The Cutlass: From The Sea To The Screen


The Cutlass Is A Short Sword Used For Centuries. Today, It Is Mostly A Ceremonial Blade, But One That Continues To Inspire

A sword can be more than just a weapon of war, the cutlass is an excellent example. For centuries, the cutlass was used by fighting forces throughout Europe as a short, one-handed stabbing and slashing weapon. 

For many, the cutlass is best known as the sword of the pirates in the Atlantic Ocean during the 17th and 18th centuries. In a lesser-known role, it also was regularly used in agriculture throughout the Caribbean like the machete is today. In English-speaking Caribbean countries, the word “cutlass” is used to mean a machete. 

In the modern era, the cutlass has left behind its fighting phase and is almost used exclusively as a ceremonial sword by several navies. However, its popularity endures among collectors and history buffs alike, thanks to its extensive use during the pirate era and the Age of The Sail.

What Is A Cutlass?

A cutlass drill on the HMS Wolverine , 1882 (Public Domain)

The cutlass is a one-handed, single-edged sword used for close-quarters fighting that was the evolution of naval sabers into a more compact, nimble short sword. While the edge does come to a fine point, the cutlass was designed for slashing and swinging at your enemies when fighting hand-to-hand. 

This is why the sword was a popular seafaring weapon. With a slightly-curved blade, usually between 28-32 inches, the cutlass is adept in the close confines of a ship. The straight handle and clipped guards of most cutlasses protected your hand when in battle. Additionally, the cutlass was robust enough to tackle general maritime tasks like slicing through heavy rope or thick fabric like canvas or even wood. And its size made it the perfect weapon for the type of in-your-face fighting that would happen on the high seas.

On land, the cutlass wasn’t as dashing, mostly used to chop sugarcane and clear tracts of land in the rainforest in the New World. Though, the same qualities that made it a great fighting implement made it adept on the farm. The short, swooping blade allowed a great deal of force to transfer from the arm to the material with every swing. 

Who Uses The Cutlass Today?

Today, the cutlass is used almost exclusively as a ceremonial sword. While it was at its most popular centuries ago, the cutlass was still a standard issue sword until around World War 2 before it became wholly ceremonial.

The British transitioned the sword to ceremonial duty in 1936, and the United States followed suit in 1949. Both countries incorporate the sword into military ceremonies today. The Brits issue cutlasses to naval chief petty officers. The United States also offers chief petty officers the ability to wear a cutlass with their formal dress for ceremonies and the like.

Can I Buy A Cutlass?

Absolutely. There are many companies making cutlasses today. While they may not be as pristine as the ones issued by the military, there are numerous companies making these types of blades. 

Factory Cutlass Options

Cutlasses are still made today, but, in general, they aren’t built to the same combat standard as in centuries past. The vast majority of these swords are showpieces meant to be hung on the wall and start conversations. However, if you are a true lover of the Age of Sail, these swords more than fit the bill.

Windlass English Cutlass

This 30.5-inch sword from Windlass is an elegant modern Cutlass, and, for a fee, can be sharpened into a real, proper sword. As is, the high-carbon steel blade is hand forged and mated to a solid brass guard. You’ll really feel like Blackbeard with it in your hand.

The sword comes with a leather scabbard adorned with a brass tip and throat to up the visual appeal of the piece. All told, this is a high-quality replica of the cutlass that will get people talking at your next party and look great in your office or hanging on the wall.

MSRP: $190

Condor Naval Cutlass

The Naval Cutlass from Condor Tool & Knife is a more modern take on the classic blade. The first thing you notice about it is the black epoxy powder finish to the blade. We’re pretty sure pirates of the 18th century didn’t have powder-coating technology, but would have loved to have had the extra corrosion resistance on the high seas.

The blade checks in at 24 inches in length and is made from 1075 steel ground to a razor’s edge. Yes, this sword comes sharpened right out of the box for no extra fees. The smooth hardwood handle is triple riveted, and a powder-coated guard keeps your hand protected when holding the sword. A black welted leather scabbard fits snugly around the blade and keeps everything protected even if dropped.

While it certainly doesn’t look like a sword from the movies, it’s designed to be a true, proper modern cutlass.

MSRP: $148.49

Kult Of Athena Pirate Sword

Complete with a skull and crossbones etched into the scabbard’s throat, the Pirate Sword from Kult of Athena looks like it could have been taken from the set of any swashbuckling movie set.

The 22-inch blade is made from stainless steel and comes, according to KoA, moderately sharp out of the box. That means it might need a more refined sharpening at home if you’re looking for a razor’s edge. However, the blade itself is .16 inches thick, thin enough to slice well but thick enough to hold up to some wear if used for more robust cutting tasks. But be aware, the sword is classed as “decorative”, or for display only, so keep that in mind before playing out your high seas fantasies. 

The cast metal handle is surrounded by a bronze-plated cup guard which features a pirate ship design. The black leather scabbard has a cast tip and throat to complete the look.

MSRP: $49

Kingston Arms Atrim Cutlass

The Kingston Arms Atrim Cutlass shows that not all collectible blades need to be centuries old. Made in the style of a naval cutlass, the Atrim utilizes modern materials and methods to make a truly remarkable sword.

The 9260 spring field falchion-style blade is hand forged and comes in a satin finish. At 25.75 inches it’s a bit smaller than some other cutlasses, letting it move more fluidly in your hand and taking up a smaller display space. The full-tang construction terminated with a stainless steel guard and pommel around a brown leather handle that provides a strong grip.

This is the most expensive sword of all the cutlasses showcased in this piece, and it’s worth every penny for the discerning, high-end collector.

MSRP: $432.95

Cold Steel 1917 Cutlass Sword

When it comes to collector pieces outside of auctions, Cold Steel’s 1917 Cutlass Sword is a prime example of what’s being made today. While it is designed for display and collection, the 1055 steel blade does come with a serviceable edge out of the box. 

In terms of size, it’s exactly what you’d expect a cutlass to be. At just under 30 inches long and 37.6 ounces, it’s a nimble sword that will feel good to hold and wield when showing off all of its intricacies. The wood handle and blued steel hand guard complete the look, and the included leather scabbard keeps the sword looking classy even when put away.

MSRP: $289.99

APOC Survival Cutlass

This option is rated for proper use rather than display. That’s abundantly clear considering it comes with a MOLLE-compatible Kydex scabbard. That doesn’t come with swords meant to be hung on the wall.

The APOC is a tactical sword that has a 21.5-inch black oxide blade made from 9260 spring steel. The black G-10 handles complete the monochromatic look and provide excellent grip in myriad conditions.

At just under 2 pounds, this is a lightweight cutlass meant to be used as a survival tool out on the trail or in more intense outdoor situations. The blade is meant to slice, of course, and the edge comes to a fine point, making this a puncturing tool as well. Versatility is the name of the game in survival equipment, and, while a machete or shorter knife might be a better option, the APOC cutlass is built for the outdoors and to handle the elements.

MSRP: $169.95

Custom Cutlass Options

There are numerous people making custom cutlasses and other swords. Whether it is for the private use and display of an individual or to be used as props in movies, at renaissance fairs, or in other forms of entertainment, there are makers and smiths crafting modern versions of the centuries-old blade.

Even the popular YouTube Series Man At Arms: Reforged did an episode about the cutlass and showed multiple ways to craft them.

Tony Swatton

Swatton runs Sword & Stone in Burbank, CA and makes arms and armor for film and television. He, and his shop, were the star of the original Man at Arms series nearly a decade ago. He’s self-educated and has been making armor since he was 17.

The first movie his work appeared in was Hook in 1991, and since then his weapons have been seen on screen in more than 300 movies including massively popular films such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Batman, and Thor. He also designed the cutlass used in Assassin’s Creed 4.

David Lisch

Lisch makes custom knives and swords exclusively from damascus steel. His 26 years of experience in the field are seen in the intricacy of his mosaic patterns and one-of-a-kind blade designs. He’s made landscapes and sunrise designs on his blades.

An example of David Lisch’s damascus work.

His knives have won awards and he teaches classes in blacksmithing and knifemaking with his wife Andrea at their school in Yelm, Washington, about an hour south of Seattle.

Collecting Cutlasses

The cutlass is collected by all sorts: sword lovers, pirate aficionados and history buffs. Specialty dealers help these collectors find the pieces they are looking for, and it helps keep the cutlass alive and in public consciousness.

Additionally, cutlasses have made it to auction houses around the world, sometimes fetching as much as $10,000 before the hammer falls at auction houses like Morphy’s, Sotheby’s, and Rock Island. 

In late 2022, the 1860 naval cutlass belonging to John H. Ferrell, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, went to auction at Morphy’s and sold for $14,760. The sale showed how, even today, the popularity of the cutlass continues to endure in a big way.

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