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Sabre versus Revolver

Discussion in 'Civil War Weapons and Ammunition' started by tmh10, May 18, 2012.

  1. tmh10

    tmh10 Major

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    Sabre versus Revolver: Mounted Combat in the American Civil War

    By Gervase Phillips

    On 1st April, 1865, in thick woodland near Maplesville, Alabama, two bodies of horsemen fought a short and bloody skirmish. The Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his immediate staff were outnumbered four to one by the Federal troopers who rode boldly at them, sabers drawn. Yet this hectic mêlée among the trees was dominated by the cracking reports of the Navy Colts carried by the Rebel troopers. Forrest suffered a glancing blow to the head from a saber cut, but shot his assailant from the saddle. Six of his entourage were also wounded, but, it was said, some thirty Union cavalrymen had been killed in the encounter, and a larger number still were wounded. The day belonged to the revolver.

    Indeed, for many civil war cavalrymen, the day of cold steel was altogether over. John S. Mosby recalled that ‘we had been furnished with sabers … but the only real use I ever heard of their being put to was to hold a piece of meat over a fire. I dragged one through the first year of war, but when I became commander I discarded it.’ The Canadian colonel George T. Denison, who talked at length with many veterans of the conflict, criticized ‘old-fashioned cavalry officers’ and urged ‘that cavalry intended for the battlefield’ should henceforth ‘rely greatly upon the revolver.’ It is, therefore, surprising to find another veteran trooper who expressed a very different opinion. Captain Frederick Whittaker, of the 6th New York Cavalry, was adamant that he ‘never remembered an instant in which the saber charge, resolutely pushed, failed to drive the pistols.’ Whittaker cannot simply be dismissed as a blimpish reactionary.

    A thorough survey of cavalry combat during the war confirms many instances of the triumph of saber over revolver. On 17th May 1863, in a skirmish at Bradyville Pike, Tennessee, two companies of Federal Tennessee cavalry under Major- General John Palmer charged 80 troopers of the 3rd Georgia Cavalry: ‘we came on them under a quick fire, but they broke when we got within 100 yards. We pursued them a mile, and have 18 prisoners … The enemy, after they reached the wood, rallied and fought well, but they had no sabers, and only inflicted a few slight wounds.’ After the battle of Winchester, 19th September 1864, Brigadier-General George Armstrong Custer recalled that ‘the enemy relied wholly upon the carbine and the pistol; my men preferred the saber. A short but costly struggle ensued, which resulted in the repulse of the enemy.’ For the historian of cavalry, this presents something of a puzzle. It is difficult to understand why, in one combat, the revolver should have so completely bested the saber, and yet, on another occasion, the saber proved the better weapon.

    The contest between the weapons was, of course, never quite that straightforward. Each encounter was shaped by a host of factors: the training and experience of the rival units; the condition of their mounts; the boldness of their leadership and the tactical circumstances in which they found themselves, from the sudden ambush of small patrols to the clash of whole brigades in set-piece engagements. A consideration of the characteristics of the rival weapons in combat leads to the conclusion that both weapons were still of considerable value; the trick was to know when to trust to fire, and when to trust to steel. There was, however, a particularly serious obstacle to the effective use of the saber during the war: the lack of training in its use.
    http://sipseystreetirregulars.blogspot.com/2010/07/of-civil-war-sabers-and-cavalry-tactics.html

    "Well, there ain't no GOOD way to charge an artillery battery." -- Nathan Bedford Forrest.
     

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  3. truthckr

    truthckr First Sergeant

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    Reminds me of the saying about "bringing a knife to a gun fight." Forrest used both pistols (preferred) and his sabre, which he sharpened on both sides.
     
  4. dvrmte

    dvrmte Major

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    IIRC, some of Mosby's men carried as many as six revolvers.
     
  5. ole

    ole Brev. Brig. Gen'l Retired Moderator

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    The saber and the bayonet were psychological weapons. You can't see a ball coming, so it is possible to take your chances, but pointy things you can see coming, thereby changing the resolve to stand and fight.
     
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  6. kholland

    kholland Brigadier General Moderator Trivia Game Winner Forum Host

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    I can definitely see the advantage of pistol over the saber. But as dvrmte mentioned men having additional pistols but unless you had one, you were mincemeat at close quarters for guys not taken out by bullets. So you had better make each shot count.
     
  7. Dugger

    Dugger Banned

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    Roger. Bunker Hill....once the Brits got over the top of the ramparts and brought the bayonet to bear (in which they were well trained) the colonials broke and boggied. Scary. Pointy thing. Low on ammo by then also.
     
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  8. tmh10

    tmh10 Major

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    Once you have fired all the rounds in your revolver all you have is a short club. I don't see reloading very fast bouncing around on a horse in the heat of battle, so I would make it a point to learn how to use the sabre.
     
  9. Dugger

    Dugger Banned

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    What's reloading? Don't you watch Hollywood movies? :nerd:
     
  10. tmh10

    tmh10 Major

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    Ha, how true. I was watching an old western the other day and the Duke must have got 12 shots off with his six shooter.:bounce:
     
  11. leftyhunter

    leftyhunter First Sergeant

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    Its interesting to note that in Mo and Ark CSA partisan units did not use edged weapons but instead used has many revolvers has they could could get their hands on plus they used shotguns and carbines. Has far has I can tell counter insurgency units such has the 1st Ark USV and 2nd Colo did not use edged weapons. I can see that in large scale cavalry fights were both sides are intermixed and at very short range an edged weapon is the best way to go.

    Leftyhunter
     
  12. ole

    ole Brev. Brig. Gen'l Retired Moderator

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    Sabers are best used in country that isn't wooded and covered with rocks. If a troop can't keep formation in broken country, the saber loses its menacing aspect. Farnsworth anyone?
     
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  13. bama46

    bama46 Captain

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    Terry's Texas rangers were armed with 2 pistols and one shotgun... they seemed to do all right!
     
  14. Red Harvest

    Red Harvest 2nd Lieutenant Trivia Game Winner

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    Other than sounding impressive and giving the sabre owner a sense of having an improved weapon, I have to wonder if this sharpening of the back edge served any useful purpose. A cavalry sabre is shaped and curved as it is for a reason. Can't see that sharpening the back edge would do anything other than weaken the blade.
     
  15. Red Harvest

    Red Harvest 2nd Lieutenant Trivia Game Winner

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    Guerrillas fought close quarters typically, and in terrain with cover. They weren't going to engage in prolonged stand up fights against determined enemies, but instead in short decisive actions...and they hoped with a lopsided (if temporary) advantage. It's the nature of guerrilla warfare, and that makes revolvers preferred weapons.
     
  16. Dugger

    Dugger Banned

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    Compromise!!! Hows about a couple of Colts and or Remingtons AND a sabre. Best of both worlds. I got an Ames made Dragoon sabre ( the wristbreaker?) stamped 1852... dam vicious thing IF you could swing it. They were not all that sharpened....they were to break bones...like yer neck....yer arm...yer thigh. Dam thing is heavy. There is a slight dent in the bronze hilt where some Yankee tried to bust it over JEB' head...would I lie?:nah disagree: That why it worth $100,000..yes. Ok....I solved this thread. Just carry both! Better...model 1860 sabre (right?) replaced that big azz dragoon thing I got...for some. I have read some big som...guns liked the old dragoon and carried it all thru the war. Needed....sabre erxperts. I know they here.
     
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  17. bama46

    bama46 Captain

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    a cavalry saber is a thrusting, not a slashing weapon. The "wristbreaker' was so named because fo the stresses placed on the wrist when removin it from a body while on a horse at full gallop. The curve is to help in the removal of the blade, not to slash. .. Slashes produce wounds, stabbings produce death
     
  18. Dugger

    Dugger Banned

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    Very commedable post. Very commedable. Tks.
     
  19. tmh10

    tmh10 Major

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    I only posted part of the article. Since there is some interest I will post more of it.

    In 1861, there was little thought given to attempting to raise volunteer mounted forces comparable to regular cavalry. Colonel Francis Lippitt explained this hesitancy. Since it took three years to train such cavalry properly, it seemed that the undoubted expense of raising such units would be wasted. The war would be over, it was assumed, before they could be deployed. Nor was the ‘rugged, mountainous or densely wooded’ countryside over which much of the fighting was likely to take place well suited to conventional cavalry. The preference, therefore, was to raise light cavalry, ‘of a kind requiring comparatively but little time and training,’ to perform the tasks of outpost duties, patrols, escorts, foraging parties, reconnaissance and providing the advance, rear and flank guards to marching armies. They were not, however, generally trained to deliver charges on the battlefield. Nor was it possible at the beginning of the war to equip all troopers with sabers.

    In June 1861, Jubal Early, then a colonel in Lynchburg, Virginia, complained ‘there is no company of [Confederate] cavalry here fully armed. Two companies have doublebarrelled shotguns but no sabers. There are two companies tolerably well drilled, with forty or fifty sabers each…’ Federal troopers were often no better off. The 2nd Illinois Cavalry, in Paducah, Kentucky, later that year, was short of sabers, pistols and carbines and was thus, ‘not adequate to attempt the service of scouting this part of the country…’ Lances, made by local blacksmiths and carpenters, were issued to some Union cavalry regiments around Washington in January 1862, until sabers could be provided. (The 6th Pennsylvania, ‘Rush’s Lancers,’ was an exception; the lance was their weapon of choice until early 1863.

    In the far west, two companies of the Rebel 5th Texas Cavalry carried lances and a company of Federal Native California Cavalry was armed with the lance as late as October 1864). For many Civil War troopers, the saber was an unfamiliar weapon; even if they were issued one they were rarely fully trained in its use. This was readily apparent in the way the weapon was handled in the field. The original regulation saber issued to Federal troopers was a rather clumsy, long, heavy sword, of a Prussian pattern. This was later replaced by a lighter, curved saber, a more suitable weapon for light cavalry but still difficult to master.

    In combat, officers who had been taught to fence used the point of the blade to deadly effect, but enlisted men tended to hack and slash at the head or upper body, often wounding the enemy but without killing or incapacitating him. After colliding with Stuart’s cavalry at Boonesborough, 8th July 1863, Colonel Preston, 1st Vermont Cavalry, thus reported ‘the charge was spiritedly made and sabers freely used, as the heads of my men will attest.’ In November, 1861, Joseph Hooker, then a divisional commander, said this of his cavalry, ‘with good arms and a little training [they] might be of great service…’ In the meantime though, ‘I felt apprehensive in dispatching them in troops beyond supporting distance, with no arms of any account but their sabers, and they are not skilled in the use of those.’ For many, it was this simple lack of training that accounted for any failure by saber-armed troopers. Whittaker went so far as to claim that ‘in all instances during the war in which the saber proved ineffective it may be safely asserted that it was owing to two things – want of fencing practice and blunt sabers.’

    Arthur Freemantle, a British officer who spent three months in the Southern States, April-June 1863, described cavalry combats as ‘miserable affairs.’ He noted how rival bodies of troopers approached each other to within forty yards and then ‘at the very moment when a dash is necessary, the sword alone should be used, they hesitate, halt and commence a desultory fire with carbines and revolvers.’ Confederate troopers he noted, ‘wear swords but seem to have little idea of using them – they hanker after their carbines and revolvers…’ Yet, while recognising that lack of training in swordsmanship was an inhibiting factor in the combat effectiveness of the saber, we should be wary of accepting this explanation wholesale. Freemantle was not in the country long enough to appreciate fully how skilled the rival cavalries became. The ‘miserable’ skirmishes that he witnessed in June 1863 took place during a wearying series of cavalry engagements in northern Virginia, when both sides were trying to preserve the strength of their horses.

    This brings us to another crucial factor in the saber versus revolver equation: the condition of the mounts. On campaign troopers struggled to care for their over-burdened, under-fed and exhausted mounts; many were, thus, in generally poor condition, unfit for shock action. Additionally, the demand for horses, and the activities of some unscrupulous purchasers, led to many unsuitable animals being issued to regiments. The Union Quarter-Master General, M.C. Meigs received a report in mid-1863 that described one shipment of 100 horses from New York: only 48 were fit for service, the rest were diseased, too young or simply, ‘quite used up.’ In one instance, horses were confined to railroad cars for fifty hours, unfed and unwatered. Weak, starving and thirsty, they were then issued for immediate service to a regiment in the field. Such a poorly-mounted regiment could be quickly reduced to a pathetic spectacle.

    Chaplain Henry Pyne, 1st New Jersey Cavalry, recalled the state of his regiment after seven days campaigning in the Shenandoah Valley in late May 1862: ‘with increasing frequency men could be seen to dismount and attempt to lead forward their enfeebled animals, which, with drooping heads, lacklustre eyes, and trembling knees could scarcely support the weight of the saddles and equipments.’ The mortality rate was horrific. Louis Philippe, the Comte de Paris, aide-de-campe to McClellan, estimated that in the opening twelve months of the war ‘more than one regiment used up three horses to every man’ and that ‘it was only through the severest discipline that troopers were taught at last to take care of their horses.’

    Confederate troopers initially faired better than Federals, for they supplied their own horses. However, once the South had lost control of the horse breeding regions of Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and trans-Allegheny Virginia, procuring remounts and draft animals became one the Confederacy’s most pressing military problems. Tactically it led the individual trooper to become warier of taking risks in battle. An 1864 report on the cavalry of the Army of the Tennessee noted ‘that the soldier will invariably take so much care of his horse as to feel at least disinclined to risk it in battle.’ In the east, Lieutenant-Colonel W. W. Blackford lamented that ‘the most dashing trooper was the one whose horse was the most apt to be shot, and when this man was unable to remount himself he had to go to the infantry service… Such a penalty for gallantry was terribly demoralizing.’

    In the worst cases, regiments that could no longer procure suitably large, fast and strong mounts ceased to operate as cavalry but became de facto mounted infantry. Heros von Borcke, the Prussian adventurer who served the Confederacy, noted that the quality of horses had so declined by 1863 that ‘one was obliged by this fact to have greater bodies of cavalrymen used as dismounted sharpshooters.’ The generally poor condition of Civil War mounts favored the revolver over the saber in close combat. The cavalryman relying on edged weapons needed his mount to be nimble, fast and strong for he dueled as much with his horse as he did with his blade. When firing a revolver from the saddle, the condition of the horse was far less important.
     
  20. Red Harvest

    Red Harvest 2nd Lieutenant Trivia Game Winner

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    The cavalry sabres of the ACW were cut and thrust weapons. The 1862 Cavalry Tactics manual illustrates that. It wasn't until the 20th century that they finally went to a proper thrusting sword. From what I can gather the thrust is preferred for the charge, but in the following combat slashing is more practical.
     
  21. Jayboss1

    Jayboss1 Private

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    I have always read that Calvary in the Civil War was primarily used as a mobile infantry unit when it came to a prolonged engagement. Obviously these men were the scouts of the armies main body. But in pitched battles they used their horses to move quickly to areas needed by the command. And armed with their carbines and revolvers were able to supply some quick firepower even for a small unit. I know Calvary engagements in the saddle happened, like Brandy Station for example, or Mine Creek. But I think men armed with sabers dueling and fencing it out on horseback may have been a more 1700s thing. Before the minie ball, and telescopic sharpshooters. Not a good place to be up 8 feet on a horse, saber or pistol.
     
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