A few months ago, a discussion on Marey-Monge’s Memoir on swords got me into researching the man and his realizations a bit more actively. If the name Marey-Monge does not ring a bell, you are not alone. The man is a fairly obscure figure in French history, perhaps better known in the anglophone sword collecting world than the francophone one, due to a memoir he authored in 1841 and which was translated by Lieut. Col. Henry Hamilton Maxwell of the Bengal artillery in 1863. Although he describes the sabre models he envisions for the cavalry, infantry and navy, he never quite illustrates them, and up until now no actual examples were known to exist. I was very curious to see if I could trace down any sabres that were actually made from Marey’s ideas. Through an act of fate, I believe that I was able to identify one such type of sabre. I will explain here how I came to this discovery, analyze the sabre itself, and see how it fits the design proposed by Marey-Monge.
The first clue came from another historical figure, as we do know that one man was known to have carried a Marey sabre: colonel Charles-Louis Du Pin.
The spahi officer acted as an aide de camp to Marey-Monge in Algeria, and was one of the first French officers to set foot in Japan after it reopened its borders to outsiders in 1861. He accompanied Antoine Fauchery there, and took some of the first photographs of the country. He later authored a book Le Japon : mœurs, coutumes, description, géographie, rapport avec les Européens. in which he details his stay with the Japanese mission. Inside, he describes a peculiar event that took place between himself a few samurais.
One day I was with some yakunins, I wanted to compare the penetrating power of their sabers, wielded by themselves, with that of a saber made on a model given by General Marey Monge, and which I had been able to recognize the excellent useful effect. My proposition having been approved, I had a board of fir tree brought, about 3 centimeters thick. It was placed
of the field, and a yakunin designated by his comrades, after twirling his two-handed saber in the air, struck a blow with all his might. The blade penetrated a depth of 3 centimeters.
I took my turn with the general’s saber and I struck with one hand. The incision was 5 centimeters long; the blade was so deeply engaged that precautions had to be taken not to bend it when withdrawing it from the wood. The yakunins appeared very astonished, they all came to examine this blade, which, much lighter than theirs, and moved by a single arm, had penetrated much further. The experiment started again, but the result was always the same. A yakunin asked me if my saber could cut, as well as his, straw or any other light material. I answered him that French sabers were made to kill men and not for cutting straw. This answer felt, I admit it, very Gascon of me.
The yakunin, not admitting defeat, had an umbrella brought from the country, which he placed on a piece of wood. He struck with his weapon, the umbrella was cut off almost completely, except for two ribs- those were not separated. My saber was not sharpened,
while that of my adversary was perfectly so. I felt that I owed him a rematch, I struck my best, and the two pieces of the umbrella were so well separated, that my saber still made a deep incision in the wood which served as a support. This time the question was thoroughly answered.
The cause of these results is the following; the saber of General Marey Monge has a much less obtuse edge than the Japanese sword, and the weight of the weapon is distributed in a more suitable way to achieve a most useful effect.Lieut. Col. Charles-Louis Du Pin. “Le Japon” , 1861
This excerpt gets cited here and there, usually with discussions over European and Japanese sabres. Yet, little attention was put on exactly what kind of sabre Du Pin carried with him. When one reads Marey’s memoir on swords, it becomes evident that the models he suggests are far from the usual European patterns of the time. I did managed to find a few portraits of Du Pin showing his sabre, mostly dating from the French intervention in Mexico, which was a year after his return from Japan.
The sabre we are shown does not quite fit any of the usual sabres carried by the French army, at least not as far as the hilt is concerned. I was left perplexed, until, a few weeks later, I stumbled on an auction listing in France which immediately became recognizable. I had seen this sabre before, usually advertised as an unknown “yataghan cutlass”, but this time I was certain I knew what it was.
The hilt shown in Du Pin’s portraits is almost exactly similar to this one, showing two offset branches, with a third outside branch connected to them, a smooth backstrap extending into an unusually long pommel cap. Even the round peen can be seen in a few cliches, as well as the strange spike in between the two branches.
First, a little bit of context on the man himself.
Guillaume-Stanislas Marey-Monge was born in 1796 in Burgundy, France. He joined the polytechnic school in Paris in 1814, and participated in the defense of the city the following year. Marey-Monge joined the horse artillery in 1817 in Strasbourg, where he rapidly rose through the ranks. According to his memoir, it is in 1836 that he started experimenting with sword designs which he had made at the neighboring Coulaux factory in Klingenthal. In 1830, then a captain, he was moved to the general staff of the Algerian campaign, and put in charge of commanding the soon to be named Chasseurs d’Afrique.
Marey was deeply interested by the culture he found there, he became fluent in the local languages, and pushed the French military to adopt many of the customs of the Algerian people. Among them, he is most famous for creating the Spahis, a light cavalry corps based on the tactics of local cavalrymen previously attached to the Ottoman Empire, and which counted many of them among its ranks. After the peace was declared in 1839, Marey went back to Strasbourg where he was given the command of the 1st cuirassiers, and went back to work on his sword designs and the writing of his memoir.
If you know French geography well, you may know that Strasbourg is located in Alsace, and very close to the town of Klingenthal, where at the time the famous Coulaux sword factory was established. The factory used to be the official state owned centre of sword production for the military, but had recently been sold to the Coulaux family who operated it, while the state factory moved to Chatellerault. He sent his memoir to the French Minister of War in 1841, among with a quantity of protoypes. Their whereabouts is now unknown to us, though I am hoping to find more of them now that we have a clearer idea of their design.
Marey-Monge authored many memoirs and articles in his life, but one of his greatest passions, and one could say obsession, was with sabres. The general had been an avid fencer most of his life, and it was said that in one of his most famous faits d’armes– which was to vanquish a Ouara chief in single combat – he intentionally extended the fight in order to land a particular fencing technique (Sarret, Germain. Biographie des hommes du jour. 1839). In the same battle, he also seized himself one of the two opposing army’s standard. These feats owed him the Légion d’honneur. During his early days in the horse artillery he also befriended Count Gassendi, author of the aide mémoire d’artillerie, who himself had strong opinions on sword design. Some authors tell us of the extensive sword collection of Marey-Monge, which probably decorated many rooms of his family castle in Pommard (Du Barail, François Charles. Mes souvenirs: 1822-1851. 1896).
The memoir itself informs us about four different sabres that Marey was proposing and which he says he used for at least 9 years in Africa: one for the cavalry, one for infantry officers, an infantry briquet, as well as a naval cutlass. I believe that the sabre I found here is of the infantry officer model. To demonstrate my idea, I will compare it to what Marey described.
For the infantry officer, here’s what Marey recommended (the quotes are take from Maxwell’s translation, unless otherwise noted).
First — That part of the hilt whereon the little finger bears should be wide and smooth.
Second — The grip should be smooth, and nothing should be allowed to impede the action of the index and little fingers.
This is a point that is quite striking about this sabre at first glance, as it is made to be completely smooth. I must say that I used to prefer swords that gave a very firm grip on the hand, such as those using shagreen, but while reading Marey I realized that what he proposed was much more practical with how a sabre ought to be used, compared to a sword, that is by allowing the hand to flow freely between a closed and open wrist position, allowing more range of motion in the cut, and giving more reach.
What Marey means here by “nothing should be allowed to impede the action of the index and little fingers” is that the grip should allow a smooth transition of the pommel from the heel of the hand to the middle of the palm. A handle that would be too grippy, or a pommel that would be too large, would make the transition more difficult.
Third — The grip should be as narrow as possible in the direction of from back to edge of the blade, especially where it is grasped by the index and little fingers.
This point is somewhat respected here, as the grip is definitely on the narrow side, but it reverses Marey’s recommendation by widening slightly towards the top. The same logic is seen on 1829 mounted artillery and earlier consulate style sabres. This is an interesting change, and I am not sure why it would have been made this way instead.
Fourth— In cutting, the thumb should not be placed on the back of the grip.
This is more of a comment about use, but the backstrap is not shaped in any special way to accommodate a thumb grip, and putting the thumb along the top feels somewhat awkward as a result.
Fifth — If the guard of the hilt be not symmetrical, its main branch should be stout, and placed, not in the centre, but on the side opposite to the other two.
Now this is the most original solution to this recommendation. When looking at the sabre, one may first see three branches, with none in line with the edge. That is not quite what was done here though. Basically, the guard is formed of two branches, one in the middle, and one on the outside. The object of confusion though, is that the middle branch is for all intent and purposes… fullered!
If you look closely, you will see that it starts as a single branch at the pommel, only with two very wide edges. That central part is then replaced by an opening about halfway up to the guard plate, while the raised sides continue and get thicker. It is basically shaped like a c-channel beam. The opening is there to reduce weight, and the small point above seems to act as a blade catcher, so that a sword couldn’t slide from one side to the other and enter in the opening. It is quite an ingenious creation, and you can see that a lot of thought went in to create a guard that could cover wide, be very strong, while at the same time be as light as it possibly could.
Marey believes that a sabre guard should be symmetrical, or at least balanced along the edge, so that the hand does not rotate in the cut. I was then surprised to find that this sword does not balance straight on its edge, but this led me to another discovery about this sabre.
I observed that the sabre, when standing only on it’s point of balance, did not fall flat to it’s side like most asymmetrical hilts tend to do. Instead, it remained balanced on its edge, but at an exact 45 degree angle. I imagined that this was somewhat of a compromise, that if the sabre couldn’t be balanced straight in the middle the balance would remain somewhat centered. So I expected the sabre to fall flat as well when placed on the opposite side of the blade, but I was quite surprised with the result.
The blade did not fall flat, nor did it turn back to the right. Instead, it too stayed at an exact 45 degree angle, balancing right on the edge once more. This was too strange to be a coincidence, and so this got me thinking. Marey-Monge seems to make the point in his memoir that the best angle to cut is at a downward diagonal, something that is reflected in many systems of swordsmanship.
Giving it such a balance makes the sword naturally want to align itself into a 45 degree cut. A sword that is balanced in line with the edge would be great, as long as the cut was a straight downward one, otherwise, it would still want to turn when placed into a diagonal motion. This was an issue that was observed with heavily curved sabres, such as the 1796 light cavalry, which could apparently turn in the hand so much that soldiers would often hit with the flat, causing many bruises but few cuts.
This aspect adds to the incredible attention to details that was put into constructing this sword, as changing the hilt somewhat would ruin this equilibrium. This may have been hinted at by Du Barail, who noted this about Marey-Monge in his memoirs:
The problem for him consisted in in determining the centre of gravity between the hilt and the point so as to obtain the perfect balance.Du Barail, François Charles. Mes souvenirs: 1820-1851
Sixth — The hilt should be light, and consequently it would be well if it were made of iron or steel ; the pummel should be slightly loaded with metal.
The hilt is made of steel plate, the guard plate itself varies in thickness depending on the area, the thickest probably being around 16 ga and the thinnest around 18 or 19. The pommel projects out slightly and is definitely loaded to balance the sword. An actual weighted pommel is a rare sight on a sabre of this period.
It seems to me that the inspiration for the grip was probably taken from the model 1817 light cavalry sabre of the kingdom of Württemberg, or from some of the variations around this model. The 1817 would still have been in service when this sabre was made, probably somewhere around 1852 (more on that later).
The whole assembly is held together by the peen, but also by a part of the backstrap that touches both the guard and the blade. It is still so tightly assembled that the blade rings like a tuning fork when struck with a finger, as if it was brand new.
Seventh — The triangle which forms the edge should be increased in height in that part of the blade which comes in contact with the object.
What Marey means here, is that the cutting part of the blade rises in height around the center of percussion, not unlike what you would see on a 1796 sabre.
Fourteenth — The greatest thickness of blade in the part intended for cutting should not be at the back, but between it and the cutting-edge.
Here the shape differs from the 1796 in that it is slightly more lenticular in shape. The thickness does rise at the middle of the section, and goes down again on the false edge side.
For line infantry officer’s sword, the yataghan-shaped blade should have the same thickness as those of the present sword, but curved in the opposite direction; the point should be at one -third of the width from the back, and be bisected by the line of impulse.
This is the point that many people seem to remember the most from Marey, that he loved yataghans! Yet, while he does consider that they can make good cavalry sabres, at least better than most models in use at the time, he considers that a straight blade is best. It is different for the infantry and navy, where he recommended a yataghan blade. This is obviously the case here.
The back may be fluted to give the blade rigidity, and the remainder of the blade be analogous to what has been described for the cavalry sword.
It seems to me that greater rigidity is obtainable, by making the back very thick without prejudice to the power of cutting, and that by way of getting rid of the excessive weight consequent thereon, the back might be fluted, I have had blades made up on this plan and of very many differing patterns. I consider the arrangement very judicious. It has moreover this advantage, that the process of fluting the back being carried out after the blade is hardened, the edge retains the proper degree of hardness, while the back being slightly tempered by the grindstone becomes less brittle.
When I received this sabre through the mail, the first detail I saw that confirmed to me that this was a Marey sabre was the fluted back. I couldn’t quite grasp the meaning when reading the text, but this is actually quite smart. The fuller runs the same lenght as those on the flats, and allows that portion of the blade to be stiffer and more resistant by widening it, but removes the extra weight created by fullering it. I do not know if this is the case here, but Marey is basically trying to create a differential temper on the blade, making the back softer through the heat created by the grinding of the metal. One would think that this have been inspired by Japanese swords, but blades made in Klingenthal already had such differential temper, as the edge was usually hammered into a softer back. This is unlikely to be the case of this sabre though, as it was probably made of crucible steel, which had become the norm in France at that time.
The blade being short and less likely to bend than that of the cavalry, rigidity might likewise he obtained by giving a ridge to each flat of the blade, near the back, thus forming an obtuse edge.
Marey seems to refer to the fullers formed on each flats of the blade, outside of the cutting portion of the sword. This seems to be the only place where Marey considers fullering to be justified.
The fluted back of the blade may stop short at a decimetre and a-half (six inches) from the point, whence the end of the blade would form a double cutting-edge, as is usually the case.
This is one of the only two points (with the grip’s width) where this sabre does not exactly follow the book’s recommandation. Both for the cavalry and infantry officer, the text tells us the back fuller must stop six inches from the point. On this blade, that fuller ends around 30cm (a foot) from the point. Maxwell has an interesting note about this in his translation that I believe gives us a possible answer.
Indeed, in the French version, Marey tells us that the end of the fuller is at 15cm of the edge. I think what he means by this is not the literal edge of the sabre, but the centre of percussion, which on this sabre is exactly 15cm from the end of the back fuller.
The point should form an angle of forty degrees at a maximum. This angle should be bisected by the line of impulse running from the apex to one third of the breadth at the origin of the grip, measuring from the edge side. The point, in general, should be in the centre of the width of the blade in the straight sword, and at one-third of the width from the back in the yataghan-shaped sword.
The point is indeed at a forty degree angle from the back, the line of impulse does run to it, and it is situated one third of the width from the back of the blade, while it would be in the centre of a straight blade.
Fifteenth — The sword-knot should be light, supple, and without a big or heavy acorn end ; it should be fastened to the middle branch of the hilt, so as not to incommode the little finger. It should be made either of silk or goat’s hair, instead of leather.
While no sword-knot is currently known to exist for these sabres, it is interesting to see that the sword does not have any slit around the pommel to insert one. It would need to be tied higher on th main branch, as Marey suggest.
Sixteenth — The long billet of the sword-belt, as well as the band and ring on the scabbard, should be abolished.
Marey expands more on this in his text, but basically he was calling for the removal of the second ring on scabbards, which he saw mostly as useless given how the sword was to be worn.
I have only seen one example of a scabbard for the Marey sabre, pictured below, but it is interesting to note that it indeed has only one billet and ring.
Our French swords have been much improved latterly, as regards both the stuff and its temper; but they have one great fault which may very easily be avoided : they get soon blunted. The best-sharpened sword, if it is drawn out of the scabbard and returned three or four times, has but a dull edge, because it rubs in these motions against the metal of the scabbard, especially at its mouth. As the fineness of edge of the sword is an essential condition to efficiency in cutting, it seems to be imperatively necessary to have battens in the scabbard which shall protect the edge, preserving it from every species of shock or friction against steel, in drawing and returning, and this not only inside the scabbard but more especially at its mouth.
It is difficult to say how this particular scabbard is made. I would suspect it is indeed lined with wood, as most infantry sabres of that time were, but I have no way to say if it is lined up to the mouth. The fact that this scabbard is made of leather, and has brass fittings is also quite interesting. It could indicate that it was made prior to 1855, when iron scabbards were introduced for infantry officers, or it could have been made for an adjudant, as they retained the leather scabbard until the 1870s.
With possibly only one point of divergence with Marey’s recommendations, I believe there is little doubt that this sabre is indeed a Marey sabre made for an infantry officer. The sword itself has no visible maker mark, not does the other extant example seem to have. It is possible that they were polished out in the past, but the presence of counter polish marks at the pommel would tend to indicate otherwise. If this was a product of Klingenthal, I am not sure why they would have chosen not to put any sort of markings down.
It is possible that the sword was made outside of France, but I believe otherwise because of the shoulder. French sabres made after 1852 all seem to have this same characteristic: a fairly round shoulder (what some would call a ricasso) without any visible block, and fullers gradually disappearing in a round point. This was part of a new method of fabrication which started at Chatellerault, possibly as a way to better shape the blade using crucible steel, which was much harder to cut. This shape was hammered by the blacksmith using a billet fitted on the anvil, instead of being cut with a chisel. This process meant that a counter polish was now redundant, so it is interesting that this one still shows traces of one. Maybe an old practice which was not yet phased out.
How does it handle?
Now that we’ve described the sword in detail we can ask: is it a good one? In my opinion, it is a great sword, and probably one the the best I have held so far. It must say that I was quite blown away when I first held it, as I expected the sword to be much heavier. It does weigh 870gr, but in the hand it feels like a 600gr sabre. One could think that this is due to the point of balance being kept closer to the hand, but in fact the POB is almost exactly the same as most sabres of its type at 11cm from the guard.
This is in no doubt due to the brilliant way it is constructed. There are absolutely no compromises made to aesthetics or cost, and everything is designed with balance, agility and effectiveness in mind. The blade has indeed a few advantages due to its shape, as described by Marey Monge. The yataghan blade allows two things to happen.
First, it puts the centre of percussion and of gravity below the axis of the grip. This corrects a common issue with heavily curved sabres, in which the centre of gravity tends to be well above the grip’s axis, which can make the sabre turn in the hand during a cut, The Marey sabre is -in that sense- rather more or less built like an axe, making the cut a lot more stable.
Secondly, it puts the point in an advantageous angle for thrusting. A curved sword can present issues when thrusting, as it’s tip is usually angled away from most target making it hard to catch it with the point. It does allow to do what Marey calls a circular thrust; an action that starts as a cut, but, by a turn of the wrist, the point is put in line instead. This can surprise an opponent expecting a cut, and the curve can help to go around a shallow parry.
The only issue with this tactic is that it presents a very weak opposition, as the sword is presenting its weaker side. If the fencer misses they are left wide open to a counter.
The yataghan blade solves this issue by effectively putting the point directly in line with the target in most thrusting actions. Also, the opponent now needs to use larger parries in order to get the point away from them, where a curved sabre would usually make this quite easy. The blade is also extremely stiff, meaning it would lose very little energy in the thrust.
Though the sabre was service sharpened on both sides, I would not risk test cutting with such a rare sword. But based on my experience, I have little doubts that this would be a terrific cutter. The centre of percussion is better situated than on many antique sabres; being well forward and at the widest part of the blade. This part maintains a very narrow section, but still manages to retain a lot of stiffness.
When reading about Marey-Monge, one can see how this design fits the character perfectly. People who knew him tell us he was an austere man of very few artifice. His life in Algeria shows someone who immediately thought outside of the box, adopting wholeheartedly the local culture and ways of warfare instead of stubbornly being attached to French ways.
It is difficult to find a great deal of details about Marey, as he was not interested with publicity and grandiose demonstrations. This is something that a few authors actually criticized, saying that his concepts would have received more recognition if he imitated his grandfather, Gaspard Monge, who is now better known thanks to his spectacular demonstrations. It is indeed quite surprising how his Marey sabre is so rare, even though users thought so highly of it. But his memoir saw a very limited distribution; Marey preferring to go through the official channels than appealing to the public. This is why his work is now much better known in the anglophone world – as I alluded to in my introduction – since Maxwell’s translation didn’t suffer from the same issue.
Yet, Marey might have left more traces of his work than we might think at first. It is said that in 1841 he developed a new machine to test sword blades at Chatellerault (Mémorial de l’artillerie française. 1968), and a mysterious excerpt tells us that, after the Marey sabre, he developed a sword which he saw as the epitome of his ideas, one which had a point shaped like a “Z” and which could “effectively cut and thrust with both sides of the blade and in all directions” (Larchey. Gens Singuliers. 1857). Is he describing here the offset fuller blades that we see on so many African service sabres, and which was adopted for the 1882 infantry officer model? When examining the cross section, the blade does present a certain Z shape, and the fullers do allow the blade to cut on both sides equally well, and present a lenticular section that was quite beloved by the general. That said, I have yet to see any examples with a hilt that would fit Marey’s requirements.
His memoir was noticed internationally, not just in Britain, but also in Bavaria, where major Xylander made note of Marey-Monge’s yataghan sabre, saying that it performed well in tests, though I do not know of a Bavarian sabre model with a yataghan blade. It’s important to note that Marey-Monge was not the first person to put such a blade on European sabres, and while France did not adopt the concept officially, other armies did, such as Sweden and Prussia, though mainly in the form of naval sabres. It is unclear if these were inspired by Marey, but they ignore too many of his principles to really call them Marey sabres. Here are a few known examples, some made before the birth of Marey.
His lack of auto-promotion is probably not the only thing to blame for the rarity of the designs. The Marey sabre seems ahead of his time, perhaps too much so. The style was probably quite jarring to the aesthetic of mid 19th century Europe and its propensity for horror vacui. This sword is almost post-modern in its practical and minimalist design, and even surrealist in the strange angulations of its guard. It seems like only the boldest officers, like Du Pin, would feel confident enough to carry such an eccentric looking sabre. Yet, a sword built to this amount of precision was probably very costly to make, even with the advent of machine powered factories and crucible steels.
Further research is necessary in order to find out more about the realizations of Marey-Monge, and the implications they might have had on sword design. The lack of interest from historians in this part of his life so far means that there is possibly more to uncover. I hope that this article may help identify further examples of Marey sabres in order to shed light on the avant-garde ideas of their creator.