French navy cutlass of the 19th Century
French navy cutlass of the 19th Century

A cutlass is a short thick cutting sword, or a gross sabre, with a straight or slightly curved blade sharpened on the cutting edge, and often with a solid basket-shaped guard.


The word cutlass, recorded in English since 1594, is probably derived from the Italian coltellaccio (pejorative form of coltello, 'knife'), the name of a short, broad-bladed sabre popular in Italy during the 16th century, via the French coutelas, or coutelace, a form of coutel, modern couteau, a knife, from Latin cultellus, diminutive of culter, a ploughshare, or cutting instrument. A soldier armed with it can be called coutillier.
Two variations appear in English: curtelace, where the r represents probably the l of the original Latin word, or is a further variant of the second variation; and curtelaxe, often spelled as two words, curtal axe, where the prefix curtal is confused with various English words derived from the Latin curtus such as curtan, curtal and curtail, which all mean shortened; the word thus wrongly derived was supposed to refer to some non-existent form of battle-axe. In every case the weapon to which these various forms apply is a broad cutting or slashing sword.

History and use

Cutlasses aboard the frigate Grand Turk
Cutlasses aboard the frigate Grand Turk

Best known as the sailor's weapon of choice, the naval side-arm, likely because it was also robust enough to hack through heavy ropes, canvas and wood. It is also short enough to use in relatively close quarters, such as during boarding actions, in the rigging, or below decks. Another advantage to the cutlass was its simplicity of use. The cutlass required less training than the rapier or court sword, and was more effective as an infantry weapon than the sabre. The cutlass is the sword most usually portrayed in films about pirates.

It was also used on land, particularly by cavalrymen such as the Mamelukes, since its curved blade made it useful for slashing and slicing combat. In time of peace the Ottoman state supplied no arms, and the janissaries on service in the capital were armed only with clubs; they were forbidden to carry any arm save a cutlass, the only exception being at the frontier-posts.

A cutlass is as often an agricultural implement and tool, as a weapon (cf. machete, to which the same comment applies), being used commonly in rain forest and sugar cane areas, such as the Caribbean and Central America. Woodsmen and soldiers in the 17th and 18th centuries used a similar short and broad backsword called hanger.

According to pirate myth, the cutlass was invented by the Caribbean buccaneers, and was originally a long knife made for cutting meat. As a historical fact, however, this remains dubious. It must be noted that the hey-day of corsairs and pirates was well over before the widespread use of the cutlass. The weapons used by such were more likely falchions.

The last ever use of a cutlass in a boarding action by the British Royal Navy is recorded as being as late as 1941.

The cutlass remained an official weapon in the U.S. Navy stores until 1949, though seldom used in training after the early 1930s, the last new model of cutlass used by the U.S.Navy was the model 1917. A cutlass is still carried by the RCPO of recruit divisions at U.S. Navy Recruit Training Command.

Sources and references

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