I wrote the following essay a few years ago after seeing the Mel Gibson movie about the American Revolution, The Patriot. Enjoy!
The Patriot, as a Revolutionary War movie, mainly depicts black powder rifles and cannon in the battle scenes. However, two edged weapons that are prominent in the movie are the sabre, used especially by the evil British Col. Tavington, and the tomahawk, used by the hero Ben Martin. We know, in fact, that the crucial juncture in Martin’s decision to enter the war has arrived when he brings out his old tomahawk from storage. The final battle between him and Tavington, of course, is fought hand-to-hand with these weapons. Let’s take a look at these early American weapons.
The sabre (or saber–both spellings are used) was the standard sidearm of the officer corps on both sides during the Colonial/Revolutionary era. The sabre is a curved, single-edged weapon about 2 1/2–3 feet long. It can be used for stabbing, to a limited extent, but is principally a slashing weapon. This makes it ideal for use from horseback, which is why it was mainly a weapon of cavalry and officers. Foot soldiers used mainly bayonets or knives (the precursors of the Bowie knife). The movie is very accurate in its portrayal of sabre use. The sabre was reserved until the charge. The idea was that both sides would line up on the battlefield and fire several rounds at each other in turn. When one side was confident that the foe was getting the worse of it, the general would command a charge. If all went well for the charging side, the enemy would break and run. Whether they did or not, bayonets and swords were used at this stage because the rifles and pistols of the era were impossible to reload on the run. Thus, like the Roman gladius or the modern service pistol, the sabre was used in the hand-to-hand phase of battle, which usually came near the end of the engagement.