Jul 7, 2014

Weapons & Warriors: The Cutlass of the Europeans

Art by TL Jeffcoat

The most famous sword used by pirates in the 1600’s and 1700’s is often rumored to have been invented by pirates, but my research turns that out to be an unproven legend. The Cutlass has been a common tool for sailors for centuries. Its blade is strong enough to cut heavy ropes and canvas, and small enough to be used in close quarters combat. The blade was short enough to easily avoid getting entangled in various riggings found on a sailing vessel while fighting off a boarding party, or boarding another vessel.

The blade is broad, flat, curved, and about 2 feet in length (approximately 0.61 meters). Only the outside of the curved blade is sharpened, and the handle is usually protected by a hand guard of some kind, either a cup shaped piece of elaborately designed metal, or a simple loop. This gives the Cutlass an additional technique with the backhand or jab using the pommel or guard to strike an opponent that is too close to slash with the blade. The hand guard is also useful in protecting the sailor from losing fingers when a blade strikes the handle.

The Cutlass did not require extensive training like many other swords, which is another reason for its popularity among pirates, who spent much of their time sailing. Despite what they show in Hollywood, pirates may have drank a lot, but they did not have loads of free time to train with swords, and when they did have spare time, it was spent looking for various pleasurable events. The thick blade was also strong enough to cut bone, so along with it’s easy to carry size the Cutlass was a very effective weapon. Another use for it was as a torture or interrogation device where the prisoner was slapped repeatedly with the flat side of the blade. More than likely the edge would draw some blood, but nothing fatal. The slapping alone would cause bruising and swelling, and most common people would eventually cave in to the questioner in a short amount of time.

There’s no specific origin for the Cutlass in any history book that I’ve found, but the name is a derivative of the French word, Coutelas, which is a derivative of an Italian word, Coltellaccio, which means Large Knife. The Cutlass is related to the Machete and was often used in the same manner as a Machete in the Caribbean islands. The Cutlass was a common sailor weapon throughout the European and Mediterranean Seas for more than 300 years.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of Weapons and Warriors, click here to view the entire catalog of weapons and cultures. Thank you.

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