The saber evolved from the falchion design and bears many similarities to the backsword and cutlass.
The saber was a European and American sword developed following the demise of heavily armored infantry on the battlefield. By the 1600s, firearms had been developed and the use of swords declined as a result. However, cavalry soldiers continued using sabers well into the 1900s.
The saber was originally a very heavy, curved sword, but a lighter, more easily wielded weapon with only a slight bend was developed in Italy late in the 19th century for dueling and fencing.
The modern fencing weapon is straight, like the foil and epee, but it still has one cutting edge, which can be used to make hits on an opponent.
Single edged, slightly curved, and sharpened on the convex edge, the saber was primarily a slashing weapon but could also be thrust. The saber was especially popular among cavalry soldiers of Europe and America. As time and warfare progressed, the saber became more a ceremonial weapon and affectation of military officers.
Today, some military officers still wear swords as a sign of authority. The weapon is also used in modern sport fencing, with saber fencing becoming an official Olympic event in recent years.
This weapon follows its ancestor’s tradition of having a target only from the waist up. Fighting with the saber demands speed and agility as well as the ability to make a strategic light touch on the target.
There were dozens of types of saber used by cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars.
Britain had two main styles, the 1796 pattern light-cavalry saber (pictured) and the straight-bladed 1796 heavy-cavalry saber, but this did not stop a whole host of various weapons being used at the whim of the men who led their regiments.
Unwieldy and poorly balanced, the 1796 patterns were used as hacking weapons and while they would cause terrible wounds the use of the edge of the blade rather than the point resulted in fewer killing strokes.
French horsemen preferred to use the points of their swords and run the enemy through so there was a large disparity in casualties between the two styles. The French suffered more vicious wounds, while the British more initial deaths.
The main proponents of the lance – a 30-centimeter point on the end of a 240-centimeter shaft – were the Poles, Austrian Uhlans, and Russian Cossacks, whose fighters had used the weapons for centuries.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s famous lancers were excellent for pursuing fleeing infantry, or trying to break up squares by outreaching bayonets.
Other cavalry, however, were seemingly not too worried by the longer reach as once past the razor-sharp blade of the lance the swordsman had the advantage
Antique Arab Islamic curved cavalry sword
During the Civil War, the saber was the traditional weapon of the cavalry. It had a curved, single-edged blade, about 36″ long and was designed to be used while mounted. It was held in the right hand and was swung in heavy, hacking or slashing blows, much like swinging an axe. The saber is often confused with a sword, which has a straight blade and has sharpened edges on both sides. When the military leaders realized that the cavalry would not be fighting European-style battles with massed charges, the saber’s importance began to diminish. The saber is still in use today by the United States Army, although only for ceremonial purposes.
This Civil War corporal proudly shows off the uniform and weapons of the cavalry. His shell jacket is trimmed in yellow braid on the cuffs, back, edges and collar. The crossed saber insignia of the cavalry is visible on his cap. He is holding the M1860 cavalry saber in his left hand and has a Colt revolver tucked in his belt.
Photo: National Archives
Thanks to CPT Sam Reinert, founder of the 545th Military Police Company Association for the saber info! Check out their page for more on not only the most highly decorated MP unit in the Army, but also the only Cavalry MP Company in the U.S. Army!