Fine Antique Arms & Armour

Scottish Officers' back sword of "Pinch of Snuff" type by Thomas Gill of Birmingham Ref: 004.16


Price: £6,250

Item Description:


The attractive and delicate construction of the basket identifies this military sword as a member of a rare and distinctive group of mid to late 18th century Scottish infantry officers' swords.


The complex and unique hilt design, consisting of oval panels of thin rounded bars infilled with shaped bars, is like three depicted in contemporary portraits. The first is a painting dating to 1757 - 1763, called "The Pinch of Snuff" by William Delacour, after which the sword type gained its name, and shows an officer in a Highland Regiment, probably on service in the Americas, with his sword tucked under his arm whilst he pauses to take a pinch of snuff. The painting is illustrated in "History of Highland Dress", John Telfer Dunbar, Oliver & Boyd 1962, Plate 47.


The second shows Colonel William Gordon of Fyvie, in the uniform of the Queens Own Royal Regiment of Highlanders, painted in Rome by Pompeo Batoni in 1766, and illustrated in "The Clans of Scotland", Micheil MacDonald, Brian Trodd Publishing, 1991, Page 108. The third is a painting of an officer in Highland military uniform auctioned by Christies ("Pictures of Scottish Interest", Glasgow, 2nd April 1969, lot 1).


The hilt type was manufactured with two styles of frontal guard loop. One form being a plate fashioned into loops, pierced with a heart, and secured to the front of the hilt by three screws as in the manner of our sword hilt and that featured in the Christies Glasgow portrait. The second form consists of loops integral to the hilt as in a sword illustrated in "Scottish Swords and Dirks", John Wallace, Arms and Armour Press, 1970, fig 44 and as illustrated in the Batoni portrait (this part of the sword is not visible in the Delacour painting).


Some of these swords were manufactured with wrist guards and some with a horseman's oval ring. This example was not made with a wrist guard and has the oval ring feature consisting of a vacant oval panel to the left of the centre line of the hilt when viewed vertically from the front point down.. The hilt retains its original spirally fluted wooden grip with its shagreen covering, brass wire binding and red woollen fringe.


The 18th century backsword blade is 35 inches long and of fine quality with a pronounced fuller extending from the hilt underneath the spine to half way down the blade after which it becomes double edged. Beneath this a shallower fuller extends down the middle of the blade from the hilt almost to the tip.  The "GR" cypher is present either side near the hilt, and on one side, between the cypher and the hilt is the faintly inscribed name "GILL", for Thomas Gill (working in Birmingham 1774 to 1801). The spine of the blade is also inscribed in capital letters with an inscription now worn and feint with the date 178(?). This could well be the name of the maker repeated and the date of manufacture, probably of the early 1780's, which would be consistent with the early part of Gill's career and the peak usage of this sword type.


The pommel is of cone shape and horizontally ribbed, a type which occurs on other Scottish style hilts and seems to be a Scottish invention (see 2 swords with this pommel type in "The Swords and the Sorrows" ref 1:21 page 32, ref 1:24 page 34 plus the silver hilt ref 1:31 page 37 in same which is similar). The pommel has a pronounced neck which sits comfortably in a ring forged around the top of the basket which is attached to the upper ends of the guard arms.

To enquire about this item please click here:

Click a photograph for a large version