Windlass Steelcrafts Confederate Foot Officer's Sword
A hands-on review by Sean A. Flynt
A recent visit to the museum of the Alabama Department of Archives and History in my home state reminded me of the beauty of many American Civil War-era swords. Officers' weapons, in particular, frequently exhibit fine casting, gilding and engraving. Although these served in combat, they were anachronistic badges of rank more likely to be seen leading men than injuring them. My ancestors were among those led into battle by these swords, and the more I thought about the weapons the more I began to think it strange that my collection didn't include one. My antique U.S. Model 1860 Light Cavalry Saber, a Federal weapon, suddenly seemed lonely.
Remembering that Windlass Steelcrafts makes a number of reproduction Confederate swords, I was soon browsing the online catalog of Atlanta Cutlery, sister company of Museum Replicas Limited and, like MRL, owned by Windlass. Finding that the Windlass reproduction of a Confederate foot officer's sword was reduced from $149 to $99 US, I decided to purchase the weapon as a project sword.
Neither Atlanta Cutlery nor any other online Windlass vendors offered detailed photos of the Confederate Foot Officer's sword, but I had a pretty good idea what to expect from Windlass. The company sometimes misidentifies its products and cuts corners in design and construction in service to price, but can deliver a decent product in the $100-$150 price range. Typically, these can be significantly improved on the purchaser's workbench.
I ordered the sword through Atlanta Cutlery's Web site and had the weapon in hand two business days later (I live in a major urban area near Atlanta, so even standard shipping is always extremely fast). The process worked perfectly, and the Atlanta Cutlery folks even included in the package a small folding knife, free of charge. This gift was especially welcome, if not essential, because the sword was packed in thick bubble wrap and tightly strapped with packing tape.
Once I could examine the sword in detail I tried to document originals of the type. Ordinarily, I do this as part of my pre-purchase research but the Windlass photos were so poor that I had to simply roll the dice and do much of my research post-purchase.
Confederate Edged Weapons, William Albaugh's classic reference on the subject, revealed that originals of this particular hilt pattern were made not by James Conning of Mobile, Alabama, as claimed by Windlass, but by the firm of Leech & Rigdon (also known as Memphis Novelty Works). That information helped me quickly find online examples of original Leech & Rigdon foot officer's swords with hilts almost identical to that of the Windlass reproduction (see photo). Assuming these swords were genuine (a generous assumption given the prevalence of forgeries in this area of collecting,) I now had some basis for evaluating the replica and, later, artificially antiquing it.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by Windlass Steelcrafts of India.
This weapon feels wonderful in the hand. It is lightweight and well-balanced, largely due to its long fuller, distal taper and false edge. It is a pleasure to hold, even in its steel scabbard. The blade's factory edge is blunt but the spearpoint tip thrusts with authority through heavy cardboard boxes. Overall, the weapon seems capable of the service for which it was designed.
Fit and Finish
Judging from the photos of purported antiques, the reproduction is very true to original Leech & Rigdon swords of this pattern. Casting of this weapon's brass guard is detailed and crisp, with intricate foliate designs on both the top and the bottom of the guard created by casting, openwork and some hand-chasing. Some of the handwork is sloppy, especially on the pommel cap and edge of the teardrop-shaped quillon, but this is noticeable only on very close inspection and easily removed by the purchaser.
The finish of the guard is neither parade bright nor museum dark. Fortunately, the guard is not lacquered, so the purchaser can easily polish or artificially antique the brass as desired.
I purchased this weapon assuming I would, at minimum, replace its grip wrap, but I was pleasantly surprised by the grip of this weapon. The spiraling of the core is neatly executed, although it does not extend as far up the grip as seen in most original swords of this era. The wrap is good-quality leather. The wire binding, consisting of a single strand of indented copper wire flanked by single strands of brass, is tight and neat. The main disappointment here is that the grip core is made of hard plastic rather than wood. This is an annoyance, but I can't argue that the material is inferior to wood. It will not shrink and leave the hilt loose, for example. More important from a manufacturing viewpoint, plastic can be cast, saving much handwork and thus lowering production cost. So, at least some of the savings on this sword are in its grip. Fortunately, this compromise is invisible.
A complete hilt upgrade, with a new wood grip, is theoretically possible, but I would caution against purchasing the sword with the expectation of dismantling it. I can't quite tell how the piece is assembled. It looks as if a threaded tang has been secured with a brass pommel nut inset in the pommel, then ground flush (leaving in the process an ugly crescent-moon gap on one side of the nut/peen). That would be an inaccurate and unnecessarily complex way to assemble the sword, and would complicate disassembly. My approach to a complete grip upgrade would be to strip the binding and leather wrap and simply cut off the plastic grip. Then, hopefully, the pommel could be slid far enough down the tang to allow filing of the peen and removal of the entire hilt. But given the quality of the wrap and binding, I'm not convinced that replacing the core is worth the trouble.
The blade is of very good quality. It is stiff, but can flex enough to indicate that it is appropriately heat-treated. It features a long, broad "unstopped" fuller typical of Confederate blades. In other words, the lower part of the fuller has no clear terminus, but simply becomes shallower and shallower until it merges with the surface of the blade near its tip. The blade is blunt but could easily be given an edge with a file.
The blade has a robust spine almost .25 inch thick at the guard and tapering to the false edge 6.5 inches long. It is oiled rather than lacquered, so cleanup or antiquing of the blade is much easier than with many Windlass Steelcrafts blades. The "INDIA" ink-stamp on the outside flat of the blade below the guard is easily removed.
The steel scabbard is surprisingly light and fits the weapon well. Leather seems to have been the more common scabbard material for these swords, historically, but this scabbard seems to be a good approximation of the iron scabbards of many such original swords. The scabbard furniture consists of three simple bands of brass secured to the scabbard with short brass screws. Polishing of the scabbard furniture is complicated by the dreaded Windlass lacquer, which if not removed condemns the furniture to a finish of plastic-looking, neither-here-nor-there tackiness. The scabbard is lined with thin plastic strips, presumably as a rust inhibitor or to help secure the sword.
So, what can one get for $99 US, plus shipping? Not a piece of history, but not a piece of junk, either. The plastic grip core is disappointing, and might be unacceptable to some collectors. I accept the core because it is invisible and doesn't compromise the stability of the piece (it may help it, in fact).
The Windlass Steelcrafts Confederate Foot Officer's Sword is very attractive, faithful to the original weapons on which it is based and handles in a manner appropriate to the weapon type. That's more than I can say of many reproduction swords costing a great deal more than this one. It's a fair deal as-is and a real bargain if the purchaser is willing to apply a small amount of time and skill at the workbench. Although I wouldn't follow this sword, I'm happy to have it in my collection as a representative of family and regional history.
About the Author
Sean Flynt is a public relations professional in Birmingham, Alabama. He is interested in the martial culture of all periods and people but focuses on 1450-1650, with special interest in German and Austrian arms and armour.
Confederate Edged Weapons, by William S. Albaugh III
Leech & Rigdon: Arms Maker for the Confederacy
Photographer: Sean Flynt