View Full Version : The History of the Mameluke Sword of the United States Marine Corps

01-01-04, 05:02 PM
The History of the Mameluke Sword of the United States Marine Corps

by James E. McDougall

Dating back to the Uniform Regulations of 1826, Marine Corps officers have worn the
Mameluke sword in commemoration of 1stLt Presley O’Bannon’s assault on Derna, Tripoli.
The distinctive sword traditionally awarded to officers of the U.S. Marine Corps represents one of the most historic events in the early history of this distinguished branch of our Armed Forces and is based on a form of Turkish saber associated with that event. The Marine sword has become known as a Mameluke sword. The name refers primarily to the shape of the hilt that is a form that originated in the Ottoman Empire in about the 17th century. The Islamic sabers of this form were typically mounted with deeply curved blades and are known in Arabic as either shamshir or kilic1 depending on certain features of the blade shape. While the term Mameluke, as we have noted, applies to the hilt, the term is seldom used for the Turkish form hilts in the terminology of arms study. The designation Ottoman hilt is preferred. The Mameluke2 term became affixed colloquially to Turkish sabers of this form not only by American forces, but also by those of England and France during their campaigns in Egypt at the beginning of the 19th century. The magnificent and colorful Mamluk warriors they encountered during these campaigns made a monumental impression on them, especially the beautiful, yet deadly sabers they used with devastating effect.

It is important to understand that while the Mamluks were warriors, they were essentially the military ruling class of Egypt and had been since the 13th century. Even more interesting is the fact that, by tradition, they consisted predominantly of young boys who were purchased in either Turkey or the Caucusus specifically for military service. The Arabic term Mamluk actually means “slave,” and these boys were essentially freedmen who officered the military, and select individuals of them became the Sultan. The ruling dynasties of Mamluks became the sovereigns of Egypt—and often Syria—and while technically overthrown in 1517 when the Ottoman Empire took over Egypt, they remained nominally in power although under the suzerainty of Ottoman rulers. Without trying to further detail the obvious complexities and political intrigues of centuries of Mamluk dominance in Egypt, it can be simply defined that they were a military order of acquired foreign warriors who were traditionally placed in royal accord and power.

Having established who the Mamluks were, we may return to our subject matter and consider specifically the swords used by them. It is clear that the sabers observed being carried by the Mamluks in the beginning of the 19th century would not have been the same as the swords used in the 13th century—in the time of the Crusades. Despite many romanticized notions that suggest that the Islamic swords of the times were curved sabers, this was rarely the case.3 Most of the swords used by Muslim armies during the Crusades loosely resembled European swords and were straight bladed with simple hilts and crossguards. The hilts on Islamic swords, however, already had begun to exhibit the tendencies of Muslim sword combat technique as the hilts were often slightly canted to the side to apply impetus to the slashing cut. The well-known curved sabers of Islam evolved gradually from those sword forms typically used by westward moving tribes of nomadic warriors, including the ever-encroaching Mongol Golden Horde. The enlarged or perpendicularly projected pommels that developed on the hilts of these various sabers from about the 15th to 17th centuries served as a practical feature to basically prevent the swordsman’s hand from sliding down the grip, as well as to ensure a firmly seated grip in combat. One form of enlarged pommel that became well-known within the Ottoman Empire in about the late 16th to early 17th century was the bulbous pommel that gave these hilts the appearance of the butt of a flintlock pistol. This particular hilt form became distinctly associated with the Ottomans and was clearly the hilt form seen on the sabers of the Mamluks by European military forces on campaign in Egypt.

At the end of the 18th century, Egypt had been occupied by Napoleon’s forces. During campaigns there, Napoleon and his staff had been more than impressed by the valor of the Mamluk warriors in combat. When Napoleon returned to France he arranged for a regiment of Mamluks to be placed as an auxiliary unit of the French cavalry. The original units were comprised of actual Mamluk warriors who fought brilliantly in ensuing campaigns on the Continent, further impressing all with their reputation for magnificence in battle.4 The French officers accordingly sought to wear the exotic sabers of the Mamluks themselves, and these became quite popular in military fashion. The British, who had also encountered the Mamluks, were equally impressed, and cavalry officers also sought these dashing sabers for unofficial wear. Eventually these sabers, now referred to as Mamelukes, became a regulation pattern for British general officers in 1831.5

Independent of the campaigns of the French and British in Egypt, to the west on the coast of what is now Libya, the United States was experiencing diplomatic problems with the well-known Barbary pirates of Tripoli. To ensure safety of unarmed merchant vessels trading in the Mediterranean, an arrangement for paying tribute had been in place for a number of years. The Pasha, or ruler, of Tripoli had become displeased with the amount of tribute he was receiving in comparison to that of the other Barbary powers, so he had officially declared war on the United States in 1801. It was decided to restore the previous ruler, Pasha Hamet—who was friendly to the United States—to the throne in hopes of resuming diplomatic relations. From 1801 through 1804 there were significant naval actions along the Barbary Coast that included blockades and other engagements, but by November 1804 a plan was made to finally replace the Pasha Hamet to his rightful throne. The American brig Argus was sent to locate the now reluctant Pasha who had fled to Egypt with his Tripolitan followers to join the Mamluks. Aboard the Argus were 7 Marines and 1 officer—1stLt Presley O’Bannon—instead of the 100 that were originally requested for the mission. In those early years of our country’s military, the Marines were essentially contingents of soldiers placed aboard naval vessels for off-vessel combat duties. This particular mission would well meet that description, as this small Marine detachment was to march across 550 miles of desert and attack the fortress at Derna, Tripoli. In Egypt both European mercenaries and Arabs were hired by the expedition to complete forces for the attack.

After completing this amazing march through the desert, the Marine detachment led the attack on the fortress with “great ferocity,” as claimed by the Arab defenders. The fortress fell on 27 April 1805, and the completion of the mission was a success, despite later problems with the restoration of Pasha Hamet to the throne. The bravery of the Marines was well-established with this great action, and Pasha Hamet, in appreciation and admiration, presented 1stLt O’Bannon his own jeweled Mameluke sword.6

The first official regulation designating the Mameluke hilted swords for Marine officers came on 26 April 1825, but it is known that they had been worn unofficially for some year’s prior.7 These distinctive swords have prevailed through many regulation changes as the officially recognized sword for Marine officers. To the present day, one of the most honored traditions in the U.S. Marine Corps is the presentation of the official Mameluke sword to its officers in honor of those Marines’ heroism on the “shores of Tripoli” in 1805.


01-01-04, 05:03 PM

1. The word shamshir is Persian meaning, literally, “curved like the tiger’s nail” and refers, as noted, primarily to the blade that is generally deeply curved and single-edged with the cutting edge gradually radiused to a sharp point. These deeply curved blades—although with a sharp point—were designed distinctly for the favored Oriental draw cut and are useless for thrusting. The term kilic (pronounced kilij) is a Turkish term, meaning, literally, sword but is generally applied specifically to the bulbous pommel hilt distinctive to these Ottoman sabers. One of the key features of the blades on these is that they generally have a widened tip of varied degree that is sharpened at the back.

2. The term Mameluke is actually the Anglicized word used to describe the sword form from the Arabic, Mamluk.

3. Abdel Rahman Zaky in his “Medieval Arab Arms” (Islamic Arms and Armour, ed. Robert Elgood, London, 1979, p. 211) states, “Clearly the Arab blades of the seventh to the thirteenth centuries were straight, broad and usually double edged, being fitted with a cross-hilt or having quillons with curved down finials.” Zaky does note, however, on the same page that references of the 14th century do illustrate slightly curved blades, thus suggesting these becoming more prevalent by then. There are certain to have been instances of curved blades earlier but these were, of course, an exception to the typically used swords.

4. Martel, Col J., “The Arrival of the Mamelukes in France,” Campaigns, #1, November/December 1975, pp. 9–10.

5. Robson, Brian, Swords of the British Army, London, 1975, p. 145.

6. McCarthy, Norman, “Legend Etched in Desert Sand,” Great Battles in Military History, March 1988, pp. 26–32.

7. Peterson, Harold L., The American Sword,” 1954, 3d edition, Philadelphia, 1973, pp. 166–172.

>Mr. McDougall has studied the history and development of swords and edged weapons for nearly 30 years. He has been a member of various armament societies in England, Denmark, and Sweden. He is a private researcher on antique weapons.