A cutlass drill on HMS Wolverine, 1882
|Type||Sword (short sabre, single-edged)|
|Place of origin||Europe|
|In service||17th, 18th, and 19th century|
|Used by||sailors, pirates, and privateers|
A cutlass is a short, broad 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. It was a common naval weapon during the early Age of Sail.
The word cutlass developed from a 17th-century English variation of coutelas, a 16th-century French word for a machete-like blade (the modern French for "knife", in general, is "couteau"; the word was often spelled "cuttoe" in 17th and 18th century English). The French word is itself a corruption of the Italian coltellaccio or cortelazo, meaning "large knife", a short, broad-bladed sabre popular in Italy during the 16th century The word comes from coltello, "knife", derived ultimately from Latin cultellus meaning "small knife."
The cutlass is a 17th-century descendant of the edged short sword exemplified by the medieval falchion.
Woodsmen and soldiers in the 17th and 18th centuries used a similar short and broad backsword called a hanger, or in German a messer, meaning "knife". Often occurring with the full tang (ie, slab tang) more typical of daggers than swords in Europe, these blades may ultimately derive through the falchion (facon, falcon) from the seax.
Although also used on land, the cutlass is best known as the sailor's weapon of choice. A naval side-arm, its popularity was likely because it was not only robust enough to hack through heavy ropes, canvas, and wood, but 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. Employing it effectively required less training than that required to master a rapier or small sword, and it was more effective as a close-combat weapon than a full-sized sword would be on a cramped ship.
Cutlasses are famous for being used by pirates, although there is no reason to believe that Caribbean buccaneers invented them, as has occasionally been claimed. However, the subsequent use of cutlasses by pirates is well documented in contemporary sources, notably by the pirate crews of William Fly, William Kidd, and Stede Bonnet. French historian Alexandre Exquemelin reports the buccaneer François l'Ollonais using a cutlass as early as 1667. Pirates used these weapons for intimidation as much as for combat, often needing no more than to grip their hilts to induce a crew to surrender, or beating captives with the flat of the blade to force their compliance or responsiveness to interrogation.
Owing to its versatility, the cutlass was as often an agricultural implement and tool as it was as a weapon (cf. machete, to which the same comment applies) that was used commonly in rain forest and sugarcane areas, such as the Caribbean and Central America. In their most simplified form they are held to have become the machete of the Caribbean.
A cutlass drill on HMS Wolverine, 1882
In 1936 the British Royal Navy announced that from then on cutlasses would be carried only for ceremonial duties and not used in landing parties. The last recorded use of cutlasses by the Royal Navy is often said to be on 16 February 1940 during the boarding action known as the Altmark Incident. However, this is disbelieved by the majority of the HMS Cossack Association (Cossack was the ship that boarded Altmark) and the authors of British Naval Swords and Swordsmanship. The authors point to another claim, a boarding by HMS Armada in 1952, but disbelieve this one too. In their view, the last use of cutlasses by the Royal Navy was by a shore party in China in 1900. Cutlasses continue to be worn in the Royal Navy by a Chief Petty Officer escorting the White Ensign and by Senior or Leading Ratings in an escort at a court martial.
The cutlass remained an official weapon in United States 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; although cutlasses made during World War II were called the Model 1941, they were only a slightly modified variant of the Model 1917. A United States Marine Corps engineer NCO is reported to have killed an enemy with a Model 1941 cutlass at Inchon during the Korean War. A cutlass is still carried by the recruit designated as the Recruit Chief Petty Officer for each training company unit of recruits while at the US Navy Recruit Training Command. In a message released 31 March 2010, the US Navy approved optional wear of a ceremonial cutlass as part of the Chief Petty Officer dress uniform, pending final design approval. That approval came in January 2011, and the cutlass was made available for ceremonial wear by Chief Petty Officers in August of that year.
According to legend, buccaneers invented the cutlass, but this may not be factual. It is said to have evolved from the long knives used by the early buccaneers to butcher their meat.
But as soon as they came up the shrouds, they clapped all hands to their cutlasses. Then I saw we were taken...
They immediately drew their weapons and, after beating us up severely with their cutlasses, drove us below.
[N]ine or ten men of a most ferocious aspect armed with muskets, knives, and cutlasses . . .ordered Captain Cowper, Mr. Lumsden, the ship's carpenter, and myself to go on board the pirate, hastening our departure by repeated blows with the flat part of their cutlasses over our backs.
[T]he man who gave the order commenced beating me severely with the broad side of his cutlass.