Think of the pirate, for a moment. What is it that you see in your mind's eye?
Perhaps you see a leering, scurvy-raddled scalliwag, with ragged-edged trousers, stubble, and a kercheif on his head.
Perhaps you see the black ensign, the Jolly Roger rippling in the breeze of a Caribbean Sea.
Perhaps you see a nattily dressed Captain, with bucket-top boots, a long frock coat, and a parrot upon his shoulder.
There are certain symbols of our conception of what is and is not a pirate, that are near universal - the cocked hat, the black powder pistol, the peg leg: and the one thing that no decent pirate, or any fighting man on the sea, for that matter, would be caught without, is the cutlass.
Oh, the cutlass! That most piratical of instruments - a sword dedicated almost solely to fighting on the wooden decks of a man-of-war in the age of fighting sail. Has any fighting man ever been more inexctricably wound up in the weapon with which he plies his trade? For sure, the knights of legend used a lance at the charge, but sword and shield were also of paramount importance. Perhaps the samurai and his katana are wed as closely as a pirate and his cutlass, and let me not detract from the noble worthiness of the samurai. But frankly, they didn't drink rum,and were rarely in the company of monkeys, and so we will discount them.
Consider how crucial the cutlass was to Naval life - so much so that indeed, the U.S. Navy created a manual for its instruction, and the proper use and teaching method for its employ.
The word itself first appeared as "coute-lace" in 1594, as a derivation of the French "coutelas" - and curiously is not in any way related to the word "cut" which comes from a wholly different root. What is it, then, that makes a cutlass uniquely a cutlass?
To be sure, the cutlass is first and foremost a chopping weapon. Although it has a point (as any weapon which tapers by necessity must) it is not intended for thrusting; the cutlass is point-heavy, curved, and broad of blade. More often that not, we find that the cutlass also has a hand guard, most often a basket, although occasionally also a bell, or even a simple post, running from hilts to pommel. Why put a basket on a chopping weapon, we might ask?
Consider that a cutting weapon would infrequently be used in quatre, but far more often in the tierce, which is to say in an offensive posture. This is because the cutlass is a large and slow weapon, and any swordsman who allows himself to be put on his guard with such a weapon is most likely going to end up quite permanently incapable of rendering an affective offense, which is to say; dead. The broad blade itself, which is also curved would be of such a shape as to guide any cut or thrust that were parried away from the hilts, rendering the likelihood of damage to the cutlass-weilder's hand unlikely. I therefore submit that the basket or guard of any sort of a cutlass is not intended to protect the hand, but rather to damage the face or person of the indvidual upon whom the cutlass is being practiced. Perhaps it could be argued that it also counter-balances the weight of the heavy blade, but we much prefer the notion that it is intended as an offense to noses.
Even upon observing the cutlass, we may make certain notes; it will not be quick to wield, it will not have long reach, most especially because it is a short weapon, but also because a cut has less range than a thrust, and it will likely result in either superficial slashing wounds, or deep rents in those so struck.
The reader may be wondering why we are going on at such length about the cutlass, and so we will confess, it is because we have recently come into posession of one. We have in the past entertained the notion that the cutlass was an inelegant weapon, and we now report that this indeed the case. It is far heavier than one might imagine, and not well-suited to pretty displays of fencing or swordsmanship. On the other hand, that very weight of the cutlass imparts a certain confidence in the wielder, a sense that even if one's very pretty and well-manipulated epee were put in the way of the cutlass, that it would have little effect no matter how adroit the parry. The weight of the cutlass is such that its attack will likely not be denied. Further, it is simple in design and use, which is well-suited to a complicated life at sea wherein the mastery of various ropes, knots, sailing practices, rum-drinking, swiving, hornpipe dancing, and other sundry piratical skills would be such as to leave little time for the practice of arms. Therefore, one may pick up a cutlass and a flintlock pistol, and put paid to all the hours of practice of whatever nancyboy with an epee should foolishly attempt to defend the contents of his vessel's hold.
In short, with cutlass in hand, one feels a nigh irresistable urge to, in the words of famous curmudgeon H.L. Mencken, "Spit into his hands, hoist the Jolly Roger and slit some throats."
We do not doubt that throat so slit would be deeply irreperable. Our cutlass is hanging on the wall against just such a necessity.