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Thread: Gilt Brass Hilts on CW Enlisted Swords

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    Gilt Brass Hilts on CW Enlisted Swords

    I was looking over listings from a major auction house and noticed the statement "Hilt retains about 40-50% gilding" in the description of a M1840 NCO sword being offered. I quite frequently note similar comments on other CW enlisted swords and sabers being offered for sale. I did not think the hilts of enlisted swords of the Civil War era were ever originally gilt. I know the GAR often used gold and/or silver paint for decoration and sometimes plated swords displayed in their halls, but thought the original finishes were plain metal. Am I wrong? Did CW enlisted sword hilts originally have plating? If so, was this always the case or just with some models/makers?

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    Without a picture, how to identify it as not U.S. at all?

    I see innumerable listings that pop up with swords described as the 1840 nco when they are actually European officer swords. There are plenty of the 1816 and later French swords listed as US 1840s. A good many similar in profile were gilt.

    My Roby with the bow and arrow blade etch was once gilt. I do not identify it as an 1840 nco. That a sword may have been gilded (or spray painted) after the fact kind of removes it from the ACW era unless id'd as an 1840 of the ACW or before. Fraternal use or later military association might present a factory, brand new gilt 1840 {not remembering in the fraternal bible but I recall a couple there or in other travels). IIRC, Shiloh has/had a silver plate 1832 foot artillery sword that is an Odd Fellows sword (listed as "unique").

    Does this mean there were not special orders? Sure, why not expect one might turn up.

    Cheers

    Hotspur; the obvious is often the most correct

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    Quote Originally Posted by Glen C. View Post
    Without a picture, how to identify it as not U.S. at all?

    I see innumerable listings that pop up with swords described as the 1840 nco when they are actually European officer swords. There are plenty of the 1816 and later French swords listed as US 1840s. A good many similar in profile were gilt.
    Glen,

    The sword listed in the auction as well as the other CW swords to which I referred are all definitely US Swords. In fact, this sword is quite similar to your Roby which we discussed in another thread. It is a M1840 with a turned-down counterguard similar to the Horstmann purported USMC examples. It differs from yours, however, in that the blade is not etched and it is inspected (FSS) and dated. See atch'd photos. So my question remains, is the gold gilt original or something added later?

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    Last edited by Richard Schenk; 05-21-2015 at 01:51 PM.

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    Does this mean there were not special orders? Sure, why not expect one might turn up.
    That one does not have the scroll work on the guard and it actually looks bent that way rather than cast and the lobes closer in size to each other. My vote is post production, as there is no way Strong would have accepted it as an issue sword.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Glen C. View Post
    That one does not have the scroll work on the guard and it actually looks bent that way rather than cast and the lobes closer in size to each other. My vote is post production, as there is no way Strong would have accepted it as an issue sword.
    I think so too. I see so many references, however, to remaining gilt on the hilts of enlisted CW swords and sabers in listings by reputable auctioneers and dealers that I sometimes wonder if I'm just ignorant, and that in fact at least some enlisted weapons were issued with some type gold wash or plating. I can't imagine the government calling for it and I also find it unlikely the makers would just add it on their own volition, but many of the examples I see so-listed do appear to have remnants of gold, usually well worn and obviously not a recent addition. I suspect they are GAR mementos or surplus swords acquired and used by schools, fraternal groups or others for ceremonial purposes. Do any forum members have an alternative explanation?

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    Its hard to bend yellow brass

    I think most Yankee swords had some sort of glit on them. There is different levels of glit and the main purpose is to prevent tarnish. Most of my Confederate pieces have no glit and some are not buffed out. Glit is fragile and easily polished away but stronger with a higher gold content. Confederates used ram molds so their hilt parts were built linear then bent to shape, hence the high copper content in their brass because a higher copper makes them more malable. The Yankees used high yellow brass with a more zinc content, makes it harder, brighter but more brittle. The factories and technology were in the north. I suspect they used lost wax process. Yellow brass is amost impossible to bend with out cracking. If someone bent your guard they were a master craftsman. These weapons were made for field use and would have needed polishing an a regular basis, with the glit just a quick wipe with a cloth. I have no proof of any of this just my experience building patterns and pouring for Uncle Sam and foundries. Eric
    Last edited by Eric Fairbanks; 05-21-2015 at 10:04 PM. Reason: k instead of q
    The unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people." --- Tench Coxe

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    Ok?....but...there are a lot of deformed 1840s out there. It is not so hard to bend brass and bronze once, a hassle to straighten out, as it work hardens if done cold.

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    You will also see a lot off brass hilts across the board bent and bashed. The upper lip on the cavalry guards done seemingly purposefully (towards the blade) as if to create a hook or thumb rest.

    If gilt was being added as a coating on enlisted swords, there would be records of it in ordnance papers (which is not apparent in communication between the feds and Ames, for a for instance). Nor, in any description of production of enlisted men's swords from Ames, Horstmann and Roby (bios of the histories well noted).

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    My understanding of CW period issue enlisted swords is that they were generally finished bright without plating or wash. I would have no problem with either a gilt wash or finish on a private purchase (read that as un-inspected) enlisted sword. Almost all the plated enlisted swords I have seen have been post-CW period made or used. However, never say never... but I would expect to see CW enlisted swords with a polished finish. That might also include clear lacquer or varnish to protect the polish, which could be mistaken for gilt, IMHO.
    "You can't please everyone, so you have to please yourself." Ricky Nelson

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    George, I had not thought of lacquer or clear coat on polished brass but it would be fairly durable and appear as a low level glit. I have not read the ordnance papers for Ames and do not know if it is mentioned or would be nor which coatings were avaliable at the time. Glen you are right brass can be bent once, but not in an even, consistent manner and not with out stress cracks. You are also correct on the second point in that it can not be straightened, because those stress cracks open up and break. The sword in Richards photo looks even and domed out, perhaps a shadow effect from photo, bent brass would concave in and have cracks. I have two such m1840 NCOs and will post photos Monday. I also have one with glit or partial and will photograph it and see if you gentlemen can give me some insight on it. I have spent zero time on these swords but they are very fascinating in the crisp sharp detail in their casting. To cast them in such detail requiring minimal buffing is remarkable to me. Polishing will not damage detail severely but buffing causes a loss of detail and blurring effect. Eric
    The unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people." --- Tench Coxe

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    Eric,

    Here is a circa 1900 private purchase Musician sword carried by a Militia NCO, according to the records. This post CW enlisted sword has a gilt finish on the brass and a nickel plate on the scabbard, grip, and blade. It is an example of the postwar private purchase enlisted swords with a better than issue finish.

    George
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    I'm pretty sure the grips are run through a knurling machine, which would explain the sharpness of detail we see.. As to bending brass and bronze, I have moved some equally and smoothly a couple of times applying some heat in the process (and a couple cold). The bent back on the cavalry bowls an extreme and without showing.

    The cast Roby examples of the slanted inboard lobes are much smaller than the outer lobe. The auction item Richard is showing is an nco sword that was never meant to be produced with the slant.

    As to ordnance letters, refer to Hicks Ames production and requests. None show any mention of gilding enlisted men's swords. Then consider some passages and notes from Hamilton's Ames history regarding gilt and silver applications. I don't find it unusual and certainly gilding enlisted swords would have been mentioned, or it is a serious omission.

    Compare the sword lobe size of the auction sword to this example of a slanted counter guard from Roby. Note the central bump from bending in the auction sword showing an uneven cup.




    Cheers

    Hotspur; my late musician sword is like Georges, with a metal scabbard and long ricasso but mine lacks the gilding

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    Quote Originally Posted by Glen C. View Post
    The cast Roby examples of the slanted inboard lobes are much smaller than the outer lobe. The auction item Richard is showing is an nco sword that was never meant to be produced with the slant.
    I wouldn't put too much emphasis on the size of the lobes. Attached are photos of a post-1875 Horstmann USMC NCO/musicians sword - note the front and rear lobes are about the same size. That being said, however, I tend to agree with Glen that the bend in the counterguard of the sword with the gilt brass hilt looks post-manufacture. It is hard to tell for sure, however, without examining it in person.

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  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by George Wheeler View Post
    Here is a circa 1900 private purchase Musician sword carried by a Militia NCO, according to the records. This post CW enlisted sword has a gilt finish on the brass and a nickel plate on the scabbard, grip, and blade. It is an example of the postwar private purchase enlisted swords with a better than issue finish.
    A nice looking sword. These late post-CW examples must be relatively scarce – you don’t see many of them. A few years back I passed on the opportunity to buy an etched USMC musicians sword from Tom Coleson (RIP) because it was marked with an 1890s-looking Ridabock & Co address. At the time I, like many others, thought these USMC-etched swords dated from the CW, and a Ridabock marked example seemed suspicious. I wonder if these late swords were produced from scratch, or did companies like Ames and Horstmann still have left over parts from the CW era which they assembled and etched, plated, or whatever as the customer wanted. I suspect they did.

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    I have little doubt that the long ricasso, short fuller blades are German import.



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    Just to revisit re using up surplus blades, on our right in this photo are Horstmann nco and Ames musician blades on militia hilts


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