Why are scimitars curved?
March 31, 2011 1:39 PM   Subscribe

Why are scimitars curved?

Richard Burton, the explorer, makes the argument in The Book of the Sword that a straight sword is best because it is the longest and most stable configuration for a certain amount of weight. If you were to take a scimitar and straighten it out, it would weigh the same, but give you a length advantage in combat; or, for the same length it could be lighter.

So what is the advantage of a curved sword? Curved swords seem to be preferred on horseback in certain epochs (the 19th Century) but not others (the 15th Century). Curved swords seem to be preferred by sailors, where they might be handier for cutting rigging. But why would the Crusaders have preferred straight swords while the Arab armies of the same period preferred scimitars?

What is the tactical advantage of a curved blade? Is it to reach around an enemy's shield?
posted by musofire to Science & Nature (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
"Scimitars were used in horse warfare because of their relatively light weight when compared to larger swords and their curved design, good for slashing opponents while riding on a horse. Mongols, Rajputs and Sikhs used scimitars in warfare, among many other peoples." - wikipedia

I also remember reading something about the force needed to weild a scimitar effectively is different that that needed for a sword, but can't seem to find that reference now.
posted by defenestrated at 1:44 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

A curved blade is a slashing blade, so it'd be better for actual cutting, as you can tell from an experiment with a curved-vs-straight kitchen knife. The curve means the cut can be inexact to start with, and no matter what the angle of approach, the cut will start on a small surface area (highly effective) and then spread, widening the cut.

A straight knife or sword must cut all at once, flatly, and encounters more resistance, especially when not aligned exactly right.

Everything I remember about scimitars and other curved swords is that they're cavalry weapons, so the slashing/cutting emphasis seems to make sense there, too. You don't stop to poke someone or pause to spend time in swordplay while riding past on a horse.

One. Big. Swoopy. Slash.
posted by rokusan at 1:44 PM on March 31, 2011 [12 favorites]

Does it make the blade more 'axe-like' so it can concentrate force in one area?
posted by Not Supplied at 1:48 PM on March 31, 2011

If you were to take a scimitar and straighten it out, it would weigh the same, but give you a length advantage in combat

You'd also increase the chances of the blade binding with the object it's supposed to be slicing through. If you're attacking from horseback, you really don't want to lose your sword because it got "stuck" in the last dude.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:54 PM on March 31, 2011 [5 favorites]

It is also possible that the curve allows for the sword to be drawn more easily and with more deadly results, curving around the body in a cutting arc, rather than a straight and potentially awkward line. This is partly why Japanese blades tend to be gently curved rather than straight, but I'm not actually familiar with how scimitars were typically carried and/or sheathed.
posted by Diagonalize at 1:56 PM on March 31, 2011

I've read that book and you should keep in mind Burton tends to have a somewhat racist outlook on non-European cultures. That said, you should note that scimitars are usually not uniform across their full length but get thicker towards the end. This balance, with the weight far away from the hand, tends to give the sword a whip-like action which enhances the slashing effect. It's a great design for use by a mounted swordsman who sits on a moving horse since it requires (and kind of prohibits) less careful aiming to be effective.
posted by tommasz at 1:57 PM on March 31, 2011

Response by poster: The slashing argument is excellent. However, the Janissaries (armored footmen) used scimitars. I'm not clear why they would be slashing instead of poking.

As a side question, why do you not see swords with a cord coming out of the handle so you don't lose it?
posted by musofire at 2:19 PM on March 31, 2011

posted by Not Supplied at 2:30 PM on March 31, 2011

The slashing argument works fine on foot, too - see the classic Japanese swords, for example. It just depends on how you're going to be using it, and probably what kind of armor you expect your opponent to wear. A slash across platemail isn't going to be as effective as a hacking blow. (My understanding is that the standard medieval European straight sword was not kept particularly sharp, because it was mostly used to bludgeon rather than cut.)
posted by restless_nomad at 2:31 PM on March 31, 2011

Important to note that in a lot of cultures... Straight blades and curved blades coexisted, with neither replacing the other. They had different strengths and preferred uses, but one is not always better than the other.
posted by utsutsu at 2:36 PM on March 31, 2011

The Janissaries fought with Yatagans which are much less curved than the iconic scimitar. It is still made for slashing, but then slashing and hacking tactics were pretty typical of fighting styles of the time. The last military army that focused heavily on a thrusting blade were the Roman legions with their gladii. The use of thrusting tactics in fencing is more of an outgrowth of using rapiers, which had their origins as being dress swords -- something to wear at court or in parade as an elegant blade that was light enough to be handled with grace and panache, but not actually meant for battlefield combat against armored opponents.
posted by bl1nk at 2:43 PM on March 31, 2011

re: lanyards... I reckon if your sword *has* gotten stuck in some guy, you don't want to be messing about getting untied from him when you can just grab some dead bloke's sword up off the ground...
posted by russm at 2:45 PM on March 31, 2011

But why would the Crusaders have preferred straight swords while the Arab armies of the same period preferred scimitars?

One, practicality: Europeans tended to have heavier armor, vs. which thrusting is more useful

Two, tradition: Crusader swords evolved from straight swords of the Roman era

Three, symbolism: it's not for nothing that the medieval sword resembles a crucifix.
posted by furiousthought at 3:19 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's complicated, and I'm certainly not qualified to explain it, but there are many, many different styles of swordplay that put different design objectives and constraints on the weapon. You might want to read the design of the similarly curved British Pattern 1796 light cavalry sabre. Also, a recent MeFi thread on Western swordplay.

because it is the longest and most stable configuration for a certain amount of weight. (musofire)

I haven't read the book, but this sounds like he's making a lot of assumptions about how a scimitar is meant to be used, such as maximizing reach at a certain weight is important. If you're a cavalryman and half your enemies have twenty-foot pikes, you've probably resigned yourself to having less reach.

Also note that often combat effectiveness takes second place to tradition, mythology, or local materials availability. A famous example I've heard is that katanas have their characteristic pattern-welded, differentially annealed construction because Japan has terrible iron.
posted by d. z. wang at 3:42 PM on March 31, 2011

They're curved to kill with less effort.

They're also curved due to the carbon content in the two metals used to make them (high carbon content = can dull easy but is more likely to bend without breaking. Low carbon content = can create a very sharp edge, but can break easy)
posted by zombieApoc at 3:45 PM on March 31, 2011

Here's some talk on myarmoury thread on curved vs. straight swords, and some speculation about why curved swords superseded straight one's in later eras (summary: they didn't really). The last two links are not specifically about scimitars, but they've got some useful things to think about.

As to the sword preference during the Crusades: According to Eward Oakeshott, Islamic swords during the that period were actually straight (read the text in the third image down) and curved ones didn't come into come usage until the early 14th century. As the bulk of the Crusades ended in the 13th century, you can't really talk about a preference of straight swords to curved when it comes to the European and Arabic armies during that time.
posted by Mister Cheese at 5:53 PM on March 31, 2011

Best answer: I'm practicing the Shaolin arts which include training with multiple weapons including Chinese style straight swords and curved broad swords. Here's some of my observations based on those experiences:

In close quarter situations a broad sword works better (at least for me). Imagine being close up to an opponent with the sword in your right hand, in front of you, down by your left hip, inverted so the weapon points to the floor, cutting edge toward your opponent. As you try to slice diagonally across by moving your hand upward and to the right you'll find that sooner or later your hand is moving in a somewhat curved trajectory since your ultimately pivoting fixed length limbs of joints. Since the curved blade is curving away from your opponent the tip is unlikely to get stuck in belts, creases or the material of whatever they're wearing. With a straight blade of similar length you're almost guaranteed to get stuck.
There is plenty of movements where this is true, probably for the reason given above: limbs are fixed length and pivot over joints which results in curved motion. With those types of movements a curved blade can slice almost anywhere along the imaginary surface of a fairly tight fitting sphere around your body. A straight blade is harder to use in this way as it would always penetrate that spherical space and result in the tip getting blocked or stuck.

Obviously, in turn it is somewhat harder to stab with a curved blade. If the blade is well constructed and balanced and has the right curvature that's not a big deal though. In terms of technique I find that I can stab perfectly well with my broadsword. However, because of blade profile and size it'll be harder to penetrate deeply with a curved broadsword than with a straight one. The slender and slightly curved Japanese blades may very well represent the perfect compromise between the two extremes.

As has been mentioned before it's also easier to draw a curved blade from its sheath for the same reason. Limbs tend to move in curved paths, so does the blade as it slides out.

I've found that working with a straight sword appears to require lots more flexibility. In our class it's almost always the skinnier, lighter and more flexible people that prefer the straight sword, while the bigger, stronger and stiffer people like me end up preferring the curved broadsword.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 6:19 PM on March 31, 2011

a straight sword is best

That really isn't a meaningful statement until you know the task at hand.

Heavily armoured opponent? Long (straight) and heavy.
Unarmored swordplay? Long (straight) and light/fast.
Surprise assassination? Small and fast.
Ground targets from horseback? Curved.
Mounted targets from ground? Flexible and very very VERY long!

There is no one tool that fits every job.

On top of that are technological considerations. Most sword designs couldn't exist much earlier than their period because the technology to construct them did not exist. A roman sword is clearly a poor design compared to what another thousands years of technological advancement would make possible, but it was best in its day.

Talking about best without context is meaningless.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:46 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sort of what AombieApoc said (though it's the high carbon steel that's hard and brittle and the low carbon that's tough but soft).

Part of it also has to do with the manufacturing technique as well. A scimitar has only one edge - if you try to force a one edged knife you're end up with a very strong curve to the blade due to the way you're drawing the metal on one side of the blade, but not the other.

It's not that every blade comming out of Europe was straight. The falchion had a curved blade.

Flails are what you use if you want to reach around a shield.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:43 PM on March 31, 2011

With regard to sailors and nautical combat: ships are tight quarters. The shorter the blade the better. A curved blade gets more cutting surface into a given lentgth, with the added bonus of slashing / allowing for inaccurate cuts. Burton's assumptions are not unversal for all combat situations.
posted by reverend cuttle at 8:20 AM on April 1, 2011

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