.De Sturler Boekwijt (2001). –  downunder May 30 '13 at 0:00

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