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


The word cutlass, recorded in English since 1594, is probably derived from the Italian coltellaccio (diminutive form of coltello, 'knife'), the name of a short, broad-bladed sabre based on the older falchion and 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

The cutlass is 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 was 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 small sword, and was more effective as a combat weapon than the full-sized sword. The cutlasses portrayed in films about pirates are historically incorrect, often 19th-century weapons.

It was also used on land, particularly by cavalrymen such as the Mamelukes, since its curved blade made it useful for slashing combat. In time of peace the Ottoman Empire 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 a hanger.

Cutlasses are famous for being used by pirates, although there is no reason to believe that Caribbean buccaneers invented them, as has sometimes been claimed. However, the subsequent use of cutlasses by pirates is well documented in contemporary sources, notably by the pirate crews of William Fly, William Kidd, and Stede Bonnet. Exquemelin reports the buccaneer Francois l'Ollonais using a cutlass as early as 1667. Pirates used these weapons for intimidation as much as for combat, often needing no more than to grip their hilts to induce a crew to surrender, or beating captives with the flat of the blade to force their compliance or responsiveness to interrogation.

In 1936, the British Royal Navy announced that from then on cutlasses would only be carried for ceremonial duties and not used in landing parties.

The cutlass remained an official weapon in the US Navy stores until 1949, though seldom used in training after the early 1930s. The last new model of cutlass adopted by the US Navy was the Model 1917; although cutlasses made during World War II were called the Model 1941, they were only a slightly modified variant of the Model 1917. A US Marine engineer NCO is reported to have killed an enemy with a Model 1941 cutlass at Inchon during the Korean War. A cutlass is still carried by the Recruit Chief Petty Officer of recruit divisions at US Navy Recruit Training Command.

See also

Sources and references



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