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. It was a common naval weapon during the Age of Sail.

The word cutlass developed from a 17th-century English variation of coutelas, a 16th-century French word for a machete-like blade (the modern French for "knife", in general, is "couteau"; the word was often spelled "cuttoe" in 17th and 18th century English). The French word is itself a corruption of the Italian coltellaccio, or "large knife", a short, broad-bladed sabre popular in Italy during the 16th century[1] The word comes from coltello, "knife", derived ultimately from Latin cultellus meaning "small knife."[2]

Pirate Weapons - Cutlass

The cutlass is a 17th-century descendent of the edged short sword exemplified by the medieval falchion.

Woodsmen and soldiers in the 17th and 18th centuries used a similar short and broad backsword called a hanger, or in German a messer, meaning "knife". Often occurring with the full tang more typical of knives than swords in Europe, which is commonly believed to reflect a legal claim to nonweapon status, these blades may ultimately derive through the falchion (facon, falcon) from the seax.

Naval Uses

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 because 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.[5] 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.[6][7][8][9]

Owing to its versatility, the cutlass was as often an agricultural implement and tool as it was as a weapon (cf. machete, to which the same comment applies), being used commonly in rain forest and sugarcane areas, such as the Caribbean and Central America. In their most simplified form they are held to have become the machete of the Caribbean.

Pirate Weapons


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Secondary Sources