How do Marines Earn Their Sword?
When an enlisted Marine reaches the rank of Corporal (E-4 pay grade) they become a non-commissioned officer (NCO) and are entitled to carry the traditional Marine Corps NCO Sword. This is a significant promotion—as a Corporal and beyond, Marines are directly responsible for the well-being of their junior Marines. With this promotion comes several uniform changes for the Dress Blues to symbolize the step forward. One of the more noticeable changes is the addition of "blood stripes" on the trousers. These are red stripes down the outside part of each leg. Less noticeable, but equally significant is that the belt buckle is no longer plain brass, it will now have an eagle, globe, and anchor as a symbol of the Marine Corps. Getting to the focus of this article; the Marine also earns the right to buy and carry the NCO sword.
The USMC sword is the oldest authorized weapon in America's military. Previously a practical item used in battle, it now has a different place in our arsenal. It remains an official weapon because we use it for drill and ceremonies, and it is an excellent item to display even if you are no longer in the active or reserve services, and also makes a great family heirloom. Marine Corps recruiting advertisements often utilize the sword in combination with the Dress Blue uniform as a symbol of the Marines. It is a beautiful dress item, as well as a great heirloom item. It also reminds us of the history of the Corps and its battles.
When you go to purchase a sword, there are specific guidelines to how the sword fits the individual, specifically the length of the sword. This article will show you these standards so that you don't end up with a sword that doesn't fit you. This should also be considered if you intend to buy a sword as a gift to a Marine friend or relative.
USMC Sword Arch Wedding Ceremony
Are Officer and Enlisted Swords Different?
Make Sure You Are Getting the Right One!
The first step is to make sure you are getting the proper item. If you are a Marine, this is probably obvious, but family members who intend to purchase a gift sword may not know the difference. Marine ceremonial swords come in two main varieties, Officer's Swords, and Non-Commissioned Officer's Swords. This is important to know, so you don't get a sword you can't use, or gift someone the wrong kind, as they can't be interchanged among ranks as a uniform item, and they each have a different history and meaning behind them. While both are well earned, you don't want to get them switched up!
If you are buying for someone else, and you are not sure if they are an Officer or Enlisted, you can simply ask them what rank they are, and it won't give away your secret gift idea. If you can't ask because they may be overseas or just not available, there are easy ways to tell them apart with a recent picture of them in uniform. If they have a Facebook page, there is a good chance you could find a picture there to reference. Enlisted ranks above Private (E-1, which is displayed as no insignia) are all based on stripes. If your Marine has stripes on their uniform, such as this picture of several different rank insignia pins, then they are Enlisted. This also adds "rockers" below the crossed swords once they become a Staff Sergeant or higher, represented by a rounded gold stripe that matches the contour of the bottom of the rank pictured. If they have silver or gold bars, oak leaves, birds, or stars, they are Officers. On dress uniforms, Officers wear their ranks on the top of the shoulders, while Enlisted Marines wear their ranks on the sleeves. In utility uniforms, all Marines wear rank on the lapels of the collar. Note however that Straight bars at a 45-degree angle just above the Dress uniform cuffs are not a rank but signify years of service as four years per "hash mark".
Once you have identified the type of Sword you need, I will explain the difference. Most noticeably is the handle of the sword. Marine NCO swords have a knuckle guard that goes from the bottom of the handle to the top, making a loop over the hand, and this is displayed in the intro picture. Officer Swords will have no guard, and they are most often called the Mameluke sword. Both will have etchings on the blade with the words "United States Marine Corps" printed on the side among the etchings in large letters. Now that you can tell the difference, we can move on to the shopping stage for more specifics about the swords themselves.
Shopping For the USMC Sword
If you are planning on using a sword just for one ceremony, and not interested in buying one to keep, you should check with your unit's supply section. I have seen that they often have quite a few for ceremonies to lend out. These tend to be well-worn, so if you plan to use it for a personal event like a wedding, it may be worth the investment to buy your own to look sharp, as well as be able to keep it.
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Once you are ready to make a purchase, decide how you want to proceed. If you are buying the sword for yourself, consider going to a military clothing store if there is one near to you. This will allow you to actually "try on" the sword and make sure you get exactly what you want. If this is not an option, you can also order online. I caution you to look up references, though, as a sword can run up to $300 or more, depending on how high you want to go. This can be in the form of gold and silver trims or high-quality material for the handle, its all up to the buyer on the model and design of the sword. You don't want to buy from a company and later find out they are not good quality, so try to Google the information. There should be plenty of customer reviews, especially if you use Amazon sellers.
What Size Sword do You Need?
The fit of the sword is determined by the "carry sword" position, where the Marine is standing almost at attention, except the right hand is holding the sword handle while the arm is fully extended downward, with the sword standing upright, blade leaning against the shoulder. In this position, the tip of the sword should be even with the opening of the ear, or about eye level. Swords often come in 2-inch blade increments from 28" to 34", but I have found some sellers have 1-inch increments and go as short as 26 inches. For gift buyers, you can use a size chart, which will most likely give a decent fit, but long arms and such might cause it to be a little off. Here is a very basic guide for sword sizing, but if possible I would always recommend getting a hands-on fitting.
Marine Sword Length Chart
|Your Height||Suggested Blade Length|
5'6" to 5'7"
5'8" to 5'9"
5'10" to 5'11"
6' to 6'1"
6'2" to 6'3"
History of Marine Corps Swords
The Officer's Sword
The modern Officer Dress Sword was presented to First Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon as a gift for the victory in the Battle of Derne During the Barbary Wars in 1805. Later, in 1825, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Archibald Henderson, adopted a sword based on this gift to be worn by Officers. It has been worn ever since, with the exception of 1859 to 1875, when an Army design was adopted and later reverted to the original. There was also a period of World War II when swords were suspended from use. This may have been due to rationing of materials, but I have not found a direct statement on this particular matter.
At the time of the Barbary Wars, Marines were just extra men on ships assigned to handle tasks on land. The Battle of Derna was intended to field 100 Marines, but only seven were made available plus one officer, Lt. O'Bannon. With the help of mercenaries, these Marines marched 550 miles across the desert to attack the fortress in Tripoli. The assault was described as "ferocious" by the Arab defenders, and the success of this battle also contributes the portion of the Marine Corps Hymn that references "to the shores of Tripoli."
The NCO Sword
In 1859 the sixth Commandant of the Marine Corps, Colonel John Harris, authorized the NCO sword to enlisted Marines of the grade Corporal and above. It is cited that this is in honor of their leadership in combat. This is one of the most symbolic items in the Marine Corps besides the uniforms themselves. It can be seen as a symbol of authority and honor, and whenever a Marine carries a sword, you can count on people wanting to really take a good look at it. The 6 point star on the blade is not a religious Star of David, but a marker that craftsmen and blacksmiths used called a Star of Damascus. It is intended to show the quality of work and craftsmanship.