The Anatomy of the Scimitar

AnatomyOfSwordLogoOn our last posting in the Anatomy series, we talked about the Japanese Katana, and the educational benefits of saying the words, ‘differentially tempered.’ Today, we’re going to stay in the East, although slightly more westward. Yes, we’re talking about the Middle East. Considering the current political and social climate of today, I think it rather topical, no?

There is a great deal of strife in Syria at the moment, and an enormous amount of anger toward terrorists who may be hiding there. But that was not always the case. The Middle East, at several points in history, was the center of science and economics. And when it came to swords, very few could match the skill of Syrian blacksmiths. In fact, even today we use the name of Syria’s capital to define a beautifully-tempered blade. Damascus.

As always, I digress. I’m not here to talk about differential tempering or Damascus steel. I’m here to talk about those crazy, curving swords known as scimitars.

Anatomy_SwordFull_ScimitarWhat exactly is a scimitar? I think that’s probably the best place to start. The word scimitar means “crazy curving sword” in some unknown language. Okay, I made that up, but my guess is as good as anyone else’s. The truth is, no one really knows where the term scimitar came from. There are really bad theories about how it might have come from the word Shamshir (which means crazy curving sword in Persian)(scratch that. I was looking at the wrong notes. It means curved claw). But even the people who came up with this theory admit that it’s kind of lame.

The word scimitar, whatever its origin, has come to mean a Middle-eastern sword that is curved and has a single edge. The curve of these swords allowed for fantastic speed when wielded by a master. They were used almost exclusively for slashing, and were especially appreciated by horsemen, who could slash from one side of their horse to the other quickly and without accidentally chopping off bits of their steed’s head.

Many people tend to group all of these swords into one lump, there are probably more variations of these types of swords than there are of their European counterparts. To make things simple, I’m going to talk about the four most common scimitars found throughout history.

Slender, steeply curved, graceful and long. Her name was Nicole and I had a raging crush on her since my freshman year. But we’re not here to talk about my romantic failures. We’re here to talk about the Shamshir, which, like Nicole, was slender, steeply curved, graceful and long. The Shamshir was a Persian sword, first used around 1000 A.D. It’s a gently curving blade that was worn sideways on the belt, similar to the way Japanese Katanas were worn.

Anatomy_Scimitars_SilhoTHE KILIJ
If Shamshirs were like swift, elegant dancers, than the Kilij were squat, powerful soldiers. Kilij blades were shorter and thicker than that of the Shamshirs, and they flared at the bottom third of the blade, near the tip. This flare is called the Yalman, which, in Turkish, means ‘ow, that really, really hurt, dude.’ And if it doesn’t mean that, it should. Because the yalman gives the sword extra weight past the center of balance, allowing for crushing blows. The kilij is oddly curved—kind of like it wasn’t meant to be curved but someone stepped on the blade during a fight and it stayed that way. This scimitar was used by many generations of Turks to unleash misery on their enemies (particularly during the Crusades).

This sword was the happy middle ground between shamshirs and kilijes (kilijs? Kilijises? Kili? No idea). The blade was thicker than a shamshir, but thinner than a kilij, and the curve was also somewhere between the curve of the other two scimitars. Sometimes the talwar had a flaring tip (yalman), like the kilij, and sometimes it did not. These swords were used mostly around India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. And while most of the other scimitar classes tended to have a bit of variation in thickness, hilts and length, most talwars tended to be fairly similar. The most easily identifiable part of this sword is the hilt, which features a disc-shaped pommel, short guards and, often, a full knucklebow guard.

Afghanistan has always marched to its own unique rhythm. The Afghanis were happy with the talwar, but they decided to refine it to suit their tastes. The result of their tinkering was a sword that was similar to the original talwar, but had a thicker blade, a greater curve, and a completely different hilt. The guards on the pulwar face forward, to better trap an opponent’s blade, and the pommel is shaped more like a cup, or one of those fancy dip bowls that your mom used to put out with chips during football games and then she would get upset with you if you let the thing fall on the ground when it was empty and you would tell her that she shouldn’t have brought out a fancy metal bowl for a football game and she would say that you should always put out your best for company and you would say, mom, they’re just my friends and… um…. Yeah. So… a cuplike hilt.

There you have it. A quick, easy guide to appreciating scimitars.

Next time on Anatomy, we’ll head back toward the West for a discussion on perhaps the most misunderstood weapons in history—the polearms.

The Zombie Survival Manual — Part One

ZombieSurvivalLogoSo you’re hanging out at the mall food court with your best friend—talking about football or space probes landing on comets, or maybe about the merits of The Evil Dead 2 versus Army of Darkness—when you hear a scream. Not a Jerry-Springer, I’m-gonna-whoop-your-ass-in-front-of-Abercrombie-and-Fitch scream, but an H-P-Lovecraft, Dear-God-his-entrails-are-coming-out-of-his-ear sort of blood-curling howl. You shove another handful of fries into your mouth and turn to look, then stop chewing.

One of the fries falls from your open mouth and lands on the red plastic tray.

It has begun.

The hungry dead have risen, and you’re fresh out of fries.

(Editorial aside: Please note my use of “the hungry dead,” here, not “the walking dead.” Because it’s not the walking that causes problems. Sure, it would be unsettling—and possibly violate several health codes—if the dead wandered like stray cattle across our cities. But really, what would be the danger? The occasional cost of quarter-panel repairs for your car. Higher dry-cleaning bills in crowded pedestrian areas. Maybe more slip and fall lawsuits in supermarkets. The real danger is the whole eating-your-cerebral-cortex thing.)

At Strongblade, we have always seen ourselves as both providers of fine historical/fantasy reproductions, and educators of the public. And there can be no finer act of education than protecting all of you from . . . The Zombie Apocalypse.

In the upcoming series, we will discuss the most efficient ways to survive an outbreak of the hungry dead.

Some of you know that I wrote a bestselling trilogy about a zombie-like plague in 14th century England. The Scourge is about a knight trying to fight his way through this post-apocalyptic medieval landscape to reach his wife. Where relevant, I will include snippets from the book. Because knights. And zombies (called ‘plaguers’ in my books).

In this first part of the series, I want to talk about the various weapons that can be used to provide undead relief. I will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each weapon, and provide a bit of historical, martial and literary insight into each one. Starting with weapon one: The sword.

Let it begin.


Advantages: Multiple edges, decent range, coolness factor

Disadvantages: Difficulty removing from bodies quickly, Awkwardness at close range, poor at penetrating skull.


NostrumCover900x600Tristan stands and straps his helmet on. “More of those things, Edward.”
I stand slowly, stoop and catch my breath.
“What’s wrong, old man?” he asks.
“Nothing,” I reply. “That creature hit my breastplate hard. Just need to catch my breath.”
He stares at me, the great helm hiding his expression.“There are only three,” he says. “I’ll take them. You get the rest of the walnuts.”
I shake my head and stand straight. “You want all the glory.”
I hold my sword in the long guard and take a deep breath.
The demons hurl themselves at us.
I hit the cobbled road again.
The impact blackens my world for an instant and fills the back of my nose with the taste of fire. I struggle against the creature, but I have so little strength. My sword is in its stomach, but it does not seem to care. One of the demon’s eyes is as large as a doorknob. The monster gouges at my visor, its twisted teeth clack against the bevor at my neck. It gibbers as it searches for openings in my armor. Desperate groans and growls. Hands batter my helmet, make my ears ring. I push at its chest. A thin black tongue thrusts out from its neck in a bloody spray. Not a tongue. The tip of Tristan’s sword. I shove the demon’s head to one side hard. Tristan pulls the blade back and hacks two-handed at the neck. Once, twice, and the third cleaves the head from the body. Blood spurts as the misshapen head tumbles to the cobblestones. The arms continue to rake at me for three or four heartbeats before the demon realizes it is dead.
“Excellent strategy,” Tristan says. “Letting it get on top of you so that I could kill it easily.”
“Shut your mouth, you baboon,” I say. He helps me up.
“I’m glad we shared the glory, Edward.”
— From THE SCOURGE:NOSTRUM by Roberto Calas

 In my historical fantasy trilogy, THE SCOURGE, the main characters tend to use swords when fighting the zombie-like demons that have overwhelmed their country. The characters are knights, so this is appropriate. The protagonist, Sir Edward Dallingridge, hacks his way through waves of undead while trying to reach his wife (who is a hundred miles away). In reality, the European medieval sword—while an excellent choice against lightly armored troops or unarmored opponent—is a is a difficult weapon to use against writhing hordes of undead.

sba-warspike1_lSwords are designed, primarily, to slash. Zombies are designed to not give a crap about slashes. See our problem? In most zombie mythos, penetrating the head is the only way to kill them. Sure, a powerful slash can cleave a head, but when you are swarmed by the undead, who has time for powerful slashes? And even if you had the time, you encounter the age-old and highly technical problem of sword-stuckery. A blade that penetrates the skull will remain lodged there until dislodged by an equal or greater force.

Don’t get me wrong. In the hands of a master, swords can be as good a weapon as any for fighting the hungry dead—especially small groups of them. Swords actually have a lot of good traits going for them. Well-made, well-sharpened European swords can shear off parts of a skull, so as not to get stuck. Swords have multiple, razor-sharp cutting edges, a good three-foot length to keep opponents at bay, and you get instant street cred just for showing up with one. There is nothing that will make you look cooler in a zombie apocalypse than strapping a medieval sword to your belt. So if you’re trying to be the alpha in your survivors’ group, then a sword may just be the ticket.

But wait . . . there are dozens of swords available. How can I write one post about all of them? Aren’t I generalizing to a ridiculous degree?

Yes and no. A Japanese katana might be a little more effective against zombies. Katanas are quick and curved, which makes it hard to get them trapped in skulls. But the same general principals apply. Swords are slashing weapons. Zombies laugh at slashing weapons. Until you slice the top of their skull off, kick their twitching body, and shout, “Who’s laughing now, lurchy? Who’s laughing now?”

Okay. So maybe it’s worth looking at the various types of swords and their various strengths and weaknesses in a zombie apocalypse. I have added a chart below, complete with a handy cutout line, so you can keep it in your wallet when the hungry dead come to snack. The overall rating is calculated using a point system for each of the categories. The higher the rating, the more effective against the hungry dead.


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 So, the Roman gladius has it. Lethal penetration from the V-tip. Easy to use in close quarters, and blazingly fast. Killing barbarian hordes turns out to be remarkably similar to killing zombie herds. Those Romans were way ahead of their time.

Check back in a few days for the next installment, where we look at hammers, maces and flails!