Cavalry: Swords before Pistols

Techniques & Tech

February 11, 2014
by Daniel Murphy Also by this Author


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“…the sword is the most destructive and almost only necessary weapon a dragoon carries.[1]

So wrote Major Richard Call of the 3d Light Dragoons to Governor Thomas Jefferson in March of 1781.  At first glance it may seem odd that a light horseman would make such a statement given the wide use of firearms on Eighteenth Century battlefields.  However, when one steps back and thinks “inside the box” of Eighteenth Century military practice it makes perfect sense.

There is an old military adage that says: cavalry takes, infantry holds and artillery clears.  Whether on offense or defense the cavalry’s only real power was derived through the mounted charge.  In the Eighteenth century, cavalry were the ultimate shock troops of the battlefield and the sword reigned supreme in ministering that discipline.  That wasn’t always the case.  The advent of gunpowder and the relinquishing of heavy steel armor had promised to change all that in the century prior to the American Revolution.  Pistol wielding dragoons and mounted musketeers were perceived as the next greatest thing in mounted warfare as firearms offered far greater range than a three foot sword.  Experience proved there were a multitude of problems with this new theory.

First was the nature of early firearms. They were single shot weapons and time consuming to load on horseback.  Another was their accuracy.  Pistols were woefully inaccurate beyond thirty paces and the range was even worse from the back of a plunging horse in a battle line.

Fredrick the Great wrote of his horsemen:

They were besotted with the idea of firing off their pistols. I finally had to make some straw dummies and I was able to show them that all their pistol shots missed, whereas they cut down every single figure with their swords.[2]

Longer length carbines extended the range but two hands were needed to aim and fire the shoulder fired weapons and that simply wasn’t practical when a horseman engaged an enemy at close quarters.  Worse still was the fact that all shock value was lost when troopers turned their attention to operating a firearm in the saddle; the racing onslaught and crush of a body of horses slamming through the enemy ranks was lost and replaced by a weak and inaccurate fire of pistols and carbines at a distance.  The result was a patent failure as opposing troopers drew swords, clapped spurs and charged through the tepid musketry of the mounted musketeers.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this occurred at Juniper Springs, South Carolina where patriot Col. Charles Myddleton was leading a two hundred man force of mounted infantry. Myddelton’s men were well armed with rifles and muskets but possessed only a few swords.  They made contact with a party of mounted Tory militia and a stiff mounted skirmish quickly ensued.  Myddelton’s men were then struck in the flank by a swift charge from Major John Coffin’s British cavalry who, unlike the patriots, were armed with swords.[3] Coffin’s men closed within sword range and sliced the patriots to ribbons. One of Myddleton’s mounted infantrymen was John Chaney who later reported being slashed first across his hand, next across his wrist, and on the third “…he received a severe cut & wound a little back of his left temple which brought him to the ground.”[4]  Ill-suited for close combat, the patriots were broken and routed from the field, twenty-eight patriots were killed outright and the following day only forty-five of Myddelton’s men reported back to camp.

It was actions like these that prompted Captain Epapharus Hoyt, a Massachusetts cavalryman, to declare that:

…fire arms are seldom of any great utility to cavalry during an engagement… Indeed there is little hope of success from any who begin their attack with the fire of carbines or pistols… It is by the right use of the sword they are to expect victory: Nothing decides an engagement sooner than charging briskly with this weapon in hand.[5]

Throughout the war mounted infantry operated at a disadvantage due to their lack of swords and couldn’t really fight from the saddle as true cavalry.  Instead the mounted infantry often just used their horses to take them to the battlefield where they dismounted and fought on foot.  On the other hand, sword bearing light horsemen stayed in the saddle and used the speed of their horses to gain advantage over the enemy.[6]  Fredrick the Great called this the grand “coup de collier,” a charge at speed, and discouraged his horsemen from using their firearms in a fight.[7] It was light horse doctrine for troopers to “charge home” with swords in hand and aim their horses at the enemy like ranks of galloping missiles.[8] This principle continued in practice with the light horsemen of the American revolutionary war.

Lt. Col. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee wrote:

… the fire of cavalry is at best innocent, especially in quick action… The strength and activity of the horse, the adroitness of the rider, and the keen edge of the sabre, constitute their vast power so often decisive in the day of battle.[9]

As previously mentioned an Eighteenth Century horse pistol was a slow loading, single shot firearm. In reality it was little more than a dueling weapon meant to engage a single adversary at ten to twenty paces.  A charging horse covered approximately 33 feet a second; hypothetically, a pistol wielding trooper would then have but one or two seconds to fire an effective shot at an enemy charging forward with a sword.  If the pistol ball missed its mark, the trooper had no time to lift his own sword before his enemy’s came crashing down upon him.  Few troopers had such confidence in their marksmanship, especially from the back of a horse in the midst of a plunging melee where horses and men bounced, jostled and slammed against friend and foe alike.

The following account describes a typical encounter between two units of light cavalry outside Valley Forge, Pennsylvania:

General Polasky [sic] with a body of his troops attacked a body of the Enemy’s Light horse… He sets no store by carbines or pistols, but rushes on with their swords… They had severe cutting and slashing; the enemy had 5 killed and two taken prisoners besides a number wounded. We lost one killed and two taken prisoners…”[10]

In July of 1779, British Cavalry under Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton surprised and charged Continental Col. Elisha Sheldon’s 2d Light Dragoons at Poundridge, New York.  Major Benjamin Tallmadge tried to warn Sheldon of the coming blow and though mounted, Sheldon’s men were still forming behind a church when Tarleton’s cavalry charged home and slammed into the standing American dragoons.[11]  The results were predictable and Sheldon’s men were driven from the ground by the press of horses and flashing blades of Tarleton’s hard charging light horsemen.  The 2d Light Dragoons lost their colors and were pursued down a series of narrow, rain slick roads for some four miles.  In this case both sides were armed with swords but the momentum of the British horses overwhelmed and routed Sheldon’s stagnant Continentals.

The sword was a weapon with an incredibly short range, even less than the pistol.  With troopers aboard darting horses the act of landing a sword blow when fighting face to face against a similarly armed and trained opponent was difficult at best and casualties tended to be low.  Instead it was the physical act of the dragoons driving their horses through the enemy that broke the opposing ranks and created a rout, an enemy on the run was then far more vulnerable to the dragoons’ pursuing blades.

Cavalry often met between the main lines as was the case at the Battle of Rantowle’s Bridge, fought between Lt. Col. William Washington’s 3d Light Dragoons and Banastre Tarleton’s British Legion cavalry.  The two commanders were engaged in the “petit guerre” or, small war, of outposts and vedettes outside Charleston, South Carolina when Tarleton tried looping behind Washington’s men in a surprise attack. Washington’s scouts saw the enemy coming and Washington’s rear guard turned about and rode headlong into Tarleton’s advance with swords aloft.[12]  The light dragoons’ galloping charge broke Tarleton’s troopers and the British turned and fled down a narrow causeway between swamp and marsh with the rest of Washington’s men hard on their trail.[13]  Tarleton’s men then bottlenecked at a narrow point in the causeway before the bridge at Rantowle’s Creek.  Washington’s horses piled into their rear and the cutting began.  A British officer wrote:

…several dragoons of the Legion were wounded… Quarter-Master Sergeant Mcintosh… was badly wounded in the face by a broadsword.[14]

Hemmed in on the causeway the British lost some twenty men before they were able to ride clear of the Continental swords.[15] As with most cavalry melees the horses created the advantage and the swords severed the enemy from his saddle.  By using the sword instead of the pistol, Washington’s troopers focused their attention on their horses and arrived en masse to force their momentum on the enemy and break their ranks.

One of the most noted light horse charges of the war was the 3d Light Dragoons’ assault on the British 17th Light Dragoons at the battle of Cowpens.  The 17th were in pursuit of the American militia, and had begun to fan out and chop down the fleeing Americans when they were taken in the left flank by the 3d Light Dragoons.  James Collins was with the running militia when the British were hit by the 3d:

Col. Washington’s cavalry was among them, like a whirlwind, and the poor fellows began to keel from their horses… The shock was so sudden and violent, they could not stand it, and immediately betook themselves to flight; there was no time to rally, and they appeared to be as hard to stop as a drove of wild Choctaw steers going to a Pennsylvania market. In a few moments the clashing of swords was out of hearing and quickly out of sight;[16]

Once again the sword had driven the enemy from the field, but the key phrase to Collins’ eyewitness account, “The shock was so sudden and violent, they could not stand it,” illustrates the real power behind the sword blows – the speed of the light dragoons’ horses.  The two went hand in hand; the short range of the sword dictated the troopers’ need to launch their horses in amongst the enemy, and the horses arriving en masse generated the momentum which broke the enemy ranks.  Had Washington’s men stopped short of the British and fired their pistols, all momentum would have been lost and the result would have been a fire fight instead of an enemy stampede.

As Major Call aptly stated, the sword truly was the most necessary weapon of an Eighteenth century dragoon.

[Featured Image: The Battle of Cowpens by William Ramney in 1845.]

[1] Richard Call to Thomas Jefferson, March 29, 1781. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Digital Edition, University of Virginia, ed. Barbara Oberg and J. Looney.

[2] Quote from Frederick the Great in  Anthony North, “Seventeenth Century Europe,” in Swords and Hilt Weapons, ed. Anne Cope, (New York, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989), 87.

[3] General Thomas Sumter to General Greene 19 June 1781, Conrad, Greene Papers, 416-417, n417.

[4] Pension application of John Chaney (S32177).

[5] Epaphras Hoyt, A Treatise on the Military Art,  (Brattleborough, 1798), 101, 133. Found in The Book of the Continental Soldier, Harold Peterson, (Harrisburg, The Stackpole Company, 1968), 89.

[6] Matthew Bennett, Christer Jorgensen, Michael F. Pavkovic, Rob S. Rice, Fredrick Schneid and Chris Scott, Fighting Techniques of the Early Modern World: AD 1500 – AD 1763  (New York, Amber Books Ltd, 2005), 120.

[7] Emanuel von Warnery, Remarks on Cavalry, (Constable and Company, London, 1997), 46.

[8] Louis Edward Norton, Cavalry: Its History and Tactics, (Yardley, Westholme Publishing, 2007)  22.

[9] Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department, (New York, University Publishing Company, 1870), n91. Accessed online 1/27/2014 @;view=1up;seq=109

[10] “Samuel Hay to William Irvine, Camp White Marsh 14 November 1777″  William Irvine Papers,  Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.

[11] John Milton Hutchins, “Cavalry Action at Poundridge, New York” in Cavalry of the American Revolution, ed. Jim Piecuch, (Yardley, PA, Westholme Publishing, 2012), 65.

[12] Baylor Hill, A Gentleman of Fortune: The Diary of Baylor Hill First Continental Light Dragoons 1777-1781 Vol. III, ed. John Hayes, (Fort Lauderdale, Saddlebag Press, 1995),  54-56.

[13] Riding with the 3d Light Dragoons that day were Major Paul Vernier’s Lancers and the 1st Light Dragoons.

[14] Anthony Allaire, Diary of Lieutenant Anthony Allaire of Ferguson’s Corps, “Monday, 27th ,“  Memorandum of Occurrences During the Campaign of 1780,  accessed 1/29/2014 @

[15] Hill, A Gentleman of Fortune, Vol. III, 55.

[16] James Collins, Autobiography of a Revolutionary Soldier (North Stratford, Ayer Company Publishing, 1979), 22.


  • European cavalry was generally comprised of heavy and light horse, the former being the ‘shock’ troops, the latter used primarily for scouting and screening. Was there a heavy cavalry equivalent on either side? If so which engagements were fought with them? Were cavalry horses in the Colonies of a size and speed such that they could serve both a heavy and light function? Finally, what of the British? Did they import heavy and light or rely on light only? Thanks for a great article which, as you can see, has prompted my questions.

    1. Steve,
      There was no true heavy cavalry on either sides during the war, both sides acted as such at times, but they were not denoted as heavy cav. There were numerous reasons for this, foremost was the terrain did not lend itself to this battle type. This was not the major battlefields of the European continent where a commander could have 25k horse on his team, such as what Wellington had at Waterloo. There was also not the amount of soldiers fighting this war either. The preferred size of horse for the Continentals was about 14 hands. There were bigger horses of course , but after looking through Col. Maheims(sp?) orderly book it showed clearly they bought small horses. The Continentals had a harder time of getting horse than the British later in the war, the Brits could just take what they wanted from the populace, while the Patriots would have to pay using Continental money, they could not afford to lose the populace support.
      Sorry I could go on for days Steve! This time period is one of my passions!!
      Dan, myself and others have talked ad nauseum on this topic.


    2. Steve,

      As Bob said, nearly all mounted units acted as light cavalry. There was a Hessian Dragoon regiment (heavy cavalry) but they fought dismounted and were captured at Saratoga. British or American, the cavalry in the AWI was practically all light cavalry.
      But, as in Europe, light cavalry could and did charge infantry. The British 16th LD charged and routed the American Militia at White Plains. Tarleton’s British Legion, and a troop of the 17th Light Dragoons, charged and routed Buford’s Continentals at the Waxhaws. The 3d Light Dragoons, with a contingent of the 1st Light Dragoons, Virginia and North Carolina light horse, charged and rolled over the British Foot Guards at Guilford Courthouse. All three examples were following the European precedent of light cavalry. The primary job of light cavalry was scouting and screening. But when needed, they could and did attack infantry: if the conditions were right.

      Thanks for your comments, and thanks to All Things Liberty for running the article.

      Daniel Murphy

    3. I believe the British had little in the way of heavy cavalry at this time anyway, but I can’t remember where I read that. Another item of interest (the source of which I cannot remember) is that that the Spanish and French had difficulty supporting ‘Heavy Horse in the New world’ due to climate and the need for certain types of food. Finally a very large proportion of British horses died in the transatlantic voyage.

  • Great article! I definitely learned about the superiority of the sword for dragoons. In my study of some muster rolls of cavalry regiments I was surprised at the high percentage of dismounted dragoons and the shortage of horses.

  • Very interesting. I am wondering how cavalry during this period were kept under command and control? The benefits of “charging home” are obvious and well-documented, but this left the charging unit in considerable disorder afterwards. During the English Civil Wars, cavalry on both sides tended to disperse after a charge and were of little use during the remainder of a battle. Cromwell was an exception: he won the battle of Naseby by keeping his cavalry troopers together after successfully charging and driving away the Royalist cavalry, enabling him to then take the Royalist infantry in the rear. Col. Washington made coordinated charges on both the left and right flanks at Cowpens within the space of less than an hour, which would have been no mean feat. I’m wondering how he managed it. Great discipline, of course, but what about communication? Were they using bugles at this point?

  • Ron,

    Thank you for your question. Trumpets is the short answer. All troopers were supposed to heed the recall and form back up as quickly as possible. Period manuals talk about the nature of a cavalry clash, and how it was nearly impossible to engage and not become disordered. Trumpets would sound the recall and troopers were trained to reform at once.

    FYI I don’t think Washington charged on both right and left flanks at the Cowpens. I believe he divided the cavalry at Cowpens into two seperate squadrons with the 3d Light Dragoons covering the left and the state militia of Jolly and McCall covering the right. I think Washington made multiple charges, but on the left.


    Daniel Murphy

  • Hello Daniel I very much enjoyed this write up, the detail of the mechanics of charging or receiving charging cavalry is an important part most written history omits. I have a question for you, my interest has been in cavalry trooper swords for many years and I am now trying to research a cavalry sword sourced in Philadelphia. I do not believe it was previously in a collection by looking at the condition it was in. It has a 35 3/4″ curved clipped point blade, single fuller and a 3 bar slotted hilt guard. Leather scabbard with top mount marked A/57 and a white buff leather strap. The blade has the name WYATT stamped in the ricasso.
    It appears 1780’s period. The only bit of info I have on a Wyatt is a silversmith who mounted swords in Philadelphia 1797-98. Of course he could have been in business earlier.
    The sword has an leather covered grip with iron wire wrapped around it. The pommel is bun shape similar to some basket hilted swords. The details of the sword are different enough from the British 1788p HC sword but also designed in a similar way. It is a well made sword and balances well for a cavalry sword. I could email photos if I had an address.
    Regards Will.

    1. Hi Will,

      Thank you I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Sounds like a nice sword you’ve found! Please send pics if you can. I don’t know any links to the name Wyatt. Finding one with surviving leather is rare these days, especially if not in a collection.


  • Hello Mr. Murphy. I just found your wonderful website and enjoyed reading this article. I would like your opinion on something. My ancestor was killed at Fishing Creek, S.C. on August 18, 1780. His widow in paperwork stated that he was shot while pursuing a Tory on horseback. The tory supposedly fired his gun over his shoulder and delivered the fatal shot. My extended family has discussed this scenario and the unlikelihood of its accuracy. However, after a couple of years to trying to find a statement by someone who may have witnessed this scene, I nearly gave up until I saw this regarding Capt. Wm. Butler and “Bloody Bill” Cunningham…”Cunningham tried to fire his pistols, but the powder was damp. He continued to snap his pistol over and over, trying to get them to fire. One pistol did fire, but only as Cunningham pointed it over his shoulder.” I understand he was known for doing this. I can’t prove that Cunningham was in the Fishing Creek area on 8/18, but he was in that area in June/July of 1780. Do you think the story of my ancestor’s demise could have some basis in fact? I understand Cunningham knew the Griffin’s of the 96th District (Laurens), so he may also have had a personal reason for animosity. Thank you for any feedback you can provide. Paula Knape

    1. Paula,
      Thank you for your kind words. I’m afraid I don’t know too much about Mr. Cunningham.
      I would say that while possible, I would think that your ancestor would be fairly unlucky to have been killed from an over the shoulder shot fired from the back of a galloping horse. Hope this helps and good luck with your research.

      Daniel Murphy

  • Is it fair to say that cavalry stopped using firearms as their main weapon because infantry had become too effective in firepower ? Meaning it was less risky to charge into close quarters rather than engaging in a firefight ?

    As to Cavalry vs. Cavalry engagements : Several military theorists of the Renaissance wrote that pistol-armed cavaliers were expected to win almost every engagement against heavy lancers, making it seem like it was a common occurrence. Could it be that 16th century heavy cavalry was slower and that it gave time for the Reiters to reload their weapons ? By the 18th century every cavalry had abandoned armor and relied on fast horses : could it be the reason why the use of pistol was relegated in favor of the sword ?

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