| Giving a short list of sword types
seems to be easy. Well - it isn't. For one thing, it will never end because
every culture / civilization or language group had and has plenty of sword
types and words for them, most of them unknown outside that culture /
civilization or language group, thank God. But some of these words made it to
other groups already in the past, and more and more outlandish denominations
make it into English or German right now. Unfortunately, the precise meaning,
if it was known at all, may get lost in the process.
Contrariwise, one and the same word might have different meanings here or there or then and now. Not to mention that there is no 1 : 1 correlation between translations from language to language. The English "broadsword" translates properly to a German "Korbschwert" (=basket sword). The direct translation would be "Breitschwert". This term does exist in German - but it denotes something quite different from a "broadsword".
|Only one thing seems to be certain: any short definition of some term, no matter which one, will bring in protests from some camp of believers out there. So let me state on the outset: whatever I write further down, my heart isn't in it. Correct me if you like. I'll go along with you - until the next correction comes in.|
|My own interest is not so much about the name associated with a particular type of sword but about its metallography. Since correlating sword types to metallography is mostly not a sensible thing to do, my next question is why some particular kind of sword existed at all? The user had always access to or at least some knowledge of some other types. Why did the crusaders not switch from their long straight swords to the curved ones of their opponents and vice versa? Why was the Greek kopis / falcata not used by the Romans but by their Hispanic adversaries?|
|I know that form often follows function, and that you have to consider stabbing / thrusting vs. slashing / cutting and so on. Fighting on foot or from horseback demands different kinds of weapons, and so does the kind of armor in use during a particular era. But that does not not explain half of it. What is the advantage of a Yatagan (concave curved) relative to a scimitar (convex curved)? Blades with rather similar shapes often have quite different hilts. Why? What function was optimized?|
| Form follows function but there are
often quite different forms for the same function (like attracting members of
the opposite sex; fashion in clothing relies on that but differs mightily). The
hilts shown above would all go with one and the same blade, and one might ask
which one is "best". One just won't get a clear answer.
I'm not saying that there aren't any answers to some of these questions. There are - but not to all questions. And keep in mind that some of these answers might be wrong. Worse, there might be several and possibly conflicting answers.
|Quite frustrating - and quite interesting! If the present fascination with old swords and old ways of fighting with swords continues, we will get more answers and in parallel more insights into our history.|
|In what follows I just share with you
what I found out about the topic without actually doing much research.
Wikipedia was very helpful but I neither claim completeness nor accuracy.
I start with a table containing major sword types plus some types occurring somewhere in the Hyperscript. The links in the left column of the table lead to some more involved description further down, other links lead to modules in the bulk of the Hyperscript. Some terms highlighted in red and italics you find explained either somewhere in this module or in the glossary.
|Akinaka (Akinakes, Akinka, ...))|
|Type of dagger or short sword that
was made from bronze or iron (and occasionally gold) in more or less the same
shape / fashion. It was used mainly in the first millennium BC in the eastern
Mediterranean region by al and sundry. It is often associated with the
Skythians and found in their "Kurgan" or "tumulus" .
substantial burial mound found all over Eurasia. The stuff in there could be
perfectly preserved as we see below.
In ancient lirerature it is rarely mentions and then referred to as "Persian sword".
It can be seen in ancient art, however; where the King's bodyguards and important nobles wear an akinaka - here is an example.
|The technology of iron akinakes and
theri influence on the development on iron an steel technology in the west is
not all that well known.
More to Akinaka can be found here; including a picture of the famous golden one.
|Arming sword (Ritterschwert=knight's sword; Kampfschwert=fighting sword; Breitschwert=literally broadsword)|
|The term is not very popular but
describes "the" quintessential European sword; the basic kind of
sword most people would describe if asked "what is a sword"?
"The arming sword (also sometimes called a knight's or knightly sword) is a type of European sword with a single-handed cruciform hilt and straight double-edged blade of around 70 cm - 80 cm, in common use from the 11th to 16th centuries." says Wikipedia.
It's the kind of older sword you see in many museums and castles. They are so common that, funny enough, nobody seems to have taken a picture. There is practically nothing in the Net!
Well - here are a few from the always reliable Sword Forum International:
|Details can be found in
book. The German terminology tends to be a bit more descriptive and
differentiated. Note that the German "Breitschwert" (=broad sword if
transcribed literally) is an arming sword!
Arming swords belong to the "high medieval" (Hochmittelalter) era (about 1050 - 1250), the related longsword appeared after that in the late medieval (Spätmittelalter) era (about 1250 - 1500).
For comparison: The crusadestook place essentially from 1095 - 1272. After 1272 the holy fighting spirit flared up occasionally again, and the very last crusade ended with the ignominious battle of Nicopolis (Bulgaria) in 1396, where the 10 000 or so allied knights of Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia, Wallachia, France, Burgundy and Germany first lost the battle to the Ottoman forces under Sultan Bayezid and then their heads to the sword. Bayezid, majorly pissed about the whole crusade thing, had all but a handful of survivors put to the sword (probably of the scimitar type).
|A backsword is a type of European sword characterized by having a straight single-edged blade and a hilt with a single-handed grip. Later examples often have a "false edge" on the back near the tip, which was in many cases sharpened to make an actual edge and facilitate thrusting attacks.|
|Backswords originated with a
slightly curved blade and a kind of basket hilt in Hungary as the sword of the
heavy noblemen cavalry. The German word "Pallasch" is simply a
transcription of the Hungarian pallos=sword.
We have a first case where the name in some language, here German, is simply the general word for sword in the original language. We have in parallel the case that the word in English describes some property: "backsword" means a sword with a flat "back" or "spine" opposite the cutting edge.
|Backswords were used all over the world it seems. First by the cavalry but later also be the infantry. Backswords are simple, easy to make and thus cheap. They also were easy to use. Soldiers who had a sword not as primary weapon but as a kind of last resort could not make very good use of a long double-edged blade since that needed considerable skill if it was to be used to full advantage.|
|The billhook is an absolutely essential farming tool that you will find in one form or another all over the world.|
|As far as I'm concerned, it is about
the only farming tool with a potential for killing people that has not been
turned into a weapon every now and then like
scythes, axes, hatchets
While shorter, it does have some relation to falcatas, machetes, kukris and whatnot.
|In English a broadsword is more or less the same as a basket hilted sword with a broad blade in contrast to the (also often basket hilted) rapier, the slim dueling sword of civilians, a kind of toy from the viewpoint of a soldier.|
|Broadswords are also known as
(Italian) Schiavona or (Scottish) claidheamh
cuil (meaning "backsword"). I refer to this to illustrate the
easy confusion inherent in all these words and types. A broadsword, if single
edged, is a backsword or Pallasch if you
To make things worse, the direct translation to German yields "Breitschwert", and this is something else.
The schiavona, by the way, was popular in Italy during the 16th and 17th centuries. It goes back to the sword of the 16th-century Balkan mercenaries of Istrian and Dalmatian Slavs, Schiavoni in Old Italian, who formed the bodyguards of the Doge of Venice.
|A German "Breitschwert", also known as "Ritterschwert" (=knight's sword) or Kampfschwert (=fighting sword), is your typical straight double-edged sword with a long cross-guard (so it imitates the Christian cross) that could be used with one hand in contrast to the "Langschwert", the long sword. It is thus the basic sword of the medieval fighting noblemen, say 10 th - 15th century.|
|To make the confusion complete you just need to google the pictures for "broadsword" and you get none of the above but a lot of modern phantasy stuff.|
|Cutlass (Entermesser, Entersäbel)|
|A cutlass is a short, broad sabre or slashing sword, with a straight or slightly curved blade sharpened on the cutting edge, and a hilt often featuring a solid cupped or basket-shaped guard. It was a common naval weapon.|
|The word "cutlass" has a
history of its own. It goes back to a 17th-century English variation of
"coutelas", which in turn is 16th-century French word for a big
knife. In modern French a knife is a coteau. Ultimately, the couteau / coutelas
or coltello in Italian goes back to the Latin "cultellus"=small
The cutlass is a 17th century descendent of the edged short sword exemplified by the medieval falchion. It was a kind of low prestige weapon, used by woodsmen, simple soldiers, and in particular by sailors, including pirates, from the 17th century and up.
"It was not only robust enough to hack through heavy ropes, canvas, and wood, but short enough to use in relatively close quarters, such as during boarding actions, in the rigging, or below decks. Another advantage to the cutlass was its simplicity of use. Employing it effectively required less training than that required to master a rapier or small sword, and it was more effective as a close-combat weapon than a full-sized sword would be on a cramped ship." says Wikipedia.
I might mention that it was probably cheap and easy to fix yourself. Its roots might go back to the low prestige but non-nonsense sax or seax of antiquity and the "dark ages" in Europe if not to the even older falcata and the Greek kopis.
|Cutlasses made it to the standard
sword of many navies; see the picture above. Being sturdy and short, it was
good for close-range combat on board of ships and, not to forget, rather cheap.
In order to confuse things a bit, in the English-speaking Caribbean, the term "cutlass" is used as a word for machete. That might well be so because the machete might have the cutlass as its ancestor.
|The epée needs to be seen
with a bit of care. Not only is it the usual
corruption of the good word (e)spatha and simply means sword, the English
tend to see the word as more or less synonymous with the modern
fencing foil. The German
"Degen" in some of its subclasses comes closer to what the term shall
The word "Degen" is related to the English "dagger" but the root of "daga" relating to both is not all that clear.
|A "Degen" has some overlap
with the rapier, a term not all that common in Germany. Not only is it a French
word, worse, the French do not even know where it comes from.
If we exclude the "Haudegen" (literally the hitting Degen), a Degen usually comes with a triangular cross-section (in contrast to the rapier with a flat blade) and then is a "Stoßdegen" (thrusting Degen).
|A Degen, again in contrast to a rapier, is extremely bendable. It was used for duelling but essentially was a part of proper dress in the 18th ad 19th century and and came in many forms.|
|Executioners sword (Richtschwert)|
|An executioner's sword is a kind of
Medieval European specialty; the earliest known one is from 1540. They were in
wide use in 17th-century Europe, but fell out of use quite suddenly in the
early 18th century, before the guillotine came into use around 1790. The last
executions by sword in Europe were carried out in Switzerland in 1867 and 1868
An Executioners sword is for two-handed use, rather broad and heavy, and without a pointed tip. Not only was a tip not needed but this kind of sword was "unclean" (just like the executioner) and must never be used in battle or to harm a honest person.
|The religious undertones of the
times often manifested themselves in little pious wishes engraved into the
blade. The middle sword below, for example, say:
Wan Ich Das Schwert thue Auffheben -
So Wünsche Ich Dem Sünder Das Ewige Leben
("When this sword I do lift - I wish the sinner the eternal life as gift.")
The spirit of both persons involved in a decapitation must have been quite uplifted by this.
|Of course, before special executioners swords became the fashion, regular sword were used and still are. Watching a public beheading is still an item on the short list of allowed weekend fun activities in present-day Saudi Arabia. You might have an intimate if brief date with the guy and his sword shown below if you were convicted, among other things, of apostasy (renunciation of Islam), blasphemy, sodomy, homosexuality or lesbianism, idolatry (worship of an idol or a physical object), sorcery or witchcraft, whatever the difference, and waging war on God. In addition, Saudi Arabia has recently passed a law recommending the death penalty for anyone caught carrying or smuggling a bible into the country.|
|The name falcata is "recent", introduced by one Fernando Fulgosio in 1872, and supposed to mean "sickle-shaped".|
shape distributes the weight in such a way that the falcata is capable of
delivering a blow with the momentum of an axe, while maintaining the longer cutting edge of a
sword" says Wikipedia.
Falcata were used by the ancient Greeks in the 4th - 5th century BC and the old Spaniards until 100 AD or maybe longer.
Alexander the Great and his troops may have brought it to India where it mutate into the kukri.
|A lot about the falcata is rather
unclear. Some believe that the
in to the Iberian Peninsula, together with iron working in general, and that it
developed independently of the Greek kopis.
The only difference, however, are details of the grip. The kopis is usually
depicted with a straight grip, whereas the end of the falcata's grip curves
around to form a semi-enclosed hilt.
This may or may not be true. We certainly need more data and more detailed investigations.
|Fencing swords; modern|
|We have the Foil (Florett), the epée (Degen) and the sabre (Säbel). All three look rather similar
and not much like most of the other sword types shown here.
Details matter very much in this case - but not to us here. While I have no doubts that a modern fencing master would be able to kill any old-fashioned opponent rather quickly with his "tooth pick" or "needle", the metallurgy of his sword is not of much interest for us. You find it (indirectly) in the section about modern steel.
|The Turkish root verb
"kir-" means "to kill", "to slaughter", "to
slay". With the suffix "-inç" it mutates to
"kir-inç" (=instrument of slaughter) from which derives
"kiliç" meaning sword.
The term is now predominantly used for the one-handed, single edged and moderately curved saber, often with a "yelman" (see below) that was used not only by the Turks but by all and sundry in the general region of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire (whatever that implies) after the 15th century.
|A kilijis not all that different
from the Shamshir, typically associated
with Persia / Iran, the Arabian saif or the
tulwar. They are all scimitars, if you
A kilij is typically a bit more massive and a bit less curved then a samshir / tulwar. Its blade may curve slightly from the hilt and more strongly in the distal half, and the width of the blade stays narrow (with a slight taper) up until the last 30% of its length, at which point it flares out and becomes wider. This distinctive flaring tip is called a "yalman" or yelman (false edge) that adds to the cutting power of the sword and in particular to its thrusting capabilities
|It goes without saying that a kilij was typically made from wootz steel.|
|A longsword (also spelled long
sword, long-sword) is to some extent just a longer version of the arming sword. That necessitates to make the blade a
bit smaller in order not to gain too much weight and to fine-tune the geometry
for proper handling. Just like the arming sword, it is the kind of sword that
all and sundry in Europe associate with the general term "sword". It
certainly advertised for its owner that he had a
The blade of long swords measures 90 cm - 110 cm and it was popular during the late medieval and Renaissance periods (about 1350 to 1550) but also before and after that time period.
The sword shown below, while technically a long sword, is a kind of in-between showing its relation to the arming sword. A Mamluck warrior took it from a crusader in 1263. It was used for a number of years and acquired an inventory stamp of the armory in Alexandria, Egypt. Eventually it made it into the Askeri museum in Istanbul.
|Between the one-handed arming sword
and a fully two-handed long sword are all kinds of in-betweens like the
"bastard sword" or "hand-and-a-half sword" (Anderthalbhänder).
There is far more to the longsword and its cousins (like the claymore). Suffice it to add that the really long blades are found later, 15th century say, when the rapier and the epée took over. Fighting with the long sword, however, remained in fashion as a kind of sports among civilians and sword-fight schools appeared, some of which issued "manuals":
|The word comes from the Spanish
"macho"=male, strong; it means "little macho" or
"little man" and indicates not only that the machete was always a bit
more than just a tool to cut underbrush and sugar canes with but also goes well
with my personal view of
how swords acquire
The locals in the Caribbean and around may also call a machete a "cutlass", providing for some confusion but also giving a strong hint as to the ancestry of the machete.
|A machete is a large cleaver-like knife or "sword" (how long does a knife have to be to qualify as sword?) that comes in many shapes and sizes (see the picture below). A common denominator might be that it is "top heavy", giving it axe-like properties like a falcata or kukri.|
|There seem to be not much inward curvature, however (in contrast to a falcata or kukri) and if there is a hook. it is not from the cutting edge downwards as in a billhook but on the other side.|
|The machete was used quite a lot for fighting, in particular in all the uprisings in the sugar cane fields in the 17th - 19th century. The machete thus is a dual-use object, like the kopis, the falcata, the kukri and probably lots of other longish steel objects.|
|Miao Dao, Changdao, and so on.
|I just give you a succession of
quotes from some Internet sources:
"The miao Dao is a Chinese two-handed dao or saber of the Republican era, with a narrow blade of up to 1.2 metres (47 in) or more and a long hilt". It is actually a changdao because "in 1828 ... , in order to obscure its Japanese origin, the chandao was renamed miao Dao".. The changdao (literally: "long knife") was a two-handed, single-edged Chinese sword. The weapon may have developed from the earlier zhanmadao (horse beheading sword). Tang dynasty sources describe the changdao as being identical to the modao. This sword was described as having an overall length of seven feet, with a three foot long blade and four foot long grip. ... The Japanese odachi very much resembles this blade.
|You get the point. If the Chinese
adopted sword design from the Japanese, or if it was the other way around, or
if some other cultures were also involved ....
I don't know and neither care at this point in time. What would interest me is the development and possible interaction of the respective iron / steel / forging technologies, considering that the Chinese way of steel making was very different from that of the Japanese and large parts of the rest of the world.
|A "messer" is a kind of long knife. Typically single-edged, rather straight, and with a wide tang that only needed tow pieces of wood slapped on to the sides to produce a hilt|
|Here are a few examples from the book:|
|I included the nimcha because it is
a well-know single-handed curved-blade sword type that appeared in the 18th
century and was prominent in the 19th century and beyond. It is unique to some
extent because it is only defined by its
hilt. The blade is typically from somewhere else and might have originated from
a Turkish kilij or from an European sabre.
I own the nimcha shown in this book; it was certainly the best appreciation I've ever received for a scientific article! It sports a 19th century pattern welded or "damascus" blade of definitely European origin (see below)
|The grip is made from wood or (rhino) horn with squared off "hooked" pommel. There are always two forward pointing quillons on the upper side and a knuckle guard on the lower. I could not find out so far if the two upper quillons have a function besides just providing some kind of symmetry.|
|The word "rapier" comes
from medieval French and means "long pointy sword" Aha.
A rapier is perhaps the earliest manifestation of the new custom to sport swords as (still lethal) male toys that were no longer used as tools for warfare but for demonstrating rank and to establish who has the biggest. In Spanish, a rapier is an "espada ropera", a dress sword. Rapiers came up into the early 16th century (if we discount the enigmatic Celtic ones) and blossomed into all kinds of "dress" swords.
|The rapier evolved from the "side-sword" (Seitschwert), a slender kind of a one-hand regular
straight double-edged sword. popular during the late 16th century.
The rapier still has a flat if rather slender and long blade with two sharp edges. While primarily a thrusting weapon, it does not bend easily and thus can still be used for slashing, if not very effectively. That distinguishes it from the similar looking but shorter and lighter epée or Degen (with a triangular, square or round cross-section).
|In the 16th century a rapier was the
sword of a nobleman. Before that a sword was an important tool for all men in
the military who needed it and could afford it. The nobility eventually didn't
like to do the killing themselves anymore, running the risk of getting killed
themselves. They now had paid specialists for that (just like today). They just
needed some kind of sword as status symbol, and to kill you and me on the side
if we got uppity. The occasional duels added spice to life.
Swords, in short, became fashion items once more.
Fencing with the rapier eveloped as a kind of art with the endless exchange of blows we all know from watching TV. To be sure, wielding a spatha of any kind in a real battle also demanded considerable skill but you would not be standing there, engaging your enemy for 20 minutes or longer "as seen on TV" or in innumerable movies. You or your enemy typically went down within minutes if not seconds.
All that new stuff became possible because the quality of steel had increased to the point where these kind of swords could be made without risking early breakage of the slender blade.
|Relatively light sword with a
curved, single-edged blade and often a rather large hand guard.
So what's the difference to a scimitar, tulwar, katana, and so on? If we disregard the hilt and other small details, there isn't much besides the metallurgy for many sabres. You just call all curved blades in Europe "sabre" now. Sabres were prominent in Europe rather late - 18th century to now - and thus were made from more or less uniform steel. Tulwars and so on are considerably older and were often made from wootz steel, and katanas from trickily piled and edge-hardened steel.
|"The English word sabre derives from the French sabre which is akin to the Hungarian szablya, Polish szabla, and Russian sablya. The word is believed to originate from the Kipchak Turkic selebe, with contamination from the Hungarian verb szab, which means 'to cut'", says Wikipedia. Same thing for the German word "Säbel".|
|Medieval men did encounter curved blades early on. Perhaps as early as the battle of Poitiers and Tours around 735 but certainly during the crusades.|
|However, sabres came in many forms
and sizes, from almost straight to substantially curved and generalizations are
dangerous. Of course, you might use the term "sabre" to denote
any sword with some curvature (including
almost none) and with a cutting edge on one side only (but allowing parts of a
sharpened backside, too). Backsword, cutlasses and so on then would be special
kinds of sabres.
Whatever, most of the European military carried some kind of sabre (or the related backsword / cutlass) at the latest in the 19th century
Why the sabre completely replaced the time-honored straight European sword is easy to see. In the words of the German Wikipedia (translated by me):
"With a curved blade substantially larger wounds could be inflicted on the opponent compared to a straight sword - provided one knew the drill otherwise hardly any damage was done. Moreover, with a sufficiently curved blade it didn't matter much if you hit the opponent with the middle part of the blade, in contrast to the straight sword where it was important to hit with the front part only. That's why a straight blade is rather counterproductive in close combat, at least for only averagely skilled fighters."
Of course, as always, the specific design depended on the intended use. Only slashing: go for substantial curvature. Mostly stabbing: Keep it pretty much straight and sharpen at least parts of the backside. Both: compromise.
|The history of curved single-edged blades or "sabre" in Central Europe is complex. Very generally speaking, sabres were of little consequence in Western Europe before the 30-year war (1618 - 1648). During this war, the Croatian Cavalry used sabres in an obviously convincing manner, and the sabres of the Hussar's (originally the Hungarian cavalry, later a term for light cavalry in general) became feared until modern times. "The sabre then gained widespread use in the early 19th century, to some extent inspired by the "Mameluke sword", a type of Middle Eastern scimitar" says Wikipedia, and I would guess that this inspirations was in parts due to the lively interest in "wootz" steel in England and the Continent that started in the early 19th century.|
|However! While sabres might well have been of little consequence in Western Europe before the 17th century, they were nevertheless known, particularly in the East - look up the Sarass below. Charlemagne (ca. 745 814) was rumored to own a sabre and this weapon can still be seen as part of the Regalia of the Holy Roman Empire. Here it is:|
sabre is of a Hungarian type and formed part of the Aachen (Germany) regalia of
the "Holy Roman Empire" (in central Europe; essentially Germany, from
the 12th to the 19th century). During the coronation of the (more or less
German) King, the new king belted the sword to his person. Until 1794 it was
kept in Aachen. When French troops
approached Aachen in 1794 the Imperial regalia located there were taken to the
Capuchin abbey at Paderborn (Germany), then to Hildesheim (Germany) in 1798 and
finally to Vienna (Austria) in 1801. The sabre was stored in the Treasury of
the Hofburg Palace in Vienna." states the English Wikipedia.
That's what happens to your regalia if you fail to to invade Gaul every now and then.
Before you get all excited now: Charlemagne did certainly not own this sabre. It dates either to the 10th or early 11th century (German Wikipedia) or to the second half of the 9th century (English Wikipedia). Whatever, it is a rather early sabre and it came from the East. It is only slightly curved and probably comes from the Avar sphere of influence.
Anyway, "Charlemagne's sabre" was obviously kept in high regard by the mighty and influential in the 11th century and later - but they did not emulate it.
In between "Charlemagne's sabre" and the sabre in the 30-year-war and beyond, was the sarass, see below.
|My personal feeling is that up to about 1500 a straight doubled-edged sword was the sword of Central Europe, use by all involved in warfare. In the same general time period (give or take a century), the iron and steel industry switched from running small-scale blooneries producing wrought iron to larger-scale blast furnaces producing cast iron. That in turn necessitated new technologies for making steel and allowed to make guns, changing warfare. In consequence, swords branched into two basically different kinds: those employed to kill people with on the battle field, and those needed to display your status and for ritual fighting, like duels. The former evolved into the sabre, the latter into rapiers and epées.|
|Saif, first of all, simply means
"sword" in Arabic. Since Arabic swords from not too distant times are
of the general scimitar or sabre type there seems to be no clear and
unambiguous distinction from the kilj, shamshir or tulwar. In some views, a
saif might be a bit less curved than a kilij and it might contain one or more
fullers. This guy may be wielding a saif.
In a simple interpretation, a saif is just about any curved sword that originated from "Arabia" (and I leave open exactly what that is). Many saifs have wootz blades imported from India / Persia, and in this context it is perhaps useful to realize that there could not have been a prominent iron and steel smelting activity in much of "Arabia" (and Egypt, and ...) since this requires a lot of wood that simply wasn't there then or now.
|The word "saif", however, is more than just the term for sword since the sword is an important symbol in Arab cultures and on occasion more than a symbol. "Saif" and "Saif al Din" (=sword of the religion) are also common masculine (and male) Islamic names.|
| Shamshir essentially means
"sword" in Persian and thus is a term for all kinds of blades.
should know, shows all kinds of samshirs in his "Arms and Armor from
Iran" book, including rather straight blades.
However, the present general usage of the term (in the "West") can perhaps be best described as follows. A samshir is:
|The samshir is a member of the
scimitar family that includes the tulwar, saif and kilij as the more prominent
members. They all are curved and often made from
While the blades might be similar, hilts and scabbards typically differ
Granted, the average samshir might be more strongly curved than your average tulwar or kilij. You can certainly go on and define more fine points of difference but as far as I'm concerned the decisive feature of the samshir is its association with the Persians. It appears that the Seljuq dynasty had introduced the curved shamshir to Persia in the 12th century, when they took over (they eventually became todays Turks)
|It is not surprising that all the
swords mentioned above are related. They all made it to prominence around the
middle of the 16th century and they are supposed to have a common ancestor. To
"Originally Persian swords were straight and double edged, just as the Indian khanda. The curved scimitar blades were Central Asian in origin. The earliest evidence of curved swords, or scimitars, is from the 9th century, when these weapons were used by soldiers in the Khurasan region of Central Asia. The sword now called "shamshir" was introduced to Iran by Turkic Seljuk Khanate in 12th century and was later popularized in Persia by the early 16th century, and had "relatives" in Turkey (the kilij), the Mughal Empire (the talwar), and the adjoining Arabian world (the saif)".
Khorasani has a lot to say about the origin of the samshir. He details all the instances where curved blades have been encountered rather early but also makes clear that science so far as not reached a general agreement on details. The view given above, if oversimplified, is not entirely without merits.
|Be that as it may. From a metallurgical point of view (my view, remember?), it is far more interesting when, where and how the crucible steel used for a samshir and his brethren was developed, and how wootz blades eventually developed from that. I have given you many modules for that; go find them|
|I include the Sarras here because it
demonstrates nicely how tangled the connections between sword types can be. To
start with, a sarras has a heavy curved blade, sometimes with an edge on parts
of the backside, too. It often comes with a fuller but is nevertheless rather
heavy and sometimes for use with two hands. A sarras might also have a kind of
"yalman", an enforced tip
In short, it is rather similar to the Kilij; just look at the picture:
|The sarass is the
"classical" sword of the originally Hungarian Hussars. After Hussars and the related Croatian
horsemen took it into Western Europe, it mutated to the sabre discussed above.
The pictures above make it quite clear that the ancestors of the sarras are swords from the scimitar family, e.g. the kilij.
That is not surprising. After the Turkish victory at Nicopolis, some driven-out local yokels became a kind of "Gastarbeiter"1) for the Hungarian army, forming a light cavalry equipped with sarass, lance and shield. They became known and feared as "hussars". The first mentioning of that term (with unclear etymology) is from 1481. By then the hussars had evolved to heavy cavalry, armed with the sarass and other heavy stuff that showed clear Osmanic influence. Read on under "sabre".
|Why does the Sarras nicely
demonstrates how tangled the connections between sword types can be? Consider:
|Let's make it short: The word scimitar is only used in Europe and simply denotes any kind of curved single edged "oriental" sword. The term first appeared in the 15th century in Italy as "scimitar" or "scimeterra" and might ultimately go back to the Persian "shimshir" or "shamshir". The word seems to be unknown in Turkish or Arabic.|
|To say it with the German Wikipedia:
Nobody remotely familiar with swords uses the term for any given sword because
it is too general. It is better to use the proper name for the particular
manifestation of the "scimitar" you are describing; names like
kilij, saif, shamshir
or tulwar, to give just the more prominent
I use the word on occasion as the "family" name for oriental curves blades; "sabre" then denotes the Western varieties
|Tulwar or talwar means
"sword" in Hindi and some other languages in the general area; at
least at present. It is a member of the scimitar family and comes in a variety
Here is my tulwar (and here is a close-up of the blade)
|Put an "Iranian" hilt on a
tulwar and you have a samshir.
Some argue that a tulwar has a broader blade than a samshir (more like a kilij) but does no have a yalman like the kilij. I don't know but would bet all your money that others oppose this view.
The "Wikipedia tulwar" actually does have a kind of yalman; the picture also shows the typical scabbard also quite distinct from that of the tulwar brethren:
|Yatagan Yatagan (pronounced Yata-an, by the
|A real stand-alone sword; nothing quite similar seems to be around. It features an inwardly curved or concave blade (also called curved forward or recurved) and a hilt with no crossguard and "ears". That makes it rather unique:|
|Yatagans have their name either from the Turkish town Yatagan in southwest Turkey that was famous for its yataghan smithing, from the Uzbek tribe of Kataghan, or because it was carried "lying down" (=yatagan in Turkis) in the belt. It's remote ancestors might have been the Greek kopis and in particular the falcata. But these swords haven' t been around much for more than 1000 years before the yatagan became prominent in Turkey and surrounding Balkanese regions around 1500 - 1900, peaking in the 19th century.|
|I have not found any reference to the advantage of a recurved blade for fighting. And the yatagan was used for honest fighting, it was not just a dress sword like the European smallsword. However, it certainly did have that function, too, together with advertising the status of its owner. It was not worn hanging from a belt or baldric but was pushed inside the belt. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the famous founder of the modern Turkish Republic, shows how:|
|Note that Atatürks headwear is not so much a fashion statement but the Turkish version of armor. Try to cut through all this stuff with a sword stroke!|
|From a metallurgical point of view, a yatagan could be made from wootz steel, plain steel (typically with a softer spine and a hard edge) and even pattern welded ones are known (e.g. in Manfred Sachse's book).|
("guest worker") was the official term for the Italian, Greek,
Spanish, Turkish, and so on citizens (mostly men) who where induced to come to
Germany from about 1961 to 1971 by treaties of the the German government and
the respective guest worker government. They were supposed to return to their
homeland after a few years but many didn't. As a result about 3 Mio people with
Turkish roots lived 2013 in Germany, about 1.5 Mio of which are still Turkish
citizens only. The respective numbers for the other nationalities are
The resulting "mulitculti" has done much for the quality of live in Germany, not to mention the quality of food, but also generated problems.
1.2.2 How to Use this Hyperscript
Books and Other Major Sources
Overview of Major Steels
Blooms and Bloomeries
The Eigenmodes of a Sphere
Critical Museum Guide: Dresden
Critical Museum Guide: Landesmuseum Württemberg; Württemberg State Museum, Stuttgart, Germany
Critical Museum Guide: Museums in Istanbul, Turkey
11.1.4 Swords of Major Near East Powers in the 1st Millennium BC
11.3 Pattern Welding 11.3.1 Background to Pattern Welding
11.2.1 Background to Celtic Swords
Swords and Symbols
Sword Places: Luristan
The Frankish Empire And Its Swords
2.1.2 What Swords Are for Me
11.5 Wootz Swords; 11.5.1 The Winner is....
Large Pictures chapter 11.4
Celtic Anthropoid Sword Hilts
11.6.3 Making a Japanese Sword - Part 2
Additional Pictures - Chapter 1
11.1.2 The Bronze Sword
Illerup Swords with Special Patterns
Antique Texts Concerning Crucible Steel
More Luristan Swords
Medieval and Modern Texts Concerning Crucible Steel
11.6 Japanese Swords 1.6.1 The Myth and the History of the Japanese Sword
Large Pictures - Chapter 11.2
Old Sagas, Heroes and Swords
Old Iron Things
Large Pictures - Chapter 11.1
Early Iron Making Empires in the Middle East / Mediterranean
Iron in China
2.3.2 What Makes Steel so Special?
Tricks of Smiths
Bending a Sword into a Circle
My Japanese Swords
12. Properties of Swords; 12.1 The Basics; 12.1.1 Sword Performance
12.2.5 Static Properties of Composite Swords
12.3.2 Center of Mass
Quantifying the Properties of Your Sword
10.4. Large pictures
© H. Föll (Iron, Steel and Swords script)