I wrote the following essay a few years ago after seeing the Mel Gibson movie about the American Revolution, The Patriot. Enjoy!
The Patriot, as a Revolutionary War movie, mainly depicts black powder rifles and cannon in the battle scenes. However, two edged weapons that are prominent in the movie are the sabre, used especially by the evil British Col. Tavington, and the tomahawk, used by the hero Ben Martin. We know, in fact, that the crucial juncture in Martin’s decision to enter the war has arrived when he brings out his old tomahawk from storage. The final battle between him and Tavington, of course, is fought hand-to-hand with these weapons. Let’s take a look at these early American weapons.
The sabre (or saber–both spellings are used) was the standard sidearm of the officer corps on both sides during the Colonial/Revolutionary era. The sabre is a curved, single-edged weapon about 2 1/2–3 feet long. It can be used for stabbing, to a limited extent, but is principally a slashing weapon. This makes it ideal for use from horseback, which is why it was mainly a weapon of cavalry and officers. Foot soldiers used mainly bayonets or knives (the precursors of the Bowie knife). The movie is very accurate in its portrayal of sabre use. The sabre was reserved until the charge. The idea was that both sides would line up on the battlefield and fire several rounds at each other in turn. When one side was confident that the foe was getting the worse of it, the general would command a charge. If all went well for the charging side, the enemy would break and run. Whether they did or not, bayonets and swords were used at this stage because the rifles and pistols of the era were impossible to reload on the run. Thus, like the Roman gladius or the modern service pistol, the sabre was used in the hand-to-hand phase of battle, which usually came near the end of the engagement.
It is also worth pointing out that the sabre is the weapon of the officers, not of the enlisted men. The latter were generally on foot, as mentioned, and the sabre, while it can be used on the ground, is most effective wielded from horseback. Of course, the officers (generally drawn from the aristocracy at that time) would be better able to afford training in horseback riding; and fencing had long been considered a necessary skill of a gentleman. Even to this day, a ceremonial sabre is still an emblem of the commissioned officer, for example in the United States Marine Corps.
The Patriot is also accurate in showing sabre fighting. Sabre technique is based on Western fencing, but the cavalry sabre is much heavier than the fencing sabre. The forms we tend to think of are based on light, flexible, supple blades, but the cavalry sabre requires greater strength and is slower, if equally deadly. The relatively wide, heavy swings and the relative lack of parrying and tapping is characteristic of sabre fighting and is well portrayed in the battle scenes.
Curved swords have existed from ancient times (the falcata springs to mind). However, the West tended to prefer straight swords from antiquity until the Renaissance. There are probably two reasons for this. One is that until nearly the end of the Middle Ages the steel making technology of Europe was less advanced than that of the Middle East. Thus, high-quality straight swords were easier to forge. Second is the style of fighting used by European armies. Curved swords are best suited to horseback fighting, since they allow sweeping down cuts. However, until the 16th century or so, this style of fighting was not commonly used in Europe.
Part of the reason for this is the relatively late use of the stirrup. The stirrup was developed in Central Asia and did not reach Europe until at least the 6th century, perhaps later. Because of this, cavalry was a relatively small part of Western armies. A mounted man without stirrups was easily dismounted; thus the only use for cavalry was for reconnaissance or for mounted spear throwers or archers. Swords were rarely used from horseback because the impact would tend to knock the soldier off his horse. Eventually, stirrups came into wide use and cavalry was developed into a potent fighting force, but even here, Europe and Asia went different routes. Asians favored light cavalry. Such armies as those of the Huns, Mongols, and Turks favored light, swift horses ridden by lightly armored riders (a leather breastplate and helmet were the maximal armor, if even that much was used) armed with the light curved swords we call scimitars. Such cavalry could charge in, wreak huge amounts of damage very quickly, and be out rapidly as well, if need be. This early blitzkrieg was partly responsible for the widespread conquests of these peoples.
By way of contrast, Europeans tended towards large, powerful horses mounted by knights in full armor, first of chain mail and later plate mail. The weapons of choice were lances, and though knights carried swords, they were not usually used from horseback. Rather, the cavalry functioned almost like the tanks and artillery of today, plowing over a foe by brute force, then using swords for the mopping-up phase after the riders dismounted (either voluntarily or by being unseated). Thus, there was still a preference for the long, straight swords customary in the West right up until the end of the Middle Ages. However, from about the 15th century onward, the increasing use of gunpowder made armored riders obsolete. Thus, European armies gradually moved in the direction of light cavalry themselves. With this change came the popularity of the sabre (from the German Sabel, probably from some Slavic form such as sablya, by the way), a slightly heavier development of the scimitar. By the time of the American Revolution, the saber was the standard issue military sword.
The tomahawk is an old American Indian weapon. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the name derives from the Algonquin otomahuk, “to knock down”. Indeed, the original weapon was more of a club than an axe, although the stone heads were sometimes sharpened. Ironically, the form with which we are most familiar is a hybrid. After contact with the white man, the Indians replaced the rounded stone head with the narrow metal blade we know. The balanced throwing haft and traditional decorations, though, were purely Algonquin. In either form, the tomahawk was a very efficient weapon, useful for clubbing, cutting, and of course throwing. It played a great part in the ceremonial life of the Eastern Woodlands Indians. The haft was often hollowed to do double duty as a ceremonial pipe. Also, when truces were called, it was often customary to bury the tomahawk as a symbol of peace (hence the well-known phrase, “to bury the hatchet”). No wonder the colonists quickly picked up this weapon!