A cutlass is a short, broad sabre or slashing sword, with a straight or slightly curved blade sharpened on the cutting edge, and a hilt often featuring a solid cupped or basket shaped guard.
The word cutlass developed from a 17th-century English variation of coutelas, a 16th-century French word for a machete-like blade (modern French for “knife”, in general, is “couteau”. It is often spelt “cuttoe” in 17th and 18th century English). The French word is itself a corruption of the Italian coltellaccio, or “large knife,” derived ultimately from Latin cultellus meaning “small knife.”
Although also used on land, the cutlass is best known as the sailor’s weapon of choice. A naval side arm, its popularity was likely due to the fact that it was not only robust enough to hack through heavy ropes, canvas, and wood, but short enough to use in relatively close quarters, such as during boarding actions, in the rigging, or below decks.
Another advantage to the cutlass was its simplicity of use. Employing it effectively required less training than that required to master a rapier or small sword, and it was more effective as a close-combat weapon than a full-sized sword would be on a cramped ship.
Cutlasses are famous for being used by pirates, although there is no reason to believe that Caribbean buccaneers invented them, as has sometimes been claimed. However, the subsequent use of cutlasses by pirates is well documented in contemporary sources, notably by the pirate crews of William Fly, William Kidd, and Stede Bonnet.
French historian Alexandre Exquemelin reports the buccaneer Francois l’Ollonais using a cutlass as early as 1667. Pirates used these weapons for intimidation as much as for combat, often needing no more than to grip their hilts to induce a crew to surrender, or beating captives with the flat of the blade to force their compliance or responsiveness to interrogation.
A cutlass is still carried by the recruit designated as the Recruit Chief Petty Officer for each division at US Navy Recruit Training Command. In a message released March 31, 2010, the US Navy approved optional wear of a ceremonial cutlass as part of the Chief Petty Officer dress uniform, pending final design approval.