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Scimitar vs Cutlass: Design, History and Combat Differences

Written By: David Mickov
Published On: January 29, 2024
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

Scimitars and cutlass swords are iconic one-handed weapons that excel in particular scenarios. Their combat effectiveness ranges from a mounted position exercising devastating slice attacks to a crude broad blade ideal for cutting through flesh and trees.

This article will separate the two and discuss their differences, explaining their terms, how they contributed to history, and how they were used.

Scimitar - Comparison
Scimitar
Cutlass - Comparison
Cutlass
Origin
Scimitar
14th century Central/West/South Asia
Cutlass
16th century Europe
Uses
Scimitar
Warfare, Slashing, Slicing, Mounted
Cutlass
Slashing, Daily Utility Tasks
Average Length
Scimitar
27.6 to 39.3 inches (75 to 100 cm)
Cutlass
21.6 to 33.4 inches (55 to 85 cm)
Weight
Scimitar
1.5 to 2.6 lbs (0.7 to 1.2 kg)
Cutlass
1.5 to 3.3 lbs (0.7 to 1.5 kg)
Blade Type
Scimitar
Single-Edge, Strong Curve, Slim or Broadened Tip
Cutlass
Single-Edge, Curve or Straight, Broad
Handle
Scimitar
One-Handed
Cutlass
One-Handed, Protected
Construction
Scimitar
Wootz Steel, Damascus Steel, High-Carbon Steel
Cutlass
High-Carbon Steel

Terms, Characteristics, and Design Differences

Scimitar vs Cutlass Characteristics
The major differences between a scimitar and a cutlass

The scimitar is a curved sword with one sharp edge. It’s made for one hand and comes from the Middle East. Its name, “scimitar,” comes from the Italian word “scimitarra.” The design is like the Persian “shamshir,” which means “paw-claw.”

In Europe, people also call this sword a scimitar. But they use other names too, like “cultellus” in Latin and “couteau” in French. These names often mean smaller knives or machetes found in the Caribbean.

The cutlass is another type of sword from Europe. But the word “scimitar” is used for many curved swords from different places. For example, the Turkish “kilij,” the Persian “shamshir” (again), the Afghan “pulwar,” the Indian “talwar,” the Arabian “saif,” and the North African “nimcha.”

In each of these languages, these names simply mean u0022sword.

Blade

Main Cutlass Atrim Design by Kingston Arms Sword
“Museum Inspired Cutlass” featuring a 16th-century design (Check Product)

Scimitar swords have a special look. They are curved, thin, and have one sharp edge. Some are smooth, but others have grooves near the unsharpened edge. These grooves make the sword lighter.

The curve of a scimitar changes with the type. For example, a shamshir has a big curve, which helps it slice better. A kilij has a smaller curve and a broad end called a yelman. This design makes it good for quick, strong slashes.

A European cutlass is different. Its blade is straight with one sharp edge. Sometimes, it has a slight curve or a groove (a fuller). The cutlass’s tip is made for stabbing and slashing. It has a small sharp part on both sides.

The cutlass blade is shorter than the scimitar, usually 18 to 29 inches (45 to 75 cm). This size makes it strong, easy to use, and good for cutting.

Hilt

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“Navy CPO Cutlass with 24K Gold Plate” featuring a basket hilt for protection (Check Product)

Scimitar swords have special parts to protect your hand and to hold them in their covers (scabbards). They have a diamond-shaped guard above the handle. Their handles come in different styles: straight, a bit narrow, shaped like a pistol, or with a big round end (pommel). These handles are made of wood, ivory, or bone. They are built using a method called slab tang construction.

The cutlass also has a handle for one hand. It can be straight or get narrower near the blade. It might have a small round end (pommel) or a backstrap. The handles can be made of wood, wrapped in cord, or wired. They are angled to make space for fingers.

Scabbard

Main Scimitar by Paul Chen Hanwei Scimitar
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The scimitar scabbard is much longer than the cutlass’s. They are carried on the left side, strapped or hanging from a belt. Some scimitars are sheathed by their side due to their stronger curves.

The scimitar and cutlass are often compared in their combat styles due to the modern fantasy style of a scimitar. It has a broad-bladed design with a hook near its tip, often resembling a European falchion or a Chinese dadao.

Size and Weight

Types of Historical Scimitar Swords
Historical Types of Scimitar Swords – Credits: World Antiques

Scimitars are generally larger than cutlasses, with lengths ranging from about 28 to 43 inches (75 to 110 cm). Despite their size, scimitars are lighter, usually weighing around 2 pounds. 

On the other hand, cutlasses are shorter, about 22 to 33 inches (55 to 85 cm), but can be heavier due to their broad, tip-heavy blades, weighing between 1.5 to 3.3 lbs (0.7 to 1.5 kg).

Regardless of width, a cutlass shouldn’t be called a broadsword, a different type of weapon resembling a rapier with a broader blade.

Historical Significance

Cutlass History
A training drill with a cutlass done by sailors – Credits: Wiki Media

The scimitar sword, curved and with one edge, started from the Turko-Mongol saber in Central Asia. It spread because of people moving, fighting, and through Turkish and Mongol soldiers.

We first saw it in India and Persia in the 14th century. Its design changed to help cavalry. By the 17th century, it was common from Morocco to near the Indian-Chinese border.

Making a cutlass was pretty easy. It had two uses: as a tool and a weapon in fights. They got popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, the time of the musketeers.

People think cutlasses started with pirates, but that’s not true. Sailors used them a lot in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some cutlasses looked fancy, but most were made in large numbers and looked simple.

Combat Preference

Scimitar vs Cutlass Combat Preference
Sailors with cutlass mounting a ship versus Scimitar horsemen charging – Credits: Battle of Cape St Vincent 1797

Scimitar swords relied on the user being quick and skilled, not just strong. They were great for fast, slicing attacks that caused long, deep cuts.

When people wore armor, scimitars were often used with shields. Their shape made it easy to hit through armor gaps. After the 17th century, as armor got less common, scimitars got more popular. They worked really well for soldiers on horses.

Cutlasses were perfect for fighting up close. They mixed European saber style with a wider, stronger blade. Their handle protected the hand and could be used to punch. 

Sailors liked them because they were good in small spaces and useful for many things. They weren’t just for fighting but also for cutting rope or wood and even digging.

Scimitar vs Cutlass (Duel Winner)
Scimitars were effective for slicing attacks and horseback combat, while cutlasses excelled in close-quarters fighting and as utility tools for sailors.
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