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Revolver vs Saber (Civil War mentioned)



War Department,
Office Of The Chief Of Staff.

Washington, February 27, 1905.

"(c}. The arming of each trooper in a selected regiment of cavalry with three or four revolvers and the careful training of the regiment in revolver firing, with a view to making a practical test of the expediency of substituting the revolver for the saber."


Official copy respectfully referred to the Cavalry Board, Fort Riley, Kansas, for report.

The question as stated is not, it is believed, sufficiently to the point.

The Board is not advised, as it should be, to assume the saber sharpened, effective as a cutting and pointing instrument, troops properly instructed in its use, conditions possible and expected to prevail; and under such assumptions the board should report whether or not the saber is of such little value as to justify its abandonment as an arm of the cavalry soldier. (Sgd.) Chaffee,

Lieutenant General,

Chief of Staff.

With reference to the above recommendation of the Third Division, General Staff, the board is of the opinion:

1. That the practical test proposed can not be made in any way so as to be conclusive, except on the field of battle.

(a) While time lacks for citing authorities, it is known that many instances occurred during the Civil War when cavalry armed with pistols fought cavalry armed with the saber. The pistol was a revolver little inferior to the revolver of to-day for practical purposes, for it carried a heavier ball, and, while it was loaded with a paper cartridge, it is a well established fact that in the melee the pistol can seldom be reloaded, whether it fires metallic cartridges or not, and thus the advantage of the present ammunition is not so great as appears at first sight. The saber thus used was often not sharpened. While there may have been troops skilled in the use of the pistol on the one side, there were, apparently, few troops expert in the use of the saber, on the other. Under these circumstances, it would appear that, as a result of these combats, there was testimony claiming the superiority of the pistol, and there was testimony, equally strong, in favor of the saber. It is understood that there was no testimony of importance condemning the carrying of both arms on the ground that one was superfluous; and it is also understood that there were several instances where Confederate cavalry commanders asked that their troops, armed with the revolver, be given the saber in addition. As one of these instances, may be mentioned General Early, who, after his defeat in the valley, complained bitterly of the disadvantages he was under through not having his troops armed with the saber.

(b) The pistol, in a charge against cavalry, must be fired to the front. Practice in firing to the front at a gallop, which can be regarded in some degree as a test of this kind of firing, was had in the United States army during the years 1889 and 1890. See reports of target practice for those years, G. O. No. i, A. G. O. 1890, and G. O. No. i, A. G. O. 1891. This practice, briefly, was as follows:

Four silhouettes, representing infantrymen, were placed in line, five yards apart. An equal number of troopers, five yards apart, in line, moved toward the silhouettes at a gallop. The pistols were loaded with five cartridges. Firing commenced at eighty yards, and each trooper invariably reserved one cartridge for the moment when he reached the target assigned to him, often placing the muzzle of the pistol against the target as he fired the last shot. This practice demonstrated the following facts:

In shooting to the front, the muzzle of the pistol being near the horse's ear, many horses were made gun-shy and intractable.

To prevent troopers from shooting each other, it was necessary that exact line be maintained during the advance. To accomplish this, the advance was usually made at a very slow gallop, approaching a canter. In spite of all precautions, men and horses were sometimes shot. To this fact, and to the injury to the temper of the horse, was partly due the discontinuance of this class of pistol practice.

In spite of the fact that the last shot was fired at saberlength distance, or less, the percentage of hits in the ten regiments of cavalry was: In 1889, only 13.01; in 1890, only 16.63. That is, in the whole number less than one out of every five shots hit the target, since a score of twenty per cent, would have represented an average hit of one out of five.

It is probable that in most cases the hit was the last shot fired; the shots fired in the advance, while at a distance from the target, being as a rule misses. It is also probable that had the troopers been armed with the saber and the advance made under the same conditions, against a similar line of targets, the percentage of hits would have been as great, for it is not likely the average trooper would have missed hitting the target as he passed it. In the case of the saber, probably the casualties to men and horses from accident would have been small.

(c) The board is of the opinion that, no matter how carefully trained in the use of the pistol a body of cavalry may be, an attempt to test the effectiveness of the pistol by charging at a line of targets under conditions such as obtain in war, riding in line, boot to boot, at full speed, firing to the front, would be useless and so dangerous to men and horses as to be impracticable. A horse at full speed proceeds by a series of tremendous leaps. From such a platform, accuracy is impossible. The horse is held in ranks with difficulty. In this state of excitement, a pistol fired close to his ear will often cause him to bolt, carrying his rider in front of a line of charging men, firing without accuracy and at random. Casualties would, under these circumstances, be most difficult to avoid.

In a real attack in battle, these conditions are still worse. The least courageous men will fall to the rear, and it is these men who will probably be the first to fire. The most courageous men will urge their horses to the front, and run the risk of being hit in the back by the cowards. The officers will be unable to ride in front, and the element of leadership and the resulting control will be absent.

2. It is further the opinion of the board that, no matter how many pistols be carried, and no matter how carefully the men are trained in the use of the pistol, the saber should be carried as well.

It is believed that the principal occasions in which cavalry may attack are as follows:

(a) Against infantry, when routed or worthless. In such a case, the pistol may be used, though history recites occasions without number when terrible slaughter has been caused by the saber under such circumstances. In this case, if attack were made by using the pistol, the saber would come into use when the pistols were emptied.

(b) Against artillery. For this attack, ordinarily made as foragers, riding against the flank of a battery, the pistol is probably the most desirable weapon, but the saber would come into use as a reserve when the pistols were emptied, and also to hamstring the horses and cut the traces.

(c) In partisan warfare, in making sudden attacks on small towns, villages, etc., stampeding the inhabitants, local guards, and police, the pistol is useful. The saber would then be carried as a reserve weapon, to be used in case of a counter attack of cavalry.

(d) In riot duty. Experience in this country, and more especially abroad, has shown that usually the most effective way of handling a mob is by the use of cavalry. Infantry, pressed upon by a mob, is in a difficult position. The infantryman is in danger of having his rifle wrenched from his grasp. When the disorder becomes great and an attack is imminent, the only recourse of infantry under these circumstances is to fire,- killing the innocent as well as the guilty. The cavalryman, on the other hand, is raised by his horse above the crowd, which is afraid of being trampled upon. The streets can be cleared with ease by charging the mob, using the flat or the edge of the saber. In this country, where the danger of mob rule is increasing with the crowding of cities and the spread of anarchistic doctrines, the saber should be retained as a cavalry weapon if for no other reason than the above.

(e) Against cavalry. When cavalry fighting is limited to small bodies of troops, such as squads and platoons, one against the other, and does not take place in a confined space, such as a narrow road or lane, the tendency of cavalry is to make the charge with intervals or as foragers. Under such circumstances, the pistol is a very useful weapon, although the saber should be carried as a reserve, to be used in the melee when the pistol is emptied. But, in the case of a charge in a confined space, or of a charge over open ground of large bodies of cavalry against each other, where there is no room for deployment, the contest is usually decided by the shock of men riding boot to boot at full speed against each other. In the mele'e which follows this collision, the troops are more or less jammed up against each other, horse against horse. In this melee a pistol, discharged at an enemy, may easily kill a friend, and, in any case, the pistol is no match at arm's length for a sharp sword. The pistol may hit five times; it is then useless. The saber, on the other hand, can strike an infinity of blows, and, if sharp, its wounds are terrible. Such combat will be decided by the most determined men and the strongest horses, and by the most skillful use of the sharpest saber.

"The charge is the decisive and most important and characteristic cavalry movement." The advance of modern armies is covered by a screen of cavalry. When such armies approach each other, the role of cavalry is, to attempt to pierce and beat down the screen of the enemy. This leads to great cavalry combats, taking place far in advance of the main body of the army. These combats must be decided largely by shock action. No cavalry, not in a strong position, will dare to fight dismounted an enemy superior enough to operate on its flanks. The use of the pistol is incompatible with shock action. Shots fired while the horse is in motion are wasted, and it is impossible to make men withhold their fire until the collision. Further, the instincts of men armed with the sword are, to close; of men armed with the pistol, to hold an enemy at a distance. A regiment armed exclusively with the pistol might well adopt the tactics of receiving the enemy's charge at a halt, since at a halt accuracy of fire is possible, were it not that all experience shows that to receive a charge at a halt is disastrous.

Cavalry is an arm which depends upon opportunity. The emergency may call for the use of the carbine, of the saber, of the pistol; for mounted action, or for dismounted action. The opportunities are fleeting. The best cavalry is that which is prepared for any emergency. The saber weighs but little. History shows that, if sharp, it is. at close quarters, a most formidable weapon. The role of the pistol and the role of the saber are different; one cannot displace the other. The cavalry that is without the saber will be unable to take advantage of all the Opportunities of a war.

The board is of the opinion that much of the prejudice against the saber is due to the fact that the saber generally in the hands of our troops is so dull as to be little more than a steel club. This saber, if sharpened and kept keen as a razor, becomes at once a formidable arm, a blow from which is sufficient to place an enemy out of action. In the opinion of the board, the sharp saber as a cavalry weapon is valuable and should not be abandoned.

(Signed) E. S. Godfrey,

A TRUE COPY. Colonel ^th Cavalry, President.

John W. Wilen,

1st Lieut, and Sqdn. Adjt. 13th Cavalry, Recorder.

This report and the convictions of the board are concurred in by the Chief of Staff.



[Armor, Vol. 17]
David Upton

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Revolver vs Saber (Civil War mentioned)
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