A Quick Explanation Of Cutlasses

Key Point: Cutlasses were a type of sword used in naval warfare during the Age of Sail. They were made from steel and were used for close-quarters combat.

What are cutlasses? This article aims to answer just that. What are cutlasses, how were they used and how effective were they really in the Age of Sail? So, by the time you finish this article, you will know what there is to know about this unique piece of naval weaponry.

Before we continue a quick explanation of what cutlasses are. So … What are cutlasses?

Cutlasses were a type of sword used in naval warfare during the age of sail. They have a short, curved blade with a single cutting edge and are typically made of high-carbon steel. Cutlasses were designed for close-quarters combat and were often used by sailors for boarding and repelling boarders, as well as for cutting through ropes and other materials on deck.

That was the short explanation. Let’s go into a little more detail, right now. Starting with the origin of cutlasses.

Origin Of Cutlasses

The name cutlass comes from the french word coutelass meaning “large knife”.

The exact origin of the cutlass is not quite clear. Although historians can point to a few weapons before the cutlass that likely influenced the cutlass design.

The first of these predecessor weapons was the “falchion”. That was the type of weapon used in Medieval Europe. It was a curved lightweight sword used for cutting and hacking. Not really for stabbing.

That was the first possible influence. What’s the second one then? The other one is the curved sabers used by the Turks and other eastern cultures. The Turks often raided European merchants in the Mediterranean and so did the North African kingdoms that were loyal to the Turks. So, it is very likely that the Europeans were exposed to Eastern weaponry.

All in all, the cutlass was a popular weapon for sailors during the so-called “Age of Sail” which lasted from the 16th to the mid-19th century. Now, before we take a look at why it was this popular and how these sailors used it, let’s examine the dimensions of the average cutlass.

Dimension Of A Cutlass Sword

Cutlasses typically had a blade length between 24 and 36 inches. While the blade was slightly curved, with a single cutting edge and a sharp point. This made it ideal for close-quarters combat. Given how the cutlass was used throughout the centuries there were obviously some variations in size.

The Design

The handle of a cutlass was typically made of wood. And was designed to fit comfortably in one’s hand. Some cutlasses had a basket hilt. Whose purpose was to provide additional protection for the user’s hand. Overall, the design of the cutlass was intended to be lightweight and easy to wield, making it ideal for use onboard ships.

That was how it looked like. Let’s examine how it was used.

How The Cutlass Was Used

The cutlass was used in 2 main ways on ships. As a tool and as a weapon. Let me explain. As a tool, the cutlass was used to open barrels on ships and cut through ropes on ships when the need arose. It was an awesome hacking and slashing tool.

As a weapon, the cutlass was sued either as a boarding weapon or a weapon to repel those that wanted to board your ships. As you well know a popular tactic during the age of sail was to try and board an enemy ship in order to capture it. In order to do that you needed a few things, chief among them was an effective tool such as the cutlass.

With it, sailors attacked guys on the opposing ship, while in another context they defended their ship from attackers by going at them with the cutlass. It was an effective close-quarter naval weapon. Hence, why it stuck around for centuries.

But given its effectiveness, you have to ask yourself … why did it stop being used? Let’s find out.

Why Did The Cutlass Stop Being Used?

In short. Improvements in gun technology made the cutlass obsolete. Here, let me explain. As gun technology evolved, people were able to manufacture better firearms. As you might imagine, what good is a sword to you when a guy can shoot you 5 times before you get within reach? It makes little sense.

And on top of that. Advancements in gun technology meant that ships were able to fire at each other from greater and greater distances. This made boarding an enemy ship a rarer occurrence.

So, that is the reason why, despite being an effective weapon for centuries cutlasses stopped being used. The world moved on and made boarding enemy ships less effective.

In Conclusion

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you learned a thing or two. And if you wish to continue learning about naval weapons from history I suggest taking a look at my article on turtle ships, right here. It’s a wonderful piece of naval weaponry also used during the Age of Sail. Just halfway across the world.

Or go here, for an alternative article. This one covers the carronades and how these cannons were used in naval battles.

Take care!

Sources: Naval Edged Weapons: In the Age of Fighting Sail 1775-1865