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Growing up I heard it was so if need be you could swing them as a weapon at the end of the belt. I even heard soldiers would melt bullets to add more lead to their buckle to make it a better weapon.

A weight on a short cord, called a Slung Shot was a familiar weapon in the US at the time. Abraham Lincoln's most famous trial was defending a man against a charge of murdering another with a slungshot.

To clarify: the idea was not that the Cavalry, at the start of a battle, would fling aside their guns and swords, strip off their belts and charge in swinging belts over their heads. It was that Cavalry and Infantry both can find themselves fighting hand to hand with ammunition gone, rifle stock or sword shattered, and no bayonet in sight---and no longer having a live horse. There was a very common idea among draft age men in the Vietnam war era that in hand to hand combat you will use anything that would hurt if it hit someone. And I can tell you that getting hit in the head with a fast moving lead weighted US belt buckle would hurt--though I do not know if it ever actually was a practical battle field last resort.

I have changed the title to reflect the fact that these were not only Cavalry equipment. To judge by pictures on line today they were not even primarily Cavalry. You see them far more often on Infantry.

@AllInOne asked for links showing they were filled with lead. A Google search of

cavalry plate "filled with lead"

will show it is common knowledge. Dealers routinely say things like

The reverse has 100% of the lead fill with both arrow hooks and tongue

to show the item is in good condition and to argue for authenticity. This comes from Military Accoutrements.

But in case you only trust Congressional documents from the era you can see

sword belt plates (brass, filled with lead)

Listed in the Kansas Veteran Association and many similar inventories.

The discussion at Reenactor's Forum and FC Sutler convinces me that @user2448131 is right. The lead was was a quick cheap way to hold the attachment hooks on. It is not for strength: thick sheet brass is plenty strong for a belt buckle let alone a box plate, and lead is not strong.

As to whether soldiers ever did swing it as a weapon -- or thought they might do that -- I'll wait for historic evidence or at least someone who knows what hand to hand fighting is.

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    This would be a better question if you could perhaps link to something that indicates that belt buckles are indeed filled with lead. – AllInOne Oct 24 '16 at 20:58
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    Also, many soldiers would carry bayonets and I would imagine those would be a bit more useful in most ad-hoc duels. Stabby stabby! – Robert Columbia Oct 25 '16 at 1:48
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    I think the edit re: Mississippi oval belt plate is probably correct. A check around these sites shows that these are generally stamped brass plate with a lead fill. Also the similarly shaped cartridge box plates are also lead-filled - and they are unlikely to be used as weapons. I think it was an economy measure as lead filled stamped brass plate would be cheaper than casting solid brass. – Steve Bird Oct 25 '16 at 8:24
  • I got an answer from C&C Sutlery and edited it into my answer. – Schwern Oct 28 '16 at 0:12
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Growing up I heard it was so if need be you could swing them as a weapon at the end of the belt.

The idea that this was done deliberately, by the manufacturer, so the buckle could be used as an improvised weapon seems a bit absurd once you look into it.

Since the belt went outside a soldier's jacket, I guess the idea is they'll ride around swinging it like flail? But as you can see, that belt is holding on a bunch of other stuff, like your cartridge case and maybe a sword, knife, and pistol. Do you take all that stuff off, first? If you have a sword, knife, and pistol on your belt, why are you messing around swinging your belt buckle?

In addition to their carbine (which typically didn't have a bayonet), US Cavalry were issued a pistol and saber. If, somehow, they lost all that their 500 kg horse is an effective weapon; it can knock over and trample people. US infantry would have their bayonet, the butt of their rifle, probably another knife, possibly a personal pistol, possibly brass (or wood) knuckles.

If you got really desperate, there's any number of other heavy and functional bits of kit you could bludgeon someone with or make into a weapon in your very copious downtime. Pulling from WWI improvised melee weapons we have the trench club and french nail. InRangeTV did a good piece on hand weapons of WWI.


19th century western buckles were not like we see today. C&C Sutlery describes its buckles...

Stamped sheet brass, lead filled with brass "paws" embedded in the lead for attaching to the belt, per the original design.

(Sorry, I can't find a legally reusable image, go to their site)

Stamping the buckle out of a brass plate was simpler and cheaper than casting. But what about the "paws" that stick out the back? You could weld them, with lead, and plenty did. But mid-19th century welding wasn't very good. If you wanted a stronger buckle, fill it with lead.

I emailed C&C Sutlery for a definitive answer and they confirmed this.

They cast the front plate out of the belt buckles of brass. The buckles have a little piece of brass with 2 prongs and a hook that they would set on the inside of the plate and pour lead over the top of it to hold it in place. That is why they are lead filled.

  • You get the metallurgy right and show it answers the question. But your vision of combat seems more tied to thrilling movie scenes than the reality of daylong battles. – Colin McLarty Oct 28 '16 at 13:19
  • @ColinMcLarty I'm really not sure what you're referring to. – Schwern Oct 28 '16 at 17:22
  • I mean I agree that if "you have a sword, knife, and pistol on your belt," let alone a still live horse, you won't mess around with the belt. But if you do not see how a soldier can lose those things then you are not thinking vividly. And if you think Civil War soldiers also had "any number of other heavy and functional bits of kit" with them then I'd like to know examples that don't come from WW I. Whether they used that lump of lead at the end of a belt -- once scabbard and pistol and ammo box were all empty--I don't know. But I'd bet they thought about it. – Colin McLarty Oct 28 '16 at 20:56
  • @ColinMcLarty I'm answering the idea that the buckle was deliberately manufactured as a backup melee weapon, not whether a soldier ever used it as one. A soldier has any number of better backup weapons available than to lug around a lump of lead that's very slow to bring into readiness and awkward to use in a tight melee situation. I brought in the WWI improvised melee weapons to show what soldiers did come up with, albeit in a different war, and you don't see flails. Has a soldier ever clobbered someone with their belt buckle? Maybe, but I've never heard of it, and this is History.SE. – Schwern Oct 28 '16 at 23:11
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    Colin, if you've been disarmed on a battlefield and cannot find a better weapon than your belt buckle... – Rob Crawford Jul 24 '17 at 20:08

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