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A Naval Officer’s Manual of the Sword

By Russell V. Tucker

"Draw me not without reason,
Sheath me not without honor"

The naval officer’s sword is more than decoration, or at times a nuisance in tight places. It is a time-honored badge of the rank, and a close quarters weapon. Its proper wearing and use is as much a part of the officer impression as any other part. This article will address the proper manual of arms for its wearing and use.

This will mainly address parade and other formations for which the naval officer is most apt to make use of his sword, with some attention to situations that can come about during the leading of landing parties. Safety is always primary to authenticity with a drawn sword. Likewise, this article makes no attempt to be comprehensive, and is from a collection of reference materials, such as may be found in Hardee’s, Casey’s and Scott’s manuals and other less common references. Many positions are decided from the sometimes incompatible manuals through period photographs of officers exercising the position.

We must start by hanging the scabbarded sword properly form the slings on the sword belt.

The novice always seems to hang the sword from the hook on the belt, but hangs it the same way it hangs from the straps - guard forward and drag to the rear. This gets in the way while walking, interferes with ladies dresses or other persons walking close by, hits the ground, is inconvenient when sitting down, and can bang on the steps or trip the wearer while going up or down ladders or stairs.

The hook hanging from the left side of the belt at the top of the front sword strap is to carry the sword while not drawn from the scabbard (all branches). There is not a reference in the Naval Regulations or in Hardee's concerning carrying or hanging officers' swords. However, period naval and marine pictures show the accepted manner.

The proper way to hang the sword when not in use is to seize the upper ring between the thumb and the fore finger of the left hand, back of the hand up, raising the scabbard, whilst turning the hilt toward the body, until it points to the rear; passing the ring over the hook attached to the waist-belt. It is obvious that elevating the sword and hanging it with the drag (point) forward was the desired result more than the guard to the rear. The left elbow can be slightly pressed against the body and forward of the properly hung sword guard while walking. This keeps the drag forward and resting slightly across the left leg and out of the way of feet and people in the rear. The left hand falls naturally on the scabbard to rotate the drag of the sword further up and forward out of the way when sitting down and going up and down stairs. See figures 1 through 3. This manner may be observed in period photos in The Image of War, Vols. I and III.

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There may be times just prior to or during an engagement in the field or on the deck that warrants hanging the sword opposite from above. Reversing the position at these times will allow for quicker and smoother drawing and the scabbard will hang at a better angle during the active time to follow.

When attaching (never sewn on) the straps on a sword belt, the front sword strap, and hook, should be in the middle of the left side or slightly forward of the center, but never to the rear of center as this will tend to get the drag of a hanging sword caught behind the left leg (and in front of the right leg).

However, just as much a theory behind hanging the sword "backwards" is that the grip is in a position for a rapid draw for an overhand slash with the right hand, just as the pistol is carried on the right side in a "backwards" frog, ready for draw by the left hand.

Position of the Sword Under Arms
This is the "Carry position," as seen in figure 4. Whenever the men under your command are under arms in the ranks, with muskets at any shoulder position, or with their weapons drawn on the field or deck, your sword should be drawn and held properly. This is simple common courtesy to your command and it was required by regulations: "Officers on all duties under arms are to have their swords drawn, without waiting for any words of command for that purpose" (US Regs 1861, No 336; CS Regs 1863, No. 323).

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The Carry position consists of the grip in the right hand, which will be supported against the right hip, the back of the blade against the shoulder (Hardee 1855/1861; Casey’s, Gilham’s (KSG), and confederate editions of Hardee’s are identical). The arm should be nearly extended; sword supported by the thumb and first two fingers, extended and placed on the grip in such a manner that in raising the sword to the salute, & c., the fingers can be introduced inside the guard, and firm grasp of the sword obtained without effort (Ellsworth 1861).

Note that the hand should not grasp the sword grip in a fist, but should support it in the manner of a musket held at Order Arms. The top of the grip should be held between the thumb and first two fingers, the guard resting on the top of the hand, the other fingers being used to support and balance the grip. There should be only a slight bend in the elbow, only enough to allow the hand to be placed at the side of the hip. The sword must never be sloped back over the shoulder, but should always be held with the blade perpendicular (Berriman 1861). It is plain sloppy, and the proper carry of the sword just like proper wear of the uniform goes with the position.

Present Arms (Salute)
In a pass in review tactic during a parade or upon meeting a ranking officer while marching at the carry position, and at the distance of six paces from the person(s) to be saluted, raise the sword perpendicularly, the point up, the flat of the blade opposite to the right eye, the guard at the height of the shoulder, the elbow supported on the body (Hardee 1855/1861; see figure 5). Note that the blade of the sword is to be perpendicular, not sloped outward, with the hand held close to the chin or chest. This position is called a poise, and as a final position is only used for salutes with the NCO sword of the Marines (US Regs 1861, No. 353).

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The officer continues by dropping the point of the sword by extending the arm, so that the right hand may be brought to the side of the right thigh, and remains in that position until the person to whom the salute is rendered shall have six paces (Hardee 1855/1861; see figure 6). The sword should point the right (not straight ahead,) with the nails to the front (KSG 1861, Morris 1865). Note that specific to doing this position during a parade, the officer should remain in this position as long as the men of his command are at Present Arms (Berriman 1861). This may be observed in period images showing sword presented in this manner in The Image of War, Vol. I, pages 86 and 381.

To recover, raise the sword smartly, and place the back of the blade against the right shoulder, returning to the position of the Carry (Hardee 1855/1861). The bringing the sword back to the first position of the salute before placing it back at the Carry was outdated by the 1860’s and is not appropriate to the WBTS era drill.

Order Arms
While in ranks, such as during colors formation and not marching, the order for order arms will be given. This many times is for Navy hands a formation without arms. Thus prior to the command "present arms," the order for officers to "Draw (pause, while you make ready to draw) swords (never sabers!)" will be given, and later the command "Officers, return (pause, while you position the tip of the sword at the opening of the scabbard) swords." When the ranks order arms, the officers will drop the blade of the sword by the right side, the point a little advanced, and about two inches from the ground (Scott 1861, and retained by Berriman, who directed also that the edge should be down, 1861, see figure 7).

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Parade Rest
The sword already drawn, drop the point of the sword so that it rests upon the right toe, or on the ground in front of the feet, with the edge toward the right.

Cross the hands in front of the body, left hand over right, right hand resting on the sword hilt (Ellsworth 1861, KSG 1861, see figure 8).

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The above notwithstanding, photos in The Image of War show officers at Parade Rest with the right foot back, like the men in the ranks, and the sword sloped across the front of the body, with the point near the left toe. This position is the most common in period images, and it was used for the figure shown here.

Other Shoulder Positions

Reverse Arms (as for funeral parades)
With the rising of the CSS Hunley soon, many naval reenactors will be part of the funeral parades proceeding the interments of the gallant history-making crew. Viewed around the world and to do honor to the impression for which you portray, this sword position must be done correctly.

Carry the sword with the blade under the right arm, edge upwards, hilt to the front (KSG 1861).

In Place Rest
From the Carry, move the right hand to the left and clasp it with the left hand, blade in the hollow of the right arm. From Order Arms, hold the sword at will so long as that is not sloped over the shoulder (Ellsworth 1861).

Rest, or Stack Arms
Return the sword to the scabbard (Ellsworth 1861).

Support Arms
Carry the sword with the blade diagonally across the body, supported by the left hand, which is held opposite the shoulder (Ellsworth 1861).

Right Shoulder Shift Arms
Carry the sword with the point downward, a little above the ground, the back of the blade to the left, the sword held easily by the right hand (Ellsworth 1861). Ellsworth describes these last two movements as being used on the march or on occasion of parades.

Double Quick Time
Take the grip so that the entire hand grasps the hilt, raise the hand to the height of the waist by bending the elbow slightly, and slant the sword across the front of the body, edge to the left and point near the left shoulder (KSG 1861). Steady the scabbard with the left hand (Upton 1874).

Route Step
While the men in the ranks are permitted to carry their arms at will, Ellsworth (1861) directed that the sword be carried behind the shoulder by the "sword knot," which is held by the right hand at the shoulder for route marches. Later, Upton (1874) directed that the sword be returned to the scabbard for the route marches, which may be the best practice for safety in the ranks.

There is no officer impression that can be done better than one done correctly.

Special thanks to long time reenactor Geoff Walden as consultant to this article, and to Captains Michael Zeigler and Charles James, two splendid CSMC officers from which he had the honor to learn the basic sword positions.

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