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Szabla (Polish pronunciation: [ˈʂabla]; Polish plural: szable) is the Polish word for sabre. It specifically refers to an Eastern European one-edged sabre-like mêlée weapon with a curved blade and, in most cases, a two-bladed tip called a feather (pióro). Initially used by light cavalry, with time it also evolved into a variety of arms used both for martial and ceremonial purposes. Until the 19th century, it also served as one of the symbols of the nobility (szlachta) in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, who considered it to be one of the most important pieces of men's traditional attire.
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Various types of sabre-like arms were first brought to Eastern Europe by the nomads as early as the 6th century. However, it was not until the 14th and 15th centuries that a curved sword was adopted in European warfare. Initially the sabres used in Hungary and Kievan Rus were but local copies of their eastern predecessors used by the Turkic and Arabic peoples: the kilij, pulwar, talwar, saif, shamshir or scimitar. It is often assumed that all of these were in turn descendants of the ubiquitous parent sword, the Turko-Mongol saber used by the nomadic tribes of Asia and then brought to the Middle East during their migration out of Central Asia.
Although by early 16th century swords of this type were used both in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Hungary, most of them were spoils, not normally used and only issued to peasants in an emergency. As such, they were considered plebeian weapons unworthy of the nobility. The higher classes and the knights at that time still preferred straight-bladed swords, much like their western European counterparts. However, with time the advent of firearms and artillery, as well as constant pressure from the Ottoman Empire and the Tatars, who used light cavalry in large numbers, prompted a movement away from the old paradigm of heavily armored medieval men-at-arms—a movement that also manifested itself in a changing preference for sword blade types. It was in the 15th century that curved swords were adopted in Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and Hungary, both countries being having had the most extensive contacts (largely hostile) with the Mongols, Turks and Tatars.
The following century, after the election of Transylvanian-Hungarian noble Stefan Batory as king of Poland, the entire Polish army was reformed to suit the new needs. The series of Polish-Lithuanian Union, as well as extensive contacts with Hungary and Transylvania, made the sabre one of the basic arms used by the nobility, formerly using the swords. With time the sabre evolved in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and gave birth to a variety of sabre-like weapons, fit for various tasks. In the following centuries, the ideas of Sarmatism as well as the Polish fascination with Eastern attire, customs, cuisine and warfare resulted in the szabla becoming an indispensable part of attire of the szlachta, as well as one of the symbols of nobility and its alleged ancient roots.
The main feature of a szabla is a curved one-edged blade, often with a yelmen (pióro "feather" in Polish).
As in most swords, Polish sabres were composed of a variety of parts, each bearing a different name (Polish terms in parentheses):
The forte and foible could be visually separated by two claws on the non-sharp side of the blade, the threshold (próg) and the martle (młotek). Both sides of the blade could be shaped in a variety of ways and were often decorated with ornaments or inscriptions. Other signs featured on the flats include producer's marks and coats of arms.
The greatest diversity is found in various types of the hilt, which define the purpose of the sabre. The Polish sabres could usually be divided onto:
The first type of szabla, the Hungarian-Polish (węgiersko-polska), was popularized among the szlachta during the reign of the Transylvanian-Hungarian King of Poland Stefan Batory in the late 16th century. It featured a large, open hilt with a cross-shaped cross-guard and a heavy blade, either uncurved at all or curved only slightly. To protect the hand, at times a chain was attached to the cross-guard and the pommel. Since a number of such weapons were made by order of the king himself during his reform of the army and were engraved with his portrait, this kind of sabre is also referred to as batorówka - after Batory's name.
In late 17th century the first notable modification of the sabre appeared. Unlike the early "Hungarian-Polish" type, it featured a protected hilt and resembled the curved sabres of the East. It was hence called the Armenian sabre, possibly after Armenian merchants and master swordsmiths who formed a large part of arms makers of the Commonwealth at those times. In fact the Armenian sabre developed into three almost completely distinct types of swords, each used for a different purpose. Their popularity and efficiency made the Polish nobles abandon the broadswords used in Western Europe.
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The hussar sabre was perhaps the best-known type of szabla of its times and became a precursor to many other such European weapons. Introduced around 1630, it served as a Polish cavalry mêlée weapon, mostly used by heavy cavalry, or Polish Hussars. Much less curved than its Armenian predecessors, it was ideal for horseback fighting and allowed for much faster and stronger strikes. The heavier, almost fully closed hilt offered both good protection of the hand and much better control over the sabre during a skirmish. Two feather-shaped pieces of metal on both sides of the blade called moustache (wąsy) offered greater durability of the weapon by strengthening its weakest point: the joint between the blade and the hilt. The soldier fighting with such sabre could use it with his thumb extended along the back-strap of the grip for even greater control when 'fencing' either on foot or with other experienced horsemen, or by using the thumb-ring, a small ring of steel or brass at the junction of the grip and the cross-guard through which the thumb is placed, could give forceful downward swinging cuts from the shoulder and elbow with a 'locked' wrist against infantry and less experienced horsemen. This thumb ring also facilitated faster 'recovery' of the weapon for the next cut. A typical hussar szabla was relatively long, with the average blade of 85 centimetres (33 in) in total. The tip of the blade, usually some 15 to 18 centimetres long, was in most cases double-edged. Such sabres were extremely durable yet stable, and were used in combat well into 19th century.
The Polish and Hungarian szabla's design influenced a number of other designs in other parts of Europe and led to the introduction of the sabre in Western Europe. An example that bears a considerable resemblance is the famous British 1796 pattern Light Cavalry Sabre which was designed by Captain John Gaspard le Marchant after his visits "East" to Central and Eastern Europe and research into these and other nations' cavalry tactics and weapons. Poland had ceased to exist as a separate nation by this time but their other co-nation from previous centuries, Hungary, was still an existing nation, and as this was the source of all things "Hussar", it was the Polish-Hungarian szable of 150 years earlier rather than the oft quoted Indian tulwar that were the main source of inspiration for the first "mainly cutting" sabre in the British Army. This same "1796" sabre was taken up by the King's Hanoverian troops and also by the Prussians under General Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher who attempted to give his name to the weapon, almost universally known as "the 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre" in the rest of Europe. This weapon also found its way into the cavalry of the newly formed United States of America in the war of 1812.
Perhaps one of the most famous types of a Polish sabre was the classical karabela, which entered service around 1670. Most likely the name was coined after the Turkish terms Kara (dark) and bela (curse). The type of the sabre was modelled after the swords of the Turkish footmen formations of Janissaries and Spahis, which used it in close quarters. Much lighter than the hussar szabla, the karabela had an open hilt with the pommel modelled after eagle's head. Such an anatomic grip allowed for easier handling of circular cuts while fighting on foot and for swinging cuts from horseback.
Initially the karabela sabres were used mostly for decoration or as a ceremonial weapon worn on special occasions. Popularized during the reign of King Jan III Sobieski, the sabre became one of the most popular Polish cold steel weapons. Though in theory the type could be subdivided into an ornamented ceremonial type and a simple battle weapon, in reality both were more expensive, and the cheaper designs were often used in combat. Most of the szlachta could afford only one expensive karabela and, in case of a dire need, simply replaced the ebony or ivory scabbard with a leather version and removed some of the precious stones from the hilt in order to convert it into a reliable weapon.