Saturday, August 25, 2007
The Marine NCO's Sword
The noncommissioned officers of the Marine Corps have several distinctions of which they can be justly proud. They are the only noncommissioned officers in any branch of the regular United States Armed Forces who routinely have the privilege of carrying swords. (Certain units of the National Guard still authorize NCO swords for ceremonial use when wearing the distinctive uniform of the regiment).
In addition, they have the unique position of being the only NCOs ever authorized to carry what is normally a commissioned officers weapon.
The present day sword issued to the noncommissioned officers of the Corps was originally adopted by the War Department on April 9, 1850, as the regulation saber for the foot officers of the infantry. In 1859, just prior to the Civil War, the com-missioned officers of the Marine Corps had adopted the Model 1850 foot officer's sword. They found it more serviceable than their lighter, Mameluke-type saber and particularly welcomed its leather scabbard which was not subject to the many dents their former brass scabbard had been forever acquiring in life aboard ship.
Following the War between the States, the repeating military rifle made rapid developments. Dominating the battlefields of the world and sounding the death knell of the sword, the foot officer's sword was looked upon as being more of an encumbrance than an asset in the field.
Prodded by a desire to reinstate the traditional weapon of their predecessor, especially since its purpose had become more symbolic that utilitarian, Marine officers reverted to their Mameluke sword in 1875 when the Corps entered its so-called "Golden Era". At this time, Marine noncommissioned officers acquired the arm being given up by their commissioned brothers-in-arms. Its this same weapon, with only minor alterations, which SNCOs of the Corps still carry in Marine parade formations. It was a gesture of considerable respect to the Marine non-commissioned officers, for never before had a badge so symbolic of the commissioned officer been turned over to the noncom-missioned ranks.
At first glance, the Marine NCO sword in use from 1875 until 1934 was no different than the 1850 officers model. Only the fishskin covering on the grip had been replaced by black leather and the letters "U.S.M.C" etched on the reverse side of the blade instead of "U.S.", which had appeared on the officers arm. In 1934, revised regulations called for a slightly more slender blade which eliminated the narrow fuller. A new and decorative etching was inscribed, "United States Marines". Otherwise, it remained identical to the Civil War officers model, albeit a lighter, somewhat less serviceable version.
The commissioned and noncommissioned officers now retain the sword for what it implies to their profession, rather than for the use that it offers. Their primary duty is to lead, not to shoot. The sword thus continues as the personification of military tradition and has been entrusted to those most responsible for maintaining the weapon. Except for the famous Mameluke hilted sword of Marine commissioned officers, the Marine NCO sword rates as the oldest U.S. weapon still in use.