The cutlass was a common naval weapon used by sailors, pirates, and marines alike during the Age of Sail. It was a reliable weapon for the man out at sea, but it also saw extensive use on land as an agricultural tool. In the Caribbean region, it saw the most extensive use. Due to its significance, the cutlass is still used in some military dress uniforms to this day.
Design and Use
The cutlass was most likely adapted from the medieval falchion. Swords were not always regulation patterns until late in their use throughout human history, but a cutlass was generally a short, broad sword with either a straight or slightly curved edge. Most were sharpened only on one edge, although some may have had a sharpened false edge. Cutlasses were known for having a lot of hand protection with either a solid cupped hilt or a full basket hilt. Also, cutlasses tended to be made entirely out of metal rather than with wooden hilts, as was common with swords at the time. The all-metal construction made them better for service out at sea where wooden hilts would suffer.
The cutlass was known for requiring less training to use than other swords commonly in use at the time. Due to its small size with average blades of around 30 inches or so, it was also easier to use in tight quarters and to move around on a ship with. Larger sabers, backswords, and rapiers which were more commonly used on land at the time would be difficult to use and carry for someone employed on a ship. The cutlass was an excellent weapon for naval service and saw extensive use in boarding actions. In fact, the cutlass was such an effective naval weapon, it remained in use by sailors and marines into the 20th Century. The cutlass made an excellent chopping and slashing weapon with its broad blade, and it could perform thrusts if needed. Its small size also made it ideal to use in combination with a pistol in the other hand.
Legacy of the Cutlass
As the cutlass evolved out of the medieval falchion – a weapon popular for its utility as a tool outside of combat – so too did the cutlass eventually evolve into the machete. The blade continued to be used as an agricultural/utility blade by many peoples around the world, gradually seeing the hand protection removed. A modern machete is essentially a cutlass without a guard. Also, some machetes have even smaller blades today, as a 30-inch blade is not needed for utility purposes. The cutlass in its original form remains in use in some U.S. military dress uniforms.
Today, the cutlass is often seen as synonymous with pirates from the Age of Sail. Indeed, it was famous pirates such as William Kidd and Stede Bonnet who made prolific use of the weapon during that time. As the perfect weapon for a warrior out at sea during the time of early firearms, many cutlasses saw use in navies and private flotillas across the globe.
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