Scimitar: How One Sword Dominated Warfare for Centuries
On the coat of arms of Finland, a crowned lion tramples upon a curved sword with his hind paws while brandishing a straight sword in his right forepaw. The straight sword represents Finland, and the curved sword represents Russia. Together, they symbolize the struggle between the West and the East. The curved sword depicted in the coat of arms is not the traditional Russian saber, but its forerunner, the scimitar, a sword found in cultures from North Africa to China.
The Persian word shamshir, meaning “lion’s claw,” is generally acknowledged as the origin of the word scimitar. It had likely entered English usage by the way of French cimiterre or Italian cimitarra, the two Western countries having the most frequent dealings with the Arabs of North Africa and Muslims of the Levant. The curved sword is known by many names. In Arabic, it is known as a saif, in Turkey as a kilij, in Morocco as a nimcha, in Mughal India a tulwar, and in Afghanistan as a pulwar.
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As it adapted the scimitar, each country added its own national characteristics, but the basic definition of a scimitar remained the same. The scimitar is a backward- curved, single-edged sword with a thickened, unsharpened back edge. Due to this distinctive backward curve, scimitars sometimes are referred to as backswords. The blade of a scimitar is generally narrow and equal in width along most of its length. The upper third of the blade either narrows or widens toward the tip, and in some designs the upper third of the back edge of the blade is sharpened as well. Various features differentiate scimitar types, including where along the blade the curve begins, the depth of the curve, and the length, thickness, and weight of the blade. Other unique features include whether it has a blunt or sharp tip, inclusion and shape of the handguard, and shape of the hilt. Although there is no standard scimitar size, the sword is generally 30 to 36 inches in length, weighs approximately two pounds, and is approximately 11/2 inches wide.
While it is a common mistake to regard the scimitar as a weapon exclusive to the Middle Eastern world, scimitars and straight swords existed side by side in the region for millennia. In the 7th century, scimitars first appeared among the Turko- Mongol nomads of Central Asia. A notable exception was the sickle- sword of ancient Egypt, which appeared to be an outgrowth of a battle axe rather than a true sword. As successive waves of nomads spread through Asia, their curved swords were adapted by the Indians, Persians, Arabs, and Chinese. With the steppe warriors migrating farther west, the scimitar entered Eastern Europe by way of Russia and Ukraine. The spread of the scimitar into Central and Western Europe can be tracked linguistically. From sabala of the Turkic-speaking peoples of Central Asia, it became sablya in the Russian language, szabla in Hungarian and Polish, sabel in German, sabre in French, and saber in English.
Growing rapidly in popularity and adapted by more societies, scimitars did not completely replace straight swords. While the curved swords were generally lighter than straight swords of roughly the same length, there were many heavy scimitars and many light straight swords. Likewise, there was no clear distinction of straight swords being employed exclusively in the West, with the scimitars being employed exclusively in the East. During the Latin Crusades both European knights, and Arab cavalry were armed with straight swords. European warriors used falchion swords with a straight blade on one side and a thicker and convex blade on the other. In India, warriors used a heavy straight sword called khanda. But in the Middle East, where lighter armor was worn, the curved sword was more widely adopted.
A continuing challenge for medieval warriors was the contest between thick armor and heavy swords. Because of various climatic, economic, and cultural influences, the Western cultures adapted heavier armor, culminating in full suits of plate armor in the 15th century. Improvements in armor drove the advancement of sword making. As metallurgy techniques improved over centuries, the straight dagger evolved into a long, straight sword. Only the finest crafted straight swords, available to a select group of warriors, could puncture through heavy armor. Most men-at-arms had to make do with cheaper swords, relying on chopping and battering their opponents. Thus the heavy straight swords, acting more like bludgeoning tools, did not require razor-sharp edges.
The weight of the sword influenced the technique with which it was used in fighting. The greater weight of a long sword quickly wore out the swordsman’s wrist. To compensate for this, the long, straight blades were swung in sweeping motions using the momentum of body weight, while the short, straight swords were employed for thrusting in a forward motion. The low center of balance of a straight sword, close to the hilt, was advantageous in delivering piercing strikes.