From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Cavalry saber)
Jump to: navigation, search
Sabre mg 7029.jpg
French sabre of the sailors of the Guard, First Empire.
Type Sword
Service history
Wars Early Modern warfare, Ottoman Wars, Napoleonic Wars, American Revolution, American Civil War, Franco-Prussian War, World War I, Polish-Soviet War
Production history
Produced Early modern period

The sabre (British English) or saber (American English; see spelling differences) is a type of backsword with a curved blade associated with the light cavalry of the Early Modern and Napoleonic periods. Originally associated Central-Eastern European cavalry such as the Hussars, the sabre became widespread in Western Europe in the Thirty Years' War, notably via the Croat light cavalry. Lighter sabres also became popular with infantry of the late 17th century. In the 19th century, models with less curving blades became common and were also used by heavy cavalry. The last sabre issued to US cavalry was the Patton saber of 1913. Szabla wz. 34 was the last sabre issued to the Polish cavalry, in 1934.

The military sabre was used as a duelling weapon in academic fencing in the 19th century, giving rise to a discipline of modern sabre fencing (introduced in the 1896 Summer Olympics) loosely based on the characteristics of the historical weapon in that it allows for cuts as well as thrusts.


English sabre is recorded from the 1670s, as a direct loan from French, where the sabre is an alteration of sable, which was in turn loaned from German Säbel, Sabel in the 1630s. The German word is on record from the 15th century, loaned from Polish szabla, which was itself adopted from Hungarian szabla (14th century, later szablya). The spread of the Hungarian word to neighboring European languages took place in the context of the Ottoman wars in Europe of the 15th to 17th centuries. The spelling saber becomes common in American English in the second half of the 19th century. [1]

The origin of the Hungarian word is unclear. It may itself be a loan from South Slavic (Serbo-Croatian сабља), from a Common Slavic *sablja, which would ultimately derives from a Turkic source.[2] In a more recent suggestion, the Hungarian word may ultimately derive from a Tungusic source, via Kipchak Turkic selebe, with later metathesis (of l-b to b-l) and apocope changed to *seble, which would have changed its vocalisation in Hungarian to the recorded sabla (perhaps under the influence of the Hungarian word szab- "to crop; cut (into shape)".[3]



Further information: Backsword, Makhaira, Falchion, Tulwar, Shamshir, Scimitar, and Pulwar
Medieval (12th century) Central & Eastern European szabla blade.

Though single-edged cutting swords existed in Ancient and Early Medieval Europe, such as the Greek makhaira and the Germanic seax, the direct predecessor of the sabre appears in the context of the Eurasian steppes in the medieval period, connected to the Magyars and the Turkic expansion.[4] 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.[5]

Early modern period[edit]

Further information: Szabla, Karabela, Swiss sabre, and Dusack

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. The adoption of the term is connected to the employment of Hungarian "Hussar" (huszár) cavalry by Western armies at the time.[6] 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.[7] The Hungarian term szablya is ultimately traced to the Northwestern Turkic selebe, with contamination from the Hungarian verb szab "to cut".[8]

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 Commonwealth nobility class, the Szlachta. While designed as a cavalry weapon, it also came to replace various types of straight-bladed swords used by infantry.[9] 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.

Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth[edit]

Main articles: Szabla and Karabela

In the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (16–18th century) a specific type of sabre-like melee weapon, the szabla, was used. Richly decorated sabres were popular among the Polish nobility, who considered it to be one of the most important pieces of men's traditional attire. With time, the design of the sabre greatly evolved in the Commonwealth and gave birth to a variety of sabre-like weapons, intended for many tasks. In the following centuries, the ideology of Sarmatism as well as the Polish fascination with Eastern cultures, customs, cuisine and warfare resulted in the "szabla" becoming an indispensable part of traditional Polish attire.

Modern use[edit]

A British Hussar general with a scabbarded kilij of Turkish manufacture (1812)
The briquet, typical infantry sabre of the Napoleonic Wars.
An Indonesian army officer using a sabre as a ceremonial weapon during a military ceremony
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

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[edit]

Further information: Mameluke sword

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.[citation needed] During the Napoleonic Wars, the French conquest of Egypt brought these beautiful and functional swords to the attention of Europeans.[citation needed] 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).

United States[edit]

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. A War Department circular dated April 18 1934 announced that the saber would no longer be issued to cavalry and was to be completely discarded for use as a weapon. Only dress sabers for use by officers as a badge of rank were to be retained.[10]


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,[11] and the Swedish police forces until 1965.[citation needed]

Contemporary dress uniform[edit]

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[edit]

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[12] as the sport is based on the use of infantry sabres and not cavalry sabres.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ e.g. Report on the Military Academy at West Point, United States Congressional serial set, Volume 1089, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1861, p. 218.
  2. ^ There are some alternative suggestions, deriving the term from a natively Slavic word; e.g. Brückner (Słownik etymologiczny języka polskiego. 1927) adduced Slavi sabl "rooster" and Menges (The Oriental elements in the vocabulary of the oldest Russian epos, 1951) attempted to connect the Arabic saif.
  3. ^ Possible Tungusic cognates include Manchu seleme "dagger", Evenk sälämä "sword", argued to he a natively Tungusic formation of sele "iron" plus a denominal suffix -me by Stachowski (2004). Marek Stachowski, "The Origin of the European Word for Sabre", Studia Etymologica Cracoviensia 9 (2004), p. 135, citing V. Rybatzki, Studia Etymologica Cracoviensia 7 (2002), p. 115), Menges, Ural-altaische Jahrbücher. Neue Folge 3 (1983), p. 125.
  4. ^ Nicolle, D. (2007) Crusader Warfare: Muslims, Mongols and the struggle against the Crusades, p. 175. Fashion, Forensic. "Magyar". Forensic Fashion. Retrieved 2015-07-24. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ Encyclopedia, Online. "HUSSAR". encyclopedia jrank. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 01-08-2015.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  7. ^ 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.[unreliable source?]
  8. ^ Marek Stachowski (2004). "The origin of the European word for sabre" (PDF). Studia Etymologica Cracoviensia. Krakow. 9. 
  9. ^ Alaux, Michel. Modern Fencing: Foil, Epee, and Sabre. Scribner's, 1975, p. 123.
  10. ^ Randy Staffen|pages=76-77 "The Horse Soldier 1776-1943, Volume IV", UE443.S83, University of Oklahoma 1979
  11. ^ BELGIUM SAYS 'NO' TO LEOPOLD (Newsreel). Pathé News. 3 August 1950. 
  12. ^ J. Christoph Amberger, The Secret History of the Sword, 1996 Hammerterz Forum, revised edition 1999 Multi-media Books, Inc.. ISBN 1-892515-04-0
  • W. Kwaśniewicz, Dzieje szabli w Polsce, Warszawa ("History of the Sabre in Poland"), Dom wydawniczy Bellona, 1999 ISBN 83-11-08894-2.
  • Wojciech Zablocki, "Ciecia Prawdziwa Szabla", Wydawnictwo "Sport i Turystyka" (1989) (English abstract by Richard Orli, 2000,
  • Richard Marsden, The Polish Saber, Tyrant Industries (2015)

External links[edit]