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
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    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
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    Are we including soccer hooliganism as "European warfare"? – Tyler Durden Apr 27 '15 at 16:51
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    @TylerDurden: Only if you call it by its proper name (football hooliganism), hah! ;) – Noldorin Apr 27 '15 at 21:47
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    At least in Sweden the police had sabers until 1965. And they were official equipment, not just ceremonial. – liftarn Jul 11 '16 at 11:17

14 Answers 14


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".

  • 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
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    @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
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    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
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    Shashkas were used massively in Russian Civil War up to 1922. Because most early Soviet generals were cavalry commanders with that experience they kept a portion of Red Army mounted and armed with shashkas in addition to rifles up to the early days of WWII, when cavalry was proven obsolete. After that mounted guards armed with shashkas were used to escort GULAG prisoners between the camps and work sites well into 1940s, although this use does not qualify as "use in live battle" requested in the question. – Michael Oct 2 '13 at 16:53

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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    @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
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    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
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    Bernard Montgomery advanced with his 1897 Pattern drawn during a counteroffensive in the First World War. The actual sword he carried is exhibited in the Imperial War Museum, London. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Rincewind42 Oct 19 '11 at 14:02
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    If bayonets in the Falklands war is in scope, this action in Afghanistan is in scope. – Nathan Cooper Jan 7 '13 at 13:35
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    @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

Since British soldier Jack Churchill was still using a sword in WW2 (and getting the latest yet confirmed kill with a bow, also in WW2), this might just be the most recent major war where these were used.

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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.


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
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    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
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    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

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

I can't comment here yet, so I'll have to make this an answer despite its being broad, but I hope useful. If you're looking for the end of the sword "being used as a primary weapon by infantrymen or cavalrymen in Western warfare" then I think you have answered your own question: "the High Middle Ages (12th century)." Stretch that to 1300 or so.

One might wonder whether the sword was ever "primary." Until gunpowder, the best way to kill people (or shock veteran units into breaking) outside of really close combat (such as took place on castle walls) was always with pointy sticks---whether feathered or carried by men on foot or on horseback. The Romans used short swords and shields in close coordination with spears. The Normans used spears and long, blunt swords against infantry in mail armor; no horseman or footman used either one exclusively of the other. Until longer lances were developed, light cavalry used straight or curved swords against other lightly armored cavalry. Heavy cavalry used heavy lances on horseback and swords/axes on foot, and these forces were often decisive.

But when the Swiss pikemen emerged, heavy cavalry declined; when gunpowder weapons arrived, close combat on castle walls and anywhere else declined in military importance too. The sword as a primary military weapon was moribund at this point, though far from dead. Swords were still used as backup or personal defense, though other armor-penetrating weapons seem to have taken up some slack as armor continued to improve.

I think the question---as well as available information---is too imprecise to give a battle or a precise date. But 1300 is the usual date given for both the gunpowder revolution and the rise of the Swiss pikes. Heavy cavalry armor continued to improve, but heavy cavalry itself declined in importance from 1300 to 1500, when it was abandoned. From 1300 onward, swords slowly declined into essentially civilian weapons or military sidearms---or fetishized symbols of former power.

Dronz: Again, this is in answer form because I still can't comment. The zweihander certainly dates from post-1300 and may have been the last type of sword used as a primary weapon in a military formation (i.e., unit tactics) in Europe, aside from the occasional cavalry charge. But even this is dubious. Wikipedia has this to say about the zweihander:

The Zweihänder was allegedly used by the Doppelsöldner to break through formations of pikemen, especially Swiss pikemen, by either being swung to break the ends of the pikes themselves or to knock them aside and attack the pikemen directly. The veracity of this tradition is disputed, but at least as a legend, it appears to date to at least the 17th century.


These swords represent the final stage in the trend of increasing size that started in the 14th century. In its developed form, the Zweihänder has acquired the characteristics of a polearm rather than a sword. Consequently, it is not carried in a sheath but across the shoulder like a halberd.

By the second half of the 16th century, these swords had largely ceased to have a practical application, but they continued to see ceremonial or representative use well into the 17th century.

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    This seems like overstatement. Ask a German Landschnecht if his zweihander was primary or not. Also, consider the use of swords at Culloden in 1746, or later cavalry with sabres... – Dronz Aug 9 '15 at 18:26
  • Also, there certainly were always spearmen without swords throughout pre-gunpowder history. – Dronz Aug 9 '15 at 18:41
  • You read the question and nailed the answer. – Citizen Dec 29 '15 at 8:38
  • Hussars in the 19th century, although equipped with carbines or pistols, still used sabres in charges. – vsz Apr 9 '17 at 21:04

As observed elsewhere cutlasses remained in use as boarding weapons on warships until the mid 20th century at least. One documented (aleged) instance of their use was the capture of cruiser RN Pola by the destroyer HMS Jervis at the Battle of Matapan (March 1941):

From Clash of Titans by Walter J Boyne:

Within three minutes the Italians lost the cruisers Zara and Fiume and the destroyer Alfieri. Moments later, the destroyer Carducci was sunk, but the most bizarre moment of the night was yet to come.

The original mission of the newly sunk Italian ships was the protection of the damaged Pola, now drifting, guns trained in the evening fore-and-aft position. Captain Philip J. Mack, whose handling of his destroyer force had earlier displeased Cunningham immensely, now entered history by sending a boarding party from HMS Jervis, complete with cutlasses and bloodcurdling yells, to capture Pola. Instead of a ship -of -the -line sword fight, they found instead only 256 members of the original crew of 800, many of them drunk. They were taken prisoner and the Pola torpedoed.

Alleged is attached to this report as officially cutlasses were withdrawn from the ships of the Royal Navy in 1936. However in addition to the above incident we have the alleged use of cutlasses when HMS Cossack captured the Altmark in 1940, which is often described as the last use of the cutlass in anger by the RN.


Sabres were widely used in WWII, although I would not call them swords.

By Russia

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This is a cavalry charge by 2nd Ukrainian front, 1944 enter image description here

By Germany

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By Italy

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By Poland

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    Only the paintings show soldiers actually engaging the enemy with swords, and paintings can be fanciful. The photographs all show military units with swords, but not engaged with anyone. They could be ceremonial units or propaganda photographs. Could you provide some context for the photographs and citations? – Schwern Aug 11 '15 at 3:00
  • @Schwern there were a lot of cavalry units from all sides. How do u imagine use of cavalry without sabers? – Anixx Aug 11 '15 at 5:37
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    20th century "cavalry" was usually mobile infantry. Example, Polish cavalry. Instead of trucks or bicycles or walking, they rode horses. When it came time to fight, they got off their horses and fought like normal leg infantry. While the sword might be retained for ceremony, they used guns to fight. This gave countries that lacked a good automotive industry infantry with the cross-country mobility so critical in 20th century warfare. Very occasionally they would fight mounted. – Schwern Aug 11 '15 at 5:58
  • @Schwern following your own link: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Schoenfeld – Anixx Aug 11 '15 at 6:13
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    Yes, that's noted because a 20th century cavalry charge is so exceptional. Even in that instance, it's not mentioned whether they used swords or rifles, just that they performed a successful cavalry charge in 1945. When 20th century cavalry did fight mounted, they would typically do it with pistols and carbines, not with swords. – Schwern Aug 11 '15 at 6:32

Swords were issued as standard weapons of cavalry and officers in the first world war, which was when they saw their last viable use in early cavalry charges and later trench warfare. Swords were not widely used in the second world war, however many officers, especially British and Russian officers, considered swords to be vital weapons of rank and carried and used them in place of bayonets on the battlefield.

If you want to look to the middle east though swords are still regularly seen worn by warriors of both Islamic and European origin. Many Muslim tribes, especially in Afghanistan, consider swords to be marks of a warrior (and some others consider muskets to be warrior status weapons and still use them instead of assault rifles). There has also been a trend among US troops to adopt swords (though more commonly small axes) as status symbols which they use to satisfy superstitions in their own ranks, or to intimidate Islamic soldiers who see them.

You can also see swords still as standard weapons in many cultures. Some branches of the British army still take swords into war, for example the Gurkha's. There are also a few European countries which consider training in sword and horse to still be vital for cavalrymen, though they will go to war in armored vehicles and light tanks rather than on the backs of horses.

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    Welcome to History SE. While what you say is, no doubt, correct, this answer would be much improved if you could cite sources to support the assertions. – sempaiscuba Jul 22 '17 at 0:48

The last organized use of swords was probably by the Polish cavalry in September 1939 and possibly as late as March 1945.

Polish cavalry in 1939 were really mounted infantry. Instead of trucks or bicycles, they used horses for mobility. Fighting was intended to be done dismounted and with modern weaponry. However, they were still armed with a very fine sword for both ceremonial and combat purposes, and they were still trained to fight on the hoof.

Wikipedia states that "during the Nazi and Soviet Invasion of Poland of 1939 there were 16 confirmed cavalry charges in which the Polish units used the sabres against enemy soldiers". Unfortunately their citation is 404, but this related article has some citations for further reading.

Battle of Borujsko/Schoenfeld, March 1st 1945, featured what is likely the last cavalry charge. It was, again, done by Polish cavalry and, again, against German infantry. I don't have information about whether they used their sabres, or if they retained them in 1945. It's worth investigating.

It should be noted that the popular view of Polish cavalry charging German tanks has little support.


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.

  • 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 - against SE abuse 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

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
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    Cite? Superior answers like superior histories, include sources. – Mark C. Wallace May 9 '13 at 12:39
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    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
  • Atjeh war finished in 1904. – JRB Aug 27 '19 at 0:13

This question is hard to answer, as swords were never primary battlefield weapons. They were used as a backup or as a personal defense weapon. In the medieval period, the primary battlefield weapons were spears. Knights went into battle with a poleaxe or other equal as their primary, and had an arming sword as a backup. Plate armour made the sword obsolete on ancient battlefields long before weaponized gunpowder did. Not saying that swords weren't used at all, in war you will use whatever will keep you alive, but sadly, Hollywood and Video games have shone the sword in the wrong light. Hope that this info was taken in the spirit it was given, I know how dark the internet can be.

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    References are needed for non-trivial assertions, especially when they contradict familiar opinion and presumption. For one, various sword types were most certainly the primary weapon for all Napoleonic cavalry except designisted lancer regiments. – Pieter Geerkens Jul 30 '18 at 17:04
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    I concur with @PieterGeerkens. Sorry, but the assertion that swords were never primary battlefield weapons is simply not true. Another example: the gladius (short sword) of the late Roman Republic and most of the Empire. They used it after discarding their lances, as I remember. – Noldorin Jul 30 '18 at 17:48
  • Before my post gets deleted, I want to point out, that in HEMA, the practitioners use the training manuals from the period. And almost all sword techniques I am aware of (I am no expert) are designed for one on one combat ie: duels. On the battlefield men fought in formations, not in one to one for the most part. This is why the sword had been recorded as a personal defense weapon or as a backup weapon on the battlefield. I do not say that swords were not used in war. But they were hardly the first choice. – Barry Matthew Stoltz Aug 5 '18 at 13:55
  • As you said, it was used after losing the losing their primary weapon, just like the greek Hoplites who also used primarily a spear, but did indeed have a sword as a backup. – Barry Matthew Stoltz Aug 5 '18 at 14:01
  • lancer: English Noun (en-noun) (military) A cavalry soldier armed with a lance weapon Synonyms * uhlan External links * (pedialite) ---- – Barry Matthew Stoltz Aug 5 '18 at 14:03

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