During the early part of the Napoleonic Wars the British Army launched an expeditionary force into France. With the invading army was a young captain of the 2nd Dragoon Guards, serving as a brigade major, John Gaspard Le Marchant. Le Marchant noted the lack of professional skill displayed by the horsemen and the clumsy design of the heavy, over-long swords then in use and decided to do something about it. Among many other things Le Marchant did to improve the cavalry, he designed, in collaboration with the sword cutler Henry Osborn, a new sabre. This was adopted by the British Army as the Pattern 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre.
An eastern influence can be detected in the blade form and Le Marchant is recorded as saying that the "blades of the Turks, Mamalukes, Moors and Hungarians [were] preferable to any other". In design, the blade profile is similar to some examples of the Indian tulwar (which some theorize might have been the basis of the design). It has a pronounced curve, making the kind of slashing attacks used in cavalry actions decidedly easier. Even cavalrymen trained to use the thrust, as the French were, in the confusion of a melee often reverted to instinctive hacking, which the 1796 accommodated. Its blade, unlike other European sabres of the period, widened near the point. This affected balance, but made slashes far more brutal; its action in the cut has been compared to a modern bacon slicer. It is said that this vicious design prompted unofficial complaints from French Officers, but this is unconfirmed. The mounted swordsmanship training of the British emphasised the cut, at the face for maiming or killing, at the arms to disable. This left masses of mutilated or disabled troops; the French, in contrast, favoured the thrust which gave cleaner kills. The sword was, however, capable of killing outright as was recorded by George Farmer of the 11th Light Dragoons, when involved in a skirmish on the Guadiana River, during the Peninsular War, in 1811:
"Just then a French officer stooping over the body of one of his countrymen, who dropped the instant on his horse's neck, delivered a thrust at poor Harry Wilson's body; and delivered it effectually. I firmly believe that Wilson died on the instant yet, though he felt the sword in its progress, he, with characteristic self-command, kept his eye on the enemy in his front; and, raising himself in his stirrups, let fall upon the Frenchman's head such a blow, that brass and skull parted before it, and the man's head was cloven asunder to the chin. It was the most tremendous blow I ever beheld struck; and both he who gave, and his opponent who received it, dropped dead together. The brass helmet was afterwards examined by order of a French officer, who, as well as myself, was astonished at the exploit; and the cut was found to be as clean as if the sword had gone through a turnip, not so much as a dint being left on either side of it."
The blade of the light cavalry sabre, 32.5 to 33 inches in length with a single broad fuller on each side, was lighter and easier to use than its heavy cavalry counterpart, the pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry Sword, which had a less 'scientific' design. The hilt was of a simple 'stirrup' design with a single knucklebow, so as to be free of unnecessary weight; the intention of this was to make the sabre usable by all cavalrymen not solely the largest and strongest. In common with the contemporary heavy cavalry sword the backpiece of the grip had ears which were riveted through the tang of the blade to give the hilt and blade a very secure connection.
Officers carried fighting swords very similar in form to those of the trooper version, though they tended to be lighter and show evidence of higher levels of finish and workmanship. Unlike the officers of the heavy cavalry, light cavalry officers did not have a pattern dress sword. As a result of this there were many swords made which copied elements of the 1796 pattern design but incorporated a high degree of decoration, such as blue and gilt or frost-etched blades, and gilt hilts. At their most showy, sabres with ivory grips and lion's-head pommels are not unknown. These swords were obviously primarily intended for dress rather than battle.
The blade is remembered today as one of the best of its time. Outside of the cavalry it was adopted, in a lighter form, as the officer's sword in the famous 95th Rifles and other light infantry regiments. It was also copied by the Prussians, and some Imperial German troops were equipped with almost identical swords into the First World War. The Americans also adopted a pattern which was directly influenced by the British sword.