why do royal navy officers carry their swords

Recently there has been an resurgence in the belief that naval officers carry their swords as a mark of disgrace, usually associated with the actions of the Admiralty following the mutiny at the Nore in 1797. PP This belief has no basis in fact whatsoever. PP To illustrate, here is a short history of the method by which naval officers have worn their swords. Recently there has been an resurgence in the belief that naval officers carry their swords as a mark of disgrace, usually associated with the actions of the Admiralty following the mutiny at the Nore in 1797. PP This belief has no basis in fact whatsoever. PP To illustrate, here is a short history of the method by which naval officers have worn their swords.


Officers were first granted a uniform in 1748, however no regulations regarding the wearing of swords was detailed. PP At this time officers wore their swords from a shoulder belt, something which can be seen in many portraits of officers of the time. A regulation sword was introduced in 1805 at which time ordered that the sword would be hung from a cavalry-type waist belt, which had two slings of different length, so that the sword trailed on the ground. PP It is perhaps relevant to note that at this time appearance was more important that serviceability in uniforms.


P A regulation of 1825 stated that sword belts in dress uniform were to be of silk, but that a black leather belt could be worn in undress uniform. In 1827 a new pattern of sword was introduced and again the regulations for wear were amended, this time by reverting to a shoulder belt, worn under the waistcoat. PP Silk sword belts were restricted to wear in the drawing room only. PP A black leather belt with a frog to hold the sword was introduced for wear with great coats in 1829. The regulations were amended again in 1832 with the sword to be worn on a waist belt, suspended from slings of unequal length again. PP This was further changed in 1847 when the slings were to be of equal length.


In 1856 sword belts reverted to slings of different length and this remains the case to the present day. PP The actual length of the slings depends on the height of the wearer, generally the longer sling being twice the length of the shorter. PP Today the length of the slings can be altered at will by a buckle fitted to each sling. The various changes over the years are occasionally reflected in the fittings on the lockets on the scabbard. PP In the Museum collection is an 1827 pattern sword which dates from around 1832, it being fitted with rings for unequal slings and the button for wearing in the frog with a great coat.


PP For a fuller description of the development of sword belts, including their decoration, see the article by John Carter in
The Raggie, December 1993. The mark of disgrace is a nice story (if you're from the other Services) but is more than likely to be untrue - the Spithead Mutiny (which caused the disgrace) happened long before Queen Victoria's time, when the regulations for carrying of swords became uniform. The 'officer, not a gentleman' carries a bit more weight as, at the time, the RN was unique in selecting their officers on merit rather than how much money you had (you could buy a commission in the Army, not in the Navy).


In the past, Army officers had loose scabbards too (the fashion at one point being to make the scabbard drag on the ground to get attention, hence the term 'sabre rattling'). Here's an illustration of some Army gents of old - note the RN-style scabbard on long straps: Seeing as both services wore their swords the same way and changed, the most likely explanation is that field drill evolved and scabbards were worn on belts for practicality, but as the RN tended to spend more of their time on ships than square bashing, they probably saw no need to update their sword-carrying regulations.