End of the Saber

This article reprinted with permission from the author at Swordforums.com.
The original article is titled “The Demise of the US Cavalry Saber.

“I typed this in response to a question on another board about how exactly the US Cavalry sabers were eliminated from service, and figured some here might find some value in it. Comments and corrections are welcomed:”

I finally got back to my library and the trail is a long one, 30-odd pages of correspondence.

It begins with a letter dated 1 Sep 1933 from COL Selwyn D. Smith, Commander of the 2nd Cavalry, to the Chief of Cavalry, MG Guy V. Henry. COL Smith was working on his next TO&E, and requested the general’s thoughts on discarding the saber in favor of carrying more ammunition.

To answer that question, on 7 Sep 1933, MG Henry sent a memorandum to the Cavalry Board, the Commandant of the Cavalry School, and the commander of the 1st Cavalry Division posing the following questions:
1). Should the saber be continued as a Cavalry weapon? If it is believed it should be, a statement of reasons therefore is desired.
2). If discarded, should any arm or equipment be carried in lieu thereof?
The memo went on to suggest various substitutions for the weight of the saber or substituting it with nothing at all and just saving the weight.

By the 13th of November, the Chief of Cavalry had his replies. The Academic Division of the Cavalry School reported 24:1 against retaining the saber; the acting Director of the Cavalry Board and the Commander of the 1st Cavalry Division also recommended against retaining the saber; though the Division Commander noted he had polled only his field-grade officers. Recommendations for question #2 ranged from nothing to extra ammo and extra pistols; one enthusiastic even recommended replacing the saber with a tommy gun…all told, these replies can reflect the direct opinion of not much more than 60 officers.

Using these replies as justification, on 15 February 1934 MG Henry wrote to the Adjutant General, recommending that “the saber be dropped as an item of regular war armament of the Cavalry”. He added that “As the use of the saber in domestic disturbances might assist Cavalry to accomplish its mission without resort to firearms, it is further recommended that the sabers now in the hands of troops be retained in regimental storage pending further instructions”, an echo of the role the saber had played in routing the Bonus Army.

On 14 March, the Adjutant General replied to the Chief of Cavalry’s memo, requesting clarification on several points and a more definitely-worded recommendation. On 20 March, MG Henry fired back with a strongly-worded statement that the retention of sabers for use in domestic disturbances was intended as a temporary measure and that a spiked stick would serve just as well, and that he was recommending the complete abolition of the saber with the exception of Officer’s Sabers for ceremonial use. He further amended the updated TO&E for Cavalry units to reflect zero authorized sabers, and noted the changes in doctrinal literature that abolition of the saber would entail.

Taking the new recommendation, on 18 April 1934 the Adjutant General issued the famous memorandum discontinuing issue of the Cavalry saber and ordering them stored pending further instruction.

On 21 April, the War Department issued a press statement for release on 23 April, authored by a MAJ W.M. Blunt, that announced the relegation of sabers to storage. The piece is odd, in that it announces the decision while casting doubt on its wisdom, sending a definite mixture of signals. On 14 May, a COL Aubrey Lippincott wrote to the Chief of Cavalry recommending that Expert Swordsman bars and badges be eliminated.

The decision to abandon the saber seems to have been received with some surprise from the field, which is not hard to predict given the limited amount of input the decision was based upon. A rush of units requested exemption from the new order, mostly based on ceremonial and riot control requirements. Initially these requests were treated with flat denials, but the pressure must have been considerable because on 18 August 1934, the Chief of Cavalry wrote to the Chief of Ordnance that “It is the desire of the Chief of Cavalry that action contemplated in attached Sub-committee report [to destroy the existing saber inventory and related machinery and equipment] be not taken at this time.” He cited the utility of the saber in public disturbances and the impossibility of foreseeing no possible future use for the saber as reasons for his desire, and recommended that the sabers be placed in unit storage “until such time as the Chief of Cavalry is of the opinion that no future need for these weapons exists.”

There the matter stood until reopened by then-COL George S. Patton on 30 June 1938, with his submission to the Chief of Cavalry, MG John K. Herr, of his study of sword design and three models based on his recommendations. This attempt was strongly attacked by a LTC Grow in a memo to the Chief of Cavalry dated 8 July, and the subject seems to have again been quietly dropped.

By March 1939, National Guard and ROTC units were requesting to ship their sabers to armories to regain the floor space they were occupying.

In 1941, the issue arose again, this time in a serious fashion. Responding to a request from the Springfield Armory to scrap the sabers and related machinery to make room for Garand production, on 17 January 1941 the Chief of Ordnance requested the Chief of Cavalry and the Adjutant General to make a final determination on the obsolescence of the M1913 Saber. An inventory was performed, and it was found that 31,836 serviceable sabers and 22,187 unserviceable sabers were held in armories and that an additional 6000-7000 were still held by units. On 24 January, the Chief of Cavalry ordered a study made which was similar to the 1933 action, but specifying that officers NOT in the 1st Cavalry Division were to be included and that Cavalry School faculty were to be interviewed in person. Though attention was again drawn to the denunciation written by LTC Grow in 1938, the instructions written in the order by the Chief of Ordnance to conduct the study seemed to slant in favor of the saber. The replies to the study, at least those provided by the 1st Cavalry division, were 90% negative. But, for some reason, the Chief of Cavalry recommended on 7 April 1941 that the sabers be retained in storage for future possible use…apparently the pro-saber camp still had some pull.

That recommendation is the last piece of correspondence I have on the subject, but we know that large numbers of the M1913s were converted to knives some time during WWII, so at some point the Cavalry Saber was declared obsolete. I’m still looking for that memo; I’d greatly appreciate a copy if anyone has one…

Webmaster’s Note: Thanks again to the author! You can read more on the Cavalry Sabers and their history at Swordforums.com