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The sabre or saber (see spelling differences) is a kind of backsword that usually but not always has a curved, single-edged blade and a rather large hand guard, covering the knuckles of the hand as well as the thumb and forefinger. Although sabres are typically thought of as curved-bladed slashing weapons, those used by the world’s heavy cavalry often had straight and even double-edged blades more suitable for thrusting. The length of sabres varied, and most were carried in a scabbard hanging from a shoulder belt known as a baldric or from a waist-mounted sword belt. Exceptions not intended for personal carry include the famed Patton saber adopted by the United States Army in 1913 and always mounted to the cavalryman’s saddle.
The English word sabre derives from the French sabre, which comes in turn from the Magyar Szablya and Polish “Szabla”. It is akin to the Russian sablya, and describes a similar weapon, but the exact relationship is obscure.
The origins of the sabre in its modern form are somewhat unclear, and it may come from such Medieval European designs as the falchion, or the scimitar (shamshir) used by such Central Asian cavalry as the Turks and Mongols. The sabre first appeared in Europe with the arrival of the Hungarians (Magyars) in the 10th century. The original type of Polish sabre was the Karabela. The name was derived from the Turkish words Kara, meaning dark, and bela, meaning curse. The Karabela was worn by the Polish, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian nobility class, the Szlachta. Originally, the sabre was used as a cavalry weapon, but it gradually came to replace the various straight bladed cutting sword types on the battlefield. As time went on, sabres became insignia of rank in many armies, and dress use of sabres continues to this day in some armed services around the world.
The sabre saw extensive military use in the early 19th century, particularly in the Napoleonic Wars, during which Napoleon used heavy cavalry charges to great effect against his enemies. The sabre faded as a weapon by mid-century, as longer-range rifles made cavalry charges obsolete, even suicidal. In the American Civil War, the sabre was used infrequently as a weapon, but saw notable deployment in the Battle of Brandy Station and at East Cavalry Field at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Many cavalrymen—particularly on the Confederate side—eventually abandoned the long, heavy weapons in favour of revolvers and carbines. Although there was extensive debate over the effectiveness of “white” weapons such as the sabre and lance, the sabre remained the standard weapon of cavalry for mounted action in most armies until World War I (1914–18). Thereafter it was gradually relegated to the status of a ceremonial weapon, and most horse cavalry was replaced by armoured cavalry from 1930 on.
In the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (16–18th century) a specific type of sabre-like melee weapon, the szabla, was used. The Don Cossacks used the shashka, which also saw military and police use in the Russian Empire and early Soviet Union.
During the 19th and in the early 20th century, sabres were also used by both mounted and dismounted personnel in some European police forces. When the sabre was used by mounted police against crowds, the results could be appalling, as in a key scene in Doctor Zhivago. The sabre was later phased out in favour of the baton (or night stick) for both practical and humanitarian reasons.
In the United States, swords with sabre blades are worn by Army, Navy, and Coast Guard officers. Marine officers and non-commissioned officers also wear such swords. They are not intended for use as weapons, however, and now serve primarily in ornamental or ceremonial functions.
The sabre is one of the three weapons used in the sport of fencing.