The Cutlass

A cutlass is a short, thick sabre or slashing sword, with a straight or slightly curved blade sharpened on the cutting edge, and a hilt often featuring a solid cupped or basket-shaped guard.

Best known as the sailor's weapon of choice, the naval side arm, likely because it was also robust enough to hack through heavy ropes, canvas, and wood. It was also short enough to use in relatively close quarters, such as during boarding actions, in the rigging, or below decks. Another advantage to the cutlass was its simplicity of use. The cutlass required less training than the rapier or small sword, and was more effective as a combat weapon than the full-sized sword. The cutlasses portrayed in films about pirates are usually historically incorrect, often 19th-century weapons that substitute for the backsword and falchion that were actually available to pirates in prior centuries.

The word cutlass, recorded in English since 1594, is probably derived from the Italian coltellaccio (pejorative form of coltello, 'knife'), the name of a short, broad-bladed sabre popular in Italy during the 16th century, via the French coutelas, or coutelace, a form of coutel, modern couteau, a knife, from Latin cultellus, diminutive of culter, a ploughshare, or cutting instrument. A soldier armed with it can be called coutillier.

Two variations appear in English: curtelace, where the r represents probably the l of the original Latin word, or is a further variant of the second variation; and curtelaxe, often spelled as two words, curtal axe, where the prefix curtal is confused with various English words derived from the Latin curtus such as curtan, curtal and curtail, which all mean shortened; the word thus wrongly derived was supposed to refer to some non-existent form of battle-axe. In every case the weapon to which these various forms apply is a broad cutting or slashing sword.

It was also used on land, particularly by cavalrymen such as the Mamelukes, since its curved blade made it useful for slashing combat. In time of peace the Ottoman state supplied no arms, and the janissaries on service in the capital were armed only with clubs; they were forbidden to carry any arm save a cutlass, the only exception being at the frontier-posts.

A cutlass is as often an agricultural implement and tool, as a weapon (cf. machete, to which the same comment applies), being used commonly in rain forest and sugar cane areas, such as the Caribbean and Central America. Woodsmen and soldiers in the 17th and 18th centuries used a similar short and broad backsword called hanger.

According to pirate myth, the cutlass was invented by the Caribbean buccaneers, and was originally a long knife made for cutting meat. As a historical fact, however, this remains dubious. It has been noted that the hey-day of corsairs and pirates was well over before the widespread adoption of the cutlass.

The last use of a cutlass in a boarding action by the British Royal Navy is recorded as being as late as 1941.

The cutlass remained an official weapon in the U.S. Navy stores until 1949, though seldom used in training after the early 1930s. The last new model of cutlass adopted by the U.S.Navy was the Model 1917. A cutlass is still carried by the RCPO of recruit divisions at U.S. Navy Recruit Training Command.


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