A Collector’s Guide to Sabres and Their History
The saber, a long single-edged sword with a curved blade, was traditionally regarded as the true weapon of the cavalry. It originated from Central Asia and then spread into Europe. Eventually, it became a significant cavalry weapon during the early modern and Napoleonic periods.
Let’s explore the several types of sabres in different cultures, their characteristics, and where you can get them online.
Most Popular Types of Sabres
Also spelled saber in American English, the sabre is a curved single-edged sword mainly used by the cavalry. The Turko-Mongol sabre had a significant impact on the development of curved blades throughout the world. Many historians regard it as the parent sword of several swords, including the Turkish kilij, Arab saif, Persian shamshir, Indian talwar, and the European sabre.
1. Turko-Mongol Sabres
One of the most influential sabres came from the Turkic and Mongol tribes of the Mongolian steppes. The Turko-Mongol sabre had a long, slender, and slightly curved blade. It also featured a pear-shaped pommel, angled hilt, and short quillons—or arms of the crossguard.
In the early 13th century, the Mongol cavalry used their sabres for slashing from horseback and conquered much of China, Central Asia, the Middle East, India, and Eastern Europe. As a result, the Turko-Mongol sabre influenced the development of curved blades throughout these regions.
2. Dao (China)
The term dao refers to several single-edged Chinese blades. The Mongol Invasion of China and the founding of the Yuan dynasty influenced the Chinese swords. From the 14th to the 20th centuries, the Chinese cavalry used the liuyedao or willow leaf saber as a slashing weapon.
The liuyedao had a long, moderate curve in narrow and wide varieties. Some also featured a sharp back-edge near the tip for thrusting. These curved blades often equipped the waist swords called yaodao or peidao.
3. Katana (Japan)
The katana was the most famous sword of the samurai, the military elite of Japan from the 12th century until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Slightly curved and single-edged, the katana was the long sword of the samurai.
Unlike the earlier curved tachi, the warriors wore the katana with the edge facing up, which allowed drawing and slashing with one stroke. The Mongol Invasions of Japan contributed to the development of katana and the design and manufacture of samurai swords.
4. Kilij (Turkey)
The Turks, who migrated from Central Asia to Anatolia—now in Turkey, founded the Ottoman Empire, and their sabers reflected their origins. Derived from the Turko-Mongolian sabre, the kilij was the typical Ottoman sword during the 15th century.
The kilij had a distinctive flaring tip called a yelman or false edge, which enhanced its slashing power, and a deep curve cut away along its back edge. Several military forces across the Islamic world, from North Africa to India and Persia, used similar swords.
The Europeans first encountered these sabres during their wars with the Ottomans and called them scimitars—a term that collectively refers to curved Asian swords. Western troops had encountered these Turkish sabers in combat even into the 20th century.
5. Saif (Arabia)
Sometimes spelled sayf, the term saif is an Arabic word for sword and refers to the broad-bladed Arab sabre with a hooked pommel. Unlike most Islamic swords, it had a shallow curve and did not taper to a point. Historical examples come from countries where Arabs lived, including North Africa, which was part of the Ottoman Empire during the 16th century.
6. Shamshir (Persia)
In the 16th century, the shamshir spread from Persia and served as a slashing weapon for fighting on foot or horseback. The Persian sabre is characterized by its deep curved blade that tapers to a point and its L-shaped pommel. Its typical examples can also be found in India, Turkey, and other parts of the Islamic world.
7. Talwar (India)
Also spelled tulwar, the talwar was the typical sword of the Mughal Empire, a Muslim dynasty of Turkic-Mongol origin, when most of the Indian subcontinent was ruled by Mongol conqueror Bābur. Most recognized for its disc pommel, the Indian sabre often featured a raised or sharp back-edge. Many Hindu princes adopted the sabre though the straight-bladed sword khanda remained in use.
8. Shashka (Russia)
The shashka was the traditional sword of the Cossacks, people of Slavic or Eurasian descent who established themselves in Ukraine and southern Russia around the 14th century. The Cossack warriors fought in various state armies and wielded the shaska from horseback, though they used the shorter sword kindjal when fighting on foot.
The shashka had a saber-like blade with a sharp tip and served as a slashing and thrusting weapon. It had a distinctive curved pommel but without a hand guard, which allowed the warriors to use the full length of the blade in cutting. The Cossacks were recognized for their saber charges on the battlefield, which were recorded as late as World War I.
9. Hanger (Europe)
Originally designed for hunting, the hanger became a standard military sword in several armies by the 18th century. The hanger usually refers to a short sword, often with a curved blade, though it also comes in straight varieties. It is so-called because of the way it was hung from the belt. Hunting in the Renaissance served as training for war, and the tradition produced fine hunting swords.
In the 16th century, the hunting swords of the European aristocrats were elaborately decorated. British hangers often featured two shell guards, one that curved towards the blade and the other towards the pommel, and a knuckle guard. However, the hangers traditionally carried by the infantry as a sidearm were a crude variant of a hunting sword.
Hangers with slightly curved blades were best suited for slashing and later became more practical in dense forests than typical longer swords. By the 19th century, the sword bayonet with a long blade replaced the hanger sword of ordinary foot soldiers.
10. Briquet Infantry Sabre (France)
During the Napoleonic Wars, the ordinary foot soldiers carried the briquet—named due to its circular hand guard, resembling a fire striker or a metal blade, which was struck against flints to make fire. It had a one-piece and ribbed brass hilt, a forward-facing quillon flowing from the knuckle guard, and a curved steel blade.
11. Model 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre (UK)
During the French Revolutionary War, the British Army acknowledged that the sword blades of the Turks, Hungarians, and Moors were superior to the heavy swords. British commander John Le Marchant designed a new sabre and the army adopted it as the 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre.
The 1796 sabre had a pronounced curved blade, thicker at the tip than the hilt. The broadening of the blade made it more efficient in slashing attacks, though its tip could also be used for thrusting in the melee.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the Hungarian hussars and the British Light Dragoons used the sabre. It was later copied by the Prussians during its war with France and used by the Portuguese and Spanish cavalry.
12. Model 1827 Cavalry Sabre (Russia)
The Russian Model 1827 cavalry sabre was copied from swords of the Napoleonic era. It generally had a slightly curved single-edged blade, sometimes with a wide fuller. It featured a knuckle guard with branches and two langets or metal strips extending down the blade to secure the sword to the scabbard and to trap an opponent’s sword.
13. Model 1840 Heavy Cavalry Saber (US)
Also known as Old Wristbreaker, the 1840 Heavy Cavalry Saber set the pattern for the American cavalry sabers for the next 75 years. Based on the French light cavalry saber of 1822, it featured a curved, single-edged blade. However, it was too heavy and extremely long, earning its nickname.
14. Model 1850 Foot Officer’s Sword (US)
Rarely used in actual combat, the Model 1850 Foot Officer’s Sword equipped the majority of infantry officers on the Union side during the American Civil War. It had a slightly curved single-edged blade and a leather grip wrapped in twisted brass wire. The officer sword continued to be worn throughout the 19th century as a symbol of rank.
15. Model 1860 Light Cavalry Saber (US)
Most of the sabers of the American Civil War were based on the Model 1860 Cavalry Saber, which replaced the heavier model of 1840. It was similar to its predecessor, but its blade was reduced in width and had a rounded back. It was not much of an improvement, but it served as an efficient thrusting and hacking weapon.
16. Model 1860 Navy Cutlass (US)
The cutlass is a short and broad sabre, a typical naval weapon during the Age of Sail. The Model 1860 Navy Cutlass featured a solid cupped brass hand guard to protect the hand. During the Civil War, sailors used cutlass to defend their vessels against boarders on their ship. They usually stored the weapon in a rack on the ship’s main deck, ready for use.
General Characteristics of a Sabre
The sabre is characterized by its curved single-edged blade, though its configuration varies in different cultures and periods. The Japanese katana and Islamic swords are sought-after by many collectors. In the West, the most popular cavalry sabres are those associated with the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War which are the 1796 and 1860 models respectively.
Here are the typical characteristics of a sabre:
Type of Metal
Different cultures and centers of sword production provided various metals of sorts. While the Japanese swordsmiths forged the katana from tamahagane, most Islamic swords such as the Arab saif and Indian talwar were made from wootz steel and had damascus steel blades.
Many European sabres of the 17th century were equipped with Middle Eastern blades. In Europe, Solingen in Germany produced the best quality steel which persisted well into the 18th century. Many cutlers made hilts and mounted them on Solingen blades or ones from Toledo or Venice.
Many U.S. cavalry sabres were manufactured both locally and abroad. During the American Civil War, Christopher Roby and Company produced cavalry sabres, mainly the 1860 model which was of the highest quality.
All sabre blades were single-edged and curved, though they varied in shape. The katana generally had a shallower curve than the Islamic swords. Also, the Persian shamshir had a radical curve, while the Ottoman kilij had a flared tip.
Considered among the best cutting swords of its time, the Model 1796 sabre of the British cavalry had a blade shape that had an Eastern-influenced, similar to the Indian talwar or the Hungarian hussar sabre. Unlike other curved blades of the period, its blade widened near the tip.
On the other hand, French sabers had narrower blades than their British counterparts as the French light cavalry preferred to thrust with the tip of their blades and deliver slashing cuts. From the 1840s onward, U.S. cavalry sabers were almost exclusively based on French designs.
Size and Weight
Sabres widely varied in length depending on the regulation. The Japanese katana is a long sword with a blade length of over 60 centimeters. The cutlass is often described as a short sabre, but the Model 1860 Navy Cutlass had a more than 60-centimeter-long blade.
When it comes to weight, the Model 1840 saber of the U.S. was heavy, weighing more than 4 pounds, hence the name Old Wristbreaker. The lighter Model 1869 eventually replaced it, weighing just around 3 pounds.
Apart from blade shapes, sabers have distinctive hilt designs and mounting that set them apart from other swords. While the Japanese katana and the Indian talwar had wooden scabbards, many military sabres had steel scabbards with wooden liners.
The Japanese katana served as a badge of rank of the samurai, and many had elaborate mountings called koshirae. It comes with a two-handed grip, sometimes decorated with diamond-patterned tsukamaki, a rounded or four-lobed sword guard tsuba, a lacquered scabbard, and other metal ornaments.
The Indian talwar is most distinguished by its disc pommel with a spike and a vase-shaped grip. However, several Indian swords like sosun pattah, sirohi, and tegha are often mounted in a talwar hilt, making their blade shapes their distinguishing feature.
Russian Cossack Shashka
Unlike most sabres, the shashka lacked a sword guard. Inspired by traditional Caucasian daggers, the open-hilt shashka featured a beak-shaped pommel, making it appear like a big knife.
The European hangers greatly varied in design, though many featured shell guards, and some had a knuckle bow. Hunting hangers often had elaborate decorations, such as a lion-head pommel or mushroom-like cap. Generally, the military used a simpler variant of a hunting sword with a plain grip and a knuckle bow.
British 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre
Widely used during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the Model 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre featured a curved pommel and a stirrup hilt. An officer’s sword generally had a fishskin-covered grip with silver wire while other ranks only had leather grips. It also came in a steel scabbard with suspension rings which allowed it to be hung from the waist.
U.S. M1840 and M1860 Cavalry Sabers
During the Civil War, the Confederate States of America produced several swords based on the 1840 and 1860 cavalry sabers. Both sabres featured a brass basket hilt guard and were encased in a polished steel scabbard with suspension rings.
U.S. Model 1860 Navy Cutlass
Cutlasses were also sabers though the term often implies a short naval sword. The Model 1860 Navy Cutlass is recognized for its brass cupped hand guard with a pommel cap and a leather-wrapped grip.
Best Sabers Available Online
Sabres remain relevant among historical re-enactors and martial artists. In Historical European Martial Arts or HEMA, practitioners train with cutlass and several types of cavalry sabres. Some also serve as ceremonial swords, confined to dress uniforms of officers.
Whether you’re a collector or martial artist, we rounded up the best sabres available online to help you find the perfect sword.
1. Napoleonic Infantry Briquet
The commonest sabre issued to Napoleon’s foot soldiers, a briquet makes a great addition to your sword collection. This Napoleonic sabre features a high carbon steel blade and a brass guard, similar to historical examples. This infantry sabre has an overall length of 74 centimeters and a blade length of 61 centimeters. It has a blunt blade, so it is more suitable for display, historical re-enactment, and cosplay.
2. British Light Cavalry Sabre
Are you looking for a versatile sabre for historical re-enactment? Another sword associated with the Napoleonic Wars is the Model 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre. It was also widely used during the French Revolutionary wars and was later adopted by the Prussians, Spanish, and Portuguese.
This British sabre features an unsharpened and high-carbon steel blade. It measures about 95 centimeters long, with its blade around 82 centimeters. Unlike cavalry officer sabers with a fish skin grip and decorated blade, it only features a relatively plain blade and a ribbed leather grip. Still, it comes with a steel scabbard with suspension rings as seen in historical examples.
3. US Cavalry Saber
The most popular sword during the American Civil War, the Model 1840 Heavy Cavalry Saber is a must-have for collectors. However, this version features a narrow blade, making it more similar to the M1860 than the M1840 cavalry saber.
Unlike the famous Old Wristbreaker which weighed more than 4 pounds, this cavalry saber only weighs more than 2 pounds, which is lighter even than the M1860. It has an overall length of 100 centimeters and a blade length of around 85 centimeters.
It comes with an unsharpened blade, but HEMA practitioners who wish to have a durable sword for test cutting practice can have it sharpened. Like historical swords, it has a basket-like guard and a steel scabbard.
4. Persian Shamshir
One of the most coveted sabres, the Persian shamshir is most recognized for its deeply curved blade. This sabre features the traditional L-shaped pommel or pistol-style grip and straight quillons. It has an unsharpened blade, measuring around 77 centimeters long.
However, this Persian sabre lacks the radical curve of a shamshir blade, so it may not be the best sword for collection and display. It also has a broad scabbard, which is wider than it should be for a slim blade. For safety, it is not recommended for sparring and stage combat as it has a pointed tip. Still, it is a good sword for historical re-enactment and costume props.
5. Indian Talwar
Are you looking for a battle-ready sword for test-cutting practice? This Indian talwar comes with a sharp 1090 high carbon steel blade, one of the best you can get. It measures around 86 centimeters, with its blade about 72 centimeters long.
However, it has a larger grip than the vase-shaped hilt of historical talwars, so it may not be the best replica for an Indian sabre. Still, it features an ornate disc pommel that makes it great for display and collection.
Sabres vs. Backswords
The term sabre comes from French and probably originated from Polish and Hungarian szabla, which describes a curved single-edged sword. It served as a slashing weapon designed for cavalry use. On the other hand, the term backsword refers to a type of sword with a single-edged blade, which can be straight or curved. Technically, the saber is part of the backsword family.
However, the backsword often implies a straight blade and a well-developed closed guard, usually a basket hilt like the Scottish basket-hilted sword, mortuary swords, and schiavona. The backsword was easier to make than a double-edged sword, so it also became the preferred sidearm of the infantry. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, it functioned as a secondary weapon for European cavalrymen.
A Brief History of Sabres
Though the saber had been popular in the East for centuries, it emerged in western and southern Europe in the late 15th century. By the 19th century, many U.S. swords were based on French designs, widely used during the American Civil War. By the 20th century, military sabres gained ceremonial roles while the fencing sabre became one of the sport’s standard weapons.
In the Napoleonic Wars (1801 – 1815)
In the late 18th century, the light cavalry swords of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars evolved into a sabre with a curved blade, designed as a cutting and slicing weapon. The light cavalry initially consisted of hussars and chasseurs. However, the heavy cavalry, the cuirassiers, utilized long straight thrusting swords and pistols.
Unlike their British counterparts, French foot soldiers carried a sword mainly the briquet. The Napoleonic infantry sabre was initially worn by light infantry and grenadiers, but by 1807, it became limited to carabineers, grenadiers, drummers, and other officers. It was generally carried on a baldric over the right shoulder and sometimes decorated with dragonne, a tasseled wrist strap.
In the American Civil War (1861 – 1865)
The American Civil War, fought between the Confederacy and the Union forces, was primarily a foot soldier’s war as the U.S. Army initially neglected the use of cavalry in warfare. Although sabers and other traditional cavalry weapons were still issued, the mounted troops heavily depended on firearms. The classic military swords used were the 1840 Heavy Cavalry Saber and the 1860 Light Cavalry Saber.
During the time, the sabers were rarely more than decorative. The Confederate soldiers often did not carry sabers, but equipped themselves with pistols, rifled muskets, and shotguns. On the other hand, the Union cavalry relied on carbines and rifles. At the Battle of Winchester, the Union troops conducted saber charges, though they did the most damage with their carbines.
The Sabre in Dueling
Dueling served as a way of settling a conflict or a matter of honor through individual combat. It has ancient origins, from the Vikings to the medieval knights, and this practice thrived until the late 19th century. Rapiers and smallswords were typical dueling weapons, but in the French Army, the soldiers used sabres or distance weapons like pistols.
In Sabre Fencing
In Europe, fencing developed as a form of training for duels and warfare. By the 15th century, it evolved into a sport and reached popularity by the 16th century, when it became traditional for civilians to carry swords. Early fencing utilized rapiers and smallswords, but by the 18th century, fencers used fencing swords such as foil and epee with flexible blades and blunt tips.
The modern fencing sabre has a lighter and more flexible blade than a real sword. It also features a V-shaped blade and a crescent-shaped guard. In sabre fencing, fencers use the edges and tip of the blade to score points, hitting the target areas on their opponent’s body. Today, sabre events are included in several international fencing competitions and remain part of the Olympic games.
The sabre was among the fearsome weapons of the world’s greatest warriors, from the samurai to the Ottoman Turks, the Cossacks, and Napoleon’s army. The most popular sabres are the Japanese katana, Persian shamshir, Indian talwar, and the military sabres of the Napoleonic and American Civil Wars—and they remain relevant among sword collectors and HEMA practitioners today.