Scimitar: How One Sword Dominated Warfare for Centuries

Scimitar: How One Sword Dominated Warfare for Centuries

The scimitar was used in countless battles around the globe. 

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.

When a soldier delivered a swinging blow with a heavy, straight blade, the sword stopped at the point of impact. A sword with very sharp edges would frequently stick in the victim’s body or armor. For a warrior wielding a straight sword, it took conscious effort and training to continue the strike into a pressing motion forward or drawing motion backward. In contrast, a strike with a scimitar, due to body mechanics, naturally followed into a cut, which was vital to a horseman in forward motion. Still, the jarring impact of a sword strike was hard on the wielder’s wrist, whether the blade was straight or curved. For this reason, U.S. cavalry troopers called their heavy Model 1840 saber “Old Wristbreaker.”

Originating in China in the 13th century, firearms capable of penetrating armor from a distance effectively brought an end to heavy swords and thick armor. As armor became lighter over the next three centuries and eventually obsolete, scimitars and sabers came to dominate the contest of swords.

During the Middle Ages, a sword was rarely a warrior’s primary weapon. European knights and men-at-arms used lances for the initial attack and maces, swords, and battle axes in the ensuing melee. The lower classes used polearms, spears, and bow and arrow as their main weapons. Middle Eastern horse archers used composite bows as their primary shock weapon; however, through the cultures of that region the scimitar replaced the straight sword.

In a clash between two swordsmen, the sword rarely played a decisive role by itself. The victory went to the man with better armor, skill, or strength. A man wearing heavy armor had difficulty evading a blow, thus medieval European swordsmanship involved heavy use of blocking techniques. Blocking edge to edge quickly damaged the sword. One technique to overcome this problem was to parry the opponent’s blade with the side of one’s own blade, which involved a slight shift of the wrist. This was much easier done with a lighter curved sword than a heavier straight one, and it required extensive training to make this maneuver a natural one.

The technique of using a light sword was dramatically different from that of a heavy sword. The lighter weight permitted the greater use of the wrist and elbow, which allowed more intricate maneuvers like faints, figure eights, and circles. The primary strikes were cutting and slashing, using the top third of the blade, and and parrying. The center of balance of a curved sword moved farther along the blade, thus adding greater weight to the initial cutting motion.

Curvature of a scimitar greatly reduced its utility when thrusting, and the tips of the scimitars with their greater curvature were frequently left dull. Those with slight curvature, like the Russian shashka, retained the sharp point and could be used in thrusting. When used in this way, the scimitar inflicted a wider cut than a straight sword of similar blade width.

This curvature of the blade roughly divided the scimitars into two categories. One category was that of shorter blades with a pronounced curve, which primarily were used for cutting. The second category was longer blades with a gentle curve, which were used for both cutting and thrusting. Although scimitars were used by both foot and mounted soldiers, they were particularly useful for the light cavalry. It is natural for a warrior to swing a sword, which typically follows a circular downward trajectory. The curved blade allows its wielder to draw it in a tighter arc around the body. This was particularly useful to a cavalryman who had to avoid striking his horse’s head.

After a chopping strike with a curved sword, a blade naturally continued to slide from the point of impact in a cutting motion, thereby extending the cut and allowing its wielder to ride by without losing his grip on the sword. As the result of the chopping blow, delivered in a circular motion, the saber inflicted more serious injuries than a straight sword of the same weight and length. Blades with a greater curvature had a greater cutting effect. While a straight sword penetrated the body to reach vital organs and was deadlier as a rule, a curved sword was fully capable of cleaving open heads and severing limbs. There were recorded instances of particularly powerful blows with a scimitar, delivered at the junction of the neck and shoulder, penetrating deep into the torso. In addition, maiming injuries inflicted with a scimitar had a detrimental effect on morale of the opposing troops, especially on new recruits.