Curved blade or straight thrusting sword?!

From ancient times the sword has represented power, justice and a fight against evil.
It Is both magical and deadly.

The sword has influenced the outcome of great moments in history, inspired famous myths and legends and the skills of its makers has turned it into an object of desire.

Today they are many reminders of our sword fighting past…we shake hands to show we are not armed…a gentleman escorts the lady by the right arm to leave his sword free on his left…with a touch of a sword  a man is knighted…with the break of his own sword a man is disgraced…an all army was surrendered by the giving up of a single sword.

The sword has ritually been sacrificed to the the gods in order to invoke their protections.

The blacksmith swordmakers manipulated the four éléments…fire, water, earth, air and become enpowered by the gods to manipulate the fifth élément…magic!

 Byrthferth's Enchiridion representing Adam in the center, the cardinalis points, the four elements, the four seasons, the ages of man and the 12 zodiac signs.

© SabresEmpire

© SabresEmpire


Sword Design of the Napoleonic Era by Martin Read


A number of general works on Napoleonic history, and indeed some older more specialised military histories, indicate that the use by heavy cavalry of a straight thrusting sword, and by light cavalry of a curved cutting sword, was merely a matter of convention or fashion.

Though a definite streak of conservatism did exist relating to the provision of sword types, these assertions are far from the truth. Throughout the Nineteenth Century a heated controversy ran through European, and particularly British, military circles as to whether a sword optimised for thrusting or one optimised for cutting was the best type to issue to mounted troops.

Though British records of this controversy are most numerous for the Nineteenth Century the origins of conflict over this issue are considerably earlier, dating from the adoption of the light cavalry ethos in the armies of Western Europe.

The historical origins of the two forms of sword are quite distinct. The straight thrusting sword can be traced back to the straight two edged sword of war of Mediaeval times. Originally a cut and thrust sword, the adoption of plate armour led to specialised thrusting forms being produced.

Typically these had a long narrow blade stiffened by a diamond cross-section or a medial rib. These swords eventually evolved into the ultimate thrusting weapon the rapier. Though used in war the true rapier was really a civilian phenomenon, it being recognised by most authorities that the soldier in combat required a more robust weapon.

Therefore, alongside the rapier there always existed broader-bladed, slightly shorter weapons, which could be used to thrust and had sufficient weight of blade to cut.

This type of sword had many minor variations and names but was known in the English Civil War as a "good stiff tuck". 

During the 18th century the rapier shrank in size to produce the civilian "small-sword".

While from an even earlier date the straight military sword tended, because of the lessening use of armour and the universality of asymmetric hand guards (knucklebows), to adopt a single edged blade with a thickened back (a "back-sword").

The evolution of the curved sabre seems to derive from two sources. Firstly, there was a tradition of heavy bladed, single edged, cutting swords in Western Europe dating back to the Mediaeval falchion (possibly back as far as the seax of the Germanic tribes), which had evolved into the lighter "hanger" form by about 1600. 

Secondly, and probably more importantly, was influence deriving from the East. The Eurasian steppe seems to be the birthplace of the true sabre, and use of this form of relatively light slashing weapon moved from east to west in Europe over time1. The Byzantines and Russians were using sabres by 1200 at the very latest, and its use was introduced, or re-introduced, to Central Europe by various steppe peoples, such as the Cumans, fleeing troubles further east.

The appearance of the Mongols, and later the Ottoman Turks, in Europe must have reinforced these influences leading to more widespread use of the sabre.

Whilst Central and Eastern Europe saw widespread usage of sabres in mounted warfare from relatively early times, the cavalry of Western Europe saw only minor use of curved swords before the gradual adoption of light cavalry during the course of the 18th century, in the case of Britain particularly after 1750.

The lateral movement of the blade within the target multiplies the effect of the blow. In contrast when a straight sword used to cut, it delivers a hacking blow like an axe biting into wood. The relative efficiency of the two types of cut can be illustrated by the outcome of using a carving knife to chop at a cooked joint of meat or using the same knife to slice in the normal manner.

There are a number of important results of this phenomenon on sword characteristics. A sword which is curved enough to allow the greatest cutting efficiency will of necessity be too curved to allow the thrust to be made with any appreciable accuracy or effect.

If a straight sword is to have any usefulness in cutting, because it has no slicing ability, it has to have a blade of reasonable weight and a point of balance well to the front of the hilt (there is a good reason why an axe has its weight and cutting edge at the end of a long handle).

The relatively light bladed rapier, despite portrayals of The Three Musketeers, if used to cut would not usually produce disabling wounds on a person wearing reasonably stout clothing. 

It is evident that swords with a slight curvature tend to display a performance which is sub-optimal in both methods of use, being too straight to slice effectively whilst their curvature renders accurate thrusting more difficult. Any advantage of being adaptable, though mediocre in any one method of use, is difficult to quantify.

The curve allows the sword to be moved tightly across the body from side to side, a great advantage for a cavalryman with a horse's head and neck in front of him. 

In addition to the mechanics of the blade action there are a number of other qualities that distinguish curved and straight swords. Because a curved sword is not directly reliant on weight of blade to give it a cutting ability it can be relatively lighter and handier than a straight cut and thrust sword.

Curvature also gives a sword relatively greater manoeuvrability length for length. The curve allows the sword to be moved tightly across the body from side to side, a great advantage for a cavalryman with a horse's head and neck in front of him.

The curved sword also has an advantage that in the heat of close combat a cut is a far more instinctive blow than a thrust, so that a sword optimised for cutting will be more effective in the hands of the average trooper.

The straight thrusting sword also possesses a number of advantages. If faced with an armoured foe the thrust is the only sword blow likely to result in decisive wounds3. The thrust is also the only blow to which the forward movement of the horse can be directly applied. 

When charging the straight thrusting sword was held in tierce, with the sword pointing directly ahead, the elbow almost straight, the hand relatively high and the blade point a little lower than the hilt, most importantly the thumb was braced and the wrist locked. With this grip the forward momentum of the charging horse powers the thrust, a little like the use of the couched lance; the cavalryman merely aims his weapon.

The force of such a thrust could be awesome, and if landing accurately would kill an opponent almost instantly. However, using a sword to thrust, particularly when moving at high speed, had its own potential for disaster - that of being unable to easily withdraw the weapon from the body of ones enemy. A sword used by cavalry in the American Civil War was not nicknamed the "wrist-breaker" without reason. 

Sword shape and combat

It is evident that the two types of sword described have properties suited to different combat situations. In cavalry versus cavalry combat the straight thrusting sword is most useful in a formal charge, especially at the first clash, whereas the curved sabre comes into its own in the confusion of a cavalry melee following a charge.

The straight sword, as well as being used to harness the forward momentum of horse and rider to lethal effect, was regarded as having an enhanced intimidatory effect on the enemy. 

The sight of ranks of men charging with levelled pointing swords was considered a more frightening prospect for the enemy than the same number of men waving curved sabres. In contrast when groups of horsemen engaged in melee the pace of the horse was slow, usually merely a walk, so that no advantage was gained from momentum. 

Also there was a great deal of circling and tight pivoting of meleeing riders and horses. The resulting effect being that the individual cavalryman constantly had to shift his sword from side to side to meet ever changing threats and targets. In this type of conflict the greater manoeuvrability of the curved sword was at a particular premium.

Against infantry neither sword offers any particular advantage in regard to combat with well-motivated foot soldiers drawn up in a defensive formation. However, because of the greater reach of the majority of thrusting swords, this sword type would have some advantage over the sabre when dealing with unprepared or disordered infantry. 

The sight of ranks of men charging with levelled pointing swords was considered a more frightening prospect for the enemy than the same number of men waving curved sabres.

The best illustration of the differing usage of the straight and curved sword in combat is made by reference to cavalrymen who routinely used both; these are the original hussars4, both Hungarian and Polish-Lithuanian.

The two types of hussar were very similar, developed as they were from the light cavalry traditions of the Western Balkans, up to the fall of the Kingdom of Hungary to the Turks.

Thereafter the Polish hussar became more heavily armoured and used in a shock role, and the Hungarian hussar lost his armour and embraced a famed place in irregular warfare. It was the latter type which was the ancestor of the hussars and other light cavalry of Western Europe, though the Polish hussar could be seen to have been instrumental in the retention of the cavalry lance until its widespread readoption in the Napoleonic period.

Both forms of hussar carried a curved sabre hung from a waist belt and additionally a long straight thrusting sword (palasz or koncerz in Polish) attached to the left side of the horse's saddle.

The Polish hussar would use his thrusting sword if obliged to charge after his lance had been broken; if he was involved in a melee or was fighting in a less ordered formation he would rely on his sabre.

The Hungarian hussar used his swords in a similar manner and some of the earliest French hussars, as was described by a contemporary witness, retained this method of fighting: 

The arms of the hussars are a large curved sabre…it is for sabring right and left, and for striking high to low. Some, in addition to the sabre carry a long thin sword which they do not carry at their sides but rather place it along the sides of their horses from the breast to crupper… (these) they use to spit the enemy;… when they employ them, they rest the butt against the knee. 

It can be seen from their use of both types of sword that the early hussars were well aware of each weapon's differing advantages in particular forms of combat.

The early hussars were usually drawn from a military and social elite; they often provided their own equipment and had an inborn pride in their martial prowess.

However, the more prosaic needs of the large armies of Western Europe largely precluded the maintenance of dual-armed cavalrymen so that the type of sword used by a cavalry trooper reflected the primary role of his unit.

Heavy cavalry, who existed for the close order battlefield charge, were equipped with straight thrusting swords, the light cavalry, whose major function was in the provision of piquets, scouting, screening the movements of armies and other forms of the petite guerre were given curved sabres.