Table of Contents

Cutlass Sword: The Sword of the Pirates

Written by: David Mickov
Updated: February 10, 2023
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

The short, one-handed, sturdy, brute, and simple-looking sword that was and still is used by the warriors of the seas is known as the Cutlass Sword. It is a single-edged weapon, primarily used for slashing, that started as a land sword but grew to be the weapon of sailors and, most popularly, pirates.

In this article, we will explain how this sword came to be and whether or not it is classified as a saber.  We will also discuss the characteristics, uses, and history of the world-renowned Cutlass Sword.

Characteristics of a Cutlass Sword

Cutlass Sword with Details
The Cutlass Sword with details

The Cutlass is a very popular weapon that greatly resembles the Hanger Sword. It is a short side sword that hangs on the belts of those who use it and has a slightly curved but broad blade. It has a  simple design and a distinctive cupped guard with a brass-wired handle that serves a great purpose in close-quarter combat situations.


The blade of the Cutlass Sword is single-edged or only sharpened on one side. The blade can be found in different shapes, such as being slightly curved or strongly curved.   Sometimes the blade is straight throughout ⅔ of the blade, and then it curves. Despite the different blade shapes, the most common characteristic is that it’s broader than a typical sword as it’s shorter and used in close-combat scenarios.

The Cutlass is one of the most functional swords used by soldiers, despite rank, because the short, sturdy, and rigid blade is very effective for slicing. But because the blade’s tip is sharpened on both sides, it also makes an excellent weapon for stabbing.  

The Cutlass Sword can be made of stainless steel and holds up well during combat in close quarters which was common in melee battles on ships. The blade of a Cutlass Sword is usually around 15 to 23 inches (40 to 60 cm) long.


Cutlass Sword
An example of a straight and short Cutlass Sword – Credits: David Grey

The most common guard that defines a Cutlass Sword is the cupped, branched, shell, or basket-styled guard. This is near perfect for a shorter sword of this size and is very practical in hand-to-hand combat, and it provides much protection to the user’s hand without compromising its flexibility.

On some Cutlasses Swords, there is a large quillon sticking out of the side of the guard. Some scholars say that this was a typical naval Cutlass sabre because it allowed sailors to use the quillon to climb up on ropes while wielding the sword in their hands.


The Cutlass has a full tang straight handle, meaning that the blade goes through the handle and finishes at the blade’s pommel.  Some cutlasses have a slightly curved handle but broaden toward the guard, offering a firm grip. 

The handle of the Cutlass is usually canted with some openings and rough surfaces and may have spiraled brass wire, making the grip much stronger. A common length for the handle of the Cutlass Sword is between 4.7 and 6 inches (12 to 15 cm) long.


Cutlass Sword 1
A broad-bladed Cutlass Sword used primarily by sailors – Credits: Wiki Media

Ideally, the scabbard of the Cutlass short sword should be the same size as the blade itself.  It is usually made of leather as it is light, making it easy to carry in a  belt. However,  there are some scabbards made from wood or steel.

Length & Size

The Cutlass is in the group of short swords, making it an ideal weapon for use in situations where combatants are in a tight-knit area. A common length of the Cutlass Sword is around 28 to 36 inches (71 to 90 cm).


Being a short sword means that the Cutlass would ideally be lightweight, but that wasn’t always the case. It needed to be sturdy and dense because it wasn’t just used in combat scenarios involving other swords. It was also an excellent tool for slicing through thick rope and wood. That is why it was designed to be heavier, usually between 2 to 3.5 lbs (0.9 to 1.6 kg).

Uses of a Cutlass Sword

An example of how the Cutlass Sword could be used in daily or combat scenarios – Credits: Forged in Fire

The Cutlass Sword is a short sword made to be used as a one-handed weapon. It’s heavier in weight and delivers a powerful blow due to its brute-looking blade. The Cutlass is primarily an offensive weapon that is very effective at slicing through flesh, rope, and wood. Due to its sharp tip, it is also ideal for delivering deep puncture wounds.  

Daily Tool Activities

Because it was an effective daily tool instrument, the Cutlass Sword was very popular amongst the lower classes, everyday soldiers, and guerrilla-style fighters such as Caribbean pirates or buccaneers. It was predominantly used by sailors that could travel to many different types of forested biomes.

It was used for hacking away tall grass and forested areas with trees and branches, and it also worked well for cutting sugar cane and thick ropes on ships. The Cutlass had all the capabilities of a large knife or a machete, and it was also easy to maintain and produce, making it all the more valuable.


Cutlass Sword
The different shapes of Cutlasses that could be used for battle – Credits: Victorian Swords

Like many other swords, the Cutlass was designed to be a weapon. The Cutlass was manufactured during a period when the rifle and musket were gradually becoming the primary weapons of choice. Large swords like the Rapier were common, but smaller and sturdier everyday swords were also considered useful, resulting in the popularity of the Cutlass Sword.  

It was cheap to make and maintain while being deadly combat. The most popular and widespread use in warfare was among sailors or pirates, which is why it’s commonly known as a pirate sword. While this heavy sword wasn’t always carried on the hips of soldiers, it became an ideal fighting weapon if the priority of the battle changed and it came down to throwing hands.

Modern & Cosplay

Today the Cutlass Sword is one of the most popular swords in the world. It is mostly called a Pirate Cutlass Sword because it is generally linked to Pirates, although many others used it. 

If one were to attend a LARP (live-action roleplay) event with Pirates, the Cutlass would most definitely be seen and used. Many modern schools are teaching the art of Cutlass fencing along with the use of a flintlock pistol. It is a fairly simple sword to use, so if you want to imagine yourself as a bloodthirsty pirate, adding it to your wish list is a must. 

History of the Cutlass Sword

Cutlass History
A training drill is done by sailors with the Cutlass Sword on the HMS Wolverine ship – Credits: Wiki Media

The Cutlass Sword is not a weapon invented or originated by pirates, as popular misconceptions may tell us. It came about in the late 16th or 17th century in Western Europe and first appeared as an infantry land weapon that had a use similar to the Hanger Sword, Backsword, or the earlier Saex. The common attribute with all of these swords is that is could easily be worn on a belt and assist in daily activities.

The word Cutlass derives from the 17th-century French term coutelas, which translates to a machete-like large knife. Its current form was likely derived from combining features of earlier Falchion swords, which are also shorter and broader-bladed swords used primarily for slashing.

Although many land troops used it due to its simplicity and cost-effectiveness, the peak of its usage was as a weapon of the seas. Having a broad and short blade with a large protective guard meant that it was a perfect weapon for close-quarter battles, which were common at sea. 

Sailors using the Cutlass as a Bayonet
Sailors using the Cutlass Sword as a bayonet on their rifles – Credits: Pattern 1871, Martini Henry Rifles

Because it was a deadly slashing weapon used in close quarters and an effective everyday tool, it was the perfect choice for a sailor.  In time, this led to its use by sailors and pirates around the Americas and Europe with the training of singlestick, which is a form of saber fencing or fighting art with the use of wooden swords. It was most usually seen and practiced on ship decks by sailors.

It also came to be an intimidating ceremonial weapon used by sailors on the ships, as it was often carried on their belts as a symbol of rank, even if there was no intention of using it. 

This sailor’s best friend would fight with and against pirates and be used throughout the American Civil War. Its latest use in combat was during World War II by the Royal British Navy and during the Korean War at the battle of Incheon.

Is The Cutlass a Saber?

Cutlass Vs Sabre 1
Visual differentiation between the Cavalry, Infantry Saber, and the Cutlass – Credits: Wiki Media

The Cutlass is a short and broad saber. There isn’t a big difference between a Saber and a Cutlass Sword, but there are tendencies for the Cutlass to be slightly different than a regular Saber.

For example, the Infantry Saber might be straight and very thin-bladed, while the Cavalry Saber might be curved like a scimitar and slightly broader in blade width. The reasoning is that if you’re fighting on foot, a lighter and more nimble sword would be fitting, whereas, on cavalry, you would need impact and power.

The Cutlass is a foot saber with a heavier, shorter, and sturdier blade. It is something combined between those mentioned above that gives its users more power and impact at every gash.  At the same time, it is a  useful utility tool, almost rendering it to the size of a large knife or machete. The methods of attack are the same, but because of its short length, the Cutlass would be moderately effective at attacking the enemy below the knee. 

Sources Cited
Get Weekly Insights on Everything Swords