The sabre is a type of sword with a unique double-edged blade that’s neither pointed nor blunt at the tip. It’s the perfect balance between the two, and its flexibility makes it especially useful for fencers who need to strike their opponent without injuring them. In fencing, a weapon of such finesse requires an equally elegant name, so it’s no surprise that this sword has its own impressive backstory. The word “sabre” itself comes from old French meaning “short sword.” In previous centuries, this word was used to refer to a type of sword with a single- or double-edged blade and an intermediary length. Although the sabre isn’t nearly as common today as other types of swords like the katana or claymore, it remains one of the most identifiable weapons in history thanks to its role in World War I and II. Let’s take a closer look at the history of this remarkable weapon.
Like many other types of swords, the history of the sabre dates back to the Middle Ages. Although there are many types of swords used in this period, there’s one common distinction between them all: their shape. In general, swords are either straight or curved. Curved swords like scimitars feature a single-edge blade that’s ideal for hacking through heavy armour and mail. Straight swords, on the other hand, are more suitable for thrusting since they don’t curve back towards the wielder’s hands. The closest modern equivalent to these blades are the rapier and the sabre. The rapier is a straight sword with a narrow blade that’s designed to thrust between armour plates and pierce the soft tissue underneath. The sabre, on the other hand, is a straight sword with a broader blade that’s designed primarily for slashing and cutting.
The exact date of the origin of the sabre is difficult to pinpoint, but 17th century is a safe estimate. During this period, most European cavalry favoured the use of the sabre over the rapier. The reasons behind this transition are twofold: First, the prevalence of firearms in warfare prompted European military leaders to transition away from heavy armour. A sabre could easily cut through cloth or leather, but it was less effective against metal breastplates. Second, the advent of the stirrup made mounted combat far more effective, and the sabre was a more practical weapon for mounted soldiers to wield than the rapier. The sabre’s role in mounted warfare persisted during the Napoleonic Wars, nearly creating a century-long tradition that defined the weapon as a symbol of cavalry.
The 19th century is often referred to as the “age of the sword” due to its high prevalence of dueling and fencing with blades. The sabre was especially popular, especially among military academies and schools. The curriculum of these institutions often reflected the tactical developments of the time. The French and the Prussians in particular made a number of advancements in sabre fencing, including the invention of the parry, an advanced technique that would both block and counterattack simultaneously. There were also a number of notable students and teachers who became famous for their prowess with the sabre. For example, the iconic French swordsman and fencing instructor, George Dubois, taught fencing to both the French military and nobility.
The 20th century was a defining moment for the history of the sabre. It became a symbol of heroism and sacrifice for many during World War I. During this period, heavy cavalry units like the U.S. Cavalry and the Russian Cossack still made use of the sabre. Meanwhile, the French continued to use the weapon extensively as well. The weapon remained largely unchanged until the final years of the war, when gas warfare became a popular and effective tactic on the battlefield. The increased use of poison gas prompted military leaders to equip their soldiers with a sealed, protective mask. The mask, however, made it difficult to wield a sabre effectively, so many military leaders opted to replace the weapon with the new “Epee de Guerre”, a sword-like weapon with a curved blade that could be easily sheathed behind the back. The epee de guerre was also lighter and more convenient than the sabre.
The sabre continued to be used in the early 20th century, but the epee de guerre became the standard weapon for most military academies and combat schools. The weapon resurfaced during the 21st century in the form of the modern fencing sabre. This weapon is slightly longer than a standard fencing foil, enabling its users to attack from greater distances. There are several reasons why the sabre is once again a popular choice for military academies and competitive fencing tournaments. First, the weapon is highly adaptable to different skill levels and body types. Second, it’s easy to learn — a quality that’s essential for any weapon used in basic training. Finally, the modern fencing sabre is the most cost-effective weapon in the sport, making it the perfect choice for a sport that requires little in the way of specialised equipment.
Modern fencing sabres are also used in competitive sport fencing and are governed by the same rules as other weapons in the sport.
The sabre is an iconic weapon that has served as the primary sword in warfare for centuries. Like all weapons, it has evolved over time to meet new challenges, and will likely continue to do so as technology progresses. For now, however, the sabre remains a powerful weapon that’s both effective and graceful.