Scimitar Sword: The Curve that Changed the Battlefield

There are few weapons in the history of warfare as iconic as the scimitar sword. A blanket term for different types of scimitars, or curved blades, like many hand-held weapons from the Middle Ages, it was both aesthetically intriguing and astonishingly effective in battle. This is the story of the famed - and feared - scimitar blade.

Military History
5 June 2024

The scimitar sword was a weapon which has captured the imagination of historians for centuries. This iconic sword, often associated with Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian warriors, played a pivotal role in shaping the dynamics of historical battlefields.

With its razor-sharp edge and lightweight construction, the scimitar, cimeterre, or scimitarra, was not only a symbol of status and craftsmanship, but also a formidable combat weapon.

Let’s take a trip back over a thousand years into the past to discover the scimitar sword and its origins, its storied history, and the different types of scimitars that have graced the world’s battlefields.

What is a Scimitar Sword?

Ottoman Turkish scimitar (Credit: serikbaib via Getty Images)

The scimitar was a single-edged sword with a distinctive backward-curved blade. Swords with curved blades were introduced to the Middle East around the ninth century by nomadic Turkic warriors who may have been using a type of curved sword as early as the seventh century. The sword was mostly associated with various cultures across North Africa, and Central and South Asia. Its convex blade allowed for efficient cutting and slashing attacks, especially from horseback where the curvature of the blade matched the sweep of the horsemen’s arm while galloping.

Early types of scimitars were made of iron and low carbon steel, but over time, advancements in metallurgy led to the use of higher carbon steels, enhancing the sword’s sharpness and durability. The scimitar’s blade design, as well as materials like wood, bone, or metal for the hilt, allowed for quick, fluid strikes, making it a formidable – and, crucially, lightweight – weapon for both mounted troops and foot soldiers.

The size and weight of scimitar swords varied greatly as it developed and its use became widespread, but as a very general guide, they were probably somewhere between 76 and 92 centimetres long from hilt to tip, and weighed about a kilogram.

What’s in a Name?

English cavalry sabre (Credit: Getty Provision via Getty Images)

‘Scimitar’ is an English word believed to have been first used around the sixteenth century. It’s likely derived from the fifteenth century Middle French word cimeterre, and/or from the Italian scimitarra, however this derivation remains the subject of debate amongst historians and scholars of medieval military history.

What’s generally agreed is that all three words ultimately came from a corruption of the Persian word shamshir, the name of another type of curved sword. Over the years, the word scimitar came to be used as a general term to describe most types of curved-bladed swords.

Via places like Russia and Ukraine – where it became known as the sablya – the scimitar sword became popular throughout Eastern Europe and, as its development moved west, an alternative English version of the word ended up as sabre.

The History of the Scimitar Blade

Illustration of Mongol warriors with swords and bow (Credit: Nick Hewetson via Getty Images)

The scimitar sword is a lethal weapon with a fascinating history. The earliest versions of the scimitar were likely introduced to the Middle East by Turkic warriors from the Iranian plateau known as Khorasan, which today encompasses parts of Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.

These nomadic horsemen understood the complex mechanics of fighting efficiently while at full speed on a galloping horse, and the legendary sword became a battlefield staple of, among other cultures, the Turks, Persians, Mongols, Sikhs, and Rajputs. It’s thought to have also been used by the Saracens against the Crusaders in the eleventh century and was a popular Ottoman weapon until the advent of gunpowder-based firearms in the sixteenth century, although scimitars and other melee weapons remained in use alongside these for quite some time. Indeed it’s occasionally stated that scimitar blades were even used during World War I, but to what extent and by whom is uncertain.

The Different Types of Scimitars

Traditional Indian curved sword (Credit: ermess via Getty Images)

The scimitar sword has evolved into various forms across different cultures, each tailored to the specific combat needs and styles of the culture that developed them. Here are some of the most renowned versions of this iconic weapon.


Originating from Turkey, the one-handed, single-edged sword features a distinct ‘T’ shaped cross-section and a pronounced curve, allowing for powerful cutting strokes. It was a favourite among Ottoman cavalry for its effectiveness in battle, and used by Seljuk, Timurid, and Mamluk warriors from the early Middle Ages.


The Indian talwar had a broad, curved blade and an elaborate hilt, often adorned with intricate designs. Its design facilitated both cutting and thrusting motions, making it versatile in combat. It was a potent symbol of India’s martial tradition and permeated the nation’s art, culture and folklore.


Originating from North Africa, specifically Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, the nimcha, used from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, had a distinctive hilt with a knuckle guard and a slightly curved blade. Many were inscribed with tughra, the seal or signature of the reigning sultan.


The Afghan pulwar was similar in style to the Indian talwar but with a broader blade and a more pronounced curve. It was known for its strength and balance, making it effective in both attacking and defensive manoeuvres. It was in widespread use during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but its origins can be traced back further.


One of the lesser-known types of scimitars, the Eritrean and Ethiopian shotel has a deeply curved double-edged blade, almost resembling a crescent moon. This design allowed for hooking and slashing attacks, particularly useful against shielded opponents. It may have originated as far back as 700 BC in the D’mt region of northern Ethiopia.


One of the most well-known of all the scimitar swords, the Persian shamshir was characterised by its deeply curved, slender blade, optimised for slashing attacks. Its light weight and sharp edge made it a very effective weapon for cavalry use. The first versions of the shamshir may have been in use as early as the seventh or eighth century.

The Enduring Legacy of the Scimitar Sword

Ancient Roman soldiers with curved swords (Credit: mikroman6 via Getty Images)

The distinctive curve of the scimitar sword not only revolutionised the dynamics of ancient and medieval warfare but also left an enduring legacy on the cultural, religious, and martial traditions of numerous civilisations.

Each variation of the scimitar blade brought unique advantages to the battlefield, blending form and function in a way that showcased the ingenuity and adaptability of their makers. As firearms and modern warfare evolved, the scimitar’s prominence waned, yet it remains a potent symbol of historical valour and craftsmanship, admired as much for its beauty and elegance as its brutal effectiveness.


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