French sabre of the sailors of the Guard, First Empire.
Type Sword
Service history
Wars Napoleonic Wars, American Revolution, American Civil War, Franco-Prussian War, World War I, Polish-Soviet War
Production history
Produced c. 1800 - present
Blade type Single-edged or double-edged, curved bladed or straight blade, pointed tip.
An Indonesian army officer using a sabre as a ceremonial weapon during a military ceremony

The sabre or saber (see spelling differences) is a type of backsword, usually with a curved, single-edged blade and a rather large hand guard, covering the knuckles of the hand as well as the thumb and forefinger.

Ultimately based on a medieval type of single-edged weapon and European backsword, the sabre was adopted as the weapon of heavy cavalry in Early Modern warfare. Although sabres are typically thought of as curved-bladed slashing weapons, those used by the heavy cavalry of the 17th to 19th centuries often had straight and even double-edged blades more suitable for thrusting.

The length of sabres varied, and most were carried in a scabbard hanging from a shoulder belt known as a baldric or from a waist-mounted sword belt, usually with slings of differing lengths to permit the scabbard to hang below the rider's waist level.



Medieval (12th century) Central & Eastern European szabla blade.

Sabre-like curved backswords have been in use in Europe since the early medieval period (some early examples include the falchion and the Byzantine paramērion). The oldest well-documented "sabres" are those found in 9th- and 10th-century graves of Magyars (Hungarians) who entered the Carpathian Basin at this time.[1] These oldest sabres had a slight curve, short, down-turned quillons, the grip facing the opposite direction to the blade and a sharp point with the top third of the reverse edge sharpened.[2]

The introduction of the sabre proper in Western Europe, along with the term sabre itself, dates to the 17th century, via influence of the Eastern European szabla type ultimately derived from these medieval backswords.[3] The adoption of the term is connected to the employment of Hungarian "Hussar" (huszár) cavalry by Western armies at the time.[4] Hungarian hussars were employed as light cavalry, with the role of harassing enemy skirmishers, overrunning artillery positions, and pursuing fleeing troops. In the late 17th and 18th centuries, many Hungarian hussars fled to other Central and Western European countries and became the core of light cavalry formations created there.[5] The Hungarian term szablya is ultimately traced to the Northwestern Turkic selebe, with contamination from the Hungarian verb szab "to cut".[6]

Early modern use

Main article: Szabla

The original type of sabre, or Polish szabla, was used as a cavalry weapon, possibly inspired by Hungarian or wider Turco-Mongol warfare.

The Karabela was a type of szabla popular in the late 17th century, worn by the Polish, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian nobility class, the Szlachta. While designed as a cavalry weapon, it also came to replace various types of straight-bladed swords used by infantry.[7] The Swiss sabre originates as a regular sword with a single-edged blade in the early 16th century, but by the 17th century begins to exhibit specialized hilt types.

Modern use

A British Hussar general with a scabbarded kilij of Turkish manufacture (1812)
The briquet, typical infantry sabre of the Napoleonic Wars.
French Navy sabre of the 19th Century, "boarding sabre".
Lieutenant Colonel Teófilo Marxuach's M1902 Officer's Sabre and Scabbard at the National Historic Trust site at Castillo San Cristobal in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Sabre of Nikola Šubić Zrinski, Ban (Viceroy) of Croatia (16th century)

The sabre saw extensive military use in the early 19th century, particularly in the Napoleonic Wars, during which Napoleon used heavy cavalry charges to great effect against his enemies. Shorter versions of the sabre were also used as sidearms by dismounted units, although these were gradually replaced by fascine knives and sword bayonets as the century went on. Although there was extensive debate over the effectiveness of weapons such as the sabre and lance, the sabre remained the standard weapon of cavalry for mounted action in most armies until World War I. Thereafter it was gradually relegated to the status of a ceremonial weapon, and most horse cavalry was replaced by armoured cavalry from 1930 on.

Napoleonic era

The elegant but effective 1803 pattern sword that the British Government authorized for use by infantry officers during the wars against Napoleon featured a curved sabre blade which was often blued and engraved by the owner in accordance with his personal taste. Europeans rekindled their interest in sabres inspired by the Mameluke sword, a type of Middle Eastern scimitar, encountered due to their confrontations with the Mamelukes in the late 18th century and early 19th century. The Mamluks were originally of Turkish descent; the Egyptians bore Turkish sabres for hundreds of years. During the Napoleonic Wars, the French conquest of Egypt brought these beautiful and functional swords to the attention of Europeans. This type of sabre became very popular for light cavalry officers, in both France and Britain, and became a fashionable weapon for senior officers to wear. In 1831, the "Mamaluke" sword became a regulation pattern for British general officers, as well as officers of the United States Marine Corps (and is still in use today).

Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth

In the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (16–18th century) a specific type of sabre-like melee weapon, the szabla, was used. The Don Cossacks used the shashka, (originating from Circassian "sashho" - big knife) and sablja (from Circassian "sa" - knife and "blja" - snake) , which also saw military and police use in the Russian Empire and early Soviet Union.

United States

The American victory over the rebellious forces in the citadel of Tripoli in 1805, during the First Barbary War, led to the presentation of bejewelled examples of these swords to the senior officers of the US Marines. Officers of the US Marine Corps still use a mameluke-pattern dress sword. Although some genuine Turkish kilij sabres were used by Westerners, most "mameluke sabres" were manufactured in Europe; although their hilts were very similar in form to the Ottoman prototype, their blades, even when an expanded yelman was incorporated, tended to be longer, narrower and less curved than those of the true kilij.

In the American Civil War, the sabre was used infrequently as a weapon, but saw notable deployment in the Battle of Brandy Station and at East Cavalry Field at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Many cavalrymen—particularly on the Confederate side—eventually abandoned the long, heavy weapons in favour of revolvers and carbines.

The last sabre issued to US cavalry was the Patton saber of 1913, designed to be mounted to the cavalryman's saddle.


During the 19th and into the early 20th century, sabres were also used by both mounted and dismounted personnel in some European police forces. When the sabre was used by mounted police against crowds, the results could be appalling, as portrayed in a key scene in Doctor Zhivago. The sabre was later phased out in favour of the baton, or nightstick, for both practical and humanitarian reasons. The Gendarmerie of Belgium used them until at least 1950,[8] and the Swedish police forces until 1965.

Contemporary dress uniform

Further information: Dress uniform, ceremonial sword, and Color guard

Swords with sabre blades remain a component of the dress uniforms worn by most national Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine and Coast Guard officers. Some militaries also issue ceremonial swords to their highest-ranking non-commissioned officers; this is seen as an honour since, typically, non-commissioned, enlisted/other-rank military service members are instead issued a cutlass blade rather than a sabre. Sword deployments in the modern military are no longer intended for use as weapons, and now serve primarily in ornamental or ceremonial functions. As such, they are typically made of stainless steel, a material which keeps its shine bright but is much too brittle for direct impacts, let alone full blade-on-blade combat, and may shatter if such usage is attempted. One distinctive ceremonial function a sabre serves in modern times is the Saber arch, performed for servicemen or women getting married.

Modern sport fencing

Main article: Sabre (fencing)

The modern fencing sabre bears little resemblance to the cavalry sabre, having a thin, 88 cm (35 in) long straight blade. One of the three weapons used in the sport of fencing, it is a very fast-paced weapon with bouts characterized by quick footwork and cutting with the edge. The only allowed target area is from the waist up - the region a mounted man could reach on a foe on the ground.

The concept of attacking above the waist only is a 20th-century change to the sport; previously sabreurs used to pad their legs against cutting slashes from their opponents. The reason for the above waist rule is unknown[9] as the sport is based on the use of infantry sabres and not cavalry sabres.

See also


  1. Fashion, Forensic. "Magyar". Forensic Fashion. Retrieved 2015-07-24.
  2. Imperial, Manning. "Catalogue". Manning Imperial. Manning Imperial. Retrieved 2015-07-24. Lángó, Péter. "Archaeological Research on the Conquering Hungarians. A Review.". Retrieved 2015-07-24.
  3. The English word saber derives from the French sabre which is akin to the Hungarian szablya, Polish szabla, and Russian сабля (sablya).
  4. Encyclopedia, Online. "HUSSAR". encyclopedia jrank. Encyclopeadia Britannica. Retrieved 01-08-2015. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  5. Bavaria raised its first hussar regiment in 1688 and a second one in about 1700. Prussia followed suit in 1721 when Frederick the Great used hussar units extensively during the War of the Austrian Succession. France established a number of hussar regiments from 1692 onward, recruiting originally from Hungary and Germany, then subsequently from German-speaking frontier regions within France itself. The first hussar regiment in France was founded by a Hungarian lieutenant named Ladislas Ignace de Bercheny.
  6. Marek Stachowski (2004). "The origin of the European word for sabre" (PDF). Studia Etymologica Cracoviensia. Krakow. 9.
  7. Alaux, Michel. Modern Fencing: Foil, Epee, and Sabre. Scribner's, 1975, p. 123.
  8. BELGIUM SAYS 'NO' TO LEOPOLD (Newsreel). Pathé News. 3 August 1950.
  9. J. Christoph Amberger, The Secret History of the Sword, 1996 Hammerterz Forum, revised edition 1999 Multi-media Books, Inc.. ISBN 1-892515-04-0

External links

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