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Sword vs Saber: Differences, Types, Design, History and Combat

Written By: David Mickov
Published On: January 13, 2024
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

Swords and sabers are a group and sub-group of blades that changed throughout humanity with their unique purposes. With a legacy of over 5,000 years, swords have gradually given way to the saber in the last several hundred years. 

This article will delve into their differences and explain how the sabor influenced the history of swords.

KEY TAKEAWAYS
Swords evolved with different designs of blades and hilts throughout their 5000 years of history to better suit the current combat need.
Sabers feature a slightly curved or straight single-edged blade and were ideal on horseback and became dominant due to their practicality.
Today, the term saber references European cavalry swords made after the 18th century that feature a closed or knuckle-guard hilt.

Glossary Terms

TermDefinition

Sword
Any type of blade longer than 18 inches (45 cm), wielded by one or two hands with a hilt smaller than its blade

Sabre
Type of sword group featuring a single edge with a slightly pronounced or strong curvature usually held with one hand

Saber
The American standardization of spelling introduced by Merriam-Webster (dictionary) in the early 19th century

What is a Sword?

What is a Sword
Viking warriors using swords in a shield wall formation – Credits: Viking Art

Swords have long been associated with history and are usually made from copper, bronze, iron, and steel. Their primary function was as an offensive or defensive weapon and a symbol of one’s social status. 

Swords varied in size, ranging from smaller straight, double-edged short swords to bigger sidearms used with a shield. They evolved into a massive two-handed weapon, often featuring a curve and single edge.

What is a Saber?

What is a Saber
Light cavalry officers of the 1st Dragoons in the Napoleonic Army with sabers – Credits: Carle Vernet

Sabers (under the umbrella term swords) feature a single sharpened edge with a thicker, dull spine. Typically seen with a curved blade, they excelled throughout history as a slashing and calvary weapon.  

Often referred to as simply a sword, the saber represented curved-bladed sidearms used as dress swords or cavalry blades. Today, the word saber is a generic term for a Western European cavalry sword

They generally relate to the European thin-bladed cavalry curved blades used during the late 17th century, becoming more dominant in the 18th century.

A saber falls under a particular group of swords. Every saber is a sword, but not every sword is a saber.

Terms, Characteristics, and Design Differences

Saber and Sword Characteristics
The generic picture of a saber next to some of the most popular sword groups

Sword comes from the Old English word sweord, Proto-Germanic swerdam, Dutch zwaard, Nordic sverð, and other similar terms that generally translate to sharp or sharp weapon. The term saber comes from the French sabre, Hungarian szablya, Polish szabla, and Turkic selebe, which translates to cut.

Blade

Main Windlass British 1796 Pattern Light Cavalry Saber 1
The “1796 British Pattern Light Cavalry Saber” with a curved yet broader blade

The blades of swords are made of high-carbon steel with double or single-edged variations with or without a curve. The weapon’s tip is used for penetrating thrusts, creating a gashing wound, or a cut-and-thrust combination maneuver.

The blades of various swords feature fullers throughout their center, modifying or reducing their weight. They can have a taper, an unsharpened ricasso near the hilt, or a needle-like rapier design practical for dueling.

Sabers feature a slight or strongly pronounced curve with a single-edged blade, often featuring a fuller near its unsharpened spine. 

Some sabers, like the Turkish kilij, have a yelman, a thickened and broadened tip made for slashing strikes, while others have a sharpened back edge near the tip.

Some European sabers follow the general elongated blade design of a slashing saber but feature a straight blade, while others have a different name, such as the backsword. Rare examples of a two-handed saber exist, such as the Swiss saber with a slightly curved blade.

Hilt

1 Two Handed Medieval Long Sword with Double Fullers Euro Model
The “European Longsword” is one of the most popular swords used in HEMA training

Swords can feature many hilt designs, coming in one or two-handed variations depending on the blade’s length and the weapon’s purpose. Some fit both hands neatly, while others offer a gap between them for versatility.

A sword’s hilt can offer limited protection to full-hand protection. Most European medieval swords featured a cruciform crossguard with straight quillons, a narrow bow-tie design, and broadened s-shaped full gauntlet variations.

Swords feature pommels that tightly secure the tang underneath the handle, balancing the weight. They can be used for bashing or as a hand back-stopper. On the other hand, Sabers can feature pommels, but most have a backstrap.

Sabers feature a simple hilt with a one-handed grip, perfectly fitting the user’s hand. It offers protection with various hand guards such as baskets, ribs, metal rounded quillons, ear lobes, and a knuckle guard.

Some swords and sabers lack a guard to offer versatility in battle formation or to deliver swift offense to defense transitions. The Russian or Cossack shashka saber and Roman gladius sword are some examples.

Size and Weight

Size and Weight of a Saber and Sword
Despite their difference in design, both swords and sabers were light and easily maneuverable – Credits: Undermound

Swords come in various sizes and weights, depending on their purpose, whether to excel in momentum or mass behind their strikes. The main difference is whether they are one or two-handed. 

Generally, double or single-edged swords fall between 24 and 59 inches (60 to 150 cm) long and are referred to as great swords. Blades shorter than 24 inches are known as short swords and fall into a different category altogether.  Their weight ranges from 1.1 to 6.61 lbs (0.5 to 3 kg).

Sabers can vary in length but mostly in weight, depending on the type of blade. A cutlass would be used for sturdy cutting, while a light cavalry blade would be used for swift strikes. Sabers often range between 29 and 39 inches (73 to 100 cm) and weigh around 1.7 to 2.6 lbs (0.7 to 1.2 kg).

History and Significance

History of Sabers and Swords
One of the first turko-mongol saber designs that Western Europe had seen – Credits: Charlemagne’s Sabers, My Armory

Swords made technological advancements, replacing the dagger or sickle with a bigger warfare tool. They first appeared around the 30th century BCE, with some of the first proper blades being bronze swords from the 16th century BCE. Due to their meticulous crafting, they symbolized wealth, status, honor, power, and knowledge of contemporary martial arts.

The first types of swords had double edges, but with time and economic factors, blades with a single cutting edge appeared. The first example is in China, where the single-edged dao saber replaced the double-edged jian sword.

Curved swords with long blades, such as the katana, existed, but mainly, one-handed cavalry sabers were dominant in East Asia. They expanded through the West Asian steppes and the Middle East and eventually to Eastern and Western Europe.

Sabers were used effectively in combat from the 10th century in Asia and throughout the Middle Ages in Europe. Beginning in the 17th century, they were used during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) and became dominant around the 18th century, especially during the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). 

These dominant curved swords, often used in cavalry, were effective cut-and-thrust weapons that excelled against unarmored opponents. Today, they are the epitome of the swordsman, used in modern fencing and ceremonial military events.

Summary
Swords became useful in the 16th century BCE and evolved to better suit the current combat needs. Economic changes brought about the single-edged blade; in time, they had a curve to suit the rise in cavalry. Saber today is a generic term for Western European cavalry swords with a single edge and curved blade. 

Combat Preference

Sword vs Saber Combat Preference
Different styles of sword and saber fighting seen in various combat – Credits: The Old Sword Club

Swords are used in different combat scenarios based on their design. Some can be two-handed, used as primary weapons with a reach advantage, while one-handed swords can hold a shield for protection. 

Some swords excel in powerful slashing strikes, while others are made for cutting and thrusting. Wielders rely on the mass of some swords to inflict damage, while others rely on the weapon’s agility and speed to win a duel.

Swords function differently than sabers despite their single edge. Dadao swords and falchions, for example, are single-edged swords with no curve or have a much broader blade, making them powerful cutting weapons in sacrifice for their skill.

Sabers possess agility, practicality, and the need for no armor as their core combat preference. They had a curve that made their blade edge alignment easier to achieve, which dealt deep gashing wounds, but they had a tip that could also be used for thrusting. This depended on a saber’s curve level, such as a radically curved Persian shamshir made primarily for slashes and cuts.

Sabers were popular cavalry weapons because of their curve, allowing for smoother downward strikes. European cavalry sabers had slimmer blades used on lighter cavalry combined with a pistol or a heavier saber used by hussars. They were cut and thrust weapons and, despite having a straight or curved blade, were generally used with the same motions.

In modern swordsmanship, such as fencing, the epee is used for thrusting, while the saber is still used for the cut and thrust despite being taught in a contrapointe (not with the tip).

Sword vs Saber
Swords and sabers are distinct yet related weapons and dueling tools, each excelling in specific combat scenarios. Sword designs, different from sabers, are versatile tools for warfare, ideal for offense, defense, range attacks, and close-quarter or compact formation fighting. They were adept at slicing, cutting and thrusting, and blunt-heavy attacks.rnrnSabers are different mainly due to their lightly curved single-edged blades. This design makes the blade edge alignment easy to achieve, allowing for deep gashing wounds and resulting in more agile yet impactful strikes. They are favored on horseback and are the perfect sword for practicality and situational adaptability in unarmored duels, leading to their complete dominance as a sword.
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