Fact: The Sabre is a design going back more than a millennium
Sword design changed dramatically across the globe over the thousands of years of recorded history of warfare. By the 18th century, a large fraction of the armies of the world were using a sword today called the sabre (or saber) which is a single edged curved sword very different then the straight, double edged blades of the earlier renaissance and middle ages. Although this sword became most popular during the Napoleonic era, the history of the sword goes back hundreds of years earlier, to eastern Europe.
Interested in facts about War? Check out our History of the World Facts Section! (linked)
Shapes of Blades
A sword is a blade used for fighting, made larger than a knife or dagger. Metal swords date back to the early Bronze age, and can be found as early as 3,000 B.C. in Mesopotamia. Bronze blades were primarily made for thrusting, as the metal is not durable enough to allow the cutting potential of later swords.
Common sword designs across Bronze age and Iron age Europe
As technology developed, the introduction of steel allowed many new military designs for both weapons and armor. Swords can be used to attack in 3 different manners: thrusting, cutting, and hacking. These types of attacks are generally mutually exclusive and sword design, and to have a blade designed to do one well, usually will come at the loss of the other strikes.
As examples, blades that have been designed with thrusting emphasized include the renaissance Estoc, and Rapier, blades that emphasize cutting include the Japanese Katana and Persian Shamshir, and blades built for hacking include the Greek Kopis and Nepalese kora. Across the world militaries used different styles of combat, against varieties of armors and opponents, and as a result there was tremendous variation in sword preference for much of antiquity.
By the time of the middle ages, armies in western Europe increasingly fought on foot under heavy armor, first with mail armor, and then steel plate armor. As a result swords became increasingly long and pointed, to allow warriors to find gaps in armor. In doing so the cutting power of the blades was deemphasized. The classic image of the knightly arming sword or long sword exemplifies this trend, which was used from approximately 10th through the 17th century. From the mid 17th century onwards European armies increasingly favored the curved cutting blade of the saber, but what caused the change?
A medieval knightly arming sword vs. a later cavalry Sabre
Not popular, but still existant
While the armies of western Europe, coming out of the migration period increasingly used straight, double edged blades, single edged swords continued to be popular among several groups of people in eastern Europe. The caucus region of eastern Europe makes up the western end of the Eurasian steppe belt, a type of land characterized by treeless grass and shrub plains. This type of land favored military action on horseback instead of on foot, as it allowed horses to travel the easy terrain quickly and safely. It is here, among the nomadic Turkic peoples of the steppes that the Sabre is believed to have originated.
As far back as the 8th century, there are singled edged swords meant for slashing from horseback that are found in the graves of Khazars. These originally were straight, and might be described as ‘proto-sabres’. Over time the technology of blacksmithing allowed for the more complicated curved shape to be created, which in turn improved the slashing effect of the sword.
Above: An Avar sword from the 7-th-9th Century
This type of warfare and weapon followed the Turkic peoples where ever they settled. With turks serving in muslim armies during the late middle ages, the sabres served as inspiration for the 14th century Tulwar in India, the 16th century Shamshir in Persia, and 14th century Ottoman Kilij. In eastern Europe Khazars, Avars, and Bulgars all showed a preference for this lighter more nimble sabres than the broad blades of central Europe. When groups such as the Magyars (Hungarians) transitioned from nomadic lifestyle to settled Kingdom, so two do the former light cavalry and sabre give way to the use of Heavy Cavalry and long sword.
Distribution of Turkic peoples across the steppe belt
The Return of the Sabre
The change in warfare brought about by the rise of firearms had profound impact on armor and weapon use. As guns became more common the usefulness of full plate armor diminished. In turn, as warriors wore lighter and lighter protection, they became more vulnerable to attacks from curved blades and light cavalry. Gone was the need for heavily mounted knights used as shock troops.
For hundreds of years, the invading Turks has exposed Poland and Lithuania to the use of light cavalry and the curved sabre, and finally in 1557 Stephen Bathory reformed the Polish army and marked a sharp movement away from knightly swords, and to a sabre design with Hungarian roots. Both the heavily mounted Hussars and lighter mounted Uhlans used sabres from horseback. So effective were these horsemen and sabre that by the mid 18th century most of the great European powers raised hussar regiments. France, Austria, Prussia, Russia and Britain, all had hussar elements which in turn proliferated the use of the sabre.
After nearly 9 centuries of confinement to eastern Europe, the sabre had become adopted by the most powerful armies in the world during a time of European colonization. As a result, the influences of the western powers, caused the Sabre to travel to Africa, Asia, the Americas, Oceana and of course all of Europe. Even in Japan, with its famed Samurai Swords westernized their national military following the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The traditional Katana were replaced by western style sabres, and stayed in use until 1934 and the build up leading to World War II. Sabres continued to be used on the battlefield both for infantry (as a side arm to officers) and for skirmishing cavalry until the nature of warfare and automatic weapons in the 20th century rendered the use of horse on the battlefield obsolete. Even so, sabres continue to live on serving ceremonial function as blades issued to honor guards, or during military graduations in nations all over the world.
To read more about the popularity of the Sabre visit
- Napoleonic Flame-War ‘Cut vs Thrust’ (http://hroarr.com/napoleonic-flame-war-cut-vs-thrust/)
- United states Marine Corps Symbols: The Sword (https://www.marines.com/history-heritage/symbols)
- The type of Sabre used in Olympic fencing (http://www.hpfc.org.uk/sabre.htm)